ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


Zinobad, Prince of Opit and Mandaba, was young, stout and of a warm brown complexion. His wide Opitian robe decorated with embroidered gold elephants and his turban with waving feathers made him shine like a purple pug in the cool throne room. His eyes laughed when he answered Ghyll’s bow – clearly he was aware of the impression he made.

‘Ooh, the mysterious Baron Halwyrd,’ he said. ‘His grace insisted I meet you.’

‘It is an honor, Highness,’ Ghyll said.

‘The prince told me something that will interest you,’ the regent said as they sat down. ‘It touches your recent meetings with golems.’

‘Golems!’ Torril cried. ‘Where?’ His fingers drummed on the handle of his ax while he gave the young exquisite a belligerent stare.

The prince blinked. ‘Not here. I must disappoint you.’

Ghyll clenched his fists. ‘Torril and I have met those makemen before, Highness. He reacts a bit more impulsively than I would, but our sentiments are the same.’

‘Exterminate them all,’ the young Nhael said eagerly.

Zinobad’s chubby face clouded over. ‘Duke Kyssander said your golems seemed warriors in black armor and were oblivious to fire. It made me think of my father. You see, nine years ago he was killed by such beings.’

His words struck Ghyll like a midriff blow. Had there been golems in Opit, even then?

‘Prince, we need to talk.’ His gaze slid through the elegant throne room with its omnipresent shadows, niches and obscure corners. ‘May I invite you to our inn? Our rooms there are safe from listening ears. Besides, my companions will want to hear your story, too. I hope the duke does not mind my robbing him of his guest?’

The regent cast Ghyll a sharp glance. ‘If you must,’ he said with a straight face. ‘May I suggest you tell his highness the truth?’

Ghyll spread his hands. ‘Nothing but the truth, Duke.’

Zinobad looked from one to the other. ‘The truth?’ he asked with raised eyebrows.

The regent stood up. ‘Baron Halwyrd’s secret,’ he said. ‘May I present you to His Royal Highness, Ghyllander III of House Hardingraud?’

The look of bewilderment on Zinobad’s round face was almost comical.

‘The king arrived at court yesterday, after an adventurous journey,’ the regent said. ‘It is his wish not to announce his arrival to the world just yet.’

The prince took a deep breath and bowed to Ghyll. ‘What a surprise! King Ghyllander, on behalf of my brother Mojalman I am happy to congratulate you upon your return.’

Ghyll’s color heightened. ‘Not many people know it yet, Prince. Except for my faithful friends, you are the third. I will explain everything at the inn.’

‘What a secret!’ Zinobad said and his eyes gleamed.

‘We princes are good at secrets.’ Torril straightened his tunic and grinned.

Zinobad looked at him. ‘We princes?’

Ghyll chuckled. ‘Our young friend here reminds me I should reveal his secret as well. This is Prince Torril Nikkelsen, second heir to the Nhael.’

Prince Zinobad’s mouth fell open. ‘The Nhael! Ooh, Rhidauna has signed peace at last?’

Ghyll looked at the regent. When the duke shook his head, he said, ‘Not yet. Prince Torril is here in a personal capacity. As a friend rather than as a representative of his country.’

‘Let’s go,’ Zinobad said urgently. ‘If I don’t get the whole story soon, I’ll die of curiosity.’

Once outside the throne room, it became clear that the prince had not arrived in Rhidauna unaccompanied. At the door, a pair of elderly men in dark robes met him, with a two-man honor guard in ceremonial cuirasses, and a trumpeter, whom he all ignored as they followed him through the long corridor. On the driveway, a wizened old groomsman waited with the prince’s mount.

Torril’s face turned bright red in surprise. ‘Drakes get me. What is that stupid beast?’

‘That, young barbarian, is called a camel,’ Zinobad said stern-faced, but the smile in his eyes betrayed him. ‘Caravel of the desert. Carries twice the load of a horse and can go a week without water. A noble animal, my friend.’

‘Noble!’ Torril burst out laughing. ‘He looks as stuck-up as the inn’s footmen.’

The animal sank to his front legs. The prince ignored the proffered knee of his groom as he hoisted his rotund self into the saddle. Rocking, the camel came up until Zinobad towered above Ghyll. Rhidaun-Lorn was a cosmopolitan city, used to visitors of many cultures. Yet people stopped and stared at the sight of Opit’s crown prince in his baggy clothing of royal purple and gold, with the plumes on his headdress moving in the languid breeze. Now the reason for the two soldiers became clear. They cracked their whips and roared. Slowly the awed mob parted. Then the trumpeter added his strident call. A small lane opened to let the prince and Ghyll ride forward.

Pale from embarrassment, Zinobad leaned towards Ghyll. ‘All that stuff is tradition. I hate it, you know, but my household insists.’

At the Crown of Rhidauna inn, the procession caused great excitement. The doors swung open and the host received his royal guest in person, bowing so low his nose nearly touched his knees. In the hall, they paused for a moment.

‘Very grand,’ Zinobad said with a straight face, glancing at the gleaming woodwork and well-polished chandeliers.

Ghyll hid a smile. Like most things in the capital, the Crown was a few sizes larger than elsewhere. Built as a ducal palace, it served only the best circles and its atmosphere was stiflingly pretentious.

In a row, they went upstairs, Ghyll and the prince, the innkeeper, the princely advisors, the little trumpeter and the menacing soldiers. The whole situation tickled Ghyll’s sense of the absurd, but Zinobad seemed to find nothing out of the ordinary about the ceremony. At the door to Ghyll’s apartment, he waved the innkeeper away and turned to his own followers. ‘Wait here.’ The advisors bowed and with the clatter of steel the soldiers took their places at the door.

‘Ooh, it’s so exasperating,’ Zinobad said after he had followed Ghyll inside. ‘Those followers, that camel, it’s all so very too much!’ He made a dismissive gesture. ‘To Greos with the lot of them!’

‘You won’t find any protocol here.’ Grinning widely, Ghyll threw open the door of the room where his friends lounged. Olle and Damion sprawled in chairs with their stockinged feet on a brass-studded chest, while Uwella sat at the table stitching the hem of a gown. Opposite her was Bo in wildly striped shirtsleeves, polishing a beeswax shine on his beautiful mage’s staff.

Ghyll coughed. ‘Friends, may I present you all to His Highness, Crown Prince Zinobad of Opit?’

The Companions stared open-mouthed at the stout prince in his costly robes.

Zinobad clapped his hands softly. ‘Ooh, how relaxed,’ he said. ‘No ceremony at all.’

Olle closed his mouth with a snap that was almost audible and pulled his feet from the chest. ‘You could have warned us, brother,’ he said grimly.

‘My foster brother, Olle thu Maubyn,’ Ghyll said, grinning. ‘Most of the time he has better manners, though. That fellow in the curious underwear is Bo Lusindral, our firemage, and the other guy is Damion. The lady is the wikke Uwella, who happens to be the Valvodjara of Vavaun. Let’s sit down. I asked Prince Zinobad…’ He paused. ‘Can we do without the titles? Call me Ghyll, that’s so much easier.’

‘I’m Zino, please.’ The prince dropped into a chair and beamed around. ‘This is so much pleasanter than my rooms in the embassy.’ With a sigh of relief, he took off his turban with the beautiful feathers and combed his fingers through his black wavy hair. He unbuttoned his tunic, freeing an unwarriorlike paunch. ‘That’s better. The weather is too fine to be wearing my best suit.’ He looked around. ‘Excuse me dropping in like this, friends. Ghyll invited me to come and talk about the golems. I want to know everything about them. Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they want? And above all, how can I exterminate a great many of them, as friend Torril so aptly remarked?’

‘Join us,’ the young Nhael said. ‘We already mashed a lot of golems to mud.’

‘Tell me,’ Zino said, his face flushed.

Ghyll raised his hand. ‘Let’s start at the beginning.’ He cleared his throat. It was still hard for him to speak about the fall of Castle Tinnurad without getting emotional. ‘The whole thing started with a boar hunt. It was a dark night, in the pouring rain, when Olle, Damion and I slipped away from our castle.’

Slowly and with an occasional searching for words, the story of the ill-fated hunting party unfolded. Once Ghyll arrived at that terrible moment when they found Tinnurad under attack and burning, the words left him and he stumbled to a silence.

Olle got up and walked over to the cupboard, returning with a handful of glasses and a bottle of red theridauner. ‘It’s still early,’ he said. ‘But it’s easier to tell the story with the sharpest edges dulled.’

‘Theridauner,’ Zino said, smacking his lips. ‘Back home, I’m supposed to drink Opitian wines. They aren’t bad, but this is yummy.’ He touched Ghyll’s sleeve. ‘I’m sorry about your uncle and all those people.’

Ghyll nodded. ‘We couldn’t do anything,’ he said heavily. ‘The fire was too hot and Damion needed urgent help.’ He took a sip and rolled the wine over his tongue. ‘Nearby Gromarthen took us in. I don’t know what I would have done if we hadn’t been welcome.’

He stared at the wine in his glass without seeing. ‘The day after, Olle and I returned to the island. We found only rubble and ashes. Lord Gromarthen had sent the Guard to search for survivors. The soldiers recovered eleven bodies. Eleven of the two hundred people we’d left sleeping peacefully the night before. Gods! The castle had been full of guests for my coming-of-age party.’ Desperation colored his voice, and without a word, Olle refilled his glass.

Ghyll rubbed his eyes. ‘Some things are beyond understanding.’ He emptied his glass without tasting anything. ‘When we arrived back in Gromarthen, the Guard had just repulsed a drakenboat attack on the nearby village of Haspen. That’s when we saw the first dead golems and found out they weren’t people, but mud-filled things. Makemen.’

Zino shuddered. ‘I’ve always had a fear of those black-clad men,’ he admitted. ‘But this makes them sound even nastier.’

‘As warriors, they weren’t impressive,’ Ghyll said. Suddenly he thought of something. ‘Maybe because they were controlled by sorcerers who didn’t know a thing about fighting?’

Olle looked at him dumbfounded. ‘What are you saying? Would they be more dangerous with a soldier as golemaster?’

‘No idea.’ Ghyll looked at his hands. It felt as if they were shaking, but they didn’t. ‘None of us realized yet the enemy was after me instead of my uncle. The Dar’khamorth found out we had escaped the massacre soon enough. They sent a sorcerer after us. Vasthul,’ he whispered, and his hands twisted the tablecloth. ‘May the rats feast on his black heart.’

He continued with the several attacks along the way, including the time Vasthul had almost stabbed him to death with a possessed knife.

When he was finally done, Zino stared at him. ‘What a tale. I don’t think it strange that Kyssander had trouble believing you. It’s epic. Was it a surprise, your royal status?’

Ghyll shrugged. ‘Yes. I was sure Jadron had sent me out to collect those regalia for him, no more. I mean, one doesn’t expect to become a king. Who in his right mind would want to inherit a throne?’

‘Not me,’ Zino said quickly. ‘Ooh, I wish Mo would hurry up with finding a wife, and begets himself a gaggle of kids. Then I’d be finally out of the danger zone.’

Ghyll emptied his wine cup. ‘Well, now you know our story,’ he said. ‘What can you tell about your father’s death?’

Instantly the smile vanished from Zino’s face. He lowered his eyes and his chin began to quiver.

‘My father. He was a good man. Everyone loved him, all the clans were happy with his reign. That’s why his assassination was so incomprehensible.’

Zino’s voice sounded far away. ‘There were seven of us at home: my parents, my eldest brother Mojalman, my big sister Yahanna, Meridan, Kerianna and me. Mo was fifteen. As crown prince he had his own rooms. My sisters slept in my mother’s wing, so Meri and I were dependent on each other.

‘One evening a strange maid brought us to bed. She said Ailas, who always cared for us, had fallen sick and that she was her replacement. We didn’t mind, Meri and I. What did we know? I was ten and he was eleven, my brother and my best friend. We were always together.’

Zino’s face twisted at the painful memories. ‘The new maid gave us both a pill. She said they were to prevent us from getting sick as well. Yes, that’s what she said. Only it was a sleeping pill and when I awoke, it had all happened. A black-leather murderer had killed my father and burned down half the palace. My mother and her people had rescued Mo and me from the flames just before the roof collapsed. Meridan? Something in that pill had poisoned him. Meri was dead.’ The prince bowed his head and for a while silence hung over the table.

‘The golems?’ Ghyll asked finally.

Zino looked at him with moist eyes. ‘Fled. They were invulnerable, the reports said. No sword or bow had been able to kill them. Funny really,’ he said, while the tears ran down his face. ‘At home we never speak of it. We’re not used to getting this personal in Opit. Yet now, with people I’ve never seen before, it’s a relief to do so.’

He rubbed the tears from his cheeks. ‘My mother never managed to discover who was behind the killings.’ He looked up. ‘Can you imagine my shock when Duke Kyssander told me of those golems? It sounded so similar. They must have been the same creatures and I had never heard of them or of this Dar’khamorth.’

Bo laughed without joy. ‘In Rhidauna we first encountered the name Dar’khamorth a few years ago,’ he said. ‘Uncle Jadron told me of some sorceress who had a change of heart and converted to Kathauna. From her we learned that an order of falmages existed, styling themselves successors to the Revenaunt’s Hamorth.’

‘Falmages, is that how you call them?’

Ghyll shrugged. ‘Falmages, fallen or dark mages; they’re not just the Dar’khamorth, but also everyone dabbling in forbidden magic. Officially they’re called sorcerers.’

At that moment, a footman looked in. ‘There is a Major Tibaun for you, my lord.’

‘Take him to my room, I’m coming. I’m sorry, Zino,’ Ghyll said. ‘I need to see that man about the strange death of my family.’

Zino looked at him, shocked. ‘Were they too…?’ He blushed and did not finish his sentence.

Ghyll looked grim. ‘I don’t know if it was murder. That’s what I want to find out.’

‘Go quickly, you can tell me later. I’ll be fine here.’ The prince smiled at Olle and the other Companions. ‘In Mandaba I have only subjects, no one to just talk to.’

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