Sneak Peek: At the End of Everything, Chapter 1

~Chapter 1~

**Draft Only**

Thaly twisted in mid-air and plunged feet first into the pool of reflection at the base of Hansen’s Bluff in Laodicea. Grin landed flat on his back next to her, clutching Tom to his chest, shielding their injured friend from the impact of the fall. The shock of the cold water snatched the air from Thaly’s lungs but also sent a surge of energy through her body. She kicked upwards, breaking the surface and swimming over to Grin who struggled to hold his head above water. The giant stone-grell raised his arms high, fighting to keep a limp Tom from going under. 

“I can take him!” yelled Thaly.

Grin lowered Tom to the surface of the lake as Thaly flipped onto her back and looped her forearms under Tom’s armpits, resting his body on her chest. She kicked with all her strength, pushing towards the shore as the chop foamed over her face.

Lurking at the edge of the lake, a hunched umbra beckoned to her. “Over ‘ere! Give me y’hand.”

Thaly didn’t have time to be cautious, sinking under Tom’s weight. She freed one of her arms and thrust a hand towards the wiry figure who dragged her and Tom ashore. Diving back into the lake, she swam towards Grin who had almost disappeared amid the froth and bubble of his thrashing arms. Thaly ducked under the water and tried to pull the drowning giant up, but he sank like a sack of stones. She broke the surface, snatching a mouthful of air as the tip of a wooden pole smacked into the water beside her. Grin’s bald head emerged from the depths in a last gasp for air, and Thaly groped, blindly, grabbing his hand and wrapping it around the pole. Treading water, she held her breath, hoping Grin would grasp the lifesaver and pull himself to shore. She relaxed when his fingers tensed and he reached one enormous hand in front of the other along the pole.

The hunched stranger teetered on the embankment, straining to anchor the length of timber by lying over its end. He managed to hold on long enough for Thaly and Grin to drag themselves onto dry land.

On hands and knees, Grin’s drooped shoulders shuddered as racking coughs spewed water from his mouth. He caught his breath and glanced at Tom. “Is he alive?”

A shallow breath inflated Tom’s chest, answering Grin’s question.

Thaly nodded. “We need to get him to safety.”

“I gotta ship,” said the sinewy rescuer. “Well she ain’t mine. I’m the skullard to Cap’n Adcock, so I runs things and all. Me name’s Whibly.”

Down the stairs cut into the limestone of Hansen’s Bluff, hurtled two grell shadows, their flaming torches bouncing light across the night sky.

“Seems like them coloured grells are after ya. Must ‘ave stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble on the bluff. I seen it through me lookin’ glass. Why’d they ‘ave this fella tied to a cross?” asked Whibly, pointing at Tom.

Thaly ignored the question and fixed her eyes on the top of the bluff. Jacob Seamaster, her trainer and friend, would jump soon, and she needed to be ready to rescue him from the lake. The stranger, Whibly, continued nattering like an annoying fly hovering next to her ear.

“Leastways I don’t want to be stuck ‘ere when them grells arrive.” He gathered a bulging sack, the contents banging and clanging together as he heaved it over his hunched shoulder. “I’m headin’ back to the docks. Y’comin’? We’ll be ready to drop oars soon enough.”

Grin picked up Tom and stood. “There is nowhere to hide in Laodicea, Thaly. This ship may offer a chance to escape.”

Thaly clenched her jaw. “We can’t leave without…” Where’s Jacob? He should have jumped by now.

Cradling Tom in the crux of one enormous arm, Grin placed his other hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “We need to go. Jacob did not survive. I saw it.”

She tried to swallow the painful lump in her throat. “I’ll wait here in case he jumps. I have to wait.”

“This ain’t no time to be debatin’,” said Whibly. “Them coloured grells are almost at the bottom of the stairs.”

Tom’s young, unmoving face with eyes pressed closed, did nothing to ease Thaly’s hurt. Why’s he so important? she asked herself. Why did Jacob have to die for him?

Her panting breaths formed clouds of white amid the cold night air. She clutched at the empty scabbard hanging from her belt, remembering that she’d dropped her sword on top of Hansen’s Bluff when the red grell’s arrow pierced her arm. It seemed that Grin had also lost his weapons. But Thaly had a knife tucked into the side of her boot if Whibly turned on them. And something else pressed into her thigh, jammed into the sodden front pocket of her pants; two glass baubles of obsidian black with a lick of flame deep inside. She’d taken them from Adalwolf during their fight, guessing they were important. Maybe, even, they were the eyes of lost souls that Grin and Jacob had spoken about. Could she use them to steal someone’s soul?

Thaly snapped at Grin, “Dammit. Alright, let’s go.”

They chased after Whibly who scuttled along the cobbled streets of Laodicea like a crab across wet sand. Although his spine seemed twisted, such that his right shoulder blade stuck out well above his left, nimble feet skipped across the pavers, eyes darting into every corner of the besieged city. And he talked the entire time.  

“Our ship’s the Vulking. Merchant vessel she is. We was tryin’ to leave before the war started. Got stranded in the docks. Lucky for us, them barbarians ain’t interested in simple traders. When their ships landed, they all flooded into the streets like rats after rottin’ meat. We should be able to get out to sea now no problems. Me Cap’n will see y’right. Don’t worry ‘bout that.”

Thaly knew they couldn’t stay in Laodicea. The tainted grells would find them. Those monstrosities with red, black and pale skin. They would take Tom back to her enemies to finish whatever they’d started on Hansen’s Bluff. And it seemed the barbarian raiders were determined to tear the city apart. With all other paths of escape cut off, travelling out of Traders Bay on a ship might be something her pursuers wouldn’t expect.

*******

Sword drawn, Master of the Southern Vale, Lily LáDown, led Dealhia Rossingbird and two dozen Dobunni soldiers in a chaotic retreat from the Docklands. The barbarians had taken charge of the quarter, setting buildings alight with raging fires that spit flames into the streets like mythical dragons. Embers rained down on the beaten citizens of Laodicea, ashen black and burning timber shattering against cobblestones in a hail of sparks as walls fell like dominoes. Panic had gripped the city’s residents. They packed shoulder-to-shoulder around Lily, the crowd staggering as one towards the refuge of the Southern Vale.

The clang of duelling swords rang in Lily’s ears as she pushed forward, ducking every time she heard the hideous wail of flaming lumps of tar launched from barbarian mangonels. The projectiles sailed overhead a moment before exploding into another home. Turning briefly against the fleeing tide, she tossed her shield away, sheathed her sword and grabbed the forearm of an injured Dobunni soldier, pulling her close to avoid being trampled. Together they brushed past a wild stone-grell who headed for the Docklands carrying a half-naked young man who looked to have seen no more than sixteen harvest seasons.

Why is the grell running towards danger? Lily thought.

On the north-eastern boundary of the Southern Vale, she helped the injured soldier through the defence line established by the Dobunni rebels from Bagendon and handed her to a healer. The line offered respite, but it wouldn’t hold for long once the barbarians arrived in number. The remainder of the Bagendon force held the south wall against the barbarian army encamped outside Laodicea. At any moment, Lily expected Hunger’s militia to make a push from the King’s Quarter, squeezing the Southern Vale like an over-ripe grape under a heavy black boot. 

She rushed into the Master’s Hall in the centre of the Southern Vale, seeking the counsel of Field Commander Kenelm who paced around a crowded meeting room in the centre of the hall.

“How are our defences holding, commander?”

“They’re strained to breaking point, Master Lily. Even with the help of the Bagendon rebels, the south wall won’t hold. We’ll be overrun soon.”

“Who’s the leader of the rebels?”

Decked in chainmail from shoulder to knee, a short man with long blonde hair stepped forward. “For the moment, I am Master Lily.”

“You’re young to be a leader. What’s your name?”

“Prime Lieutenant Maxton Nash. Our Field Commander, Jacob Seamaster, led a raiding party into the King’s Quarter, but they were ambushed. A few escaped, many didn’t, including Jacob. Another leader, Edith Astley, fell in battle when we fought our way through the sieging barbarians and into the Southern Vale.”

Lily bent forward and braced her palms atop a table to rest her weary body. The leather straps fixing the metal breastplate over her shirt tightened, threatening to squeeze the air from her lungs. Fighting wars and planning military strategies were as foreign to her as the barbarians that now attacked Laodicea. Hair drenched in sweat clung to her neck. She tried to shake it off as she absorbed the battle formations represented by little wooden markers placed over a map of the city. The people around the table expected her to lead. War allowed no time for doubt.

 “We have to hold the south wall and the north-east defence at all costs.” She turned to Maxton. “Where’s Ryder?”

“He led a group to Sardis to assassinate King Ewald and Prince Adalwolf.”

“A misguided folly. Ewald’s already dead. The Erstürmen claim that Dobunni rebels ambushed the king. I don’t believe a word of it…” As Lily spoke, a clay pot full of burning pitch smashed through a window of the meeting room, setting tapestries and furniture alight. Soldiers rushed to quell the flames while Lily held steadfast and barked her orders.

“Field Commander Kenelm, continue your defence of the south wall.” The lanky commander nodded and marched from the room. Lily stood tall, placing her hand on Maxton’s shoulder. “Lieutenant, do you know this city?”

“I was raised in the Terraces.”

“Good. I need half of your army defending our boundary with the Docklands, and a handful of scouts to watch the King’s Quarter in case the black grell and his militia attack. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Master Lily.”

“Hold the lines for as long as you can. The time will come when we plan our escape.” Lily turned from Maxton and shouted above the crowd, “Dealhia, are you still with me?”

Dealhia’s sturdy frame waddled into the light of the wavering candles melted into a chandelier hanging above the battle table. Dressed in the leather armour of the Docklands Guard that covered a billowing floral shirt, with a skullcap balanced on unruly auburn hair, she looked as out of place as Lily felt.

“I’m here,” said Dealhia.

“I need your counsel for a moment longer.”

Lily marched from the meeting room, stepping over the injured that already filled the main hallway, and led Dealhia to her private quarters within the Master’s Hall. She opened the door, and Dealhia gasped as they entered the room.

“How’s the patient, Audie?” asked Lily.

“He’s slowly recovering.”

Lily’s personal healer, Audie, glided around a heavily bandaged man lying on Lily’s bed and lifted a loose dressing to apply a poultice of meduz mixed with honey and animal fat to a festering wound.

“Who is he?” Dealhia hovered over the scarred face partially hidden beneath bandages. 

“Prince Hadufuns Heine,” said Lily. “The only one of Oldaric’s sons to yet live.”

“He wasn’t murdered with the others?”

Lily slumped into a padded chair in the corner of the room, letting her arms fall outside the ornate armrests of wrought iron covered in plated silver. She’d slept here before, watching over Hadufuns on the first few nights that he’d been in her quarters. Guarding him in case his attackers came to finish the task. She would give anything to fall asleep now, washing away for a moment the exhaustion, dread and ceaseless doubts that shadowed her thoughts. Behind her mask of bravery and decisiveness, a younger woman havered alone in a world of second guesses.    

Lily scratched a fleck of silver from the armrest and rolled it around in slender fingers that trembled with liability. “On the night of the assassination, I went to Widald’s house with plans to broker a truce between the Erstürmen and Dobunni, desperately hoping we could face the barbarians together. His wife told me he was at work. As my guards and I approached the Master’s Hall in the King’s Quarter, we saw tainted grells and an old man dressed in a hooded robe leaving the building. We held back in the shadows for a moment, then searched the hall for Widald. One of my guards found them in a back room. The bodies of three brothers lying together in a lifeless heap, or so we thought until one of them moaned. Hadufuns still lived. We brought him back here and placed him under Audie’s care. She’s the best healer I have.” Lily paused when screams filtered in from outside, but her emotions had dulled to the sounds of war. “We cremated the bodies of Widald and Gerulf, spreading the news that all of the king’s brothers had been murdered. There’s no need for anyone to know the truth, yet.”

“Why save an Erstürmen royal?” asked Dealhia. “Should Adalwolf fall, Hadufuns will be crowned king and could rally our enemy against us.”

“He’s not in a fit state to rally anybody at the moment and from what I know of the Wandering Prince he has no ambition for power. But he might serve other purposes to our advantage. Whatever the ends, we should keep him close and alive.”

The patient rolled onto his side and grimaced. The petite Audie, her black hair covered by a small white toque fixing a short, translucent veil in place, rested the back of her hand on the prince’s forehead, but he brushed her away.   

“Can you speak, Hadufuns?” asked Dealhia.

“I can talk and I’m not deaf. I hear your plans to gain something from my life. They will come to naught. You should have let me die with my brothers. I’m no use to you or anyone.”

“At the very least, your counsel may assist us,” said Lily. “Barbarians camp outside our south wall. More of them have raised the Docklands. The black grell, Hunger, is the new Master of the King’s Quarter and his militia will soon test our flank. We’re being pushed on all sides. Do you see a way out?”

“The old man you saw leaving the Master’s Hall was the exiled King Oldaric, my father.”

“He murdered his own sons?” asked Dealhia, mouth agape.

“Though our veins share the same blood, Oldaric won’t hesitate at the letting should it bring him closer to the Divine Creator.”

“Oldaric is the Worshipful Master the tainted grells speak of,” said Lily. “The one who now calls himself Malphas. You’ve been repeating that name in your nightmares since we brought you here.”

“What purpose does all this serve?” asked Dealhia.

“The return of Volerdie to Enthilen,” said Hadufuns. “My father has no greater desire than to resurrect the Divine Creator’s kingdom and rule by his side in an eternal paradise. One long-prophesied by Erstürmen curates, if you have a mind to believe them. Malphas certainly does, and he’s willing to destroy this world to see the prophecy fulfilled. Laodicea will burn. If you stay here, you’ll burn with it.”

“A rightful claim to the Erstürmen throne could complicate his plans,” said Dealhia. “That’s why he tried to kill you and your brothers.”

“That’s my guess too,” said Lily, “and why I expect that Malphas was behind the death of Ewald. Yet, Adalwolf still lives.”

“For now,” said Hadufuns. “Adalwolf will be proclaimed king and Malphas will try to convince him to lead his subjects to Pergamos where once Volerdie reigned. When I was a child, my father talked endlessly about the rebirth of the lost city. The transformation of Enthilen to what it once was.”

“Where is this city?” asked Lily.

“The stone-grells built Malang Gunya over its ruins.”

“Once Adalwolf leads the Erstürmen to Pergamos, then what?” asked Dealhia.

Hadufuns winced, and Audie, her pale skin flushed like a pink rose, turned to Lily. “He needs to rest now. He’s still frail.”

Lily sighed. She would like nothing better than to drift away in this chair. Let her mind wander back to the Abrolous Isles where she was born, and where life seemed much simpler. But such luxuries were for another time and, maybe, for other people. She lifted herself from the chair and nodded to Dealhia, and together they returned to the meeting room to plan the escape from Laodicea.

*******

Carnage littered the docks along Traders Bay as the barbarians ransacked and burned every building, hoarding whatever treasures they could find and tossing broken furniture, bedding and crockery into the water. Carrying Tom, Grin lumbered after Whibly who dashed among the plunderers’ discard piles like a red-backed skink chasing beetles. Without missing a step, the seafarer scooped down and snatched a gold necklace from the salt-soaked timbers of the wharf, dropping the jewel into the pocket of his waistcoat before glancing over his shoulder.

 “Wait up!” Thaly yelled from behind Grin.

Whibly halted. Grin stood next to him, balancing his young friend up against his chest. Foam dribbled from the corner of Tom’s mouth, down his pallid cheek and onto a scarred chest that barely rose with each breath. As Grin waited, Thaly ripped a piece of cloth from the hem of her wet tunic and tied the fabric around the bloody wound on her forearm where Krieg’s arrow had pierced her flesh.  

“She needs to hurry,” Whibly said to Grin. “The longer we stay ‘ere, the more chance these barbarians forget about tearin’ the Docklands apart and come for us. Or them coloured grells catch up.” He dropped the sack and rubbed his shoulder. 

Grin wondered which out of tainted grells, barbarians or merchant seafarers he should fear the most. He’d give anything to escape the menacing chaos of Laodicea and return to the solace of Babir Birramal, his forest home.

Whibly shook his head, slung the sack over his hunched shoulder and scampered off.

Thaly secured the cloth around her arm and ran up to Grin.

“Keep going?” he asked.

She nodded, and they continued chasing Whibly. He led them along the wharf to an old ship, its pointed front adorned with the carving of a faceless beast’s open mouth, rows and rows of barbed teeth waiting to catch unsuspecting prey. On the deck, the crew dashed about like panicked roaches, dousing flames with buckets of water. A short, plump man with a bald crown ringed by wisps of tangled black hair, stood on a raised platform at the rear of the ship and screamed orders.

Captain Adcock, thought Grin.  

“Put it out, y’lazy slugs! Fill the buckets to the brim.” The captain sneered when Whibly led Grin and Thaly up a plank of timber and onto the deck. “Where the hell you been, Whibly? I can’t be herdin’ these maggots all by meself. That’s a skullard’s job.”

“I’ve got treasures for ya, Cap’n.” Whibly dumped the sack on the deck, silver goblets and engraved platters spilling at Adcock’s feet.   

“At least you ain’t been wastin’ time in the tavern.” Adcock glanced over Whibly’s shoulder, and a faint scowl breached the space where his thin moustache knitted with a platted beard. “Who’ve y’brought with you?”

Whibly turned to Grin and Thaly and smiled. “They’re passengers in need of help. We got room for ‘em, ain’t we?”

“We don’t want more cargo,” said Adcock. “We got enough worries thinkin’ on how to escape these barbarians.”

Although Grin had felt uneasy as soon as he stepped onto the Vulking, his hopes sank when Adcock dismissed Whibly’s plea.

But the skullard persisted. “They been through a lot, Cap’n. Poor sods. I seen ‘em on the bluff through me lookin’ glass. There were strange things happ’n up there. The boy’s hurt real bad. He was tied to a cross while this other fella, I coulda sworn he was the young Erstürmen prince from what I seen from paintings and all, he was…well, I don’t rightly know what he was tryin’ to do. Looked like he wanted to kill the boy. And them coloured grells, they were there. Not just the red one, three of ‘em. Then…” Whibly leaned in towards Grin and whispered, “I don’t know ya names.”

Grin hesitated for a moment, considering a formal greeting, then thought it unlikely to be appreciated given current circumstances. “Grin and Thaly,” he said.

Whibly turned back to his captain. “Yeah, Grin and Thaly. They jumped off the cliff with the boy and landed in that lake, Felsie. Y’know the one. At the bottom of the Terraces.

They’d rescued him. But the coloured grells didn’t want to let ‘em go. They come scamperin’ down the stairs lookin’ for blood.” 

“And you thought it was a good idea to lead those demons here?” said Adcock. “I don’t need tainted grells chasin’ me rudder.”

“I’m pretty sure we lost ‘em, Cap’n. I was dodgin’ all over the place. Stickin’ to crowded alleys and the like. We lost ‘em. I’ll wager a season’s purse on it.”

Adcock shook his head.

Whibly grabbed his captain’s arm and led him away, out of earshot.

Grin swayed unsteadily on the pitching vessel, still clutching Tom’s limp, half-naked body to his chest.

Thaly leaned into his ear and whispered, “Do you notice anything about the crew?”

Grin had never seen a ship. He’d never been outside Babir Birramal until Tom Anderson, the birraman, arrived. What should he expect to notice? Around him, gaunt, skinny men dressed in soiled shirts and coats rushed about extinguishing fires, packed crates into the stomach of the vessel, or threaded ropes through pulleys. With the veil of night lifted by the rusting glow of fires consuming the docks, Grin counted nearly forty crew, although the Vulking looked too small to house that many. A strengthening easterly breeze washed over his face, bringing with it a stiff odour of unwashed skin and matted dreads of hair. Scents of men stewed in cramped, dank quarters. Men he had no reason to trust.

“No women,” said Thaly, answering her own question. “I don’t see a single woman on this ship.”

“Is that unusual?” asked Grin.

“I don’t know. But I don’t like it.”

Whibly finished talking to the captain and trotted over to his passengers. “Yur three lucky sods, that’s for sure. I managed to bend Cap’n Adcock’s arm if y’know what I mean. Convinced him to give ya safe passage. We’re headin’ for Bramble Island. Off the east coast of Enthilen. Coloured grells ain’t gonna find us there. I knew the Cap’n would see y’right. Sit yurselfs down somewhere. We should be headin’ off soon.”

Whibly left and busied himself with the duties of a skullard, barking orders to other crew members.

“We cannot go back into Laodicea,” Grin said to Thaly. “If we are to escape Malphas and the tainted grells, this seems like our best chance.” He led her to the side of the ship, keeping out of the crew’s way, and they slumped to the floor, resting their backs against the outer railings of chain threaded through timber posts that ringed the Vulkings deck. The swinging chain was the only thing stopping anyone from tumbling overboard.

Grin lay Tom at his feet, reminding himself to ask Whibly for blankets or clothes for his friend. The reddened scars on Tom’s chest marked him as a Dobunni rebel, and Grin pondered whether rebels would be welcome on merchant ships. Rebels or wild stone-grells.

*******

In the king’s private residence on the second floor of the Master’s Hall in the King’s Quarter of Laodicea, Malphas sat in a soft chair padded with wool and covered in stitched, royal blue cotton, rubbing his thigh through the skirt of his white robes to soothe the ache of old bones. In the corner of the room on the floor, Prince Adalwolf slouched on an array of cushions, his head resting in his mother’s lap. Romilda caressed her son’s black curls that were damp with feverish sweat.

She’s making him weaker, thought Malphas, leeching the strength he needs to finish the task.

The meeting with Tom Anderson on Hansen’s Bluff hadn’t gone as Malphas intended. Adalwolf had failed at the critical moment, and his birth twin still lived. He must do; otherwise, Adalwolf would also be dead because he and Tom Anderson were joined by a lifeforce that only the eyes of lost souls could decouple.

Another opportunity would come to steal the boy’s soul, thought Malphas, after Adalwolf’s ascension to the throne.

He stopped rubbing his legs and traced the thumb of his left hand over the scar on his right palm. A wound that testified to his mastery of the dark eyes and reminded him of the trials he’d endured to reach the brink of an eternal reign.

“Volerdie himself wrote the First Scripture,” said Malphas, trying to lure Adalwolf’s attention away from his mother. “Knowledge of the scripture’s existence almost disappeared from memory when Pergamos fell. Until, one day, a worthless thief stumbled on the parchment.”

Adalwolf pushed his mother’s hand away from petting his brow. “Why didn’t Volerdie take the First Scripture with him when he abandoned Pergamos?”

Malphas smiled. “Isn’t it obvious? He wanted us to find the scripture so we could follow his lore. When Ewald banished me from Sardis, I spent many seasons searching for the text, sure that its revered words would explain Enthilen’s future. On the very beach where brave King Giltbert made his last stand, I escaped the brutish Nordmen that have now plagued the lands once ruled by our ancestors, paddling a boat through the breaking waves and as far out to sea as I could manage. Volerdie’s will led me to the pinnacle of Hurst.”

“Did you see a griffin?” asked Adalwolf.

 “No, son. I fear the griffin will never be seen in these lands again. Hurst was a lonely and desolate place when the currents took me there. Do you know that it once housed all the jewels in the Erstürmen Kingdom? Long before Giltbert’s time. In those days, there were many griffins, and the Erstürmen kings and princes of old would ride the beasts on the wind to raid faraway lands. I searched through the maze of rooms deep within the solid bedrock of Hurst, eventually stumbling upon a sealed chamber. With cunning and persistence, I cracked the seal and found inside a thief’s lair. There, locked away from our world, was the First Scripture. I was destined to find it, and I’m the only one alive who can read its words.”

Malphas rested his elbows on the timber armrests of the chair that were carved as eels, leaned forward and nestled his chin onto the back of clasped hands, never taking his eyes from Adalwolf. “The First Scripture explains how to rescue Volerdie from his misbegotten conquest and have him rule over us once more. I shared this knowledge with your uncle long ago, but he betrayed me. I know you won’t do the same.”   

“What plans do you have for our son?” asked Romilda, clutching Adalwolf’s limp hand like a starving peasant guarding a mouthful of food.

Malphas turned his attention to the queen who would soon become Queen Mother, her continued existence defined by the singular purpose of legitimising Adalwolf’s rule in the eyes of the Erstürmen people. “That Adalwolf is my son must remain a secret among only us,” he said. “Given Ewald had no heir, and Dobunni assassins killed the king’s brothers, Widald’s eldest son is next in line for the throne.”

“Helmut,” said Romilda. “Do we know where he is?”

No, thought Malphas. Widald’s family had disappeared before he could deal with them. “It doesn’t matter where he is. Everyone believes that Adalwolf is the rightful heir and we must continue the ruse at all costs. The coronation will be held tomorrow evening.”

“So soon?” asked Romilda, her face framed with worry. “There’s no time to make the necessary arrangements.”

 “I began the preparations for this day many yarles ago. The new King Adalwolf will bring hope to a frightened people, rallying his loyal subjects. During the coronation, we will announce the march to Pergamos and the resurrection of Volerdie’s lost kingdom. The ash of Laodicea will float away on the wind and Sardis will shrink to nothing more than a watchtower over our western border. In Pergamos, King Adalwolf will reign. Those savage grells desecrated a sacred place. We will tear down what remains of their ruined city and rebuild the grand metropolis where Volerdie once ruled.” 

Adalwolf sat up, his fawn shirt hanging loose over frail shoulders, the bewildered look that had adorned his face for days still refusing to fade amid the candlelight. “What about the dark eyes? That rebel girl stole them. They could be sitting at the bottom of the pool of reflection.”

“They’re not. I sent my draughouls to search for them, but the eyes of lost souls are not close by. Their momentary disappearance is unfortunate, but I’m confident the rebel will give them to the boy. We’ll find him again; in fact, I have a feeling that he’ll bring the eyes to us. He has no other way of returning home.”

A knock on the door interrupted Malphas, and he called out, “Enter.”

Krieg lumbered into the room, ducking below the door jamb, blood splattered across the black pauldrons and rerebraces that covered his shoulders and upper arms. Lumps of flesh still clung to the spikes of Krieg’s flail as it dangled in his hand, and the unsettling stench of battle, a concoction of blood, sweat, smoke and oil, turned Malphas’ stomach.

The red grell dropped to his knees before Malphas and bowed his head. “The Docklands have fallen, Worshipful Master. The Southern Vale will soon follow.”

“Excellent, Krieg. When the sun rises, have the barbarians withdraw and await further orders. Gather Hunger and spread the word that King Adalwolf has demanded an end to the attack. All those that wish to thank him for this brave intervention and to pledge fealty to the new king should attend his coronation tomorrow eve in the square of the King’s Quarter. After the coronation, when the crown sits on Adalwolf’s head, the barbarians can continue to dismantle the homes of the disloyal. What news of the boy?”

“The wild grell took him towards the docks, but the crowds foiled our pursuit.”

“Search every ship in the bay. If any of them depart, have the barbarians hunt them down, but make sure the boy isn’t harmed. Our mission would have been much easier if Eroberung hadn’t failed so miserably.”

Malphas waved Krieg away and faced Adalwolf. “Weakness is no mantle for a king. I’ve tasked Ende with your edification. She’ll strengthen your body and mind and teach you to embrace pain with honour.”

“Don’t hurt him,” said Romilda, wrapping her arms around the boy.

Malphas cinched his robes with a tasselled blue cord and rose to his feet. “He must endure to lead. Your only concern now, Queen Mother, is to prepare for the coronation.” He reached a hand towards Adalwolf, helping the boy off the floor. “It’s time for you to see your new throne, my son. The draughouls kept it hidden in a cave under the Desolate Mountains. I never discovered how it got there or who stole it away from its rightful place in the throne hall of Pergamos. Regardless, it’s up to us to return it. You and I.”   

The look on Adalwolf’s face changed from bewilderment to curiosity, and Malphas knew then that the young man had taken another step towards the abyss.     

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