A Preview of the First Chapter
Zintara crouched on a rock high above the encampment, bloody sword in hand. She peered down to where Prince Ardelann’s large tent was staked. Where were his guards? Gone? Zintara felt a jolt in her stomach. She spread her great black wings and sped down to the entrance of the tent. Without hesitation, she pushed aside the ornate leathers, ready to fight.
Prince Ardelann was surrounded. His two guards were circling in for the kill, standing between Ardelann and his battle weapons. The ailing prince, with only his long dagger drawn, was barely holding them at bay.
“Traitors!” Zintara cried.
The guards turned, startled. “Take the prince, Verak,” the taller one said.
Verak swung his blade around. The prince barely ducked beneath the slashing steel then dove forward, driving his dagger through the traitor’s throat. The other guard lunged at Zintara.
“Tolonn,” she shouted, as their swords met. “Who turned you? How much gold was thrown at you in return for your honor?”
Zintara’s blow sent him reeling back. Tolonn’s eyes darted left and right, frantically looking for an escape. There was none. With a desperate cry, he stabbed at her wildly. Zintara deftly wove her blade through his attack and sent his weapon flying. Tolonn backed into a corner. In the close confines of the tent, there was nowhere to turn.
“Tell me who bought you, and I promise your death will be swift,”
In response Tolonn grimaced and crumpled to the ground.
Zintara moved warily toward the fallen traitor, but Prince Ardelann held her back.
“Poison,” Ardelann said. “Strong poison. He’s dead.”
Zintara looked questioningly at the ailing prince. Tall and lean, with a shock of unruly brown hair, he was the image of his father when he was young. But his skin was sheened with sweat, and his movements belied the illness that tore at him.
“Someone wants me dead. Someone able to turn my own guard against me,” Ardelann said. This was done from inside, I’m sure of it!” The prince put his hand on Zintara’s arm. She felt the heat of his fever even through her leather armor.
“Listen, Zintara,” he continued, “you must be careful in Nenhelros. If I don’t …” Ardelann paused. Drawing in a ragged breath, he asked “Tell me, how goes the battle?”
Zintara lifted her eyes and saw once again the reason for this battle, and for her presence here. The blue Stone gleamed dully in the noble prince’s pale forehead, its jewelled facets almost dark, where once it had glittered with light and life. She placed her hand gently on the prince’s cheek.
“Ardelann, my heart, the army fights still, but we shall not prevail.” The words fell heavily between them. They both knew the import of that news.
Prince Ardelann’s shoulders slumped.
“Then we must not delay. You must do it. At least my pain will end.”
“Is there some other way?” she asked, her voice thick.
The prince took her hands in his.
“We knew it might come to this, Zintara, my love. On my honor I beseech you, do this thing. Do it now. The longer we wait, the more of my men will die needlessly.”
She bowed her head. “Then I will do what I must, but we will be together again, I swear it.”
Ardelann pulled her close and held Zintara’s face gently between his hands. “If yours is the last face I see, my love, then I am content to die,” he said softly.
Zintara started to protest, but he quieted her with a tender kiss. She leaned in and let the kiss linger, not wanting the moment to end. At last they parted. Zintara took a small vial from a pouch at her side.
“Drink this, my prince,” Zintara said, not taking her eyes off her lover’s face. “M’Hancha says you will fall into a deep sleep, and I shall be able to take the Stone from your forehead.”
Ardelann drank the contents of the vial in one go.
“I’ve not much time now,” he said. “Remember what you must do...after.”
“It is hard, Ardelann, but I will do it,” Zintara replied. “Afterward I will not return here, but I will let your captains bear you home.”
Prince Ardelann began to crumple to his knees, and Zintara cradled him in her arms, gently laying him on the ground. He was fast asleep now. Zintara bent down to kiss his pale lips once more. Then there was no more time to waste. She grasped the blue Stone and pulled, with all her might. There was blood when it came free, and a ragged gash left across the prince’s forehead. From a pocket she drew another vial, and quickly spread the contents on the wound. Zintara bandaged it as best she could, but could not wait any longer.
Emerging from the tent, bloody Stone in hand, Zintara drew a deep breath, steeling herself for what was to come. The thick clouds and swirling snow that had hung in the air since daybreak were lessening now. In the distance a thin, pale ribbon of yellow light heralded the day’s bloody end. She sprang into the air and spiraled up the cliffside toward the castle, the scene of carnage slowly dwindling below her.
Zintara ignored the ebbing battle and the bodies littering the landscape. Only when she reached the castle’s walls did she spare a brief moment to look down. Ardelann’s men were still engaged with the enemy on the field far below, unaware of what they would find when at last they returned to their camp. The clang of sword striking shield and the screams of dying men echoed fainter and fainter on the dark cliffs as Zintara rose ever higher.
Castle Kharkol seemed to grow right out of the rock, as if the ancient mountains had sprung it forth full-grown, an expression of the pinnacle to which stone could aspire. She climbed high past the massive curtain wall, up to the arched windows of the Great Hall. Zintara banked left, and searched for an opening. On the far side she found a single unshuttered window.
Crouched on the sill, Zintara peered into the great chamber. She had expected torches or at least a fire in the wide marble hearth, but aside from the fading light of the opening behind her, the only illumination came from a few small windows set high up in the west end. She stepped down into the gloom, sword at the ready. The hall seemed empty, but she was sure there were guards here at the heart of the castle.
A strong unease filled her as she edged away from the window, keeping as much as she could to the shadows. She paused at one of the great stone arches that supported the roof far overhead. The pillars, carved in the form of nobles long dead, bore mute witness to the long history of this hall. Kings had once ruled a wide and peaceful land from this very chamber. The Shining Tower it had been called then, but no more. Ardelann’s grandfather, King Amarr, was the last king to rule here.
This once proud and noble castle had fallen to the rebel Korban, a traitorous baron whom the lust for power had driven into realms of darkness. The kingdom of Takla had been pushed back beyond the mountains, and the fertile lands under Korban’s thrall withered as the people there dwindled, victims of war, torture, and brutal oppression. The once-fair castle was renamed Kharkol, ‘the Fortress of Shadows.’ Decent folk everywhere cursed this place now, and feared the name of Korban.
But not the Xulim Kan. It was Korban himself whom Zintara sought.
“Korban, I have waited long enough. Show yourself!” she said in as strong and clear a voice as she could manage.
There was no immediate answer, but slowly, from the shadows surrounding the dais where the king’s throne had once stood, Zintara saw a dim green luminescence. It grew in size and intensity, revealing a human shape standing in the darkness. In the fading light from the high windows, and now more strongly from the green fire that surrounded him, Zintara saw for the second time–and she hoped the last–the man who had drawn her here.
Korban looked more warrior than noble. His pale colorless face and dark brows were chiseled in angles sharp as the war axe he wore at his belt. An old scar marred his cheek from just below his left eye down to his chin. His towering frame and massive limbs were clad in burnished mail. Zintara judged that he had strength enough to kill a man with one blow.
But a fight with Korban was seldom decided with physical force.
Korban had bent the power of a Stone of Alu Cemah to his purpose, and he used it to terrible advantage. One of Korban’s most powerful and feared sorceries was the touch of death. It was rumored that a firm grasp would render an opponent into fine dust, and even a single brush of his
finger, with intent, could kill in seconds. Zintara, however, had no intention
of finding out.
“Zintara, at last.” Korban’s voice sounded like a lizard dragging itself over rough stones.
“You try my patience! My army is half gone and they skirmish still with the prince’s men. Why have you waited so long?”
“Korban,” she replied coldly, “we had an agreement, but the time was of my choosing. The guards you bought were money wasted. I keep my oaths.”
Korban waved his hand impatiently. “I needed certainty. Now no more delays!” He stepped forward, but Zintara held aloft the blue Stone, and placed it on the ground between them.
“I have fulfilled the pact we made when I came last. Now you must do your part. When will I have the men you promised to aid me in defeating Drolos and regaining the throne of Xulim Kan?”
Korban reached down and grasped the Stone. His lips curled into a dismissive sneer.
“You didn’t really think I would risk my men in a fight against Drolos for one such as you?” Korban laughed harshly. “No, Zintara, there will be no men, no arms, no throne for the naive offspring of a worthless family.”
Zintara tried to sound offended. M’Hancha had told her this was what she should expect.
“But we had a pact!” she replied.
Korban turned his steely gaze on her.
“Enough about your idiot pact! It makes no matter now.”
Korban held aloft the blue Stone. His eyes, so recently flat and hard, now danced with anticipation. Zintara heard him whisper a few guttural words as he raised his left arm to reveal an ornate metal gauntlet. It was studded with two Stones similar in size, if not in shape or color, to the one from Ardelann’s forehead.
The fabled Stones of Alu Cemah had powers mostly guessed at, and most of them were long rumored to be lost or buried. This was news – M’Hancha had told her Korban probably had one Stone, but now with Ardelann’s, he had not two, but three! For some reason she couldn’t pull her eyes away from the gauntlet. Zintara saw Korban fit Ardelann’s blue Stone into in a setting next to the green and violet Stones.
An odd smile played on Korban’s face.
“Yes,” he rasped, “the Stones of Alu Cemah. But these are only a fragment of the total.” His tone turned more impatient. ”I know the Xulimi women guard the lore of the Stones. Tell me where Alu Cemah lies, Zintara, and I shall let you live.”
“Let me live?” Zintara scoffed. “Who are you to threaten me? Anyway, I know nothing of these gems, nor of Alu Cemah. It’s a fantasy, a legend.”
“Who am I?” roared Korban. “I’m the man who killed your pathetic mother when she gave me the same answer. She died, and so will you if you do not answer!”
Zintara felt an indescribable anger well up inside her. “You lie, Korban,” she said hotly. “You know nothing of my mother!”
“I know this,” Korban replied, his voice now icy. “I know she screamed when my blade ripped her belly apart, there on the cliffs above the river. I know the Red Talon tore her body to shreds when they descended, I know they searched for you in vain before returning to the Parva’al to finish off your father. All this I know.” Korban’s words hit Zintara like a hammer. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
“The secret of Alu Cemah now, Zintara, or you’ll end up like your precious mother,” Korban shouted.
Zintara found the courage to answer.
“Pig! Even if I knew anything, I would not tell you. May Seleh Caigan curse you and all your works to the end of the world.”
“You’ve spoken your own death,” Korban replied. He lifted the gauntlet. The three Stones glowed, their light seeming to blend and pulse with flashes of lurid color. The light of them held Zintara transfixed, unable to move. It held her even as Korban stepped closer, till he was barely an arm’s length away. It held her still when he stretched forth his bare hand, the death hand, to touch Zintara’s head.
At his touch her daze was broken. Seeing Korban with his arm outstretched toward her, Zintara instinctively crouched back, and in a blur of motion brought her sword up and across. Korban had no time to react. The sharp blade sliced through steel, leather, flesh and bone, severing Korban’s hand just above the wrist. The Stones discharged gouts of flame, flinging her backward onto the floor.
For an instant both she and Korban looked in shock at his handless arm gushing blood onto the marble floor. He howled then, a roar of pain and outrage the like of which Zintara had never before heard. Even the distant sounds of the fighting below seemed to pause before his fury. Zintara knew she had scant seconds to escape before Korban’s guards arrived. The window was somewhere behind her in the shadows.
She scrambled to her feet, ignoring the pain, then turned and raced through the great chamber. Her keen eyes allowed her to avoid the carved pillars. There was a commotion behind her. Korban’s guards had reached the hall and were running toward her. She sprinted for the window. Halfway there a thrown dagger struck a pillar not inches from her head.
She dodged to one side of the window and curled her ebony wings around her. The almost complete darkness rendered her momentarily invisible to the approaching guards. It was enough. In the moment of confusion over her apparent disappearance, Zintara spun and hurled herself over the ledge, plummeting straight down the cliff. As she dove, she heard the shouting of the guards and the sound of arrows whizzing in the air above her.
At the last moment she unfurled her wings and pulled out of the dive just meters above the sharp rocks at the base of the castle. Her face was ablaze with pain where Korban had touched her.
Zintara rose then, away from the castle, away from the battlefield, out of range for the moment at least from Korban’s revenge. In a single motion Zintara slashed her bloodied blade through a snowbank, washing the stain of blood from her sword, if not from her thoughts. She was over the encampment now, and could see, even in the gathering gloom, that Ardelann’s captains had found him. He was as safe now as he could be.
She flew higher, and the bright cold stars guided her deeper into the mountains. The cold night air cleared her mind. Korban’s revelation chilled her to the core. Her parents S’rina and Zartunei, and her beloved brother too, all dead, she thought grimly. Zintara’s blood ran like ice through her veins. Drolos the Usurper had plotted long and craftily, and when the attack came the skies had been dark with his armies. Seleh Caigan curse his wings!
Even now, years later, Zintara felt a twinge of that vertigo, that blind fear that had almost engulfed her in that moment when her mother had pushed her off that cliff and saved her life. But that was not what she remembered most. No, it was her mother’s smile, her warmth, her beautiful eyes filled with laughter and grace.
Zintara rose up out of the well of memory. She would avenge her mother, avenge her family. If it was with her last breath, Korban would pay! She touched the pommel of her sword. Her father’s sword. The sword that had maimed Korban. Zintara shivered at the thought. It was not enough, not nearly enough to repay the pain he had caused.
In any other circumstance, the maiming of Korban would have earned her a place of honor among the heroes of old, a noble song of victory composed by the greatest bards. The momentary swelling of pride she felt turned to ashes in her heart, for on this same day she knew at last her mother’s terrible fate, while the fate of her own lover, Prince Ardelann, was still balanced between sleep and eternal night.
She looked up to see the stars already fading. Grey dawn was not far off. She had cleared the mountains, and low foothills giving way to the farms and homesteads of peaceful folk spread before her. In the far distance she could just make out the tall spires of Nenhelros, the great port and capital of the kingdom of Takla. Zintara set her course for the heart of the city – the royal palace – to tell M’Hancha and King Arvosh that at great cost, the first part of their plan had worked.