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Excerpt for The Shadow of Argoroth (Fantasy Fiction Series) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

GODLESS

– BOOK II –

The Shadow of Argoroth





A. K. Gallagher

Copyright © 2018 A. K. Gallagher

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 197997683X 

ISBN-13: 978-1979976831



This book and any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, writing under the pen name A. K. Gallagher, except in the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction – names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental and may or may not be intended to placate or infuriate.


DEDICATION



For the dearest one of my heart

CONTENTS

Maps

The Emperor’s Son

The Shadow Stirs

Many Meddling Men

Leaf & Stone

Grey Goats & Old Men’s Ghosts

The Heart of Darkness

Mountain Sides & Scaly Hides

Two Pieces of Silver

Dragon Fire

The Capital

The Citadel

Faedrich the First

The Master’s Errand

The Lady of Havenport

The Bumbling Barbarian

An Unexpected Admirer

Beodaw’s Duty

Daggers in the Dark

The Summoning of the Seven

An Island of Corpses

Elianna’s Dash

Mirabel the Meddler

The Shepherd of Lost Souls

A Bouquet of Blood

Beware the Raven King

The Taking of Methilius

Where the Wild Things Grow

The Last Dance

Gwydion

The Shadow of Argoroth

Glade of the Goddess

The Heir of Argoroth

Code of the Guardians

The Green Stone

Fire Starter

Brionna’s Shame

Elianna’s Revenge

A Gathering of Guardians

The King’s Sorrow

Keeper of the Sacred Flame

About the Author






ONE

The Emperor’s Son











Elianna Aravelo stumbled to her feet to get away from him, under the cool hues of the pre-dawn light. She wiped the long strands of hair away from her sweaty brow with the back of her arm and locked eyes with her attacker. The sword weighed heavily in her hands and she strained to lift it against him, one more time, in self-defence.

When she moved to strike, she caught a flash of her reflection on the polished blade. Her face, dripping with sweat and smeared with dirt, glared back at her. Her green eyes looked wildly bright in contrast to her dirty skin and messy chestnut hair and she groaned with disgust when she drew the sword close to her face.

‘What a mess!’ she complained, and tilted her head side to side to get a better look at herself.

‘For the love of…,’ Luthando said, and his words trailed off in disbelief.

He turned his head to the clear dawn sky over the towering black walls of Fort Calcar, at the western edge of the Oriánn Empire.

‘What did I do to deserve this?’ he asked the sky despairingly.

Elianna scowled at him and he shot her a reproachful glare when he circled in on her.

He shook his head, deeply disappointed, ‘two weeks of intensive training, at your request mind you, and this is all I get.’

‘It’s all I’ve got.’

‘You can do better than this, Aravelo,’ he said, and pointed the long sword in his hand at her, waving it accusingly, ‘and you’ll have to if you ever want to prove yourself.’

‘I’ve got nothing to prove,’ she said, dismissively, and he gave her a long-suffering look.

She did have something to prove – she was the Elder Stone Guardian of Fire and she had let everyone down by losing the stone she was born to protect.

‘Arms up, move your feet!’ he ordered, and slapped her rear with the flat of his blade.

‘Cut it out!’

‘What are you going to do about it?’ he taunted, and slapped her again, this time on the thigh.

Elianna bit her lip to hide her smile, in a vain effort to take him seriously but it was too difficult to concentrate. Everything about him was perfect, at least to her, from his tall and confident posture, his broad shoulders, to his glorious smile and sparkling brown eyes, all the way down to the black stubble on his chin. He was irresistible to her, even when he bellowed orders, which made it impossible for Elianna to focus on her training.

‘What are you smiling at?’ he asked, and she gave him a cheeky grin.

Unimpressed, he narrowed his eyes, and yelled, ‘ARMS UP! MOVE YOUR FEET!’

‘I’m trying!’ she bit back, and wheeled around on him brandishing the sword.

The Sword of Argoroth, adorned with the effigy of a raven on the cross bar, was painfully heavy, and her arm muscles shuddered, unable to hold it above her head anymore. She let it fall and it met the blade of his long sword with a dull clunk.

‘Not good enough!’

‘It’s too heavy.’

‘No, you’re just lazy!’

Without much effort on his part, he relieved her of the sword. In one fluid motion, it spun from her grip, and skimmed across the dirt. Elianna glowered at it, certain the sword had a mind of its own and tried to flee her inept grasp any chance it got.

‘Stupid sword,’ she grumbled.

Luthando shook his head, ‘the sword is not the problem.’

‘I don’t need a sword anyway.’

She narrowed her eyes at him and a ball of fire erupted from her palms aimed for his chest. Luthando ducked and it sailed over his head. It exploded in a rain of sparks on the wall behind him, which frightened several horses in the stable below.

A rope of silvery water snaked from Luthando’s hand and wrapped around the grip of her sword. He flicked the rope and the sword clanked at her feet.

‘An Elder Stone Guardian has to control their mind and their body. So far you’re nil on both counts. Pick up the sword.’

She grumbled at him and half-heartedly obeyed his command. ‘The sword is too heavy! It hurts my arms!’ She dropped it again and kicked it away.

‘Do you think the enemy will ease up to accommodate the complaints of a whiny little girl?’

Elianna knitted her brow tightly, ‘I’m trying my best but I’m not good enough for you.’ Her bottom lip trembled and her eyes filled with tears.

Luthando’s face transformed from stern to apologetic, and he tossed his sword aside to rush to her.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, and opened his arms to embrace her.

She smiled dangerously and belted him hard across the face with a closed fist.

‘Ha-ha!’ she whooped, triumphantly, and bounced away to a safe distance.

‘That was better,’ he said. He rubbed his jaw and a broad smile cracked his face, ‘but a mean trick.’

‘That’s love and war, my dear general,’ she said, smartly, and then winced when the pain in her knuckles registered.

He looked her up and down with narrowed slits for eyes, and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other waiting for his next move.

Her victory was short lived. Luthando was on her before she even realised he had moved. He grabbed her wrists, spun her around, clamped his body to her back, and pinned her arms between them. He placed his chin on her shoulder, and breathed in her ear, ‘still not quick enough, Aravelo.’

She grumbled feebly and her mind slipped from combat lessons to the closeness of his body.

‘Luthando, let me go,’ she said, though she did not mean it. His warm breath washed over the side of her neck and made her skin tingle.

‘I don’t think so. You wanted me to teach you to fight and now you need to pay for your mistakes.’

‘I can’t help it if you’re a bad teacher.’

‘Oh, really, is that what you think of me?’ he said, amused, and then tightened his grip on her.

She wriggled against him and tried to break his grasp but he was too strong. His hands were like an iron clamp around her wrists.

‘If you had listened to me, you would know how to get out of this hold, but seeing as though you never listen to anyone, you’ll have to suffer the consequences.’

‘And owe you more kisses, never!’ she said, with a strained giggle, and tried to unlatch his hands.

‘At last count, your clumsiness had accrued one hundred kisses in my favour.’

‘Ninety nine,’ she corrected.

He laughed softly, ‘I beg your pardon, your highness – ninety nine.’

He held her wrists with one large hand, and his other found its way to her ribs. His fingertips iced over and she felt them, even through her woollen tunic. Her warm skin shuddered at his cool touch.

He kissed her neck, and breathed into her ear, ‘what I wouldn’t give to remove this tunic and teach you a different kind of lesson.’

‘Luthando,’ she said, thrilled and shocked all at once. Her cheeks burnt red hot with embarrassment.

He clamped her tighter against him and nipped her earlobe. She wriggled furiously and tried to escape while his fingers climbed up each rib slowly.

‘No, please don’t,’ she squealed, through fits of laughter. His fingers dug between her ribs and she laughed hysterically.

‘Boo!’ cried Kali, from the gate, ‘get married already and spare us all this nonsense! It is making me ill!’

Bellon, an Imperial soldier and Luthando’s friend, stood next to Kali, and both of them looked amused having interrupted them.

Kali, the fifteen year old daughter of Chief Rashaan, was a Masiri warrior, and though she was pint sized, she was deadly with a bow and arrow, and a fierce friend to Elianna.

Luthando released his grip on Elianna. ‘You’re back already,’ he said to Bellon, surprised.

‘We could come back a little later if you’re,’ Bellon cleared his throat, ‘busy.’

Heat rushed to Elianna’s cheeks. She had been so distracted by Luthando’s “training” session she had not seen them enter the small compound at the far end of the fortress.

‘And what kind of training do you call this, my lord?’ asked Bellon, with mock interest, through his bushy auburn beard, ‘some sort of close handed combat technique?’

‘Bellon,’ Luthando warned.

‘I’m just saying punishment by affection may not be the most effective way to motivate your student. She needs to train with the big boys. I certainly won’t go this easy on you, your muddiness.’

Elianna glowered at him. Bellon was intent on never letting her forget the first time she had met Luthando, covered in mud from head to toe, and just like mud, Bellon’s nickname for her had stuck.

‘Did you find anything?’ Luthando asked.

‘We scoured the ridge and nothing. No trace of Draven or that shape shifter, Anurah. The road to Lochnee Falls is clear too. It seems Draven was not stupid enough to head to the Capital.’

‘Surely, they would have reached Argoroth by now,’ said Kali.

Luthando furrowed his brow in thought, ‘if that was their purpose, they could be hiding in the mountains for all we know.’

‘The stone,’ Elianna said, quietly.

Draven, a high priest of the Holy Order, had stolen the Elder Stone of Fire, the very thing she was born to protect, and had wreaked havoc on all their lives, along with his accomplice, Anurah, the foul undead creature. For two weeks Imperials and Masiri had worked together searching the mountains, canyons, and tunnels under Calcar for them and so far no trace of them could be found.

‘We’ll get it back,’ Luthando said, confidently. ‘We’ve wasted enough time in Calcar searching for them, today we move out.’

‘Havenport?’ she whispered, hopefully. Elianna had set out from Havenport, the southern seaport city, with her brother, Mathusal, many weeks ago to sell their grandfather’s apothecary stores, however, during their journey, she had met Luthando and discovered she was an Elder Stone Guardian.

‘No, not Havenport, we’re heading for the Capital to clear up a few things,’ said Luthando.

She stared at Luthando blankly, then squeaked, ‘the Emperor?’

‘I think it would be good for her to see the Capital,’ piped Hadrian, Luthando’s younger brother, who entered the yard behind Kali and Bellon.

All their eyes turned to him and he scratched his head and ruffled his wavy dark hair, ‘you know, so she can train with us. Teach her different styles of combat and such seeing as though Draven’s still out there… and I haven’t been home in months, it would be nice…’ his voice trailed off and he looked away from them.

Hadrian was the Captain of Fort Calcar, and according to him, it was the most boring place in the entire Empire and he could not wait to leave it behind.

‘I may need your help with father,’ said Luthando, thoughtfully, then added a deep sigh.

‘You have nothing to worry about on that count. I’m sure father will be quite taken with her, I know I am.’ He smiled warmly at Elianna. Kali furrowed her brow at Hadrian’s remark, and Bellon raised a curious eyebrow.

Hadrian’s eyes widened a fraction, and he added, ‘I just mean, she’s a very suitable match for my brother. I can’t think of a better choice, don’t you agree.’

‘A suitable match?’ said Kali, incredulously, ‘the Elder Stone Guardians have been demonised by your Holy Order of Arku, and so have the Masiri Tribes for our belief in the Elder Seven Gods. A very suitable match indeed.’

Hadrian shifted his feet, and looked at Bellon for help while the big man, who towered over them all, eyed Hadrian with a smirk.

‘He’s not worried about the Holy Order, or any match for his brother, he just wants to check on his harem,’ Bellon said, and chuckled.

‘Ha! Harem, don’t be ridiculous, Bellon,’ Hadrian scoffed, though his cheeks glowed red and his eyes darted between Elianna and Kali.

Luthando grinned at Hadrian’s discomfort and then he lowered his voice so only Elianna could hear him, ‘I could train you well there, though I pray you never need to use what I plan to teach you.’

‘Beodaw’s certain the Raven King of Argoroth is plotting against us and the other Guardians. It’s better I know how to fight if we’re going to find the others, than be completely useless to you.’

‘You’re not useless. I don’t ever want to hear you say that again.’

She smiled at him and he dusted dirt from her cheek.

‘All right then, come on, Bellon,’ said Luthando, ‘think you know better than I do. Show her what you’ve got!’

‘Me?’ Bellon replied, uncertainly, and then mumbled into his beard, ‘I don’t want to hurt her.’

Elianna narrowed her eyes and placed her hands on her hips, ‘it’s like that is it? Think because I’m a woman, I can’t fight you?’

Kali smacked Bellon lightly on the back of his bushy head, which was not an easy task considering she was at least four foot shorter than him.

‘Is that what you think of us?’ Kali said, crossly.

‘Er, I, um, no, no, not at all,’ he said, and his eyes darted between the two young women.

‘I am certain if it came down to it, I could crush you like a flower,’ said Kali to Bellon, and she clenched her fist for added effect.

Bellon patted her on the head as though she were a child, and crooned, ‘of course you could, Princess.’ He laughed loudly, then strode from the yard.

Kali, now incensed by his condescension, chased after him and barked up at him all the reasons why she was more skilled in combat than he.

Hadrian trundled off behind them with his hands in his pockets and he rolled his eyes at their bickering, which seemed to have become their favourite pastime over the last few weeks.

Bellon and Kali continued to argue heatedly while they made their way to the main hall of Fort Calcar and Elianna and Luthando followed after them.

‘I think my brother’s a little enamoured with you,’ Luthando remarked, lightly, and draped his arm around Elianna’s shoulders.

‘He’s sweet, I like him,’ she replied, and smiled at the back of Hadrian’s head when he disappeared through the doors to the main hall. Luthando pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow.

‘I hope your father’s as easily impressed.’

‘You know what, I believe he will be. It’s only a little hurdle. After which it’s smooth sailing.’

‘I’d hardly call your father’s approval “a little hurdle”. What if he hates me, Luthando? What if he puts my head on a spike?’

‘We’ll find a temple in one of the villages on the way there. If we’re joined in the eyes of Arku, my father will have to accept you as my wife.’

She opened her mouth to speak, but her heart jumped into her throat and she choked on her words.

His eyebrows knitted together, and he said, ‘you do want to marry me, don’t you?’

‘I, um, well, it’s just that…’

He clutched his chest, ‘oh, I can feel my heart breaking, I’m not going to make it.’

‘Don’t be silly. And I never gave you my answer. You just assumed I accepted your proposal.’

He looked a touch hurt by her comment. ‘I suppose I did.’

‘I just don’t want you to do this because you think it will protect me from your father.’

‘I understand it’s a little rushed, but-‘

‘A little rushed,’ she snorted. ‘When I left Havenport, marriage was the last thing on my mind, then with one smile from you, my life turned upside down.’

He smiled and his dark honey eyes sparkled at her, ‘I see, you never expected to be swept off your feet by an Imperial.’

His arm circled her waist and the other swept the back of her legs. He spun around with her in his arms and she laughed. Several Imperials on morning duty glanced over at them and smiled. He placed her back on her feet and her face warmed with embarrassment.

‘It’s just, what about after?’ She finally managed to say, getting to the real point of her hesitation.

‘After what,’ he said, confused.

‘After we’re married,’ she said, in a low voice, ‘and we share the same bed.’

His face broke into a wide smile, and he laughed, ‘ah! I see, it’s what you’ve been after all along,’ she opened her mouth to protest and he placed his fingers on her lips to shush her, ‘it’s understandable, and I suppose I’ll give in, considering all the pestering you’ve been doing since we met.’

She smacked his hand away from her face, ‘don’t insult me. And pestering? Me? You chased me all over the south, practically threw yourself at my feet. I’m just the fool who gave in to all your charms.’

‘And you will give in to them again,’ he said, darkly.

‘You’re always so sure of yourself,’ she said, annoyed, and turned to head up the stairs to the hall.

He gently took hold of her hand, ‘come on, don’t be afraid of me.’

‘I’m not afraid,’ she grumbled, from the second step so they were eye to eye.

‘Would you prefer a painful and prolonged betrothal just to watch me suffer with my need for you?’

‘Probably,’ she said, with a smirk, ‘I don’t know, still, we should take time to get to know one another better. It’s not a traditional courtship is it? We’ve only known each other for a short time.’

‘The heart knows these things,’ he said. He climbed to the same step and peered down into her eyes, ‘unless you don’t want to marry me, or there’s someone else you love, I won’t stand in your way.’

She inhaled sharply, ‘no.’

He smiled softly at her, ‘you see, the heart knows.’

‘Your heart knows, my heart knows, it’s all wonderfully romantic,’ she said, dryly. ‘It’s just you’ve appeared so fast and certain in my life, my head is still spinning. And your father will despise me even more if you marry me without his approval.’

He straightened his back and pursed his lips, at last taking her seriously, ‘I suppose you’re right. After all, I should ask Beodaw for your hand first anyway. It would only be good manners.’

She gave him a withering look. Elianna’s grandfather, Beodaw, was not fond of the Imperials, and not only was Luthando General of the Imperial Army; he was also the Emperor’s first-born son.



TWO

The Shadow Stirs











Doubt gnawed at his mind like a swarm of flies on a dead carcass, when Draven considered the path before him. Behind him, his past was in ruins, and at his feet, lay endless possibilities with the Elder Stone of Fire in his hand. He had gone back to the dungeon for Elianna but it was too late, she had escaped with the old sorcerer, Beodaw, and was entrenched within the Imperial folds of protection.

With no other course available, Anurah had urged him to flee because the fire child had won the Imperials favour, and they could not risk losing the Elder Stone if they were captured. Reluctantly, Draven followed Anurah through the pitch black tunnels under Fort Calcar to their escape. They had travelled for days, until at last they crossed the border and left the Empire he had loved and served, behind.

He stared at the contorted bridge, which stretched over the Argorothian divide. The bridge was all that stood between Draven and the land of the Raven King. He scanned the sky, which hung heavy with dark clouds of ash and uncertainty. The twisted clouds shunned the life-giving rays of the sun – only darkness and despair in the world of Argoroth remained.

At the gated bridge, chiselled from giant pieces of black granite, stood two raven sentinels. Their eyes glimmered like black jewels on a moonlit night, even though the day was overcast and grim. He sensed an otherworldly presence peering at him through their eyes and resisted cowering from their gaze for he had the light of Arku on his side. His eyes drew to the desiccated gorge, which fell away below the bridge for hundreds of feet and sliced the earth’s crust, like a jagged wound, and stretched away for countless miles.

Anurah sidled up next to him, and stared across the gorge, ‘it was long ago when the sun touched the face of the earth, an age since the rain last fell here. What once was alive and fertile is now barren and dead, without hope of reprieve. Such is the end of all things.’

‘Are you certain about this, Anurah?’ asked Draven, and his sense of unease grew.

‘You can’t go back; you’re a traitor to the Empire. They have forsaken you, a High Priest of the Holy Order and our great god Arku, in favour of that abomination, Elianna. Two paths lay before you – exile or execution.’

‘I’ve lost everything in service of Arku,’ he said, distantly, when the weight of his circumstances hung around his shoulders. Luthando had turned against him in favour of an Elder Stone Guardian – truly, it was the Emperor’s son who had forsaken the great god, Arku, not Draven.

‘The path of the righteous is never easy,’ she said, and placed her delicate pale hand on his bearded cheek.

He turned his face to her and inhaled, struck with wonder at her breathtaking beauty. Her eyes shimmered like liquid gold and her luscious black hair played in the dry breeze. Draven’s heart swelled with an unhealthy desire for her, though he thought it might be love if such a thing existed in the world anymore.

‘You’re a High Priest of Arku, god of all creation,’ she said, and straightened his black coat over his broad shoulders, then brushed his dark hair from his forehead, ‘and a true servant of Arku is not bound by the borders of empires or kingdoms, nor by any loyalty to emperor or man. Those attachments are for the faithless, for the weak of spirit. You must master the power of the Elder Stone you have taken, on behalf of Arku and purify every corner of the earth, no matter what the cost, even if it’s your mortal soul.’

Draven tightened his hand around the cold stone amulet on the broken leather cord. He opened his hand and looked at his blistered flesh. The burns the Fire Guardian, Elianna, had given him seeped with clear fluid around the arrowhead of stone that lay in the centre of his palm.

‘Strange… that a stone could hold such power over an element,’ he said, distantly, when he caught his doleful reflection on the stone’s surface.

The stone had not come into his possession easily – he had fought for it, risked much to attain it – even his exile from the homeland and Emperor he loved. He was uncertain if it had been worth it.

His home lay many leagues behind him, and surely now, after the incident at Fort Calcar, he would be labelled a traitor by his kinsmen, and excommunicated from his priesthood of the Holy Order.

Even if they could not see it now, one day soon, Luthando and the others would understand and honour the sacrifice he had made for their salvation and purification. Perhaps, he would die for this cause and become a hero, a legend told for many generations beyond time. Yes, a righteous hero who fought for Arku – that is how they would revere him after the cleansing, and they would gladly welcome him home.

‘The stone holds an ancient power, a cosmic power… and soon that power will be returned to Arku,’ said Anurah, pained, and she averted her eyes from the stone, ‘and you can return to Oriánna with the power of Arku on your side and all will smell the earth when they witness your piety and god given purpose.’

‘Then what are you waiting for? Show me the way,’ said Draven, when his resolve steeled.

He had come too far to turn back; it would do no good to pine for the past when the future of the world and the salvation of all lay in his hands. Arku demanded his strength and faith against those who had turned against the teachings, even if they were his dearest friends. Draven would lead them all back to the light of Arku.

Anurah glared at him for a split second, then her face broke into a sultry smile, ‘follow me, and have a care, dear Draven, to show weakness here, is unforgivable and a sure sentence of infernal condemnation.’ She strode toward the bridge and her long ruby robe trailed through the ash and debris behind her.

Draven and Anurah walked in silence over the fractured stones of an ancient road and into the ruins of the city of Argoroth, which was now fallen beyond any measure of hope and unrecognisable in its decay. The air was thirsty. It sucked at his burnt flesh and drew moisture from it until his skin cracked – only dust and ash ruled in this forsaken kingdom.

The charred bodies of people littered the streets – the cinder remains of a civilisation decimated, frozen in time, to endure forever the moment of terror and destruction that had ended the Great War.

On they walked through the eerie desolation, until finally, a twisted tower of ruin rose from the tortured earth against the ash-ridden sky.

Anurah pointed to the crumbling stones, and said, ‘behold, the Castle of Argoroth – once the mighty stronghold of Raman the Raven King.’

They climbed the wending stairs of shattered stone blocks leading to the castle gates, and Draven slipped several times on the built up layers of a powdery ash, which seemed determined to cover this world like a shroud over a dead body. At the top of the staircase, the front doors of the castle, made of polished black stone, stood unadorned but heavily damaged with the scars of battle.

Anurah teetered at the door, her body tensed. Draven caught her reflection on one of the door’s warped surfaces. Bent and haggard, Anurah looked unfathomable in her decay. Her skin, rotten grey flesh, hung from her bones like a cadaver picked at by carrion. The lively eyes, he adored, were black and sunken deep in their sockets.

Draven recoiled and stared at her as though seeing her for the first time. His eyes struggled to make sense of her appearance and she flickered from one form to another, like light playing with shadow.

Her golden eyes narrowed, ‘what is it? She covered her head with the hood of her robe to hide her face.

‘I thought I saw…’ he began, yet, he was not entirely sure what he had seen.

‘Thought you saw what?’ she asked, and jutted her chin.

‘It’s nothing, exhaustion has addled my mind,’ he said, though he felt uncertain of her for the first time.

‘We are so close to the end now. Stay strong, Draven, this place will deceive you if you let it. It will play tricks with your mind.’

Panic bubbled in his stomach, and the strong sense of a sudden waking gripped him, as though a blindfold had lifted from his eyes. A fog cleared from his mind and he saw what he had done. Anurah had used him. She had snaked her way into the Holy Order and rose through the ranks of the priestesses by way of manipulation and guile – and he had listened to her. He had fallen for it. He was a fool.

She read his thoughts, and Anurah said, ‘you’re a traitor to your friends, to your order, to your empire. The Emperor will not favour you as he once did, not while his son, Luthando, has it in his mind to love Elianna.’

Draven’s heart faltered for a moment and Anurah’s enchantment slipped from his mind completely. His life was devoted to the service of Arku through the will of his divine Emperor. He had turned against his Emperor and his friends all for Anurah’s purpose. Everything he loved, cared for, and devoted his life to, was in ruins. Anurah had tricked him onto a false path – one set against his own people and he had walked it eagerly.

‘What have you done to me,’ he said, and stepped away from her. He had woken from a terrible dream, only to find a waking nightmare.

Anurah reached out to stroke his arm and his eyes locked on to hers. The golden depths of her eyes held his attention, while she caressed his face, and his head buzzed.

‘You must prove you’re worthy of Arku’s divine love by sacrificing much, even the love of your empire. In time they will look to you for their salvation. You will become their hero.’

‘A hero? But a priest wants not for such things… only to serve… to help…’ he whispered, confused, and his mind warped.

‘And you will be rewarded with eternal paradise.’

A shimmering veil slid over Draven’s mind and his thoughts of regret and fear turned to heated thoughts of Anurah’s otherworldly beauty and his need to possess her, to be one with her, and follow her every command.

He gripped her around the waist and pulled her hard against his body, ‘and when the power of the Elder Stone is mine, I will have you.’

‘Yes, my darling,’ she cooed, and kissed him softly on the cheek, ‘my body will be yours to command.’

He opened his hand again and his eyes held the stone hungrily.

‘Put it away. Put it away,’ she beseeched, and shielded her eyes from it.

He ran his hand over her silky black hair, enjoying the pain the stone caused her. He sniggered, pleased by it, and then stowed the stone in his breast pocket.

Beneath their feet, the ground trembled and without a hand to force them, the castle doors rumbled open.

‘What magic is this?’ he asked, dubiously, and peered into the chamber beyond.

‘The Emperor of Oriánna is nothing compared to the might of Arku. If you value your life, if you wish to join the righteous and cleanse the earth of the Elder Stone Guardians, enter here with a strong heart and the throne beyond will be yours.’

He took a deep breath, and crossed the threshold, ‘I do not fear my god.’

They entered a high vaulted corridor and the temperature dropped to freezing. Draven’s breath came in misty puffs and he rubbed his hands together for warmth.

‘It’s so cold in here,’ he said, and his voice echoed off the high stone ceiling.

‘The darkness consumes all,’ Anurah whispered, reverently, with her eyes fixed on another door, directly ahead.

Lining the walls of the grand corridor were the overcooked remains of Argorothian soldiers in their battle armour, still at their posts. Their black helms creaked and Draven was certain their dusty heads followed them when they walked the length of the corridor. Through the next door, Anurah led the way up a spiral staircase of flat stone slabs, which wended into the lofty tower. At the pinnacle, they came upon a set of aged wooden doors and again, the doors swung open by no hand seen by eye.

Ahead, a circular chamber lined with lofty columns reached past the collapsed roof and into the sky. There, a ball of sickly black vapour churned above the tower, and snaking tentacles of black dust floated serenely around it.

Draven sensed a presence deep within the shadows and its mind turned to him, like the crack of a whip. The air rushed past Draven’s body with the force of a hurricane and slammed him against the wall. The shadow descended into the chamber and the distant moans of many tortured souls filled the air. They wailed and moaned in their terror and anguish, their pain almost palpable.

Draven lurched forward and clasped his throat. Fixed under the shadow’s terrible mind, it siphoned his breath from his lungs. Anurah, who stood beside him, unmoved by his terror, smirked when Draven fell to his knees and gasped for breath. The coils of black vapour thrashed around the chamber and coalesced into a mass of thick black ash. It hovered above a kingless throne with the unfurled wings of a raven carved at its back. A dull light pulsated from deep within the shadow’s core.

‘Why have you disturbed me?’ asked the Shadow, in a deep rumbling voice.

‘Raven King,’ Anurah said, reverently, and dropped to her knees.

The veil of Anurah’s enchantment shattered from Draven’s mind, and he looked up at the Raven King in horror, ‘oh, light of Arku, what have I done?’

‘I have found her, I have found the fire child, Master,’ Anurah said, jubilantly.

The Raven King shuddered and the great plumes of shadow rippled when he turned his mind upon Anurah. The dark vapour sucked inward and coalesced into the figure of a tall man, with dark hair and a beard, wrapped in swirling black robes of shadows. He fixed his black eyes on Anurah. A strange light pulsated within the Raven King’s aura and siphoned shadow and light from the world.

‘Speak, Anurah, and you better not disappoint me,’ said the Raven King. His voice was deep and commanding, and his accent had the smooth lilt of the Argorothians.

‘Anurah?’ croaked Draven, disorientated. He turned to her for help but found her changed – the face of a woman with decomposing flesh and pointed black teeth sneered back at him.

‘Priest of Arku, why have you come here?’ asked the Raven King.

Draven edged backwards and held his hands up, ‘I am Draven, High Priest of the Holy Order of Arku! You have no power over me, demon of the dark.’

The Raven King sniggered softly from within the folds of his churning shadows.

‘Arku’s light, shine upon my face,’ Draven repeated in a rushed whisper to ward off the evil peering into his unprepared soul.

‘Arku’s minions are the disease of the earth,’ the Raven King seethed, and the hurricane wind within his body stirred, ‘the Oriánns brought ruin upon my kingdom and you dare face me in my own hall!’

‘Bow before your master,’ Anurah ordered.

Anurah kicked the back of Draven’s knees and he fell to the floor again. His face hit the tiles and his cheekbone cracked against the cold stone.

Anurah looked up at the Raven King, ‘Draven has served you well, master, he killed Beodaw’s grandson.’

‘Mathusal is dead?’ he asked, silkily.

‘Yes, Draven cut off his head,’ she said, with a devilish laugh of satisfaction.

Draven shook his head in disbelief, ‘no, I didn’t want to hurt anyone!’

The Raven King was silent while he pondered the news of Mathusal’s death. With a steady stride, he paced at the foot of his throne and stroked his beard.

‘Draven has served you well enough, my lord. His mind was weak and easy to command.’

The Raven King turned his cold eyes towards Draven, and said, ‘the most pious ones are always weak of mind, filling their empty heads with other men’s thoughts because they cannot think for themselves. I shall reward you for your service to Arku, the false one, with the memory of all you have done in his name.’ His deep menacing laugh rumbled through the chamber.

‘I want nothing from you! Foul creature of the dark!’ Draven said, and stumbled back to his feet and held a hand over his head. His heart faltered when the memories of what he had done under Anurah’s enchantment seeped into his mind.

His head reeled with the memories of his betrayal. ‘No! Luthando’s my friend!’ His heart ached bitterly with the guilt of his treachery. He had kidnapped and tortured Beodaw, an old man. He had executed Mathusal who tried to protect his sister. He had laid his hands on Elianna with desire. The taste of Elianna’s blood filled his mouth.

‘NO! Great god Arku, forgive me!’ he wailed.

Anurah’s mouth pulled back from her rotten gums in a savage grin and the air drew from the room again. A sneaking tendril of shadow wrapped around Draven’s body and the Raven King drew close to him.

‘By the light of Arku, I do not fear you,’ Draven said.

‘Arku is dead, he has abandoned you,’ the Raven King whispered in his ear.

Draven’s body trembled when Raman stared deep into his eyes and an evil smirk played on his lips. The Raven King’s hand pierced Draven’s chest. Pain, indescribable pain, wracked Draven’s body and his veins turned a poisonous black beneath his skin. Draven’s skin bubbled and hissed. Large welts turned into blisters and they burst with fluid and gushed over the ash-ridden floor in pools of sickly yellow pus.

Draven writhed in agony, his mouth opened to scream but he found he was voiceless; his lungs were on fire. His body convulsed.

Thoughts, dark and horrific, pummelled his mind, but each evaporated into swirls of black mist before he could decipher them. Hate crept into his heart so toxic in its potency, he thought he might die from it until it settled in his mind as a blood-fuelled rage only death and revenge could satisfy.

His frame swelled, engorged by the immense power of the Raven King. His muscles rippled and hardened beneath a layer of ash and sinew and he collapsed to the floor, unable to move his body.

The Raven King rose into the air and wings of black mist unfurled at his back, ‘I am the son of Arku made anew and come to the world, I am chaos and destruction, and you shall be my body on earth. My blood is your blood, and you will not rest until the creation stone is in my hand and all those who brought ruin upon me and my house are made to suffer.’

Draven’s fingers scratched at the floor and he crawled towards his master. Draven’s trembling hand held out the Fire Stone in offering.

The Raven King’s attention snapped to the amulet.

‘The Elder Stone,’ he crooned, softly, as though he might weep at the sight of it. A wispy hand of dark vapour snatched it away from Draven hungrily and he held the stone in triumph.

‘Light of the world,’ he whispered.

Draven smiled through his blistered lips, pleased his master was content.

‘Where is she? Where’s the girl?’

‘She’s with the Imperials,’ Anurah said.

He closed in on her and his menacing attention pinned Anurah to the floor.

‘You let her get away?’

‘The Imperials got in the way.’

‘You failed,’ the Raven King thundered.

‘Forgive me, my lord, Beothain cursed stone. It burns my eyes and strips me of my power.’

‘It is not cursed you imbecile! It is your death calling. The oath you made to the child in life, you broke. To break an oath of an Elder Stone Guardian is to summon a most grievous punishment,’ – he laughed deeply – ‘yet the thought of your inevitable suffering brings me great joy.’

‘Master, I want only to serve you, to please you, to live for you.’

‘You are already dead, Anurah. Your soul belongs to me with all the others.’

The Raven King’s body unfurled at the core in a burst of shadow, and ghostly faces of stolen souls reached out for her, wailing with agony. She recoiled from them fearfully.

‘Perhaps it was a mistake to raise you from the dead, after all.’

‘I scoured the Empire to find her. When Beothain let her leave his clutches and the enchantment on Havenport, she fell into the hands of the Emperor’s son.’

A snarl ripped through the chamber.

‘He would use her as a weapon against me!’ he bellowed, angrily.

‘Luthando is a good man,’ croaked Draven, confused, when memories of another life leaked into his thoughts.

The Raven King looked down on Draven and curled his lip with revulsion.

‘I will clear his mind, master,’ said Anurah.

‘See that you do, there must be no loyalty left in him for those Oriánns. Did you retrieve the Sword of Argoroth?’

‘The s – s – sword?’ she stammered, nervously, ‘Beothain went to Grey Rock Mountain, to the sacred realm of the Elder Seven. He held counsel with those lesser gods and goddesses to conspire against us. He returned with the sword and I took it from him.’

‘Beothain is dead,’ the Raven King asked, and teetered on exhilaration.

She shook her head, ‘no, my lord, the Imperials over ran the tunnels at Fort Calcar so we fled with the stone before I could kill him.’

‘You hesitated.’

‘I only wanted to make him suffer before his end.’

‘Where is the sword?’

‘She took it, the girl took it! The sword chose Elianna over me and she stole it!’ Anurah whimpered and cowered away from him.

Black vapour filled the chamber and engulfed Anurah and Draven in its folds. There was no way to escape him. His hand wrapped around Anurah’s throat and lifted her from the ground. Her feet hung limply in the air.

‘You gave it to her,’ he seethed, in a voice so deadly, she trembled.

‘It chose her,’ she rasped, through his tight clutch.

‘Of course it chose her, the blade was forged with the blood of the fire god himself!’

He tossed her across the chamber and she slid across the floor in a heap and left a trail through the ash.

She crawled to her knees, whimpering and prostrated herself before him, ‘please forgive me, my lord, I can do better, I will not fail you, all I am I give to you in eternal service.’

‘Your pledge means nothing. The stone is not enough – I need Elianna’s soul. Bah! You’re useless.’

‘Forgive me, I am nothing and unworthy.’

The Raven King was silent for a moment, deep in thought, then he spoke, ‘you will continue your task and find all the Elder Stones. Every Guardian must fall, do you hear me? I need their souls so I can reunite the stones. Then I will hold the Creation Stone in my hand and I will devour their world and destroy their gods!’

‘My master, anything you order, it shall be done.’ She licked her lips nervously, ‘forgive me, where do I start, you are ever wise and I’m but a humble servant.’

‘Sail for the Undine Islands. Long ago a Guardian was rumoured to live there who kept knowledge of all the Guardians. Do not fail me again, Anurah.’

‘Yes, my master.’

‘Draven,’ the Raven King said, ‘Anurah is a disappointment to me. You will not be. I will make you strong and you will walk the earth in my stead. The world will know the Raven King has risen from the dead and the hearts of those who wronged me with tremble with fear at my coming.’

‘Aye, my lord,’ said Draven, grateful for the chance to prove himself to his master.

‘And what of Elianna and her companions?’ asked Anurah, slowly.

His hollow black eyes studied the Elder Stone thoughtfully. His deep laugh rumbled through the chamber.

‘Beothain knows Elianna will die without the stone,’ he said, softly, while he caressed its glassy surface, ‘if Beothain wishes her to live, he will have no choice but to come to me.’



THREE

Many Meddling Men











After a light breakfast, Elianna sat on the windowsill of the second floor tower chamber, her thoughts far away from the conversation taking place behind her, which teetered on the edge of a full blown argument.

She gazed out the window to the compound below, where the morning shadow of the fortress tower slanted across the high walls, and where Hadrian was throwing orders at his subordinates. Hadrian seemed eager to leave Fort Calcar to his second in charge, Thadeous, and became rather cantankerous when the men did not move fast enough for his liking as they packed carts with supplies and prepared horses for their long journey, northeast, to the Capital. She watched on with an amused smile when Hadrian lost his cool and yelled at one of his men. Someone other than her losing their temper was a comforting change.

Behind her, Luthando, Rashaan, and her grandfather, Beodaw, debated heatedly about the retrieval of the Elder Stone of Fire, which Draven had stolen.

Rashaan, the Keeper of the Elder Stone of Air, and Chief of the Masiri tribes, inhaled deeply and his round belly expanded rapidly. His twirling white moustache vibrated wildly when the gust of air escaped him, accompanied by a deep sigh.

‘I for one feel very optimistic about the power of fire, water, and air coming together,’ he said, beaming, ‘it is like the days of old, when the Guardians stood together and held counsel before the parting of the tribes.’

Beodaw grumbled at his old friend from beneath his long grey beard. Elianna did not think he shared Rashaan’s sentiments, if the deep creases on his brow were anything to go by.

With a deep set scowl, Beodaw said, ‘the Creation Stone is the soul of the world. Without it, we cease to exist but no human or even a god can be trusted with its power. It would be very unwise to gather all the Guardians of the Elder Stones together. Better they all stay hidden.’ There was a hint of finality in his tone to indicate he considered the matter closed.

Rashaan tucked his thumbs into his wide yellow sash, which circumnavigated his globe-like belly, and the fabric strained against his portliness. Rashaan pursed his lips, and said, ‘Guardians are all on the same side. We will take an oath to keep peace between the seven tribes, peace between the Elder Stone Guardians. We must unite or King Raman will come after us one by one until all the stones are in his hand.’

‘That works for the three Guardians here,’ said Luthando, ‘but what about the other four? Earth, flesh, forest, and knowledge? They’re out there somewhere but where do we even begin to look for them?’

‘At the beginning, where all things start,’ said Rashaan, simply, and nodded his head wisely.

Elianna laughed, ‘I recall you saying something similar before I climbed Lydor’s Pillar and look how that turned out.’ Rashaan grinned in reply.

A few weeks ago, she had climbed the limestone pillar, in the south of the Masiri Realm, at the behest of Rashaan, to visit a thirty-foot talking white eagle named Lydor. She met with Lydor, who informed her she was the Elder Stone Guardian of Fire, and that the ruler of Argoroth, Raman the Raven King, who was thought to be dead since the Great War, sought her with a deadly passion.

‘Destiny is a heavier burden for some,’ he replied.

Elianna turned back to the window to continue her watch over Hadrian who was now bravely yelling up at Bellon, though for what, she could not hear.

‘Destiny or not,’ said Luthando, ‘it doesn’t change the fact the others are scattered far and wide, well beyond our reach or that Elianna’s stone is gone.’ Elianna reached for her neck to feel for the stone. Its absence disturbed her and she longed to touch it again.

Rashaan nodded, ‘a thousand years ago, when the Elder Seven left the care of the world to us and each tribal leader was given a piece of the Creation Stone, they vowed never to reunite them.’ Beodaw nodded his approval but Rashaan was not finished, ‘unless the forces of chaos threatened the earth again.’

Beodaw opened his mouth to retort but Rashaan put his hand up, ‘I know, this ancient power is not for the hand of man, and in their divine wisdom, the Seven bid the tribes to scatter in secret, none knowing where the other had gone, so Arku could never hold the creation stone again.’

Beodaw toked on his pipe, then huffed, ‘and you want to find all the pieces? You’ve either grown bolder or madder in your old age, I can’t decide but it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done.’

‘Do you deny the world is under threat from the Raven King?’ Rashaan asked.

‘I don’t deny that Raman is a mighty opponent but he’s no Arku, therefore, there’s no reason to reunite the stones besides you jumping to conclusions. There are other ways of dealing with this, simpler ways.’

‘My old friend, you cannot see what is in front of your nose or perhaps you wish not to see it. While we distract ourselves with the Fire Stone, Raman’s servants will be scouring the earth to find the other Guardians – we must beat them to it! We must warn them. Our little friend over there in Argoroth has summoned something greater than even he can manage, I am certain of it, and the other Guardians must be warned of this threat.’

Luthando added, ‘I agree, if we sit idle, Draven and Anurah will find the others. Do we just wait around and see what happens? Wait for them to come for us too?’

Elianna listened quietly as the three men debated the dangers and merits of finding the other Elder Stone Guardians while she turned a small, flat box in her hands – her brother’s old cigar case. She removed one of the cigars and sniffed it, a habit she had taken to since his death, since Mathusal had sacrificed himself to save her life. The smell reminded her of him and kept him close in her memory.

Beodaw’s eyes caught hers and he gave her a sad smile. She looked away from him, put the box back in her pocket, and stared out the window again. It was difficult to share her grief over Mathusal’s death with the man who had kept her in the dark her entire life about her power. Beodaw’s secrets had driven a wedge between them and he felt like a stranger to her now.

‘It’s my destiny to unite the Guardians whether any of you like it or not,’ she said, quietly. They all turned to her, their faces stunned, ‘I don’t know why, but Lydor said it was the path I must take, Kali too.’

‘Then take it you will,’ said Rashaan who nodded his head in deep reverence at the mention of Lydor, the white eagle worshipped by his people.

Beodaw looked unhappy, and his cheeks puffed with indignation, ‘now wait just a minute, Rashaan! Just because Lydor says as much, doesn’t make it so. What about the other Sentinels? What do they have to say on the matter?’ He shook his head and crossed his arms tightly, ‘unless a talking lion or a talking dragon walks in here and tells me the same, then I won’t see eye to eye with you on this.’

‘A lion?’ Elianna gasped, when a memory flooded into her mind, ‘I saw him, the lion. I saw him in the desert. What was his name? He was with a woman, with wings black as night. She didn’t say who she was.’

Elianna had foolishly wandered into the sea of eternal fire – the Western Desert. She had lost her way and when faced with certain death, a woman had come to her with the lion and led her to Luthando.

They all stared at her blankly with their mouths open.

‘And you only think to mention it now!’ Beodaw said, harassed.

‘I forgot about it. I thought it a mirage or a dream. And besides why shouldn’t I keep things to myself, it’s what we do best in our family isn’t it?’

Rashaan pursed his lips to suppress his amusement at her dissentious behaviour. Luthando raised his eyebrows and gave Beodaw a stern look – it seemed they agreed with her. Beodaw had nothing to say and his shoulders sagged in defeat.

She felt a tinge of guilt when she caught the sad glint in his eyes. Her once close relationship with her grandfather was severely tested and she felt uncertain and mistrustful of him now. She still loved him, he was her grandfather and had raised her after all, but his purpose for her life remained muddy and he no longer seemed to be the great man she had believed him to be.

‘Jolbek! The lion’s name was Jolbek!’ she said, when the name popped into her head.

‘Hush your voice!’ said Beodaw, quickly. He glanced around the room, as though he expected the lion to pop into existence at the mere mention of him.

‘Relax old friend, the Sentinels are the ever watchful eyes of the gods and goddesses on earth. We have nothing to fear from them. And yes, my child, that name is familiar to me. Jolbek is kin to Lydor and sentinel of the Elder Guardian of Knowledge.’

‘So the lady, she was a Guardian?’ asked Elianna.

‘No,’ said Beodaw, absolutely, ‘I don’t know who you thought you saw, but it wasn’t the Elder Stone Guardian of Knowledge. Best to forget you saw her at all.’

Luthando scowled at Beodaw, and with a hint of discord in his tone said, ‘far too many questions are left unanswered, Beodaw.’

‘I don’t proclaim to be an expert on the ways of the Guardians,’ Beodaw said, and squirmed in his chair uncomfortably. He looked to Rashaan for support – he gave none and Beodaw frowned at him.

Luthando spoke, ‘you’ve been very adamant about what the Guardians should or shouldn’t do for someone who’s not an expert.’

‘And you know more do you?’

Elianna glanced at Luthando, who frowned unhappily, ‘you know I’ve been on my own with this power.’

Since he was a child, Luthando had hidden his power over water from his father, because of the Holy Order of Arku.

‘Why are we talking about this when our minds should be on the present?’ Beodaw said, annoyed. ‘As it stands we have two issues to contend with.’

He was interrupted by a hacking cough, which brought tears to his already strained eyes, and Elianna felt a stab of remorse for picking on him.

He continued, ‘first, we must make peace with the Emperor of Oriánna who wants your head, in case you forgot or otherwise you must abandon any hopes of remaining in the Empire stones or not!’ He glared at Elianna when he said this.

‘It won’t come to that. I can handle the Emperor,’ Luthando said to her in a low voice and placed his arm around her waist.

‘Secondly,’ Beodaw said, loudly, and glowered at their physical closeness, ‘it’s imperative we locate the Fire Stone and get it back. Forget this talk of uniting the Guardians when you can’t even keep your hands on the stones you already have!’

Rashaan exhaled loudly and scratched his short white beard with his bejewelled fingers. The yellow Air Stone glittered in the slivers of morning light slanting through the eastern window.

Luthando smiled, ‘there’s an easy solution to the first problem. No harm will come to her as my wife.’

Elianna’s heart skipped a beat – Luthando was not going to let it rest until it was done. Not long ago, the idea would have seemed absurd to her when her only ambition was to become a great healer and avoid the trap of matrimony – but with one smile from Luthando, she had lost all sense of her conviction.

Rashaan grinned, ‘yes! Yes! A wedding is a happy occasion!’ He clapped his hands, thrilled at the prospect, ‘no father would deny such happiness, Arku lover or not! I shall dress you in the finest Masiri clothes and jewels!’

Beodaw coughed and spluttered, ‘now, wait just a moment! No granddaughter of mine is marrying an Imperial! No offence, Luthando.’

‘See reason Beodaw,’ puffed Rashaan.

‘He’s the Emperor’s son!’ said Beodaw, incredulously, ‘have you forgotten what the Emperor does to those who don’t follow the laws of Arku? He may tolerate the Masiri at his borders but he will never accept Elianna into his family. It’s certain death to send her there.’

Rashaan inhaled deeply and puffed his girth with indignation, ‘Luthando’s an Elder Stone Guardian too, and that means much more than any Empire he will inherit’ – he flashed an apologetic smile at Luthando – ‘Forgive me, but it does.’

‘Don’t stop arguing on my account,’ Luthando said, lightly, and Elianna snorted with amusement.

‘No, I won’t allow it. She’s too young,’ Beodaw said, and he nodded his head in solid agreement with himself.

‘Too young!’ she blustered, ‘only a few weeks ago you and Mathusal were conspiring to marry me off to Lord Sarrin’s son in Havenport!’

‘We were just teasing you. It was Reyden we matched you with, I’ll have you know. He was on my door stop the day you turned seventeen with an offer.’

‘Really? Reyden made an offer?’ she said, pleasantly surprised.

‘He did.’

She had known Reyden all her life, and he was Mathusal’s closest friend.

‘Huh, well how about that?’ she said, amazed, and her mind slipped back to all the times she had spent with Reyden at the gates of Havenport waiting for Mathusal to come home.

Luthando cleared his throat and his brow pinched, pulling her thoughts back to the present.

‘That’s beside the point! I can make my own decisions, I’m not a child.’

‘You’re too young and that’s final.’

‘Have you grown senile?’ Rashaan asked, politely, ‘she is seventeen. She is of age.’

‘Marrying a boy from Havenport is one thing but you don’t know what you’re asking – to marry the Emperor’s son is madness! No! She’s much too young to enter into such a bargain.’ He shook his head stubbornly while his long grey beard bristled.


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