The day’s sun hid like a child hides from its father as he battered its mother. Not even the great celestial body could bear to watch another execution. The people of Conge, that lined the streets to the arena, cheered as if their crop produced enough yield for one hundred years of plenty. Religious beads, Congean flags, first-borns, and even squalor swine were held up and shaken in support as the royal guard marched the traitor to his roost. King Tratien raised his ring cladded hands to encourage the cheering as the royal minstrels showered the mob with loaves of bread. Driburtine, the prince, walked on his father’s right with the bestirred look of one who held the weight of future rule on his back at all times. His mother, the queen, glided along the marble path in gilded dress waiving and blowing kisses as she always did.
Driburtine grew tired of the march that had gone on for better than quarter of an hour, even though the arena stood only three hundred yards from the castle. His father always savored these moments. They soothed both pride and his Congean lust for blood. “We’ve caught another bastard in our ranks,” his father had shouted to Driburtine—half out of cheer and half out of anger that there was a traitor at all. “You won a date with the Grimstone,” the king yelled at the man as he slapped and spat on him repeatedly after catching him two days ago. When asked if he would like to join in, Dirburtine replied, “I believe you handled my share.” Traitien cackled before taking another drink and spat a mixture of wine and saliva on the man.
The sounds of the commoners jeers died down as they marched into the arena tunnel while the rattle of foot stomping and war cries replaced them. Driburtine turned slightly as the clamor clapped like thunder when they entered. All nine City Governors, a contingent of their city armies, all ten members of the King’s Council, all the clergy, all seven of the Great Families of Conge, and each brought a band of their own brigades. All in all there were just over nine hundred packed into the pitch. The elite sat on silken down pillows and their cohorts sat on the unforgiving stone. The arena was a perfect circle with the banners of past champions hung along the inner ring and massive chalices of fire spread evenly across very top. Its façade glowered like an old war general thirsting for more death—its wish would be granted this day.
The king was the last to sit as he finished waiving to every row of screaming serf. Driburtine and his mother sat on opposite sides of Traitien. The cheering dropped an octave as his majesty lowered, but raised back up as the hooded executioners’ drug the traitor through a raising metal portcullis. The man, Hathos his name, wore a shredded orange tunic that swung at the bottom like a dancer’s tassels. The color emulated the fire banners of Hovan, sworn enemy to the east; even though there was no evidence that Hathos was hired by them. Nevertheless, any chance for a jibe at the enemy was always taken.
Hyena laughter came from soldiers and guard, and a slightly more sophisticated cackle rolled up from the dignitaries … all but Driburtine. No matter how guilty a man may be, taunting one who was disallowed to defend his honor and would be killed before hundreds never seemed funny to the prince.
“Five hundred goldens says he misses!” Govenor Rielles wagered to the king, sitting to Driburtine’s immediate left.
“No more betting for you, my king,” the queen pointed to Traiten, before he could respond. “You owe too much to his lordship and countless others already.”
The king’s rusty laugh sounded more worn due to the two flagons of wine he’d already downed before noon. “You’re right, my love.” He turned to face Rielles. “Better make it five thousand so I can win my money back!” His laugh squealed in Driburtine’s ear, causing him to cover it.
The lord’s face turned into the one he might give a whore if they offered a two for one bargain. “It’s a wager then!”
The crowd’s clamoring settled to a procession of bullfrogs and crickets on a moonless night as the master of ceremonies made his way up the carved steps of the Grimstone. The caustic gray boulder was older than that of Conge. Legend said it once sat at the highest peak in the north and pointed the exact path to the Muirlands. Only if one could follow the true direction could he avoid the deathly pitfalls and arrive in the land of plenty and comfort. Legend also told that Zavbre, the last Dragon King, knocked it from its perch to prevent any man from escaping the drake’s wrath. Then, five thousand years ago, to present day it had been used as the killing floor for war criminals, usurpers, and conspirators alike.
Lord Sentar Yuld, Patriarch of the Great Family Yuld, master of ceremony raised his arms to address the mass. His hair hung like a horsetail dyed by tomatoes. He wore a grey and purple doublet that seemed to be saved for just this occasion. He turned to Hathos whose knees bent involuntarily and needed the support of the hooded men to keep standing. The criminal’s legs were as thin as a reed and looked like partially eaten poultry bones. The rest of him bared resemblance to a malnourished fryer.
“You know this man … you know his crime …” The crowd interrupted with a spattering of hisses and slanders. Sentar held out both hands and his lips curled to a sinister smile. “You know his crime … one of which no man can be pardoned. That of treason!” The lord barely finished before the mob rained down jibes and fruit onto the helpless Hathos.
Not all made their mark and instead hit the hooded executioners. If it hurt or bothered them, they did not show it. Sentar motioned to get on with it and hurried down the steps, out of the line of fire.
Two of the hooded men laid the bound Hathos over a small crease in the top of the Grimstone while the third pulled from his scabbard the Currant Blade. Sword of the Seven, Rapier of the Reaper, the Scofflaw Severer—it had many names, but spelled only one fate for its receivers. The one of a kind tinted steel matched that of dried blood.
Driburtine grimaced as the true executioner, the one who drew the long straw, the one who would make the kill, raised the sword into the air for the sun to glimmer off it. May the gods be good and force a miss. He turned to his father whose eyes stared as if a naked woman danced in the middle of the arena.
Hathos body remained still and flat as if he had accepted his fate from the onset. The other two hooded men locked his hands and legs in place, sprawled over the crease. The true executioner aimed the point down and paused feet above the man. He thrust down with a grunt. The rip of flesh, crack of spine, a muffled scream and a geyser of blood spout forth. Driburtine shook his head and turned to the king again who stared right through him. Looks like you win again, Father.
“I expect you to pay with your cleanest goldens or your wife’s chalice, Rielles!” The king’s face flushed as hoarse laughter drowned out the serf’s jeering.
“You may be the king, but you’ll never set your lips upon that rim.” The lord failed to hold back his irritation of losing.
“Goldens it is then!”
Driburtine truly hoped that the sword would have missed the crease and stymied the executioners thrust as it caught stone. Albeit Hathos was dead either way, it would have dampened his father’s and the crowd’s elation.
They stayed until the cheering tempered to a buzzing. It would take at least five slaves to clean up the mess of Hathos. A clean plunge into the crease insured that. Driburtine endured countless stories of other executions on the walk back to the castle. Each one told by a different lord and each one highly embellished.
As they entered the Castle Hall the aromas of sizzling food greeted them like women’s perfume at a wedding. The smells would likely remain for weeks in the cities flags and tapestries that decorated the hall. The king, the queen, all the lords and their contingents continued straight as Driburtine slid off to the spiral staircase to the right. He noticed a few watch him leave, but he didn’t care.
With each step the raucous grew quieter and his steps louder on the stone. He ignored the banners of his family and Conge draped over every inch of the walls. A pale light like dead goat skin filtered through the filmy windows at the top of the stairs. Three sets of doors sat on the left of the hallway toward his quarters. Two for the servants and one for his personal guard. He had no clue if they were occupied at the moment.
A quick yank of the golden door handle and he ceased all the noise for good with a contemptable slam. The static smell of his room immediately made him feel light. However there was a smell of something else—a wax of some sort. He smiled. He knew it well—penthar’s wax.
“So now you’re hiding in my quarters?” he said, looking at the corner of the room.
A scrape against the dark red armoire came first, then the man who hid behind it.
“I was only being cautious, Your Grace,” said the man.
Driburtine chuckled and placed a hand on the front left post of his bed. “I would have thought that the High General of the Congean army had no need to hide.”
The general rubbed a clear wax between his fingers and twisted his red mustache. “At times any manner of man must hide.”
High General Shaden remained in partial military garb. A thick leather doublet with the Congean crest of a steel bull over a tunic with sword and dagger in their proper scabbards. His strong rectangle face looked as though it could plunge through glass and come up unscathed.
The door handle clicked and five other men made their way in and Driburtine gave a quick head nod to each of them.
“Should I bar the door, Your Grace?” A thin faced blonde, almost silver, haired man of less than twenty asked.
Driburtine shook his head. “No one will disturb us before the feast.”
Each of the six men, besides the prince, found a chair or stood with arms crossed and hard looks. Driburtine scanned each of them: two Govenors, one captain, an emissary, a member of his father’s Inner Council and the High General.
“Did my father or anyone else see you?” he asked.
“Nah. He and the other nobles are giving each other history lessons while men of lessor sort are breaking into the kegs.” Govenor Emder replied. Even though his scalp was shaven it looked as though he couldn’t grow hair anyway. His face had grown gaunter. The stress of holding onto such secrets were taking its toll.
“Ridenour and the other guard are ogling the whores as they are brought in one by one,” said Captain Raefell.
He had the same stone faced look as the general only younger, and hair the color of pine bark.
“Good … let the fools regale in the killing of our comrade.” Driburtine sneered at the picture of them slapping each other’s backs, pitching down pints, and lifting up the skirts of all the women not their wives. “While they can ...”
“Indeed, Your Grace.” High General Shaden responded.
“Did any of you speak to Hathos before he was captured?” Driburtine asked.
Every eye turned down and head shook.
The prince sighed. He knew the man had some information from his last visit to the Cazrian cesspit. Ways to infiltrate the tribes, ways to hamper the ones loyal to the king. As soon as Hathos was caught trying to poison King Traiten, Driburtine tried to gain access to his cell down in the dank burrows of the castle. None, even a prince, were allowed. Ten of his father’s own guard, the Paladins, stood stoic in their currant colored armor before the entrance to the cell.
“We should have helped the poor man,” Samtheur the emissary spoke up. The young lad still donned his official robes, worn by the king’s messenger the past twenty generations; a plated tunic the color of charcoal with silver strands of metal woven around the arms and lapels, his hair matched the metal even though he was still a boy, and beard was bare in patches and sparse altogether. “Perhaps he would have succeeded if we had taken out or distracted those close to the king.”
“It was Low General Trivaran caught wind of the plot,” retorted Shaden. “We would have had to kill him as well … too much suspicion that would’ve drawn, even if Hathos succeeded.”
“If we’d only gotten the information on the Cazrians. Then Hatho’s death wouldn’t have been in vain.”
Each one of the men nodded while their faces looked regrettable.
“Without a sizeable front of Cazrians allies or knowledge on how to disable them … at least temporarily, we have no shot of maintaining control of the kingdom.” Raefell’s green eyes beamed like a snake’s at Dirburtine.
The statement rang almost entirely true. The Cazrian lands that laid between all the cities of Conge were filled with the most ravenous, blood thirsty fighters known in Prima Earth. Men … Driburtine struggled to think of them as such. Animals they were not as well. For animals would guard themselves when injured. Their minds were infected, and their bodies were instruments of war. Most fought with no armor, not uncommon for the tribes of the Westlands. However, most fought without steel or bow either. When they reached fighting age, stone cleaved into hand-sized arrowheads were nailed to their forearms by iron spike to provide their offensive weapons and guard. Red skin leathered by the sun made their hide more like a trolls than mans’. Their fearlessness combined with what seemed meager tools overwhelmed most armies they battled. Many believed that the Cavadachi fruit, native to their land, alone created these bestial killers. In Driburtine’s experience fruit was not the cause. The blood of their ancestors, generational conditioning and breeding fierce with fiercer kept violence flowing through their veins.
“Perhaps there are other ways to win this kingdom.” Driburtine looked at each of the men to see their reaction. All gave a different look of confusion.
“Your Grace, we must control at least a faction of the Cazrian.” The High General steeped his hands against his chin. “The Low General himself is half Cazrian blood. If the king falls they will certainly look to him. They admire one of their own ascending into the king’s rank.”
“True … yet there are always alternative ways to win.”
“What ways, Your Grace?” The Captain spoke up.
“I need time to plan. Once everything is designed … we will meet again.” The words left each man looking as though much more had to be said.
Driburtine went to dismiss them until he noticed the three most powerful men in the room besides himself had not said a word since their opening remarks. He studied them for a moment. Two Governors, each stewards over one of the nine cities of Conge, Riddard Emder and Luthar Gritten, and a member of the king’s Inner Council, Joal Chigg. The governors wore their customary auburn tunics, paired with pants and boots of the same color and black cloaks. Their heads shaved in the tradition to keep nothing from coming between their minds and the wisdom from the gods above. The council member wore a tight fitting brown doublet and kept his white whiskers and hair trimmed just as tightly.
“What say you three?” Driburtine scanned the men, not trusting silence in a secret meeting.
Riddard straightened up forcibly. “Until we have plans there isn’t much to say.” Luthar agreed with his counterpart.
Driburtine hid his irritation and looked to the Joal. “And you, trusted mind to the king … have you anything?
An old smirk by an old man came from the council member. “The king suspects nothing afoot … though one would be wise to reaffirm their fealty to him in subtle ways. As to lull his majesty back into a comfortable stupor.”
Perhaps it was the man’s tone that made Driburtine distrust him. On one hand the king suspected nothing and on the other they must offer fealty? Although his father was not the keenest of their line to adorn the crown, he was nobody’s fool. Best to leave him thinking that Hathos was a crazy fool acting alone and give him no idea of a greater plot. Driburtine was positive the old council member knew this. So why suggest it?
Driburtine dismissed them without addressing it. Each of them had hands to shake and words to say at the celebration. Missing for too long and indeed they might owe a fealty.
By the time Driburtine forced himself down to the celebration, the meat had already been served. A piglet inside of a mother pig inside of a warthog turned on the spit alongside an entire bovine in the center of the seated crowd. The smoke billowed out a hole in the top of the castle and vailed the star and moonlight. Over eighty benches were set along the King’s Round. The vast circular room made it impossible to remain unseen. Dark marble busts, as well as beautiful paintings, tapestries, gilded lanyards and crystal chandeliers adorned every spare inch of floor and wall. Every bit of it pilfered—spoils of conquest.
The time passed faster than Driburtine had hoped. He learned long ago that stay too short and you were forced to drink more, stay too long and you were forced to fight. Luckily the entertainment of dancing women and minstrels’ tomfoolery while they ate red meat, pork ribs crusted in garlic and truffle oil, wine and ale from the finest vintners kept everyone talking to each other and not him. Although seated next to his father they never uttered a word to each other. A gaggle of governors, council members, members of the great families and high ranking military officers huddled beneath like a pack of dogs waiting for the king’s scraps. His scraps were in the form of misworded and poorly timed japes yet they yipped for more like the gutter mutts they were.
In the second hour, to put a capper on the meal, the high guests were given a liquor laced with a drugging compound. Driburtine never tried it due to the side effects; foolish people drooling and stammering like half-breeds. Everyone that partook believed it elevated the senses so that the mind could peel back the layers of false reality. In the true reality it only made them deluded and maniacally happy. Driburtine looked to his six comrades, all but Samtheur the emissary were offered the concoction by a topless servant. All refused.
In the third hour, he repeatedly had to steady his father as he lost balance while still seated. The king lost more than his equilibrium when the final entertainment entered the Round with all but five candles put out. A woman from the finest slaving stock the country had to offer glided out with tiny crystal ingots covering her lover’s parts. Her body sloped like a vase with the look of strength at every curve, and skin gleamed as pure and tantalizing as a chest of gold bullions. The laced liquor acted like a philter to the king and his constituents for the temptress.
She moved as if dancing was the only thing she studied since youth. Her body sung with grace and power. As quick as a heartbeat, she discarded the ingots and was tossed a pair of Lucid and Fastida Larta Flowers to re-cover herself. The blue of the Lucid and the red of the Fastida had lured all manner of beings to their death in the hope of possessing them. These rarest of rare flowers were used as traps to bait unsuspecting prey for the spiders of the southern forests and the unknown creatures of the Saltlands. Driburtine could not deny that even while sober it presented a beautiful picture, yet when drug induced it must have been eye shattering. Dributine refused to watch the fools salivate over a naked slave girl who would be ravaged several times before night’s end. She knew not of her fate and he could not save her.
Driburtine left as the men, including his father, dribbled and encroached like wolves around a fawn. The only sound he heard outside the King’s Round were the mice scurrying from hole to hole transporting scraps stolen from the feast. He relished his time alone, away from the boot lickers, the war mongers and the pompous regents. Wherever in the castle, the capital and visiting the cities they were always there with different faces, but the same agendas—Congean domination. Since the time before the Great Awakening they had always closed their borders to the other countries of Men, and prospered off the weak surrounding ones—some of whom no longer existed due to this greed.
Back in his room he went to the only thing written in Conge that ever made any sense. He removed his uncle’s letters from a hidden compartment underneath his bed; a cache of charred-edged parchments covered in ink smears. His uncle wrote them while he awaited his own execution; not a formal one in the arena for the masses, but a secret one only he and his killers knew was coming. Once a member of the king’s Inner Council, Uncle Frarta began to see what he always suspected: the everlasting influence of the Great Shadow upon Conge. Although millennia and ages alike had passed since his spectacular death, the Shadow’s hold over the hearts and heads of the country tightened with each year. It seemed that the powerful man’s death proved more potent than his life. It served as a reckoning, a remembrance to what level of conquest he brought Conge. At one point over half the world paid homage and were drawn on the maps as Congean territories. Their name was considered a curse in the common tongue of Men as well as those of Elves, Dwarfs, Gordels, and especially the Brafans before their own extinction.
He flipped to a page with the most ink smears as well as a few bloody fingerprints. It was the last one his uncle wrote, yet it was stuffed into the middle of the parchments. He spoke directly to Driburtine, or Dri as his uncle referred to him. The words read like an entreaty to alter Conge’s current course. It worked. Driburtine was given the parchments by High General Shaden six years ago—charred and all. He never told Driburtine exactly how he came across them, only that his uncle was a careful man only trusting them two alone. He must have read them over a thousand times. As soon as he finished the last page he started over again, and repeated until his eyes stung. The words felt graver with each passing. He loved his country and even his father. This was beyond love though. This spoke to honor and duty above all else. The words stalled his breath each time they entered his mind.
A light knock at the door roused him from the pages. He carefully placed them in the hidden compartment, straightened his tunic and answered the caller.
“You’re right on time,” he said with his first smile in days to Emissary Samtheur.
The young man’s face was flush with beads of sweat clinging to cheeks and forehead. “It is done, Your Grace. They are waiting for you in Tinder Forest.”
“A bit close to the castle don’t you think?”
“Itturad is very careful I assure you. I could hardly make out their camp when I was but ten feet from it. They know how to conceal their fires and tents.”
Driburtine tied a belt and dagger around his waist. Securing it with a quick pull, he patted Samtheur on the shoulder. The Emissary looked too worried for such good news.
“Don’t fret … this will work.”
“I’m worried about what the others would think when they find out we withheld this information.”
“They couldn’t know of this because they’re all in tight confidences with untrustworthy men and appearances must be kept.”
Samtheur’s eyes froze open as if the situation became even more risky. “I trust you, Your Grace. Free our country from tyranny.”
“We will, my friend … believe and it will be so …”
Driburtine made quick work escaping the castle unseen as half the guard was as drunk as the king. Even though they wouldn’t and couldn’t have stopped him from leaving, he didn’t want to give them reason to suspect his actions leaving late at night. They probably would have thought him visiting a brothel or something of that nature, even though he never had, but one must not leave anything to chance when overthrowing a regime.
A brisk wind, the first of fall, raked across his back as he took the first steps in the forest. It reminded him that change was coming—in more way than one. A new season and a new king … if all went to plan. Could they do it? Could they finish what he started? At times he felt great control over the situation, other times he feared how truly powerless he was over other men. That was the question … could he control this? That and other questions played as he relied on the moonlight alone to traverse the dense forest.
Samtheur was right, Itturad and his band were packed away nice and tight somewhere deep. Not a murmur or a whit of smoke escaped into the night. Three times he thought he saw a tent, but it always turned out to be a shadow cast from the unusually large pines that grew there. They’ll be on me before I’m on them, I imagine.
A whistle tickled his ears as he made his way deeper into the thicket. It was no human or bird’s song—the life of the forest created it. The trees, the bush, the streams, they all moved and spoke in their own ways in the dark. It took Driburtine from this tumultuous time back to his youth, when life offered simple answers to even simpler questions. As a young prince he would wander the forest day and night without fear. The deadly creatures, besides the occasional wolf or bear, had been pushed out decades before. Time spent by himself in the forest, mind a few guards, catching frogs, lightening flies, and tracking the prints of deer were some of the most pleasant of his privileged youth. Even as he grew he cared not for tournaments, executions, and political deliberating—the three things his father loved most. He filled those days with the study of military tactics, constant sword play and avoiding others around the castle confines. He became a master of all three.
He smiled as the memories dissolved into streaks of moonlight painting the stream ahead.
“Prince Driburtine.” An armed soldier said as he slid out from behind a pine tree.
Driburtine’s reflexes went to the hilt of his sword.
“It’s safe, Your Grace,” the man said. “I’m to take you to the Rebel General.”
The prince’s fingers prattled on the hilt for a second and he removed them a second later. The soldier nodded as he watched him.
“Lead on, sir.”
The young soldier led him around a thick grouping of pines and down into a little gulley where the bulk of the army’s tents laid. A dozen well placed torches, along with the moon, provided ample light for the men to move about without difficulty. No one sat still, everyone carried on with some task: sharpening swords, repairing fletching on arrows, making adjustments to their armor or engaging in battle plans. They meandered through the crowds. Several soldiers went to salute Driburtine, but he shook them off. He believed the saluting was his duty since many would be dying for his cause … and crown.
Two centurions and two shoulder high torches stood equidistant alongside the largest tent opening in the camp. It was as black as the night and without the firelight it would have been near impossible to spot.
The young soldier waited outside and opened it for him to enter. As soon as the tent flap closed, so did the cold. A pyre smoldered in the far left corner, providing more than enough heat. The Rebel General Itturad stood hunched over a table that had a perfect rendering of the castle, all its rooms, staircases, the rampart, courtyards, and the known and unknown passageways. Itturad was dressed in an all black doublet and pants with gold insignia pattered across the front. The former colonel of his father’s army finally noticed that Driburtine had entered as he looked up.
“I apologize, Your Grace. When invested in battle, everything else seems to go by me.” Itturad shook his hand firmly.
“No apologies necessary, General.” He smiled for the second time in a day. A rarity of late. “I don’t have much time so we can skip the rest of the pleasantries.”
Itturad chuckled. “My kind of man.”
They both leaned over the prints of the castle.
“I have gone over and over this and it doesn’t look good, Your Grace.” Itturad shook his head as he ran a scarred finger along the map. “No matter where we enter, no matter what time of day or night, I cannot find a suitable way to get our men inside. Of course we can get five or six in at a time at the guard’s blind spots, but they will be suited with limited armor in order to cross the moat, scale the rampart, or if they are small enough, slip through the loose block you found. We’ll be lucky to get a third of our men in before we’re caught.” The man stroked his perfectly trimmed brown beard and his fire-blue eyes burned holes through the parchment.
The rebel general sounded more desperate than Driburtine preferred. He needed him feeling confident before attempting to take the keep on the morrow.
“How many men do you command here?” the prince asked.
“Five hundred and twenty one exactly.”
Driburtine did the math in his head. “That should be enough … I’d hoped for more … but it will be enough.”
Itturad turned with a confused look and hands still pressed against the parchment. “There are very few willing to turn against the king while he’s still in power. My Captains recruited for the past three months and got the sense that more would follow after you were on the throne. None of that matters though if we can’t get them on the other side of the wall undetected.”
“That would be a terrible problem … if that were our only option.”
The rebel general squinted, causing his blue eyes to darken.
“Trust me when I say none of your men will have to cross the moat or pass over the rampart.”
Itturad kept the same hard look on him. After a minute he exhaled. “I’ve known you since you were no taller than my knee. You have a sound mind and a tempered heart, yet you have never been in war. I must hear this plan down to the final detail before I can send my men to execute or be executed ...”
Driburtine liked that the rebel general cared for his men enough to minimize their casualties. His father and all the commanders before High General Shaden treated soldiers like arrow fodder, beasts to absorb the fire while “greater men” followed and stole the glory.
“I will tell you everything. First I must warn you that it will put us in direct combat with the Cazrian contingency that the governors and noble families have brought with them … will that be a problem?”
The rebel general’s brow seemed to drop over half his eyes. “Myself and the men have no fear of those savages.” His answer came off like a slap to the face in the dead of winter—exactly what Driburtine hoped for. “Most who live in the cities are repulsed by their presence and status as elite warriors in Conge. They’ve gotten away with too much for too long. I relish the opportunity to spill their blood.”
“Even if they outnumber us by over a hundred men?” Driburtine watched the general’s face for any fearful twitch or surprised look.
His face stayed as still as ice. “Even if it were by five hundred.”
Driburtine held back a smile and the fact that the Cazrians and the others would be weary from the drinking and other elicit activities this evening. He wanted Itturad and his men expecting the worst from the enemy, so their focus and ferocity would be keen.
“Good … now we can begin.”
The End of Part I