Tuesday Tales: Shadow of the Beast Part 1

I’m now sharing some short stories on Tuesdays. Today, I start with a story I may well include in a future anthology. This is the beginning of the story and I’ll share the next two parts over the next couple of weeks. This material is copyrighted so all rights are mine and this cannot be reproduced or used without permission (reblogs are welcome since it only uses a part of the content but if you want to reproduce the entire post you need to contact me for permission). With that bit of information, enjoy the story! Please forgive any errors…

Shadow of the Beast, Part 1

By P. H. Solomon

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Rumors fluttered like birds through the Seddessan markets on the day the mages escaped a death-sentence. Merchants whispered of an Antuni holy-man who interpreted the Empress Ashlultum’s unspoken dream. Scant days passed before palace gossip drifted to less interesting intrigues.

Several weeks later, the morning sun gleamed on the city walls as new reports swirled through the city like whirlwinds off the desert on the horizon. Some people said the youthful Empress was murdered in the night. Other tales whispered that a demon-beast escaped with Ashlultum into the green hills surrounding Sedessa.

But neither crier nor palace banner signaled confirmation of the news.

At mid-day, soldier’s boots thumped with the rhythmic song of litter-bearers on The Way of Birds. The procession halted in the quarter of the court officials before a low-roofed home of wood and stone which squatted below the manicured limbs of smooth-barked ashinta trees where a shower of cinnamon-scented leaves floated.

Silence reigned along the section of street as people afoot mingled beyond the guards. Beskan slaves, bare-chested and pale-skinned, lowered the litter. They unrolled rugs depicting intricate antelope hunting designs to the doorstep.

A corpulent official, dressed in the pale blue of his high court office, climbed out of the curtained transport. His dark curls swayed with his loose jowls as he strode on sandals to the door.  He motioned to the door with his feather-adorned cane.

“As my lord Enusat wishes.” The officer saluted and the captain pounded upon the lacquered heffa-wood door imported from the nearby Eshti Mountains.

Within the home, Sa-hatap, the holy mage-warrior and advisor to Empress Ashlultum, rose from his kneeling mediations that followed his practice with the Spirit-sword. The pounding bespoke trouble if news proved correct.  He sighed. His meditational focus on the calm waters of Lake Winsu, from his ancestral home, rippled into choppy waves. His memory of misty morning water that mirrored the sun rising over equally mist-shrouded ridges slipped from his mind like a waking dream. Woe roiled around his weeks-old interpretation of the empress’s dream, rumor whispered that morning by his neighbors on his morning walk,

Ashanti’s sandals clapped on the floor beyond his training-room. She muttered with a worried tone in her passing.

Sa-hatap stretched, performed a short breathing exercise and strapped his Spirit-sword on his hip. They would respect him as both seer and Antuni holy-warrior.

The heffa-wood door scraped the floor and lintel when Ashanti dragged it open. Her gasp echoed in the passage. Male voices rose and fell, mingled with the servant’s hushed tones.

Splayed mid-morning sunshine faded in the windows.

Sa-hatap wiped sweat from his chest and shaved head. He donned a short, Antuni tunic of varying colors, leaving the sword-hilt accessible. His visitors lingered too long in the door. When he slid the doors apart and stood in the hall the commotion ceased.

Enusat’s jowls and locks wiggled when he glanced at Sa-hatap. He broke off what he was saying. He slipped something into Ashanti’s hand and something else into a pocket. He strode toward Sa-hatap with his lips pressed and half-twisted.

Ashanti scurried behind the court official. The servant’s green eyes flashed at Sa-hatap’s feet as she bowed past, her weathered face of cinnamon skin drawn with hesitation

Sa-hatap bowed. If the Court Governor arrived with such a frown, the empress had been betrayed. He motioned Enusat into his study.  “My house is honored by his eminence’s presence.”

Soldiers remained crowded at the doorway.

Sa-hatap allowed the slightest twitch of an eyebrow at the spiritual sign on Enusat. Crow’s wings of blame nested on Enusat’s shoulders. But why would the official blame him? There was trouble, no doubt.

Ashanti entered the room and knelt with a motion from him.

Sa-hatap pressed his lips together and avoided a frown. She was someone’s paid spy. He held his tone even nonetheless. “Bring warm chiffa-tea for us.”

She backed out the door with a silent bow.

A silent spy. He watched her leave and suppressed a revealing smile. But he must attend Enusat and not dither about her snooping.

This one twists the truth. The Spirit-sword whispered the unheard words of his god, the Unseen One, in Sa-hatap’s thoughts.

“How may I serve the empire again?” Sa-hatap ducked his head to Enusat.

Enusat refused the most honorable seat on the cushions. He strolled through the small room with a veiled sneer. The Court-governor’s necklace and bracelets jingled in the silence. Disdain for Sa-hatap’s subjugated people expanded in the room as a shadow consuming both light and color.

Sa-hatap’s eyes fluttered. He steadied himself. Was it a dark spirit or a vision? He cocked his head and inhaled. He needed calm but the waters of Lake Wins remained disquieted in his imagination. Where was Ashanti with the tea?

Enusat waved his hand. “You speak of service to the empire with your interpretations of woe.”

“I serve as seer and mage. I speak true interpretations as the god of my people reveals.” Sa-hatap caressed his sword hilt and raised his chin but slightly. “No harm came to Empress Ashlultum from me.” His eyes narrowed and he watched his feet. His heart thrummed. He inhaled and calmed it. Something in this dimness assaulted his cultivated peace.

The Court-governor laughed and paced the room. He fiddled with trinkets on the table. “What was it revealed in your interpretation?” Enusat tilted his head. “Oh, yes, the horned beast was her and not her? It came from worse in her court? Perhaps the threat was from you?” The official’s gaze flitted to Sa-hatap’s feet then his face. “Perhaps you’re a traitor rather than a soothsayer?”

“Were both dream and interpretation not the truth? Ill news flies on the streets with the birds this morning. Something happened?”

“She transformed into a monster last night and tore one attendant to pieces. One babbling fool survived to tell the tale but this akor-sunash fled the palace and left a trail of destruction and blood. She–” He cleared his throat and flashed a frown. “It escaped into the fields beyond the wall.” Enusat stepped close, his smile long faded, and replaced by a glare. “You are lucky your head isn’t on a traitor’s pole as some believe your interpretation was a spell. Others with power equal to mine believe you saved their lives with your mystical powers.” His harsh tone slapped Sa-hatap with threat nonetheless.

A shudder ran along his spine. Enusat wanted the accusation laid. “You would all be dead had I followed my inclination and remained silent.” Akor-sunash? He tugged his earlobe. It was a specific term by certain practitioners of arcane arts. It meant, “the beast’s grasp” in ancient Seddessan. People feared such conjured monsters more than lycanthropes.

Enusat allowed himself a derisive chuckle. “You fancied keeping your head along with the rest of us. Hmm?”

Sa-hatap lifted his chin and squinted. “No, I did it for others who fancied their heads. I gained nothing in this life for my actions.”

Enusat’s finger jabbed like a dagger at Sa-hatap. “Your latest interpretation sent the empress into her malady. She is a raving akor-sunash roaming the countryside, thanks to you.”

Sa-hatap straightened and rubbed his fingers against his thumbs. He could break the arm behind the accusation. A man without wisdom would have. “A death sentence meant nothing then?” Was Enusat angry with the change or the escape?

“If no one had interpreted her dream, the empress’s death sentence would have been my honored service. It would have been for all her loyal servants among the learned.” A crooked smile spread on Enusat’s face and touched his cold stare with a glint of delight. “And you? Would you have died or given the interpretation considering what has happened?”

Sa-hatap resisted shouting as they stared at each other, frozen in truth revealed. Enusat had planned to survive his rivals. So his interpretation made things worse? He doubted it. The transformation was magic and smelled of conspiracy. “I’ve never shirked my duties–or an interpretation. The threat would have remained.”

Ashanti bowed into the room while balancing the tray of tea. Enusat wheeled away with a snort and snatched a cup from the servant’s tray, his rings of gold and silver clinking on the fired clay. The Court Governor sipped and smacked his lips with a nod.

Sa-hatap almost twitched an eyebrow. No muttered spell to test the cup for poison? So he pays this spy. Sa-hatap took his own cup when the servant offered it. He stared at the Court Governor. Enusat laid traps in his home. He gazed at the drink, prepared to wet his dry tongue. He narrowed his eyes. What did Enusat give her at the door? Traps indeed. Sa-hatap set the cup down after the servant retreated.

“It is not your religious wisdom I require but your sword.” Enusat sipped again and motioned for Sa-Hatap to drink.

“My talent with weapons is always at your service, but why?” Sa-hatap touched his cup. Enusat noted it and turned away. If Enusat needed his sword then what was in the cup? Sa-hatap left the tea and stepped away. Navigating this trap required focus amid the distraction of words.

“You started this mess. You will end it.” Enusat sipped and pointed his stubby finger again from his grasp on the cup. “The empress is neither dead nor able to rule. Her heir cannot assume the throne without her death. But no one has the skill though some have tried.”

“Assassin is not among my talents.” Sa-hatap turned away. “I’m indifferent to politics, though I advise, guard–and interpret signs and dreams.”

You must go. The Unseen One’s words touched his mind again through the sword.

Enusat opened his mouth to speak.

Sa-hatap motioned with his hands. “No, I won’t go.”

The fat official smiled and delight melted the violent cold in his eyes. “We will kill your people until you go.”

“If I do not go even then?”

You will all die. The Spirit-sword quivered at his side. Watch!

Sa-hatap flinched in spite of his practiced self-control. Blood and screams flooded his mind. A child’s hand relaxed and ceased moving. A woman stared with dull eyes. Slaughtered bodies lay piled in a field. He turned away and rubbed his eyes.

“Then we will take your head when we are done making you watch.”

Sa-hatap gritted his teeth. He had watched it already. His stomach was as hollow as a dead tree.

You will go.

“I will go.”

Enusat’s face beamed.

Sa-hatap took the cup, intending to raise it to his enemy.

A vision flashed before his eyes. Hands prepared red wine, pouring in ingredients, offering it to Ashlultum. Sa-hatap heard the spell spoken but not against poison. Ashlultum swooned upon drinking and a shadow descended from the rafters, alighting on the victim who thrashed in her opulent bed as horns like a great bull’s sprouted from her head.

Sa-hatap faced Enusat, eyes wide. He stepped closer with the full cup extended in his grasp.

Enusat backed away, eyes wide. “Stay away.” He babbled and sudden sweat beaded his brow.

“You planned all this.” Sa-hatap advanced with the cup. “You laid a curse on her and now I’m to clean it up. You’ve intended replacing her. Who’s the real traitor?”

Enusat straightened. “And what of it? I have but to say the interpretation of the dream was the curse and you die.”

“But you still need me to finish your betrayal.”

Sa-hatap turned away from the official’s glare. Enusat meant to kill him regardless, maybe many more Antuni. He poured the drink into a potted plant and allowed himself a scowl to Enusat. The echo of a howl raced around the room. A window burst open and the yowl faded in daylight.

Darkness in the room cleared like the clouds breaking before the sun.

Sa-hatap stepped toward him, offering the cup’s dregs. Enusat lifted his palms, sidestepped to the door and exited.

“Take your spy with you, Enusat.” Sa-hatap’s laugh rang through his home. “I’ll do this and play the dirge.”

The bitter laugh echoed in the empty house as Ashanti left with her master and most of the guards.

Thanks for reading today. As usual, I look forward to your responses in the comments section to which I will respond as soon as I can. For more information about my writing, see the page about The Bow of Hart Saga or the Welcome page.

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