Prince Oldaric galloped his courser through the crowd of giant, lumbering stone-grells, hacking at the half-naked bodies of the heathens with his sword. Blood splattered across his face, droplets tasting of metallic salt dribbling into his mouth as he screamed a battle cry. He urged his battalion of Erstürmen cavalry onwards, leading them through the sandstone streets of the grell city of Malang Gunya. The hooves of two hundred and forty horses clattering across the flagstone pavers behind him sounded like an avalanche of boulders tumbling down the side of the steepest mountain.
Oldaric smiled as the grells shrank in the wake of the Erstürmen attack, the terrified faces of the vanquished retreating into the false comfort of stone houses. Battering rams will smash those mortared walls, he thought. Victory will be done before the moons rise.
Amid the chaos unfolding ahead of the invading cavalry, two dozen stone-grells gathered at a roofless, circular temple with white marble columns surrounding painted floors. The giants clutched stone-tipped spears, pointing them out towards the oncoming enemy. Oldaric knew that the grells would do everything to protect the most sacred place in Malang Gunya: the calendar of life. It depicted the entire known history of grell culture. They cherished the calendar above all else; the grell slaves that served him back in the royal city of Sardis talked about it endlessly.
He rounded the base of the stepped pyramid that towered over the calendar of life, leading his cavalry towards the grell defenders. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the jagged rock too late. It cannoned into his spanglehelm, knocking him from his saddle and sending his sword clattering across the stones. Instinct saved Oldaric’s life. He rolled out of the path of the cavalry’s crushing hooves, pressing his body against the bottom step of the pyramid. A punishing whine filled his ears. He blinked again and again, trying to clear the opacity that clouded his mind.
As the savage whoops of Erstürmen soldiers slaughtering grell defenders echoed through the calendar of life, a shadow blocked the sun from Oldaric’s face. He scuttled backwards on his feet and elbows, retreating from a male stone-grell that hovered over him. The grell’s lilac eyes grew wide with fear and panic, and at the end of a raised arm, a trembling hand fought to grip another rock.
Oldaric lifted a gauntleted hand in surrender and softened the scowl on his lips. He fixed his gaze on the bald, pale-skinned giant, tracing his eyes across the black ink of the facial tattoo that adorned the faces of all adult grells. The arm muscles of the grell relaxed for a brief moment.
He’s wavering, thought Oldaric. He kept his left hand raised and used his right to push himself off the pavers. Standing, Oldaric was still head and shoulders shorter than his ambusher. Never taking his eyes from the grell, he moved his right hand slowly towards the grip of his sheathed long knife, simultaneously flashing a distracting smile and speaking like this was an expected and welcome encounter. “What is your name?”
The grell shifted on unsteady feet. “I am Brennian stone-grell, first son of Binnian and Orenan. Protector of Malang Gunya.”
“Do you want to survive this day, Brennian? Live peacefully among these beautiful streets and grand halls once again? I can secure a place for you, serving a glorious Erstürmen Kingdom.”
“I have no master other than the land itself. The land from which all life comes.”
“I understand. Yet, you’re surrounded by soldiers with no way out. The land is not going to spare your life. But I could.” Oldaric’s fingers wrapped around the handle of his knife.
Brennian tensed his arm, drawing his hand back, as if preparing to throw.
Oldaric unsheathed the knife. Brennian thrust his arm forward the same moment an arrow whooshed past Oldaric’s ear. A rock thudded into his greaves right before a limp Brennian toppled onto the blood-stained pavers, the red and black fletching of an Erstürmen arrow jutting from the grell’s neck.
The midday attack on Malang Gunya ended before the sun set, as Oldaric had predicted. The Erstürmen soldiers had routed the grells, killing hundreds and taking hundreds more for slaves. A handful of grells escaped, fleeing south, likely into the vast tracks of forest they called Babir Birramal.
Oldaric limped towards a private room in one of the grandest halls in Malang Gunya, the leather lining of his greave rubbing against the violet bruise spreading across his shin. He knocked on the polished timber of the door and pressed his ear to the wood.
A muffled command seeped through the grain. “Enter.”
Oldaric opened the door and stepped inside. A healer knelt beside a cot made from deer skins stretched over a wooden frame, applying a poultice to the wounds of King Alaric.
Alaric brushed the healer away. “Enough fussing. Leave us.”
The healer stood and placed his right fist against his heart. “Hail, King Alaric.” He turned and scurried from the room.
Oldaric stepped forward. “Father. Are your wounds deep?”
“Mere scratches. I’m not going to let a pagan grell be the death of me.”
“Thank Volerdie’s mercy. We’ve taken the city. Our people will rejoice at your victory.”
“We let the grells linger here for too long. Your grandfather, Faramund, should have cleansed this place a generation ago. I’ve redeemed our family for his weakness. Come, sit next to your father. There are things we must discuss.”
Oldaric dragged a small, wooden stool across the floor and sat next to the diminutive king, tucking his boots in underneath the seat.
Alaric groaned as he lifted himself upright and rested his back against the wall. “When did you last attend chapel?” he asked.
“In Sardis, the day before we marched for Malang Gunya.”
“Supplication to Volerdie’s mercy only when the fear of death compels you is the action of a weak man. A coward. Your absence from chapel at other times hasn’t gone unnoticed. Even that snivelling fool of a curate had mind to speak to me directly about your lack of piety.”
“I’ll recommit to my duty, Father, when we return to Sardis.”
“See that you do. If you’d paid closer attention to the teachings of the scripture verses, you may have gleaned such knowledge that now enlightens my thoughts.”
Oldaric narrowed his eyes. He’d seen the smugness of his father’s expression before. King Alaric revelled in knowledge he believed few shared. He also took sadistic pleasure in demonstrating the intellectual weaknesses of others, even his first-born son.
Alaric lowered his voice to a whisper, as if Volerdie himself may overhear his revelation. “The curate allowed me access to the scripture verses.”
“That is forbidden. How did you…”
“I’m the king. My desires are never forbidden. I studied the scripture. Day and night. Season after season. My dutiful inspection revealed something the curates should have realised long ago.”
Oldaric crouched forward on his stool, inhaling the stale odour of his father’s battle-soiled body.
Alaric continued, “Somewhere in this cursed, endless plain is the lost city of Pergamos. Somewhere among the swaying grass is hidden Volerdie’s ancient seat of power.”
“The Dambay Plains are flat and featureless. How could we miss seeing an entire city amid such banality?”
King Alaric reached out and clenched the neck of Oldaric’s tunic in his fist and sneered. “Are you saying I’m wrong? Do you think your father a fool? The scripture verses didn’t divulge its exact location, but I’m convinced it’s hidden in these plains. I’ll wager those faithless grells have cast a spell over the land, masking Pergamos from our view. Now that we’ve expelled them once and for all, the spell will be broken.”
Oldaric pulled away from his father, stood and paced the room to the rhythm of his marching thoughts. “If we find Volerdie’s seat of power, then…”
“We?” spat Alaric. “If I find Pergamos, I will be the greatest Erstürmen king to ever live. The greatest ruler since the ascension of Volerdie, our Divine Creator. What treasures might the halls of Pergamos hold? The scripture verses spoke of a throne fashioned from the corpses of unbelievers. This must be Volerdie’s throne. The throne of the dead. All his power is connected to it. Secrets that could entrench my rule for an eternity. When I rise from this infantile excuse for a bed, my search must begin.”
“You should rest, Father. Renew your strength before undertaking this quest.”
“The healer assured me I’d make a full recovery within days.” King Alaric slunk into the bed, pulling a woollen blanket up under his chin.
Oldaric turned his back, blocking his father’s view, and reached for a burgundy cushion resting atop a bedside table. He clutched the cushion to his chest, trying to smother the beat of his thumping heart.
“Leave me, now,” ordered Alaric. “I need to sleep.”
A cold, distant voice responded. Oldaric convinced himself that it was Volerdie’s voice that spoke this evening. That spoke through him. “Of course. A long rest before the pursuit of an eternal reign.”
Oldaric spun around and faced his father. He sprang forward before the older man could sit up, thrusting the cushion over the king’s face. He’s weak from the battle wounds, Oldaric thought. But still Alaric thrashed, snapping bony fingers around Oldaric’s wrist and digging broken nails under his skin. Oldaric grimaced, then clenched his jaw in determination, pressing harder down on the cushion. Alaric gasped for air, trying to twist his body out from under the smother, but Oldaric held firm and smiled as he sensed aged muscles falter.
The dying breaths of King Alaric startled a rat resting under the cot. It scurried to the corner of the room, disappearing into a hole in the wall. Down a dark, dank tunnel it ran, skipping over generations of dust and mould. Through walls and under floors, deep beneath the city of Malang Gunya. Under the grey soil of the Dambay Plains, it squeezed through a crevice in the bedrock and raced down into a place that had not seen light for an eternity.
The rat scuttled through a crack in the thick, oak doors of a grand hall. It stopped and tilted its head up, sniffing the sour air. Its entire body shuddered, as if an atmosphere of dread had filled its nostrils. It didn’t linger, scampering across the tiled floor towards another hole.
Through the veiled black, the rat passed a chair perched high on a marble platform. A throne made from petrified human bodies and crowned by the head of a horned beast. And next to the platform, partially buried under dirt and rubble, as if remorseful hands had tried to hide their shame, lay two glass eyes like obsidian marbles, their flaming pupils the only flicker of light fighting against the consuming darkness.