ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


At ten o’clock the sun, the clamoring voice of the bell called everyone to the castle. For the first time in living memory, the former field slaves entered Lorrevaal’s hall and mingled with the house staff. Timid and fearful at first, looking around for the dreaded faces of Rende and his cronies, but these were all missing.

In the front row, close to the empty throne and beside Kerianna, sat Belme with his family, looking awkward on their wooden bench. When everyone, from the youngest infant to the oldest lady, was present, the new majordomo stamped his staff.

‘His Royal Highness Ghyllander III of Rhidauna!’

Ghyll came in and limped to the high seat of the Lords of Lorrevaal. He knew everyone expected him to sit down, but he remained standing, facing them.

‘People of Lorrevaal,’ he said loudly, and it was so quiet that you could hear the breeze rustling through the trees in the courtyard. ‘After many years of trouble, better times have arrived. The tyrant Dorkel and his regime are gone. Slavery has been abolished and all of you are free men.’ Although most already knew, a ripple of emotion still went through the hall.

‘From now on, Lorrevaal is under the protection of the Rhidaunan Crown. Our soldiers will keep your enemies at bay and our priests will help you find a new and better life. We will provide good housing, clean drinking water and a plot of land for everyone. You don’t have to work twenty hours and get nothing in return. Lorrevaal pays its people now with hard Rhidaunan coins and the goods you need. I will ask you later to choose a number of village elders who will represent your interests.’ This caused a buzz and everyone looked at everyone else.

For a moment, Ghyll waited. ‘Rhidauna will provide a reliable steward for Lorrevaal. Squire Thu Baslier is a respected servant of the Crown and he will always deal fairly with you. Your liege lord, however, is one of your own. There is only one person under the law, who is eligible to inherit the rulership of Lorrevaal.’

Ghyll limped to the bench where Belme and his family sat. ‘Allow me,’ he said with a smile to Asleen, as he took the infant from her. He went back to the throne and showed the little one to the hall. ‘Here is Enmer, son of Dorkel of Lorrevaal and Asleen daughter of Belme. Enmer, Lord of Lorrevaal!’ With these words, he sat the infant gently on the throne and stood beside him. The infant opened his eyes and made a few spluttering sounds.

‘I think he greets all of you,’ Ghyll said, with a broad gesture to the audience. Someone giggled, and gradually more followed until everyone roared with laughter.

‘Dear friends,’ Ghyll cried. ‘Today is a feast day! The storehouses are opened. Bread, meat and beer for everyone. Long live Lord Enmer!’

‘Long live Lord Enmer and Rhidauna!’ someone shouted. The rest took over the cry and waves of joy swept through the hall.

Kerianna jumped up. She went to Ghyll, and put her arms around him. ‘Well done,’ she said softly. ‘I’m so proud of you!’ Then she kissed him enthusiastically, to the delight of the Lorrevalers.

‘A protectorate,’ Zino said. ‘What a great idea. That keeps up the appearance you’re not looking for territorial expansion, while for all practical purposes this is Rhidaunan land. I don’t think Stiphet can bring anything against it.’

‘It’s a start,’ Ghyll said with a grin and when Zino looked at him questioningly, he explained. ‘I don’t like all that lawless land on my northern border.’

Zino’s mouth fell open. ‘You don’t really want to annex Rockath?’

Ghyll colored a little. ‘Have you got a better idea?’

‘That’s more land than all of Opit together!’

‘Almost completely uninhabited,’ Ghyll retorted. ‘And what people there are, will be robber barons and bandits like Dorkel.’

‘I don’t know what Mo will say of that,’ Zino said doubtfully.

‘Mo can’t say anything,’ Kerianna said fiercely. ‘Rockath doesn’t border on his country.’

‘Sa, Keri, you’ve adjusted quickly.’

‘Of course I have. Rhidauna is my homeland now.’ Kerianna looked at her brother with glittering eyes. ‘We Rhidaunans have ambitions.’ Then she smiled.

‘I never know when you’re serious or not,’ Zino grumbled.

‘Both,’ she said calmly. ‘And besides, I wouldn’t wish a life as a slave on anyone.’

Ghyll smiled. ‘It’s only an idea yet.’ He looked around. Here at least was the first victory. The villagers were busy discussing who could be village elders, while their children looked around with big eyes. He noted how Baslier managed to include himself in the discussions and the way people listened to both Belme and old Jarv.

‘What a pity Uncle Jadron can’t see this,’ he said, half to himself and grabbed Kerianna’s hand. Their eyes met.

‘He would have been proud of you. Just as proud as I am,’ the queen said.

The next morning the companions gathered in the Great Hall. With Lorrevaal secure, they had no reason to stay and Ghyll was eager to continue their journey.

‘Can you ride?’ he asked of Zino.

The prince raised his bandaged hand. ‘Ride, yes; fight, no. So if you promise not to conquer any more castles, I’ll be all right.’

‘I will do my best,’ Ghyll said. ‘But I promise nothing.’

‘A skyboat would be better for you,’ Uwella said.

‘No,’ Zino said firmly.

‘Mother told us to go by land,’ Bo said. He looked at the others. ‘I’ve never known her to be wrong in her predictions.’

‘Let’s eat, then we’ll leave.’ Ghyll rubbed his hands; the urge to continue had kept him awake for most of the night. ‘It’s at least another eight hundred miles to this Owan Abai; we mustn’t linger.’

Thus, they left, following an ancient stone road to the west. As they went, the landscape changed. The pools became numerous and the heather turned into swampy land with bunchgrasses and purplish conifers. Without the road and the many stone bridges, the route would have been impossible on horseback.

Finally, they entered a dark world of gloomy trees and ominous marshes.

‘Welcome to the Widderen,’ Zino said with a broad gesture. ‘The biggest swamplands on the continent.’

Suddenly Torril uttered a cry. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing to the water.

A tree trunk,’ Ghyll thought, but suddenly two yellow eyes watched him pensively. Fascinated, he stared back. Then the beast opened a huge maw with row upon row of razor sharp pointed teeth. ‘Tilia! What’s that monster?’ he exclaimed.

‘Crocodile,’ Zino said. ‘Don’t get too close; he can pull you from your horse, and then Rhidauna’s throne will be empty again.’

‘Dear gods, that beast is ten feet long.’

‘Ooh, this is just a little one; I’ve known plenty bigger ones.’ He smiled. ‘Not here; Opit has places like this, only smaller.’

‘Will there be many of those monsters?’ Olle shifted his sword so that he could draw it faster.

Zino shrugged. ‘I can’t say, Duke. Our own marshes are swamped with them, but here?’

‘Duke?’ Olle said ominously.

Zino lifted an eyebrow. ‘You are a duke, aren’t you? I’m sure Ghyll gave you the title. Sillaine or something, I thought.’

‘Nonsense,’ Olle sniffed.

‘A title is not nonsense, Duke. It means authority, status, responsibility.’

‘Here is my status,’ Olle growled and showed his massive fist.

‘Get used to it; people will continue to call you duke all your life. Or else your grace, if you prefer that.’

Olle spat into the water. Immediately, the crocodile shot forward.

‘Don’t,’ Zino said. ‘They’re much faster than you think.’

‘Let’s go.’ Ghyll clucked his tongue and Ulanth started walking. ‘Keep your eyes on the road.’

That recommendation stayed active for the following six days. Three times, they had a fight to the death with an overly greedy crocodile, and once they fought with an oversized black bear with a nasty temper. Still, these encounters were less unpleasant than the clouds of dancing gnats filling nose, mouth and eyes.

Ghyll reined in his horse and stared at the huge expanse of water they had come to. The sun was reflected in the waves, and the colony of water birds, disturbed by their arrival, flew in circles above their heads, complaining loudly.

‘This must be Lake Yorgolt,’ Zino said. ‘We have followed its shores for days without realizing it.’

‘No wonder the whole area is so wet,’ Olle said.

‘This is the source of the Ninogh.’

‘The Ninogh?’

‘The river at Lorrevaal,’ Zino said. ‘Not the small one that tried to drown us. That’s the Lorre. The Ninogh goes north and ends up in the Daring Sea.’

Ghyll shivered. The sun was shining, but all of the moisture from the marshes seemed to have seeped into his body, and he was cold. ‘Even if there were ten castles to annex here,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to have them. What a useless region. ‘

‘I wouldn’t say useless,’ Uwella said thoughtfully. ‘With even one castle in this region, you can earn good money.’

‘With what? Fish and frogs?’ Ghyll scoffed.

‘Don’t be silly. This is a paradise for alchemists. I see so many things I want to pick, we’d never reach Zihaen once I started. Things I ‘d have to pay a lot of gold for at home grow here on the waterfront, waiting to be picked.’

‘Hmm, is that so?’ Ghyll’s eyes glistened. ‘It isn’t that far from Lorrevaal. A trading post is easily built; we are in a remote corner of Upper Nophat, almost no-man’s-land. Who’d stop me?’

‘Careful! Don’t be overhasty.’

‘I wouldn’t do it myself; that would not be diplomatic. But should the temple of Kathauna start a factory here, the Crown would have to protect them…. and share in the profits.’ He smiled and Uwella smiled back.

‘The Crown needs money for my plans,’ Ghyll said straight-faced. ‘When an opportunity arises to garner extra income, I can’t let it pass.’

‘Of course not,’ the wikke said, understanding.

They rode on until they came to a crooked signpost.

Torril rode up to it. ‘I-D-D-E-R-L-E-E,’ he spelled. ‘What a strange word. Is that a place?’

‘No idea,’ said Ghyll. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

Soon, they saw houses between the trees. Ghyll and Zino, riding in front, looked at each other.

‘Is that Idderlee? Here in the middle of the morass? Strange.’

As they came closer, they saw that they were only the ruins of a town; Idderlee was dead and abandoned.

‘War,’ Uwella said grimly.

‘But a long time ago.’ Damion looked around with barely concealed disgust. ‘Look! That door! ‘

Ghyll saw what he meant. On the rotten wood, someone had painted a bold emblem they knew all too well, a spread-winged bird with grasping claws and a screaming beak. The door was peeling and corroded by time, but the emblem of the Hamorth seemed as fresh as if it had been painted that day.

‘Another ugly bird!’ Torril cried.

‘Only that’s the original,’ Ghyll said curtly.

Bo’s face twisted with fury. ‘Monstrous. I thought all that stuff had been erased long ago.’

‘In the civilized world, yes. Not here, where no one comes,’

From the corner of his eye, Ghyll saw Avelore shiver. She stared in fascination at the emblem and her breathing grew visibly faster.

Bo had noticed her reaction too, for his face softened. ‘You need not be afraid. It is very old.’

The adepta looked at him and lowered her eyes. ‘I know,’ she said softly. ‘I – was just a bit shocked.’

She’s cute when she blushes, Ghyll thought and he winked at Bo. The mage’s returning look was full of despair and Ghyll thought he understood why. It was clear that the firemage was hopelessly in love and went out of his way to make himself agreeable to the girl. To no avail; she just shyly and kept her distance. Ghyll sighed; love was one thing even a king could do nothing about.

Slowly they rode on.

‘It must have been a nice little town,’ Damion said suddenly.

Ghyll nodded. The beastmaster was right. A nice town. With neat houses, a few shops, a tavern, a small temple, a harbor. In the market square was a statue of a long forgotten horseman, his name erased by time. In horrible contrast to the snugness of the town were the ten weathered gallows in the square, breathing destruction. The wind rustled through the debris it had collected around their feet and set the chains to rattling softly.

Fascinated, Ghyll looked around. Through an open doorway, he saw a room filled with a careless mass of human bones and skulls. Who they once had been would always remain a mystery. The town had been massacred, looted and then abandoned. The Hamorth hadn’t even bothered to destroy it. Ghyll felt a deep sadness as they rode slowly out of the town.

Beyond the last houses, they came to the lakeshore. Here, decaying masts rose from the water as memorials to Idderlee’s lost fishing fleet.

‘Look,’ Torril said softly. A little further on a human figure was kneeling at the waterside, the first sign of human life that they had encountered. As they approached, they saw an empty-eyed young woman dressed in rags, who mechanically washed white sheets in the lake. A cold hand clenched Ghyll’s heart and he wanted desperately to ride away. Before he could give the order, the woman turned her head with its long, blonde hair in their direction. As they stood paralyzed, she opened her mouth without moving a muscle of her dead face, and let out a shrill cry filled with unspeakable sorrow. The scream went on, and on, and on. Hearing it, their heartbeats slowed and their breathing stalled.

‘Away from here! Ride!’ Uwella gave Ghyll a hard poke. ‘Go!’ she repeated sharply.

As in a dream, Ghyll urged his battle horse forward. Suddenly the figure fell silent and everyone awoke from their rigidity.

Torril rubbed his eyes and stared at the woman, whose empty eyes looked straight at him.

‘Torrillll!’ she cried suddenly, in a voice full of despair. ‘Torrilll!’

The boy screamed and kicked his horse forward, away from the shore.

‘Torril, wait!’ called Ghyll, but the boy was completely panicked and galloped away without looking where he went.

Ghyll gave chase, with Olle on his heels. Ulanth was quicker than both other horses and soon pulled up alongside the terrified boy. Side by side, they ran down the treacherous path, while Ghyll desperately sought a way to slow the other animal down. Suddenly he saw a stone wall beside the path, and grabbed his chance. He urged Ulanth to the right and steered Torril’s pony towards the wall. Ulanth whinnied. The white pony pricked up its ears and stopped. Before Torril could do anything, Ghyll clasped his arms around the boy and held him close. The boy screamed and struggled, but gradually he calmed and began to cry. After a while, he raised his tearful face to Ghyll.

‘I’m going to die.’

‘Why?’ Ghyll said.

‘That was a wailer and when she calls your name you will die,’ the boy said simply.

‘That’s superstition.’ Ghyll held the boy by the shoulders. ‘As a paladin, you won’t believe that. You’ll die when the gods want it and not before.’

‘A wailer knows what the gods want with us,’ Torril said stubbornly.

Meanwhile the others joined them.

‘Never do that again!’ Uwella cried in a fury. ‘You could have broken your neck.’

‘Uwella, she called my name!’

‘Nonsense,’ the wikke snapped. ‘You imagined that. I only heard her wailing. The world doesn’t revolve around you, Torril.’

The boy stared past her and shivered. Then he nodded. ‘Yes, Uwella,’ he said meekly.

‘That’s a handy wall, so suddenly,’ Olle said. ‘What is it?’

‘A remnant of Idderlee’s castle, maybe?’ Damion suggested. An isolated town like this must have had a stronghold.’

‘Phew,’ Olle said. ‘I’m glad; for a moment I thought the gods had placed that wall here especially for Ghyll to halt our young friend’s flight.’

‘Come, my relationship with the gods won’t stretch that far,’ Ghyll said. ‘How about it?’ he asked with a searching look at Torril, who sat staring into the distance. ‘Can we go on?’

The boy sighed sadly. ‘Yes. I’m ready.’

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