The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
The air was deathly still. If only for a moment, Elrin felt as if a briar encircled his throat and rasping thorns tangled in his chest. Not even a sip of fine tea eased the pangs. He gulped what remained in his porcelain cup, glad for the warmth inside, but he wished it were something stronger. Much stronger. Minni sure had a way of cutting to the bones of a conversation. She’d sliced straight to the point and outed the High Hand of Nathis for slavery. No questions. No qualms about proper etiquette. She didn’t even have the patience to take a sip of tea before she began the verbal assault. And all in front of Elrin’s mother no less. Gods only knew what damage was done. Had the rebel general no care for the fragility of his mother’s mind? Such a revelation would likely trigger months of confusion and unwanted tears.
Yet, strangely, it didn’t.
The former Pride of the Bards Guild took an elegant sip of tea; perfect posture, horizontal forearm, two fingers at the slim handle, three tucked daintily under hand. Elrin’s mother returned cup to saucer with the faintest of clinks then defended her host with a spirit Elrin hadn’t witnessed since he was a boy and she was the darling of high society.
“Slaves?” laughed the Bardess. “You must be joking, dear girl! Such an accusation is preposterous. What shall you claim next? Are lambs hunting lions? Goodness me! Kleith is a good man. As good as good can be. He champions the laws against slavery. The High Hand of Nathis is known to all Calimska as an advocate for no names and prentices alike. The Guild Hall rings with his unwavering calls for better working rights for the poor. The city’s rich want only more profit, while Kleith argues for fairness and equality.”
Kleith said nothing in his own defence. He just sat there, gathering his thoughts, clutching his hands, praying for what? Guidance? Forgiveness?
“What Minella said … It’s true, Mother.” Elrin winced at the angry look his mother shot at him, but he went on. “A message I was to deliver to the Guildmaster confirmed it. Kleith wrote it himself. Didn’t you?”
Kleith held his silence and stared into his tea.
“Say something, damn it!” Elrin felt his anger boil. “Did you write that message, or not?”
“I did,” admitted the priest, finally looking Elrin in the eyes. “And many more I’m afraid. But you must understand. I had to do it.”
“Or what?” asked Minni. “You’d lose your rank? Sully your false reputation as a man of the people.”
“Yes, and yes.” Herder Kleith’s eyes watered over. “But it was more than that, I made a promise.”
“To who?” asked Penellonine, the blood rising in her face.
“Arbajkha,” replied Kleith.
Again the air stilled for a thorny moment, choking the rage inside Elrin. He had no tea left to soothe the constriction. Nor did he have enough restraint to hold back the searing anger.
“Don’t you dare blame my father for this!” Elrin squeezed the chair arm till his knuckles hurt. “He’d have nothing to do with slavery.”
“Of course not.” Aware of the elevated tension in the room, Herder Kleith raised his hands in peace. “Arbajkha was a good man… in the end. Your mother brought out the best in him. As did you, Elrin. But you need to understand, Baj wasn’t as perfect as you’d like to imagine.”
“What makes you any better?” Elrin fought the urge to touch the bloodstone dagger. Rage begged him to draw the weapon and let Ungx Vohun sate his lusts, but Elrin resisted. What if he lost control again and killed his mother or Minella? “My father was a hero! No less!”
“Your father was a spy, Elrin. A man with more aliases than you have fingers and toes. A hero too, but always an agent of dragons. He was no innocent.”
Elrin looked to his mother for support, but it was her turn for silence. The silence of guilt. Had she known his father was a spy all along? Why hadn’t he been told? Elrin was a man grown, not a child.
“I won’t be sidetracked,” argued Elrin. “This treachery and treason is about you and the Guildmaster. None of it has anything to do with my father.”
“Doesn’t it?” Kleith regarded Elrin with tired eyes. “The truth is a hard thing to swallow. I understand that all too well.”
“So, you promised Arbajkha, who works for dragons to run slaves for the Guildmaster?” asked Minni. “That doesn’t even make sense. What purpose would that serve?”
“No. I promised Baj I’d keep his family safe. Come what may, that’s exactly what I’ve done.”
“What in the hells are you talking about?” Elrin slammed his fist on the slender chair arm so hard it cracked. “Stop with your half answers and diversions. Tell me the truth!”
Herder Kleith stared at Elrin for a moment, eyes sparking with anger, face flushed with guilt and embarrassment. It was beyond disrespectful how Elrin was speaking to Kleith, but Elrin no longer cared. If Calimska was so rotten to the core, etiquette be damned.
“If I didn’t go along with the Guildmaster’s plan,” said Herder Kleith. “I would’ve been replaced. You and your Mother would have been … eliminated. Both of you pose a risk to Herik’s designs. Elrin, when you came to me after he tried to kill you, I had to send you from Calimska for your own safety. I knew that even if you failed to find the Dragon Choir, you’d have a greater chance of survival outside Herik’s reach. I convinced him and his gold-grubbing enforcer, Captain Malek, that dear Pennie had no idea what was going on, given her ups and downs. As long as I didn’t oppose the dead letter on you, Elrin, your mother was safe. However, like all things, I knew nothing lasts forever. When you came to me with your father’s dagger, I prayed the elder dragons would teach you how to use it. That you might find the Dragon Choir and return as our salvation. Did the elders take you in? Did they reveal the secrets of the magic blade like they did for your father?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Elrin felt the dagger reaching for his mind but he shut it out.
“Thanks be! I heard of your arrival with Inspector Kettna on the back of a great golden dragon. I wish I could have seen the magnificent creature with my own eyes. What ever happened to make this guardian of light fly away? Tell me the noble elder delivered an ultimatum to the vile red tormenting Calimska. Are good dragons coming to protect the city?”
“No. We’ve come to—” Elrin was cut off.
“Quit fishing, Priest!” Minni snapped. “We’re asking the questions here. You’ve told us nothing we don’t already know. Fact is, you’ve been slaving and the Guildmaster is a psychopath. Tell us where the shankakin slaves are right now. And don’t even think of standing in our way. We’ve come to free them.”
“It’s not that simple,” replied Kleith. “Don’t you think I’d have done that already if it wouldn’t endanger them, let alone Pennie and Elrin? Now with this siege of dragons—”
“Maybe you just don’t have the backbone?” Minni goaded. “I’ll ask once more. Where do you keep the slaves? Don’t make me repeat it.”
“They’re deep beneath the city,” said Herder Kleith. “I keep them alive as best I can. You have to understand, there’s no way out but death.”
“Bollocks!” Minni spat. “If there’s a way in there’s a way out. You’re just full of excuses and scared of your own demise.”
“No!” The Herder’s denial was absolute. Even his holy crook, which rested by the hallway exit, drummed against the floor in agreement with the priest. “You must understand. There’s a web of magic wards in a labyrinth of caverns and if that isn’t enough there’re dangers far worse. Forgotten beasts lurk in the darkness, hunting anything that moves. One wrong turn and baleful spirits rise to drain your soul. Believe me, Herik has left nothing to chance, there is no escape. The Guildmaster has thought of everything.”
“Not everything. He has no idea I’m coming for him,” said Minni. “I’ll make sure the old bastard is dead before dawn.”
“I’ve imagined Herik’s death a hundred ways, but he is too powerful. Besides, if you kill him today, the Golden Shield will vanish and Calimska will fall to that evil dragon on our doorstep. You’d be responsible for thousands of deaths and a city enslaved. That’s why we need the dragons of light to protect us. I thought the Dragon Choir would send help if Arbajkha’s son asked.”
“We are the help,” said Elrin. “The Dragon Choir isn’t responsible for your mistakes.”
For all the lies Herder Kleith had told, Elrin couldn’t help but wonder if there was one more. The one thing Elrin had wanted to know since he was a boy. He’d been taught all about the wonders of Oranica; languages, history, religion, anatomy, geography and politics, yet the singular explanation always denied him was the truth about his father. One question was all Elrin needed to ask. One. And on the precipice of finally finding out the truth, he jousted with fear to ask it.
Somehow Minni sensed Elrin’s internal struggle and placed her hand on his knee. It was all the support he needed. He no longer had to feel abandoned. No matter the truth about his father, Elrin knew he wasn’t alone any longer.
“I’m glad that you lifted the veil on all these secrets, Herder Kleith. But there’s more you’re keeping. Where is my father? He’s alive, isn’t he.”
Herder Kleith hung his head as if this was the heavier burden he had to bear. “It’s true, Arbajkha lives. To my shame, the Guildmaster holds him captive below the city. It has been so all along.”
“I don’t believe you,” quavered Elrin’s mother. “Why didn’t you just…?”
“I’m sorry, Pennie.” Herder Kleith reached out to comfort Elrin’s mother, but she was not having it.
Bardess Penellonine launched herself at Herder Kleith, beating his chest and arms with tight little fists then slapping him across the face. “Say it isn’t so! Say it’s a lie! How could you keep that from me? All this time!”
The High Hand of Nathis didn’t fight back. He hunched over to cover his tearful face while his shoulders shook under the emotional strain. “I’m so sorry. Baj made me promise. I couldn’t tell you for fear of your life. If you knew Baj lived you’d have tried to free him on your own, or even worse gone to confront Herik. You know you would have, Pennie.”
“Of course I would have!” Screamed Elrin’s mother, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Why did you keep this awful secret, you cowardly bastard? How could you? You of all people! I trusted you. Elrin trusted you!” Exhausted with emotion, she embraced Elrin. “I’m sorry, my darling boy.” She cried upon his chest as if all of the treachery were somehow her fault.
“I couldn’t bear to see any harm come to either of you,” said Kleith. “You know Baj is … He’s … my dearest friend. He only lives because I’ve kept this damnable secret safe. He didn’t want me to tell you. He wanted his family to have a life of peace. Oh, Nathis guide me. What have I done? I should never have broken my vow.”
Elrin burned with anger at Kleith’s betrayal but his insides knotted with pity. The man he had held in such high regard sat there weeping. The High Hand of Nathis was supposed to be a pillar of hope, a beacon in the darkest of hours.
“Enough tears, Kleith,” said Elrin, rising from his chair. “The High Hand doesn’t have that luxury. You’ve held yourself together for so long. What’s one more day? One more year?”
Kleith lifted his head, wiping the tears from his cheeks. “I don’t deserve that title, child. I know it and now you do too.”
“Then earn your damn title and help us,” said Minni. “Make amends.”
“You have to see this right,” insisted Elrin. “You don’t get to fall apart when the truth comes out. You taught me to embrace the truth no matter how hard the facts might be. You taught me wrong was wrong, no matter the ends or the means. You said there’s always a path to the light…”
“No matter how dark it gets,” finished the priest, rising from his chair with a new determination.
“Oh, it’s dark,” said Minni. “You’ve dug yourself deep. If you’ve got any good grace with Nathis, we’re going to need him on our side too.”
“My faith in the Gods has not wavered,” assured the Herder. “And today, you youngsters have returned my hope for humanity. But faith and hope are not enough to overcome the Guildmaster. Herik has woven the tightest of webs.”
“If I’m right, there’s a chance we could cut through them. Qarim, the elder dragon who helped us, told me Father’s purpose in Calimska. He was working with Daniakesh to secure an armoury of bloodstone weapons, like this dagger. They’re god-forged, Kleith. If we can find those in the dragon’s abandoned hoard, we can use them against the Guildmaster and defend the city from Uindarrg too.”
Herder Kleith scratched his dutiful chin in thought, seeding the new information in his mind. His forehead furrowed like a well ploughed field. Years of instruction under the priest’s tutelage had taught Elrin a great many things. Elrin knew all too well the look Kleith gave when unconvinced by a particular thesis. “Are you certain of your own ability with Arbajkha’s dagger? If not, what hope is there for using any other?”
Elrin’s mother rose on the tide of hope in the room. “It matters not. If your Father lives then all we need do is find him!” She beamed a smile upon Elrin and cupped her son’s cheek like he were a boy playing hide and seek. “Kleith will guide us to your father and when I get—”
“No, Pennie,” said Kleith, moving to place a hand on her shoulder. “You must stay here, it’s too dangerous.”
The air around the high priest’s hand began to shimmer until Elrin’s mother batted it away, glaring at Kleith and massaging her temples. “No more! I’m fine. I’m … I’m not going to …”
“I agree with Kleith, Mother.” Elrin spoke gently, wondering if the coming battle would be safe for anyone. “I’ll find a way to free Father. Don’t worry yourself now, I’ll bring him home.”
“I’ve seen more danger than you could ever imagine, my little ray of sunshine.” Elrin’s Mother pinched his cheek, thoroughly embarrassing him.
Minni smirked. “I’m with the bardess. Let her come.”
“You don’t understand, Minni. Mother has … problems. This isn’t for you to decide.”
“Nor is it for you or the priest.” Minni glared at Elrin, and he knew she was right.
“I like you, Mistress Ajharra.” The bardess gave Minni a neat curtsey suitable for a woman half her age. “I promise I won’t be a problem at all.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Minni drawing her sword and pointing it at Herder Kleith. “Lead the way, priest. But make no mistake, I don’t like surprises.”
“Thank Nathis we have at least one thing in common,” joked Herder Kleith.
Minni gave Kleith a half smile. He’d need to do better than that to get in the rogue’s good graces.
The priest wrung his hands a moment, staring at the sharp edge of Minni’s blade. “As much as I imagine you’ll not appreciate my saying so, dear child. Now would be inopportune.”
“Inopportune?” Minni gave a cynical laugh. “How’s that? Is it time for Guildmaster’s afternoon nap?”
“Unfortunately, no. These days, he sleeps very little.” Kleith clenched his jaw and cast his eyes across the room to the tall mechanical clock standing in the corner. The device’s metal head was a silent spinning orrery. A silver moon orbited a bronze sphere and it in turn spun around a golden sun. Pendulous arms gently swayed on either side of a sarcofagus-shaped body and engraved upon a copper-plated chest were diagrams, tables and mathematical formulae. The clock was a politically pointed gift from the Guildmaster to improve the Nathians service to the city. Death always arrived on time and so should the priests of Nathis. Ironically, this sentinel of time was too complicated to read and was relegated from the main temple to the private chambers of the High Hand. For only he could fathom its movements.
“Herik’s meticulous with his schedule,” said the Priest after some thought. “Evening will be best.”
“Gods blight!” Minni almost spat on the floor, but caught a sharp look from Elrin’s mother and remembered her manners — a portion of them at least. “You stare at that contraption like a parched carp and that’s your illuminated conclusion? Night? That’s a long time in my experience. Have anything more specific?”
“Do you have any patience? Manners perhaps?” The priest huffed, but answered Minni nonetheless. “Specifically, meridian passing. When the moon is at it’s highest, Herik’s power has ebbed. Tonight it will be a few hours before midnight. If we’re to catch him at his weakest, we must do so after the day has drained him but before he renews himself. It’s our best chance.”
Elrin scratched his beard and dried blood rubbed off on his fingers. “That’s a narrow window. What if we catch him at the wrong moment?”
Kleith fixed Elrin with a worried stare. “Pray Nathis guides us to eternal peace.”
“Enough of that talk!” Elrin’s mother busied herself collecting tea cups and saucers to clear the small table, as if a tidy home was imperative during a crisis. “Look on the bright side. There’s still time to provision ourselves properly before we set out. Pack for the worst, hope for the best. That was our motto back in the day, wasn’t it Kleith?”
The priest had no time to answer before Elrin’s mother began directing the preparations. “First things first, you two need a thorough wash. I bet the dragons can smell you already. Go on now, I won’t hear any complaints. Minella dear, side your steel before someone get’s hurt. Oh, and use the guest room would you. Don’t mind my mess. And Elrin, use Kleith’s chamber please. There’s a good boy.”
“I’m not taking my eyes off the Herder.” Minni refused to sheath her sword. “He’ll run to the Guildmaster the first chance he can.”
“The High Hand has no time to run,” assured the Bardess, glaring at the priest. “He’ll be busy explaining himself to Nathis. Won’t you, Kleith.”
“Of course. I shall pray for guidance while you ready yourselves. Let me prepare.” The herder calmly walked across the room to retrieve his holy crook.
The air rippled with power as the priest touched it. The lamps in the room flickered and danced.
Elrin drew his bloodstone dagger and it came alive, urging an immediate attack. Elrin hesitated, riddled with doubt. Minni felt something too, but had no such doubts. She dived toward the priest, rolled once and had her blade poised to plunge through his grey robes before he could say a word.
“Spit a single curse and you die.” Minni raised her blade to the Kleith’s chin as she stood from her kneeling attack position. “Snuff so much as a candle and I’ll show you what your insides look like. Do you hear me?”
“You felt me connecting with my god?”
“Gods be damned. I don’t know what you bloody well did, and I don’t care. The point is—” Minni dragged her blade just a touch to draw blood. “I don’t trust you. And … I don’t need you. You’re only alive right now because Elrin thinks you deserve a chance. Don’t waste it.”
“Enough!” Elrin’s mother, pushed her way between Kleith and Minni to seperate them. “Trust or not, we have to get along. Kleith, give me your crook and make peace with Nathis by the shrine in your chambers. Minella, don’t make me take that sword from you. Go and get ready in the guest room, I’ll be with you shortly. We’ve a need to chat, woman to woman. Now, Elrin, for the love of all the gods under the sun, put that knife away before you cut yourself and have a decent wash. Well? What are you all waiting for? Off to it.”
There was no arguing with her will. Elrin resigned himself to do as he was told. Surprisingly, Minni and Kleith did too.
The once headstrong heroine, the Pride of the Bard’s Guild had returned. She glowed with an irrepressible determination, renewed courage radiating behind her gaze. Elrin prayed that this time, the fire in her soul would remain. He hoped against all else that his father’s return would forever end the winter of her enduring sorrow.