Fiction

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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Interviews With Tordug Part 3: The White Arrow

The following post is a fictitious news report based on events from The White Arrow, Book Three of The Bow of Hart Saga:

The Grendon Bugle/Free-Press
“The clear call of truth with the rising sun.”

Date-line: Auguron City
By Maroch Karkholm, roving reporter on assignment with the Grendonese mission to Auguron on behalf of Princess Limbreth.

Maroch Karkholm here, reporting on events as they unfold in Auguron City. This reporter has been on assignment with the royal emissary sent to find the missing Princess Limbreth. After many days of waiting and filing interest stories about the culture of Auguron and its citizenry, word arrived that an army of trolls marched west toward the city. After several weeks, the main force of Auguron’s eastern garrison arrived by fleet of river-boats.

Among this contingent of rangers were a Withling, a giant, two particular rangers, two dwarves and none other than Princess Limbreth. While this reporter has been unable to interview the princess, I have been able to sit down with one of the dwarves who traveled in her company these last months. What follows are the surprising details:

Maroch: I understand you’ve traveled with Princess Limbreth these last months. Can you tell us more your involvement and who you are?

Dwarf: I’m Tordug of Chokkra and I have been honored to travel and fight in the company of Princess Limbreth of Grendon, Ax-maid of the death-grip, the Silver Lady and Protector of Travelers.

Maroch: Excuse me, Tordug. Did you say you were from Chokkra?

Tordug: Yes, I did say that.

Maroch: Then you were named for the infamous former ruler of that fallen dwarven-realm? Or perhaps, you bare the same name?

Tordug: I am none other than the very same former ruler.

Maroch: My apologies for not recognizing you, sir. I have many questions if you have time to speak with me further. I do not wish to intrude.”

Tordug: I have some time before I must go meet with Captain Sarneth about the defense of the city.

Maroch: Then you must also have knowledge of the troll invasion in which we Grendonese intend to avoid being entangled?

Tordug: I do know much of the events and plans for the defense as a consultant to the captain. However, I’m not at liberty to speak of these details at this time so tread carefully with your questions.

Maroch: I see. And, pardon me for asking, but Captain Sarneth has no qualms about receiving your assistance considering your past history with the fall of your own realm?

Tordug: My past is exactly that, my past. However, who better to consult than someone who has known the tactics of the enemy from the past? I have no authority among these elves but they have accepted my offer of service and knowledge.

Maroch: When did you find out that the trolls were invading?

Tordug: Hmmm, I suppose that’s no secret. We encountered them while traveling through the Troll Heaths. We discovered their movements just after a snowstorm and the wandering star appeared in the eastern night sky. It was just after, well, other events. We hurried to inform the elven garrison so that the contingent might not be overwhelmed by the horde and yet warn travelers on the trade road.

Maroch: You say you and your party were in the Troll Heaths and discovered the invasion. That region is reputed to be rather dangerous. Were you aware that a member of your party was a member of the Grendonese royal family?

Tordug: Yes, but I found out only after we were well into our quest. As far as any of us knew, the princess was someone who chose the company of Withling Hastra.

Maroch: Ah, yes, some on Grendon have insinuated that the Withling abducted or bewitched the princess and-

Tordug: I can assure you that is not the case. Princess Limbreth accompanied Withling Hastra of her own choice. If you wish to know the reasons, you may ask her.

Maroch: I see. Well, there is rumor there was nearly an altercation with the Grendonese emissary, Count Dareth of Tinnewell, just after she arrived with the elven garrison. Do you confirm or deny such events?

Tordug: (He laughed, very hard and long). There was indeed a heated discussion between this Dareth and the princess in the street. They almost came to blows. I fear he would have soon found himself in danger from Princess Limbreth had not Captain Sarneth intervened.

Maroch: Wait, you say between the princess and the count? You do realize they are betrothed, don’t you?

Tordug: (He laughed long and hard again before he answered). If they are, it’s a rather one-sided affair, more on his hapless part, I should think. But what of it?

Maroch: You were there and Count Dareth was sent by King Hamgas to retrieve Princess Limbreth. Why didn’t you hand the princess over at that time?

Tordug: (Again, he laughed very hard before he answered). Princess Limbreth goes where she wants and with whomever she wants. And with I doubt it will ever be with this Count Dareth unless the one she does want doesn’t live through the coming attack.

Maroch: Wait, are you saying that the princes loves another man? Who is he?

Tordug: Oh, enough of these questions of idle gossip. If you want to know more, ask her yourself. All I will say is that she’s entitled to choose whomever she wishes. She is highly honored among my people as an Ax-maid of the death-grip and someone who has proven her bravery many times over in recent months. Good day to you.

This reporter has been unable to gather any other information about all these events or what happened on the adventure of Princess Limbreth’s. None of her companions, including Withling Hastra, have made themselves available even after formal messages were sent to them. However, it is clear that there is another man in her life of whom no one knows, mostly likely someone she met on her travels. That Princess Limbreth has won renown among the dwarves is of great surprise and will certainly please His Majesty. For now, all else remains a mystery to this reporter who leaves this very hour with the Grendonese contingent ahead of the invasion. One can only hope that the princess will see the wisdom of leaving with the well-trained cavalry sent to guard her return to Grendon.

From the endangered city of Auguron, this is Marock Karkholm, roving reporter and still on the trail of the mysteries surrounding Princess Limbreth.

Look for more of these fun reports about the series. If you are interested in The Bow of DestinyAn Arrow Against the Wind or the newly released, final edition, The White Arrow, please click the appropriate link for the book-page. Following is the link to find out more about The White Arrow where it can be downloaded for free via Kindle Unlimited:

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Interviews With Tordug Part 2: An Arrow Against the Wind

The following post is a fictitious news report based on events from An Arrow Against the Wind, Book Two of The Bow of Hart Saga:

The Ezhandun Resistance Tribune
“Resistance News Dwarves Can Trust”

Date-line: Somewhere in the Central Drelkhaz Mountains
By Cracked-Shield (true name withheld for security)

A rare opportunity has presented itself for an interview from an important personage and news from our scattered people from west over the mountains. Just a few days ago, none other than our former leader, Tordug of Chokkra, arrived with several other people of import in his company. They are on a quest which I’ll let him describe as well as deliver his message to us. This writer is aware that this piece may be controversial for many of our people still living and fighting hard against Rok but the message may prove to be of help to many, even those who harbor low opinions of our former leader.

Cracked-Shield: Word of you has been mere rumor for so many years. Can you tell us where you have been?

Tordug: I was saved by Makwi while fighting in the upper-southern halls where we were cut-off whe Cokkra fell. We escaped out a secret entrance but were still pursued by trolls so we fled west into the wilderness as best we could. After a time, we split up for more than a year but we found each other through scattered people living as refugees in Auguron. We agreed to do our part hunting trolls in the Heaths though none would rally to our cause.

Cracked-Shield: So, you’ve been fighting like shadows without the aid of any of our brethren warriors. Some would mention honor – even with Makwi at your side – as cause enough not to support your efforts. Others would commend you for continuing the fight virtually alone. What brought you over the mountains at this time?

Tordug: We joined a quest at the request of a friend but we didn’t come over the mountains. We entered Chokkra through the Troll Neath on our quest. We have seen, first-hand, the cursed desecration and destruction of our home.

Cracked-Shield: Through Chokkra, eh? Perhaps you were on an assassin’s quest for a certain wizard?

Tordug: If only that were true. But our friend is a Withling seeking a relic to fight against not only Corgren but Magdronu as well. As you have heard the tale already, some of our party barely escaped a trap, including Makwi.

Cracked-Shield: Yes, it is rumored a Withling accompanied you here among our resistance fighters as well as Makwi. You seem to be in honor raising company, even bringing us an actual Ax-maid. What can you tell us of this quest and this Ax-maid?

Tordug: Yes, an Ax-maid is with us. She earned the title saving an Auguron ranger from trolls. She even displayed the death-grip in the incident and several times since, including on her journey here with me.

Cracked-Shield: Death-grip you say? You have brought us some truly brave and honorable visitors. One can only hope that you bear news of hope?

Tordug: I dare hope that our quest will make some difference against the trolls and Rok as well as the dragon and his wizards. But we have yet to find the relic.

Cracked-Shield: Were you aware of the plight of our people here? How they are used for blood for the dragon?

Tordug: I had heard of these things. Several in our party, including Makwi, were rescued from such a fate. I am ill-pleased with the extent of this heinous problem. I will take council with Duliwe and Withling Hastra about these matters as time allows. But as you know, I rule no longer so my word is not law. Only the honor of my companions brings me gracious aid at this time. But it is necessary that we recover this relic for the Withling so that Magdronu may be countered. My great desire is that the power of Rok and the trolls will be broken over Chokkra by recovering this weapon.

Cracked-Shield: So, you offer your people hope after all these years of silence?

Tordug: I do indeed offer some hope though I do not know how it shall be accomplished at this time. I understand that many may given up on any possibility of restoration of Chokkra. Without this quest, Magdronu’s evil will only fester further throughout Denaria.

Cracked-Shield: Can you share more about this quest?

Tordug: I can only say that it is a Withling-blessed weapon passed through a Hartian family over many generations. It is certain that Magdronu knows of our movements and intentions as does Corgren and his brother, Paugren. But the less said the better, I think.

Cracked-Shield: You have grown wiser in the years of your solitude while fighting trolls. It is said your fighting honor rose among us while you traveled here. What of this tale?

Tordug: Aye, our enemy has raised some creature of magic named the Bane. None can slay this creature without the help of a blessed weapon or the presence of a Withling. Hastra was not with us so I and the Ax-maid fought it when it attacked during a fight with a Rokan squad. I pushed it over the side of the mountain but it haunts us still.

Cracked Shield: A deed, well done then. Perhaps you will do more than offer hope in a blessed weapon to defeat our enemy and regain us our home free of the threat of our enemies.

Tordug: Makwi, our companions and I will do all we can to end the power of Magdronu and his minions. It will be done if I must breathe my last do accomplish it.

Ending note: Rokans have since threatened Duliwe with a force of their spearmen. Tordug, Makwi, Hastra the Withling and the Ax-Maid have left with other their companions on their search for the blessed weapon. We can only wish them well for our own sakes though many might harbor little hope of deliverance from such a desperate quest. This dwarf for one, hopes that Tordug’s determination will win him back his lost honor and, somehow, our lost home.

Also of note, Duliwe has reportedly sent a special force of artisans and fighters to block the high-road to the place of our old celebrations now used for the cursed sacrifices of our people. It is not an option we wish at this time, but certainly one which must be carried out if possible. We’ve played for time and survival long enough, perhaps it’s time we cut-off one avenue of Magdronu’s magic supply using our people’s blood.

This is Cracked-Shield, bidding all my readers hope in these dark times.

Look for more of these fun reports about the series. If you are interested in The Bow of DestinyAn Arrow Against the Wind or the newly released, final edition, The White Arrow, please click the appropriate link for the book-page. Following is the direct links to find An Arrow Against the Wind at Amazon where you can also download it for free via Kindle Unlimited:

About the Author: