ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2


The house lay tucked away in the rolling heath. Its white walls, carefully manicured borders and beautiful lawns, breathed an atmosphere of distant, warm lands, in sharp contrast to the wastes beyond its boundaries.

Inside, rich carpets covered the floors. Elegant furniture and priceless works of art adorned the rooms, bathed in yellow candlelight. Soft-footed servants with expressionless faces went about their business, unobtrusive as ghosts, while guards in exotic armor were posted at every door.

The owner of all this luxury sat in his library, staring into the night. In his black hooded robe he looked of medium height and slender build, with his face hidden behind a curiously wrought bird mask. Woven birds patterned his robe, their wings spread and beaks opened. He sat motionless, a pose he had held for over an hour already, his steel-gloved hands wrinkling the leather of his armrests.

Behind him, the boy waited patiently for his master to acknowledge him. He wasn’t really a boy anymore. At nineteen, he was a young man, a strong and dangerous fighter. Yet he had been ‘the boy’ for so long, everyone still thought of him as such and he didn’t care. He was trained as a Tareqqa assassin and served as his master’s shadow. He was the only one with unlimited access to the Exhumyst, leader of the Dar’khamorth, the mightiest sorcerer in the world.

‘Well?’ the Exhumyst said suddenly.

‘The attack on Camp Dirdahn was… partly a success, sire.’ The boy formulated it carefully, all too aware of his master’s fickle moods.


‘Hardingraud survived, but the Guards were decimated, sire. Over half of the Corps was left dead or dying. The firebirds functioned well. We lost one man, sire; the mentalist who reported the usurper’s arrival.’

‘Did he talk?’

‘Probably, sire,’ the boy said. ‘They tortured him, so we should assume he told all he knew. Which wasn’t much. He was only a hireling, not one of our own people.’

‘Then all is well,’ the Exhumyst said. ‘At least we taught the Guard a lesson.’ He sank into silence again, but not for long. ‘Vasthul?’

‘He still refuses to report. His last message was that Central could take his noseless orifice and put it somewhere improper, sire. Central was quite upset about it.’

His master chuckled. ‘He would, the humorless pile of bones.’ Then he touched his mask with his fingers. ‘Let Vasthul do it his way,’ he said finally. ‘For the moment.’ Again, there was a silence.

The boy waited, sensing his master hadn’t finished.

‘You shall go to Rhidaun-Lorn,’ the Exhumyst said.

The boy’s heart leapt at the prospect of action. Without showing his elation, he bowed, ‘Your will, sire.’

Bo’s emotional storm hadn’t died down by the next morning. Probably it was the hunger drove him to breakfast, because he only cursed and sat glowering at his friends, like a smelly, unkempt gargoyle.

After the servants had cleared away, Ghyll said, ‘Today I want to go to Pandarben, to Steeklenborn Manor, the place where my brother Jon-Halban died. I don’t know what Order has a temple there, but…’

‘Don’t bother about that crap,’ Bo snarled. ‘I can take you there. You want to go now?’ He stomped to the weapon rack and grabbed his staff. ‘Come on then, get your bloody horses.’

Ghyll studied the firemage for a moment and then nodded. ‘Why not?’ he said good-naturedly, and gave one of the servants orders to warn the stables.

Once they were ready, Bo proved he was right. His usual boyish swagger had given way to bitter anger, but their port didn’t take longer than usual. A flash, chaos, a moment of disorientation, and then they arrived in Pandarben, frightening a Green priestess nearly out of her wits.

‘What… who…’ the good woman stammered, and then, with a breaking voice, ‘A Red mage! How did you get here?’

‘That’s a secret, sister, in the name of the Crown.’ The look Bo gave her was vicious enough to silence her.

Ghyll bowed in the saddle and gave her his best smile. ‘Our apologies for scaring you, reverend sister. Our mission is secret, and indeed of the utmost importance. Can I count on your discretion?’

This helped, and with her hands over her mouth, the woman nodded. Ghyll thanked her politely, and rode his horse from the portal.

‘What’s bothering you?’ he asked as they slowly rode through the town. ‘Tell us. Perhaps it will help.’

‘They’ve lied. Lied all the time!’ Bo’s face was contorted with anger. ‘They have befooled us all with their deceit.’ Then he took a deep breath. ‘You can’t travel to a temple of a different Order. They all said it – our teachers, our priests, all those people we trusted – they lied! You can, it was no more difficult bringing you from the Crown to this Green temple than… Aah, dammit, we’ve been had.’

‘But why?’

Bo’s hands gripped the reins. ”I – don’t – know!’

Ghyll saw how his anger slowly leaked away, making way for bewilderment.

‘Excuse me, guys, for taking it out on you,’ Bo said.

‘Don’t you mind,’ said Ghyll. ‘I know how it feels when something kicks the legs from under your life.’

The firemage sighed. ‘I’ve been experimenting all night. There is no portal in Rhidauna I can’t reach, and I have found many more of them than I knew existed. Curse it! Between Gromarthen and Leudra City, my Order has at least four I didn’t know of. Remember those weeks we spent travelling from Theridaun to Leudra City? I could’ve done it in as many heartbeats.’ He shook his head and his hands twisted the reins.

Ghyll pulled a wax tablet from his pocket and a small stylus. He made a quick note. ‘Leave the politics to me. Another thing on my to-do list, once…’

Once what?’ Olle said slyly.

‘Once the coronation is over.’

Bo seemed to call his thoughts back from far away. ‘You don’t sound very happy,’ he said, as he straightened in the saddle.

Ghyll sighed. ‘I’m terrified.’

‘Why? I would find it very exciting. King!’ Torril jumped up and down in his saddle. ‘You can do whatever you want. No one will say you mustn’t. And you always have the best gear and the best food.’

‘It’s not all a game,’ Olle said. ‘When you make mistakes, there are a lot of people who will say you shouldn’t and they’ll be pretty angry, too. And you have to meet many people. You won’t have time to go running and do other nice things.’

‘Your subjects are never satisfied,’ Damion added. ‘When you give them what they want, they demand more and when you don’t, they get mad and call you stingy.’

‘And then all those letters! Mo gets piles of papers every day, all of which he has to read and write an answer to.’ Zino coughed behind his hand. ‘No, the path of a king is not easy.’

‘Stop it,’ Ghyll said in horror. ‘Or I’ll flee with Torril to the Nhael and ask for political asylum. Hunting drakes would be fantastic.’

‘Yes!’ Torril cried. ‘My uncle will have an island where you can be duke and then we’ll go and have some fun.’

‘Nine months per year snow and you’ll never have to decide anything, because the women will do that for you.’ Zino gave Ghyll a sideways glance. ‘Those motherly ladies, cuddlesome, in thick, smelly fur coats.’

Ghyll was a little pale. ‘Oh, forget it.’

Zino laughed, and the rest joined, even Torril, although the motherly fur coats eluded him a little.

‘Speaking of letters, young man,’ Olle said, suddenly stern, ‘How is it with your reading and writing?’

Torril coughed. ‘Uh, well,’ he stammered. ‘I can write my name, and I know almost all the characters already. And I know Ghyll’s name: G-H-Y-L-L,’ he spelled proudly.

‘Well done,’ Olle said. ‘We’ll make a real king of you one of these days.’

‘Uncle Tarkil is a real king,’ Torril said stiffly. ‘Even though he can’t write.’

‘You’re right.’ Ghyll glanced at his foster brother. ‘And nobody here claims otherwise.’

Olle shook his head. ‘I should have said it different, that’s all.’

‘Can I stop learning to read now?’ Torril asked eagerly.

‘No,’ Ghyll said.


‘I said no.’

Sulkily, Torril clamped his mouth shut, an angry silence that lasted five minutes, until Steeklenborn Manor came into view. The others heard him gasp and then the boy hung limp with laughter over the neck of his horse. Ghyll rode a few steps forward and stared with raised eyebrows at what would be the goal of their journey.

‘What a nightmare,’ Bo said with his old haughtiness, but his eyes shone.

The only one of the Companions who didn’t laugh was Zino. Instead, he watched the fairytale house at the end of the driveway with a look of intense disgust.

‘Tasteless,’ he said, and the olive plumpness of his cheeks grew red with anger. ‘Ooh, what a tasteless, impudent imitation.’

Ghyll agreed with the prince, Steeklenborn Manor was incredibly vulgar. Its builder must have meant it as a copy of Opit’s elegant architecture, but the result was something out of a children’s tale. The walls were built of a curious pink stone, which shone in the sunlight like marzipan. On every corner purposeless towers and turrets reached for the heavens, with onion-shaped roofs waving colorful banners. Instead of squared-off, the battlements were topped with stylized lilies, and all the windows were fitted with sparkling stained glass.

Zino mumbled something unintelligible and his cheeks quivered. ‘This is not like Orfandrell,’ he said.

Olle turned. ‘What is Orfandrell?’

Zino stared at him with dark eyes and said, almost reverently, ‘Orfandrell is one of our sacred buildings. My ancestor Meridan II erected it as homage to his lover, Leije, after that one’s tragic death. Their story is one of the most beautiful tales of bravery and self-sacrifice the world knows. Shortly after the mausoleum was finished, Meridan died in a battle against the Terekanders. It had been said this battle was no more than an elegant way to commit suicide, but that’s not important. Every year, thousands of pilgrims come to Orfandrell, to pray, to marry and sometimes to die. When you know that, this horrible imitation is an insult to all of Opit.’

‘You want me to order it demolished?’ Ghyll asked with a worried glance.

Zino waved a hand. ‘Ooh, don’t be silly. Of course not. Whoever has built this monstrosity is a vulgar boaster with the good taste of a porcupine, but this thing makes him look ridiculous, not you or me.’

As they approached the gates, bugles blared out a fanfaronade from the central tower and Ghyll had to resist the urge to cover his ears. ‘Out of tune!’

In silence, they passed the gates to the courtyard of the house. Again, the juvenile imagination of the designer showed on all sides. While other castle yards were open workspaces, this one was a small park. Ghyll blinked at the ponds with their graceful bridges, the borders with flowering shrubs and the tall, purple-red trees. A meandering path led them to the main entrance. In the middle of the park was a several man-lengths high statue of two males, painted in garish colors. Ghyll heard Zino behind him mutter something in Opitian.

When they finally arrived at the steps, they were met by a soberly dressed middle-aged man, with at his side an equally inconspicuous younger version, clearly father and son.

‘Welcome to my humble abode,’ the older man said, with a fair amount of self-mockery. ‘I’m Lerett Thu Steeklenborn, and this is my son, Rickett. My apologies for the bugles. Every time I hear them, I know they sound terrible, but the musicians are old men and I cannot bring myself to fire them.’

Ghyll smiled. ‘That is good of you. I’m sorry to bother you unexpectedly, Master Lerett.’

‘My door is always open to representatives of the Crown,’ said Steeklenborn, while he led them into the house.

Once inside, the vulgarity was gone. Ghyll saw to his astonishment whitewashed walls and floors covered with elegant rugs.

‘Carpets from Marpath,’ Zino said. ‘A fine choice.’

Steeklenborn gave a slight bow. ‘You are an expert?’

‘My family has interest in the carpet industry,’ Zino said without batting an eyelid.

Their host led them to a room where large windows gave views on the courtyard with its flowers, the ugly statue and tall, purple-red trees.

‘If you’d rather not look at that thing outside, I can close the curtains,’ Steeklenborn said with an apologetic gesture to Zino. ‘I gather you are from Opit, and I know what you think. The house is hideous, I can only agree with you. My Uncle Benett had it built. The spice trade had earned him a great deal of money, and he could indulge without restraint. It was his own design and he was extremely proud of this house, until…’ He fell silent and looked away.

Ghyll understood his unease.

‘The death of the crown prince,’ he said softly. ‘I fear that is the reason for our coming.’

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