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Tuesday Tales: Shadow of the Beast Part 3

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I’m now sharing some short stories on Tuesdays. Today, the story continues with part 3; you can click on the following links to find part 1 and part 2 . 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 3

By P. H. Solomon

The sergeant called his men to order. When the soldiers exited, they grumbled while Sa-hatap sat astride his mount, hood pulled against rising wind. The clamorous soldiers’ voices rose in rebellion. He kicked his horse into a walk. They could follow or not. The weird howling echoed down the valley.

Silence descended among the milling soldiers.

“Mount up! Now! Or our commanders will know of your disobedience.”

Sa-hatap glanced over his shoulder and found the sergeant with one hand on his sword and the other on the bag containing the seeing-orb.  They climbed into their saddles without further complaint.

They rode through deeper snow covering the road, following poles placed as markers. The horses labored and snorted for more than an hour. The sun dipped toward the ridgeline.

Sa-hatap patted the flute shoved in a pocket. Now for the song that needed playing. A dirge for him fit him best. He exhaled a cloudy sigh. Either way he’d die.

Slogging out of a stand of blanketed firs, they gazed down a slope where the valley dipped into a natural bowl speckled with stands of trees. The horses whickered at the scent of a dead mountain goat scattered in red snow ahead.

They should stop now.

Sa-hatap grasped the sword-hilt. “Wait here. I will go on alone.”

The sergeant grimaced but answered with a curt nod.

Sa-hatap kicked his mount. None of them wanted to go on. No choices for him though. Better to get this over now rather than freeze. The horse skirted the carcass while the soldiers retreated into the trees for cover.

You have choices. Do what they want or what I want.

“Little choice, but I’ll play the songs.”

Those men will thank you.

“Small comfort when I’m dead.”

Silence suffused Sa-hatap in the cold stillness. The horse snorted and whickered long after passing the carcass. Nothing moved in the valley of snow and trees. He reined the horse toward an outcrop of rock rising out of the valley and surrounded by pine and fir. Sa-hatap hobbled his horse close against the cliff and fed the gelding from a bag of oats. He lit a fire and gathered dead-wood.

The red sun slipped below western peaks and bathed the valley in red-gold light. Sa-hatap ate and waited. He was a worm on a hook. He’d never fish again without remembering this predicament. Hunger melted from his belly. He tilted his head and watched the sky with a sigh.

When the howl echoed among the ridges the horse whickered. Sa-hatap drew his sword, laid the weapon by his side and knelt to his prayer.

The wind sighed.

His heart thudded in his throat. His mouth was as dry as a desert.

This venture was hopeless when he accepted it. He rubbed his thighs. He may as well be naked in the snow. He clasped his hands, adjusted his sword’s position and clasped them again.

The wind moaned through the branches overhead.

The akor-sunash howled again.

Sa-hatap swallowed but there was no moisture in his mouth. He closed his eyes and performed a breathing exercise. Minutes of stillness followed. He exhaled and words rolled from his stillness. “Why bring me here to die?”

Watch and wait, play a song.

Sa-hatap warmed food with tea and waited as he took his meal. The world faded into darkness held at bay by his flitting fire. He ate and then blew tuneless chords, running his stiff fingers over the holes. His practice formed into the dirge played for Ashlultum’s father, a mournful song she oft requested on dull days.

A snarl echoed closer, followed moments later by a mournful howl.

The horse squealed and yanked against the rope.

Sa-hatap ignored the animal. He shifted the tune to a celebration song, again played on happier occasions at the empress’s court. Sa-hatap swayed along with his music, lost in its cheer as mist rose among the leafless thickets and tree-trunks.

The creature’s next howl sounded different, less like a tortured beast. More–human.

His sword flashed reflections of firelight, where it lay by his legs. Play on.

Sa-hatap shut his eyes as the music floated him in its current like the reflective water of Lake Winsu when morning mist swirled over its stillness.

Through the trees, the heavy tread of a large beast drew him back to awareness.

The horse shied and stamped in the snow.

A branch snapped. The akor-sunash snorted louder than his horse.

Sa-hatap blew the tune into the frigid dark. He clung to his disciplined calm and opened his eyes.

A shadow, silhouetted against the light of the rising moon, hesitated at the edge of the trees. The akor-sunash swayed and capered. Sa-hatap frowned. What was the accursed monarch doing?

Dancing. Ashlultum danced. He arched an eyebrow but concentrated on his fingering.

The misshapen figure stumbled closer on clawed toes. Snow crunched with each step.

Sa-hatap shifted to a ballad sung by his own people.

The akor-sunash slouched into the firelight. It huffed mist and squatted. The creature loomed as a consuming shadow of his light. Twisted, blood-stained fingers twitched.

Sa-hatap nodded but continued. Those horns shrank, the fur thinned. He breathed his meditative peace into the melody and ignored his cold-aching fingers. Stopping now was death. He and the akor-sunash swayed with the tune.

The moon peered into the valley. Sa-hatap drew to a close and held stiff fingers to the fire. If only he could do what was needed next.

Part-akor-sunash and woman watched him, unmoving. “Why are you here?”  Snarls lashed the night air.

“I’ve brought a gift.” Sa-hatap offered the flute.

“I need–blood and meat. You’ll do.” The creature’s hungry tongue lolled and its blood-shot gaze flicked to the horse. “Four-legs, even better.”

“You need this more than my blood. Here, it won’t hurt. The music has been good for you.” He stretched over the fire but never averted his gaze.

“I will kill you.”

“You can try.”

Yellow eyes narrowed as lips spread, baring fangs. Sa-hatap offered the flute unflinching, his gaze fixed on the hairy face.

“I’ve killed others.”

“So have I. Take this instead, trust me.”

The akor-sunash reached for the instrument. The paw drew back. Its head and horns wagged. “No! I mean please, help me–” The yellow eyes rolled and came back hazel–eyes Sa-hatap recognized.

He extended the flute further over the crackling flames. “Take this, it will help.”

The akor-sunash rose and paced, growling. It stopped, chested heaving. “Play.” The whispered tone sounded far more familiar than moments earlier.

“You try.” Sa-hatap waved the flute.

Firelight glanced off the sword at the edge of his vision. Watch for your chance.

“Do you need help?”

“No!” The fangs flashed in the light and snapped. Then the monster whimpered. “Yes.”

“Trust me. Take this bit of help.”

The akor-sunash snarled and gnashed its teeth. The jaws ground and neck muscles clenched with the conflicting effort.

Distorted claws overlapped with human fingers, both trembling against the other, reached again for the flute. The hand–her hand–grasped the flute. Ashlultum separated from the beast and swooned naked into the snow.

The akor-sunash slouched. Its shriek boomed through the night. The monster staggered back into the edge of light.

Sa-hatap snatched his sword. He leapt the fire and stood over Ashlultum.

“Mine!” The akor-sunash gnashed its fangs. The demon charged Sa-hatap.

The Spirit-sword flashed pale in the moonlight. Stab the heart. A single blow.

He dodged flashing talons at his throat. Sa-hatap shuffled forward and thrust.

The akor-sunash leapt away from the blade. It lunged back at him.

Sa-hatap side-stepped and thrust. The blade flashed like lightning and pierced the creature’s heart.

The akor-sunash stood as if frozen from the swift attack. It growled pain and hatred.  Claws waved with feeble effort as the beast stumbled. Enraged fire faded from the yellow eyes. The demon collapsed. A shadow rose from a final wheeze and dissipated on the night wind.

Sa-hatap nudged the desiccated husk steaming in the snow.

Ashlultum groaned.

He wrapped the empress in the rough blankets. She peered at Sa-hatap through blinking eyes. Her shivering hand clutched the flute.

“I’ve got you now.” He offered her water with a bow.

Ashlultum drank, gagged and drank more. “Last I remember drinking it was spell-checked wine.” She gazed into the cup and back at Sa-hatap. “Poison, I think. Nightmares started with pain, blood. My hands had claws.” She raised fingers to her face. “Just a dream.”

“Sleep now. It’s hours before sunrise. You’re safe.”

When dawn edged the eastern ridgeline, Ashlultum stirred. Sa-hatap turned from his vigil at the movement.

“I was poisoned, betrayed as you interpreted.”

Sa-hatap nodded. “You were trapped in a spell merging you with a demon.”

She shuddered. “Enusat did it. He gave me my cup with his spell against poison.”

“He did.”

Silence settled between them as Sa-hatap stirred the fire with a stick. The empress stared into the embers. “You risked your life for me.”

Sa-hatap shrugged. “I die here or when I return.”

“I see. They sent you then.”

“They needed the heir on the throne.”

The guardsmen thumped among the trees and dislodged snow from branches. The sergeant reached for the orb.  He motioned to the black smear in the snow where hollow horns lay. “It is done? The creature is dead?”

Ashlultum stood with her blanket clasped about her shoulders. “It is done and I am safe.”

The soldiers gasped and fumbled with their reins.

Sa-hatap stepped beside her. “Pay homage to your Empress.” He went to one knee.

The soldiers scrambled from their horses and prostrated themselves in the snow.

Ashlultum stepped bare-foot to the sergeant. “Are you yet my soldiers?”

“Yes, Empress. We are yours to command.”

“Good. Call your commander with the orb. Here, stand beside me to show my face.”

The sergeant brought the orb from his pouch and breathed on it. “Gorcin reporting.” Morning light flickered on the orb.

“You are late.” The gruff voice of a commander paused and then resumed. “Who is this?”

Ashlultum took the orb and held it close. “I am your Empress. Do you see me now?”

The officer stammered. “I do. I meant no insult. You’re, you’re–”

“Yes, alive and safe and myself again. Do you serve me yet?”

“I do.”

“You will arrest Enusat and hold him until I return.” She handed the seeing-orb back to Gorcin while the officer in the mirror begged pardon and swore fealty.

The empress raised her arm. “Arise as my honor-guard.” She motioned to Sa-hatap. “My new household governor–may he be rewarded with long life and his people with peace– commands according to my wishes.”

Sa-hatap swept the spirit-sword from its sheath. He laid it before the Empress of Seddessa. “I will serve you, empress.”

The morning sun gleamed upon the blade. Its brightness blinded them all for a moment. The beast’s shadow never lay across your path. May you reside in peace like the calm of your Lake Winsu beneath the smiling morning sun.

Not many days later, the Seddessan markets rang with announcement of Empress Ashlultum’s return from the jaws of seditious assassination. Instead of rumor, criers shouted the name of Sa-hatap to announce the new Court-governor. The bodies of the conspirators hung dead from the city gates, among them the former Court-governor, nameless like the street dust trod upon by market gossips.

End

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.

Tuesday Tales: Shadow of the Beast Part 2

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I’m now sharing some short stories on Tuesdays. Today, I continue with a story I may well include in a future anthology. This is part 2 of the story and I’ll share the next part next weeks. To read part 1, click here. 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 2

By P. H. Solomon

Sa-hatap waited while scouts confirmed where the search should go. All the while, the house stood silent as a guarded tomb and the lake of his meditational focus churned. Trackers stalked the akor-sunash for days into the Eshti Mountains. There, early snow settled and the beast stalked the forests and threatened villages.

The Court Governor ordered preparations. Enusat equipped Sa-hatap and his troop of guards with all his needs including his religious diet and horses. But Sergeant Gorcin carried a seeing-orb, allowing his superiors oversight of the mission.

Furled grieving banners waited at the city gates when Sa-hatap’s guards led him out of the capital. After five days, they traded horses for mountain ponies and climbed into the Eshti Mountains were snow shrouded on the ground and wolves howled under the waxing moon.

On the sixth day into the mountains they drew near the villages where reports of suffering from the monster’s ravages had arrived. Sa-hatap sat in his saddle focused in his prayers while the wind tore at his cloak and his meditations sloshed.

I sent Enusat to you. I sent you here.

Sa-hatap reined his horse to a skidding halt.

“You did what?” Sa-hatap’s words hung in the air with his misty breath.

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The guards stopped, quizzical expressions etched on their faces. Gorcin twitched his hand at the seeing-orb. Horses snorted at the unexpected pause and stamped hooves on the snowy road.

“Why?”

The guards cocked their heads.

Why did you first refuse?

Sa-hatap flinched and he rubbed his hot cheeks. He hunched in his saddle and ground his teeth. Seddessans hated him. Why help them at all? But revenge wasn’t his way.

The guards eyed Sa-hatap.

He ignored them. “So I must do their foul work, is it?”

Not at all

“Come along.” The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “Or must I lead your horse with you tied over the saddle? We must not delay.”

“What would you have me do?” Sa-hatap scowled and turned his hooded head from side to side. He rode to his death–regardless of the outcome.

“Come now.” The soldier hefted the seeing-orb. “We’ll send word to begin the killing otherwise.” Menace tinged the sergeant’s tone. A slow smile spread on his face as he urged his horse toward Sa-hatap.

Play a celebration song for the empress instead of a dirge.

Sa-hatap sat straight. They all deserved a dirge. But not his people. “Very well.” Sa-hatap kicked his horse into motion. Tension from the soldiers cracked like ice under the horses hooves. Sa-hatap turned in his saddle. “Are you coming or not?”

The soldiers eyed each other with unspoken questions behind their eyes. They shrugged their indifference to his oddities and flashed hand signals across their foreheads as wards against evil spirits.

A howl bounced around the wooded ridges.

“That’s no wolf.” The sergeant slouched as he rode alongside Sa-hatap.

“It’s what we came for.” Sa-hatap focused on the road ahead and practiced his meditations but Lake Winsu’s surface boiled with his anger.

The sergeant cast his gaze around the surrounding heights and muttered prayers to his god.

“If you are afraid then go home. But I ride toward the fear.” Sa-hatap kicked his horse into a faster gait. “Come along or we’ll miss the fun.”

Grumbling soldiers urged their mounts after Sa-hatap. He faced forward and treated the men like his personal command. A song needed playing and he eschewed any delay. Sa-hatap led his guards through several mountain villages amid echoed howls in the heights.

The sergeant caught Sa-hatap when they passed through the second village of low houses where smoked curled from chimneys. “We’ll never catch the monster chasing echoes.”

“It must come to me.” The mage grasped his sword-hilt.

The sergeant gaped at Sa-hatap. “What? You plan to bring it down on us?”

“Me. Just me.” He raised his head and the afternoon sunlight flashed against white peaks.

“Where? Here?”

Sa-hatap caught the sergeant’s hopeful expression. He urged his horse into a trot. “Stay if you want. This is not the place.”

The sergeant rode alongside moments later. “I cannot let you ride off. You’ll just ride on and we’ll be punished with your people.”

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Sa-hatap hid a sly smile. He reined his horse to a sharp halt. He sat staring ahead at the snow-draped evergreens looming over the road. His horse snorted and stamped. His gruff tone escaped in a white cloud but he did not turn his head to the soldier. “I have given my word to see this done, magic or not, sergeant.” He turned his head. “But I must do this alone.”

“Tell me when. How can we make sure it is done?”

Sa-hatap heard distant desperation in the soldier’s question. “I will know when to stop and why. Then I must go on, but I will tell you where to watch. I will be in sight if you wish to brave the cold night–and the danger.” He urged his horse into another trot.

Behind him the sergeant swore but followed.

The next village lay blanketed by snow so thick only curling smoke from chimneys identified it. Sa-hatap halted.

“Here?” The sergeant wiped his mouth at the sight of the tavern door.

“Ale beckons all soldiers, no?” Sa-hatap avoided strong drink. But he didn’t blame the men’s desire after the cold day’s ride.

The wisp of a sound tickled his hearing.

He shushed the guards. Gusting winds fell on their ears but no other sound. The horses neighed and puffed mist. The guards grumbled and eyed the tavern door.

“What is it?” The sergeant’s cleared his throat and scanned snow shrouded buildings. “I’ve not heard the akor-sunash this last hour or more.”

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

Sa-hatap cocked his head. A musical tendril teased his ears amid the soldier’s mutters, the horses champing and the staccato whistles of wind through the buildings. “We rest here.”

The sergeant exhaled and relaxed.

“For a while. Get yourselves and the horses warm.” He nodded at the tavern with his last words. “I’ve someone to speak with.”

The sergeant opened his mouth but the words died on his lips at Sa-hatap’s stare. The soldier patted the satchel containing the orb. “Dismount.” The sergeant grinned as he slung the bag over his shoulder. “Don’t make me come looking for you, mage.”

Sa-hatap pushed through snow among the maze of buildings, fences and out-buildings. Strands of flute music served as his guide, the song louder with each turn. He arrived at a humble cote with a sheep pen attached, the song muffled behind the rough door.

Sa-hatap knocked and arched an eyebrow. Thickly crafted door. Moments of silence bespoke caution. The door’s bar scraped and a man of indiscriminate age peered out, his features etched by the wind and covered with a wiry beard. Sheep bleated in the dimness beyond the herder who clutched his fur-lined cloak over his wool tunic.

“Excuse me, sir, but your music drew me.” Sa-hatap pushed his hood back. Heat from inside brushed his face.

“They play music at the tavern.” The shepherd eased the door closed.

“Wait.” Sa-hatap stuck his foot against the rough wood.

Sinewy hands tighten around a solid shepherd’s crook with understated strength. “The creature smells sheep for a ways on these winds.”

Sa-hatap embraced his prayerful peace like placid water that lay beneath a subset. He cocked his head. Odd that it came with visit with a stranger “I mean no harm but humbly beg your assistance in my journey. Has the akor-sunash troubled your herd?”

“None of my flock’s safe. And they’re not for sale.” He squinted and pushed against Sa-hatap’s hold.

“It’s not meat I need, but the use of your flute.”

The shepherd glanced over his shoulder and pulled the door wider as he did. Sa-hatap caught sight of the plain recorder lying atop a low stool. The shepherd turned back. “You play?”

“I’ve been known to whistle a tune in better times.”

The shepherd chuckled with a wry wink. “Most times are worth a ditty whether dirge or feast day-song.”

Sa-hatap’s eyebrow twitched. Unexpected words mirrored from the Spirit-sword. He was led though he seemingly wandered. The shepherd beckoned and he entered.

The bearded man held out the flute. “Give me a tune, traveler.”

Sa-hatap took the instrument and ran his fingers through trilling notes, then eased into a song of celebration among his people. His host tapped his foot in time with the tune. Sa-hatap ceased and the shepherd grinned, showing missing teeth.

“What ya need this for?” The shepherd tapped the flute with a gnarled finger.

“I’ve a task that need’s music.”

“A funeral by your long face.”

“Perhaps, but not one of my choosing.”

“Take it then. People need a proper end. I’ll give it for a decent cause.” The old man waved his hands as he spoke.

“I beg the use for a night. Won’t your flock miss it?”

The shepherd grinned. “Ah, they know my voice and like it just as well. At least they will until I make another.”

“Let me pay a price.” Sa-hatap shook his purse.

The other man cocked his head and squinted. “Name it yourself. You’re a fair man, I gather.”

Sa-hatap laughed. “A copper and a blessing.”

“Done–the empress’s money buys plenty but a blessing is good for the flock.”

Sa-hatap finished his business and found the guards in the tavern, singing and sloshing their swill. Local patrons sat silent at their cups. The guards escaped their fear of the cold night to come. He shivered. Strong drink couldn’t save them if he failed. Sa-hatap tapped the sergeant on the shoulder. “We leave now. My business is done.”

The sergeant’s faced sobered. “Now?”

“Yes, it must be done tonight.”

The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “My men are half-drunk. Is this a trick?”

“I could have left. You let your men celebrate, not me. I have what I need and there’s no time for delay.” Sa-hatap turned for the door.

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.

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.