ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


The Exhumyst stood at the open garden doors, his hands on his back, and stared in the night.

A few steps behind him, the boy waited, motionless in his long robe, and wary. The smell of fresh earth and rain penetrated the room, a combination his master usually liked. Outside an army of gardeners was digging a new border.

The Exhumyst grunted something he could not hear. ‘Sire?’ There was no response.

The boy suppressed his own impatience and stood there until his master saw fit to notice him. His thoughts wandered to the beautifully engraved paper in his hand, the invitation to the Coronation of His Royal Highness Ghyllander III Halban, of the House of Hardingraud. This was a bitter moment. Despite all their efforts, their opponent had reached his goal. The boy cursed silently. The crown of Rhidauna had seemed almost in their grasp.

‘So it has come,’ the Exhumyst said suddenly. Behind his bird mask, his voice was harsh as the biting wind over the polar tundra of Graun.

‘We’re going?’ the boy asked softly.

‘Of course, you idiot,’ the Exhumyst said. ‘What do you think will happen if I don’t? Everybody will wonder why I am absent. I cannot afford to look disloyal, a subject of gossip and curious eyes. No, I must take that oath, though the Anti knows its words are written in poison.’

The boy nodded. He is right. It is bitter to bow to yet another usurper, but there is no way out. We need to think of our position and thus we go. Our revenge will yet come! His ice-blue eyes stared over the heads of the manipuuls towards the horizon, where three hundred miles away the object of his hatred lived. Then you will bow before us, Hardingraud; you will kneel, before we cut off your head.

It was only two days until the big day, and the first guests were trickling in. For many county nobles the coronation of Ghyll’s father, over twenty years ago, had been the last time they had visited the capital, and it was in a state of excitement and awe that they entered the throne room to pay their respects to the new ruler. Ghyll saw their surprise that the new king received them on a chair before the throne instead of on the high seat of Halfraud IV and Ghyllander Man-of-Steel. Truth was that Ghyll hesitated to use the throne before he was crowned. Olle had shaken his head at such diffidence, but without a word he had taken position a few steps away from the royal seat. Ghyll almost felt the glowering look with which Olle examined every visitor. His foster brother was on the alert for the slightest threat or impertinence.

Family after noble family approached the royal presence, most of them accompanied not only by their sons, but by hordes of young daughters, nieces and wards. Ghyll smiled grimly. They were all in for a disappointment. Only this morning Kyssander had shown him the papers; the marriage contract, to be signed by him and his yet unseen bride, Kerianna of Opit. His stomach turned at the thought. Married! What if she… No speculating! he thought firmly. They’ll be here any minute; then you’ll see for yourself.

Just then a single girl came forward, a slim figure in a dark dress and with a lute on her back, passing through the waiting supplicants to approach the throne. Even if he hadn’t recognized her, his brother’s sharp intake of breath behind him would have told him it was Kaati. The young grandmaster-bard they had met at the Climbing Clawerd inn, at the very beginning of the quest. For a while Ghyll had thought she and Olle had something going, but after their ways parted, his foster brother never mentioned her again. Now she was here and apparently Olle hadn’t forgotten her.

Oho, brother, Ghyll thought, as he stretched his hands out to the grandmaster-bard. ‘Welcome, Kaati anMarevale!’

Kaati took his hands and sank gracefully into a curtsey. ‘Congratulations, Ghyll,’ she said softly. ‘I’m so happy for you!’

‘Thank you,’ Ghyll said with a broad smile. ‘Also on behalf of my brother, Duke Sillaine.’

Kaati looked past him at Olle and a slow blush crept down her cheeks.

‘Go to him,’ Ghyll said. ‘The protocol can stand it.’

Then the spectators were distracted by both doors to the throne room opening wide – something done only for exalted guests. Automatically, Ghyll braced himself.

He heard the lord steward’s announcement. ‘Their Royal Highnesses, Mojalman, King of Opit, the Queen Mother Sihanna, the Princess Kerianna.’

‘Mo,’ Zino exclaimed, sounding both surprised and pleased. ‘With mother and Keri!’

Ghyll stood up and watched his royal guests walk past the bowing throngs. Mojalman was a slightly older version of Zino, taller, leaner, but with the same wavy hair and an elegant beard. Zino’s mother was a beautiful lady, with a tightly laced tendency to corpulence. Her daughter… Ghyll felt a slight pang of disappointment at the veiled figure beside the queen. About as tall as her twin brother, and slimmer, but that was all he could see of her.

He took an unobtrusive breath and stepped forward. ‘Royal Highnesses, welcome to Rhidauna.’

King Mojalman stretched out both hands. ‘King Ghyllander, we are pleased and grateful to congratulate Rhidauna’s new monarch.’ The King of Opit bowed and so did Ghyll. Softly Mojalman said, ‘Excuse us for coming so early, Ghyll. You don’t mind my saying Ghyll, do you? But there was no stopping them. The ladies had to see you; my sister is beside herself with happiness your acceptance of her… my proposal.’

Ghyll whispered back, ‘You are very welcome. I am gratified with Princess Kerianna’s happiness and I hope I will continue to make her so.’

‘Safer,’ Mo said with a broad grin. ‘Much, much safer, my royal brother.’

Aloud, he said, ‘Royal Highness, may I present the Sun of our Existence, Sihanna, Queen Mother of Opit.’

As they shook hands, the Queen said, ‘I could not stay away, Highness. I just had to meet my new son-in-law!’

Ghyll bowed. ‘I hope it’s not a disappointment, Highness.’

Zino’s mother smiled. ‘I don’t think so. My oldest daughter Yahanna excuses herself. She keeps an eye on our kingdom while we are away. May I present my youngest daughter, Kerianna? You may show a glimpse of your face, girl.’

The princess laughed and for a moment lifted her veil.

Ghyll blinked, as if suddenly all the candles in the room had sprung into life. The buzz around him died away and got a glimpse of dark eyes laughing in a golden-brown face.

‘Uh, hello,’ he said.

Her eyes inspected him and then she smiled. ‘Hello.’ Then her hand lowered the veil again.

With a noise like a hundred waterfalls, the hubbub in the throne room poured over Ghyll and when he looked up, he saw the amused faces of his royal guests.

‘Let us retire,’ he said hastily. ‘All these people here get enough chance to see me this week.’ He nodded to the Lord Steward and escorted his guests to the hall at the back of the room, where a grand staircase led to the royal apartments. Here was the lounge, fully aired and cleaned. It was a pleasant room; Ghyll couldn’t remember it from his early youth, but he had immediately felt at home. Bo and Damion pushed some chairs together, so the whole group sat informally around the fireplace. Kaati was with them. Olle had overruled her halfhearted protests simply by escorting her upstairs and Ghyll had accepted her presence with a concealed smile.

Zino went to his mother and kissed her on the cheek. She put her hands on his shoulders and looked searchingly into his face. ‘You’ve changed,’ she said.

‘The result of a dangerous life, mother. I am glad to see you, O Sun of our Existence.’

‘Ha, Mojalman with his fancy titles,’ Sihanna said, amused.

‘But he’s right, Mother. He’s absolutely right. This once.’

‘This once?’ Mo slapped his brother on the shoulder and grabbed his hand. ‘Show some respect, little brother.’ His eyes studied Zino. ‘A dangerous life? How dangerous? And how long do you plan to stay here?’

‘Dangerous enough.’ Zino shrugged. ‘I don’t know how long. There is a lot going on here that is important for Opit too.’

Once they sat down, there had been a subtle changing of seats. According to the etiquette Mo, as the highest guest, would be placed next to Ghyll in the middle of the circle. Instead, Kerianna had taken that seat, and Mo sat in her chair.

‘Zino’s right,’ Ghyll said seriously. ‘There is a lot at stake and it is dangerous. The Hamorth is back.’

Mo’s face darkened. ‘After all these ages? What are you basing that on?’

Ghyll looked at him intently. It was a sensitive subject, so he chose his words with care. ‘They now call themselves the Dar’khamorth. We have sufficient evidence that they have several times tried to kill me and that they are behind the murders of my parents and brothers. Zino and I are convinced that the Dar’khamorth arranged for the deaths of your father and brother as well. Excuse me, Your Highness, for raking up painful memories.’

Sihanna’s hands gripped the armrests of her chair. ‘I never could discover why it had to happen. Still, the Hamorth? Tell us all, please.’

As always, it hurt Ghyll to talk about Tinnurad’s fall, but this time he knew Kerianna’s hidden eyes were upon him, and the thought strengthened him. He felt the warmth of her hand close to his, as if she wanted to grab it but didn’t dare.

The fire on the hearth burned lower and lower as he spoke, but Olle stared at his foster brother and it was clear he was waiting before adding new wood.

At last all was told and while Olle fed the flames, Mo stared silently ahead.

‘What a dramatic way to discover who you are,’ he said finally. ‘And father’s death… I don’t know if it’s a good idea that you’re here, Zino. I don’t want to lose you as well.’

The young prince looked indignantly at his brother. ‘I can’t stop now! Ghyll is counting on me. Besides, one of us must finally take action.’

Mo’s face darkened. ‘Are you saying I have done nothing? Maduran un-Jaddara has followed every trail and found nothing. The golems were gone.’

‘The Jaddar is an honorable man,’ Zino said straight-faced.

His brother scowled. ‘The Jaddar is the highest nobleman in Opit. You don’t have to like him, but he is the epitome of efficiency. If he can’t find something, it’s not there.’

‘Don’t be angry, brother!’ Zino grabbed Mo’s arm. ‘I’m following a new track now, one that the Jaddar didn’t know about. Let me continue.’

Mo sighed. ‘I had hoped to take you home, Zino, but maybe you’re right.’ He looked at Ghyll. ‘Try and keep him in one piece, will you? I have need of him.’ He sighed. ‘Let us put these thoughts away. We came to celebrate your coronation and your wedding to my sister, the Rose of Opit.’ He suddenly grinned. ‘Thorns and all.’

From his place near the chimney, Olle watched his foster brother and his prospective wife, and his world wavered. His eyes drifted to Kaati, who, strangely enough, was staring at him. His breath caught, and he hastily stoked the fire a little extra.

‘Mind the sparks,’ the bard said calmly.

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