Fantasy Snippets

THE GRACARIN

Seasons of War Trilogy

Part I

The Deception

Chapter 1

Torak-en-Doarth walked down the gangway and stepped onto the dock. Forty seasons ago, he’d visited the capitol of Omirr for the investiture of the Temple’s High Priest. No one in the hemisphere had missed the opportunity to see history made—a man instead of a woman becoming the Temple’s leader. This time, his reason to visit was to secure an alliance in his quest for revenge.

The Temple investiture also marked the return of the fflorin and a woman taking up the role of Fleet Commander and the nation’s Protector. The only reason he’d attended was to see a fflorin, the majestic, blue creatures, neither bird nor dragon, but a being in between. Part of the reason he’d returned to Omirr was the chance to see one up close. He’d dreamed of them since then, longed for one, all the while understanding that he’d never have one. Fflorin did the choosing, not the human.

People on the harbor hurried to make a path for him and his entourage. Unfortunately, in Omirr the Gracarin had a reputation for brutality, but the pampered rich who lived in the grand capitol of Chi had little knowledge of Torak’s hill country folk and customs. They were only acquainted with the rulers of the Gracarin wharves, the same evildoers he plotted to kill. Slowly, if possible.

As his group neared the edge of the dock, dread’s distinctive crawl slithered up his spine. He jerked a glance over his left shoulder. A strange sight marred the shore’s bleached-sand beauty. Children played under what remained of a female drechleth’s skeleton, chasing in and out of the massive arcs of curved ribs. Long ago, her mate’s bones had been cleared from the Temple steps where it had been slain. The female’s corpse had been allowed to remain on the beach where she fell as an unsightly monument—testimony to the disaster Omirr had survived.

The skeletal relic was also a clever reminder of the combined power of former rulers. The High Priestess and Ladnor-Sha, then Lord Protector, had answered the call of prophecy and overcame the impossible.

Torak and his warriors disdained the sedan chairs gathered at the end of the pier and strode the dull yellow paving up the city’s central avenue. It didn’t bother him that the city dwellers gawked and pointed. His brawny hill folk, taller, fair-haired and light-eyed in comparison to ebony-eyed, olive-skinned Omirrians, presented an awe-inspiring parade for the city’s pampered and spoiled.

Cooking aromas that smelled of foreign spice combinations merged with the dust from recent construction. Chi’s newly restored buildings had none of the majestic elegance of the structures demolished in the Dawn That Bleeds. Reconstruction continued to emulate the city’s former grandeur but without the craft and artistry that had been lost for Ages.

Torak huffed a snort of contempt. Serves them right for not respecting their religion and heritage. Hill folk never made that mistake.

The push to succeed in this endeavor combined with the desperate conditions at home ate at his patience as he and his men climbed the shallow steps on Temple Hill. They were met at the summit then escorted by a contingent of soldiers that had waited there and informed that conference was convening at the Garrison attached to the Temple compound. The military building looked bleak and homely compared to the Temple’s gleaming white elegance and aura of imposing mystery. Inside the Garrison, he suppressed annoyance when they were directed to the long line waiting to enter the conference. His mind churned with ideas about how to carry out his scheme.

A vaguely familiar scent lurked in the passageway. He doubted anyone else could distinguish the spicy fragrance that lingered in the midst of incense and pungent perfumes. He’d been gifted with heightened senses from birth. Then, recognition bloomed with the sensual memory of the investiture. Fflorin had perched on the Temple walls, saturating the area with their scent. Torak hid his satisfaction. There was a fflorin nearby. There were many in their quarters behind the Temple compound, but this one had to be much closer. When they moved into the meeting area, he could look up at the traditional wide hole made in the domed roof, see if a fflorin guarded the rooftop entry.

He fixed his attention on the wide, arched entrance to the conference area a few steps ahead. A herald stood there, directing arrivals. He only announced visitors of great importance. Torak nodded to one of his retinue to inform the herald before he reached the entrance. Creating a particular impression was crucial. There could be no question of his consequence, no awkwardness or hesitation in making it known that he and his entourage were significant.

A milling cluster of visitors moved away from the entrance and down the steps into the conference hall, allowing for a view. Blazing blue sky glowed above the hole in the roof, the sun not yet directly overhead. No fflorin stood on guard. Disappointment warred with impatience and annoyance.

The instant he saw the woman he comprehended her importance. Intuition, which he always trusted, whispered that she was vital for the success of his scheme. He trusted instincts that never failed. Every part of his being shouted the forecast that she would be the key to everything he must achieve today and in the future. For some yet unknown reason, she was vital—of this he had no doubts.

Since he stood in Omirr, he wasn’t bound by the rules of his homeland. It could be a simple matter of hoisting her over his shoulder and walking out of the building with his prize. Perhaps not so easily accomplished, he was forced to reflect, when he paid attention to where she sat—at a long table on the dais for royal dignitaries.

Usually, he relished every kind of challenge, but at this moment, he was forced to remember that his purpose here was to attain and fortify a political strategy. Fate often had other ideas, he’d learned from the portend-readers at home. Ancient omen or not, a stirring in his gut tempted him to rebel against predictions, to leap into action as he watched her get up, move to the end of the long table, and step down from the dais.

Her stride across the vast meeting room was one of easy confidence. Broad shouldered for a woman, she had strong facial features and the muscled legs of a walker. Not at all pretty, but she was handsome. Her dark eyes and almost black hair, braided Cavalry style, claimed her Omirrian. The green and gold colors she wore were those of Sha, the powerful province whose ruler he’d come to persuade. More accurately, he hoped to entice Sha’s ruler, Lord Ladnor, to aid in the destruction of Torak’s enemies. He wouldn’t reveal that objective for a long time to come—long after his scheme had been set in motion.

For now, he pretended to calmly wait in line with the other dignitaries, while his insides twisted from aggravation. He’d let them think that the only reason he attended this summit meeting was to offer partnership to hemispheric unity. He could be generous—when he chose to be—which wasn’t often when it came to protecting what was his. A chieftain with his lands in peril must be frugal and vigilant. Other attendees were aware of his politics and predilection for swift violence when needed. They kept a wide margin of space in the queue waiting to be announced. Their attempts to conceal their nervous regard made him smile, which resulted in the others in line shifting farther away.

Jaekl, his second in command, leaned sideways, not quite touching, as he said under his breath, “She’s a perfect choice for you, my lord, but not a wise one.”

“How so?”

Torak glanced at Jaekl, who kept his expression blank and his gaze forward. The dry air inside the temple compound had taken the curl from his second’s red-blond hair. The heavy mass hung down Jaekl’s bared back. Neither of them wore armor, came nude from the waist up to display their clan markings. They carried only short swords to show that they meant no harm. The single weapon they insisted on was frowned upon when they entered the Garrison, but only an idiot went abroad without a weapon. It felt naked not to carry at least three, the minimum carried at home.

Jaekl whispered, “My lord, that is Sorda, previously of Vos. She is legal consort to Lorin, Ladnor’s heir. Sorda has already provided the House of Sha with two heirs.”

“Sorda,” he repeated with a satisfied grunt. “I like it. A strong name. It fits her but I can’t believe she agreed to being a mere consort. She’s the sort of woman who must be first.”

“Especially true, my lord, since she’s the daughter of Voranna-Vos.”

Torak’s attention darted back to Sorda, who now talked with a contingent from the Savarien Isles. “Voranna, you say? Demon take it, she could’ve had her pick with that wily witch of a mother. Still, it says something that she didn’t let Lady Vos push her into a marriage she didn’t want. I cannot believe that a child of the great Vos would be satisfied with second place. Perhaps Sorda is not what she appears on the surface.”

“No, my lord. She is much more. She led the attack during the Drek invasion.”

Details of the Omirrian struggles had been carried to Gracarin, but there was always the difficulty of sorting embellishment from the truth. Jaekl tended to sift information before relaying, so Torak didn’t argue, and with a nod, encouraged his second to continue.

“She flew the fflorin fleet against the Drek horde while its commander was needed elsewhere. The fflorin call her Beautiful Voice, the Beloved.” Jaekl paused then added, “My lord, it would be better if you weren’t so obvious. That smile looks as if you plan to have her for your next meal.”

“An interesting thought, but actually I was taking pleasure in the validation of my instincts. Look at her posture. She’s the sort who will not give sway without compelling pressure. The right sort of pressure. Observe her manner with the Savarien representative. He grovels. She ignores it, not easily impressed.”

“From all that is said about her, I would agree, but she’s nothing like the sort of woman you usually prefer for casual diversion.”

“I have nothing casual in mind. That woman is a warrior, an equal.” His opinion was made proof when she approached a table of delegates from the province of Tet. They immediately stood. Since he’d left the impression at home that his reason for attending this summit was for the possibility of a suitable marriage alliance, he placed Sorda at the top of his imaginary list.

“Jaekl, you’ve participated in these conferences before. Can you explain why she lowered herself to becoming a mere breeder of offspring that she may never call her own?”

Jaekl hedged and gestured at the guests ahead of them. “The queue is moving forward, my lord. It appears that we will find seating and perhaps secure an audience with Ladnor today.”

“I asked for an explanation for her accepting a lesser status.”

“Yes, my lord. It is my opinion that she cares for Lorin-Sha, and oddly enough, also his wife.”

“An odd arrangement.”

“Although that choice would never be acceptable to one of us, it’s not unusual for the Omirrians. And Sorda was contracted to wed Lorin-Sha before he married the Enfarech princess.”

“Where is this princess?”

“The one at the left end of the royal table.”

Torak expressed his opinion of her with dismissive grunt. “Her coloring is more like us, but she’s not very big. Not much to her for a princess. A leader’s spouse should be tough, substantial.”

“And my lord, one more thing. One I probably shouldn’t say, but considering the real reason we’re here—”

“And your point is?”

“Sorda is the unquestioned overseer of all of Sha’s agriculture. She restored and expanded Sha’s farmlands after the holocaust. They say she can bring a dead plant back to life.”

“You tell me all of this as if to discourage me, Jaekl.”

“Only suggesting that you must tread with care. Especially when it comes to Lorin. You have the longer reach, but he’s considered the best fighter in Omirr. You must not allow yourself to become distracted, sire. Remember that it is the father that you are here to convince.”

“You might as well say it outright and tell me not to provoke a fight.” He mulled over his second’s advice. “Since Ladnor is no longer Protector, perhaps I should approach his daughter, the Lady Protector.”

“That would be a waste of effort. Keep in mind that Ladnor has the largest army in Omirr. He’s clever. And only ruthless when he has to be.”

Jaekl didn’t say it out loud but his underlying meaning was clear. Ladnor was judicious in the use of his military. Torak was not always a merciful conqueror.

Chapter 2

Seducing Royalty

 

Torak sensed it the instant Sorda glanced his way, her attention fixed on the weapon strapped to the right side of his belt. So were the combined blue glares of the Lady Protector, and her father, Lord Ladnor, directed at his weapon on defiant display. They watched as he and Jaekl crossed to the empty seats, staring in a way that felt loud with distrust.

Heeding Jaekl’s advice, Torak closed his hand with slow and careful deliberation around the sword hilt, shifting the blade out of the way so that he could comfortably sit.

They’d taken seats with their backs to the wall. Jaekl poured them chalices of chilled wine. Torak lifted his chalice to Ladnor before tasting then studied the attendees to divert himself from the temptation of getting up and abducting Sorda. Better to think of what to say when he requested a private audience with the imperious Ladnor-Sha. He avoided looking at Sorda even though he felt her attention on him. Let her look and wonder. Best to keep his intentions secret for now.

Latecomers, dignitaries and delegates, kept streaming down the steps until there were no seats left to be had. A delegation from Vos came in last. Disappointed, he’d hoped to see the famed Lady Vos and judge the resemblance between mother and daughter. It would have been amusing to rile the older woman with flattery, which he’d heard she adored, and a prerequisite to become a member of her stable of young men.

Before the meeting could commence, a clang from the herald’s staff interrupted. “His majesty and ruler of the Gracarin wharves, Kilamok-en-Hoarth.”

Jaekel’s hand gripped Torak’s wrist, digging deep, using fingernails when he tugged for freedom.

“Now is not the time, sire.”

Torak glanced beyond the entrance. His men had been moved out of the way as the enemy of his people arrived on a gilded litter. Ahead of him, perfume sprayers drenched the clean air coming in from overhead with cloying scent. In their wake, a throng of garishly dressed sycophants followed by wives and a dozen favorites from his harem, blatant blasphemy. The wharf king bragged of his harem, the flouting of his partiality of debauchery and the breaking of Gracarin law of a single spouse.

Even more revolting than the wharf king himself was Kilamok’s second, Salmysis, Lord Golivarus. He stood nearby, smirking and secure in his beauty, when the litter was set down with a clunk on the marble floor. A movement on the dais pulled Torak’s attention from the men he’d vowed to destroy. Behind the High Priest, the Lady Protector was clamping a bar of metal to a jaw piece above the chin of her helm. Before she sealed her lips over it, he had a glimpse of what looked like a metal-shaped smile. Ladnor and High Priest had turned in their seats to look at her.

Torak’s extraordinary senses allowed him to hear Ladnor’s whisper, “What is it, Medra?”

With a stare as cold-blooded as her father’s, she unclamped her teeth from the whistle’s mouthpiece and answered without muting her voice, “That is Salmysis, Fa. Remember what he did to the stable boy.”

The High Priest murmured, “No, Medra, that wasn’t Salmysis. It looked like him. You have to remember what that incident was about. It was the Oracle’s trickery.”

Her stare never left the accused. Salmysis wore his customary conceit and leering sneer. Torak longed to gut the man, almost as much as he lived for slaying the wharf king. Whatever Salmysis had done to aggravate Medra-Xur had to have been heinous. It was not her place to incite attack without a direct threat or an order from the High Priest.

Torak suppressed a grin. Medra’s grievance against one of the wharf lords opened an unexpected opportunity to maneuver. The enemy of one’s enemy adage would work well to win her support. Kilamok’s gloating enjoyment of creating a disturbance was doing nothing to ease the mounting tension.

Torak mastered his disappointment when Medra relented, stepping back. Ladnor and the High Priest faced forward in their seats. It looked as if the brief incident was going to be put aside until Kilamok snapped his fingers. With a level, taunting look at Torak, Salmysis grabbed the arm of the nearest concubine and hauled her forward. Yanking off veils, he revealed a bowed head, red hair streaked with the color of honey, shorn so short only a scruff remained. The tall girl lifted her chin. This time, Torak had to hold back his second. The woman uncovered was Jaekl’s missing sister. Her warrior’s topknot had been sliced off, a military shaming tactic.

Jaekl screamed abuse at Kilamok while his sister struggled in the grip of Salmysis and another guard. Hill country women were never weak. Her sluggish movements showed that she’d been drugged. Torak wrapped his arms around Jaekl’s chest, whispering for restraint. Then Kilamok made the mistake of laughing. That was all that was needed. Torak flung Jaekl aside and drew his blade. Attendees reacted, shrieking and jostling for escape.

“Silence!” The High Priest’s command stilled the room.

As the exhilarating haze of aggression cooled, Torak noticed someone standing nearby. He turned his head slightly to discover his nearest opponent, Sorda, now positioned between the royal table and him. As if he were a threat to them.

The rule was no weaponry at the conference but she held an unopened scymtar, the gleaming circle of its two curved blades arcing from her hand. Where had she hidden it? Unopened, it looked harmless, merely a metal circle. Thrown with skill, a scymtar could decapitate or slice to the bone when the curved blades clamped around a victim’s throat, leg or arm.

He flicked a glance at the dais. Lorin and Ladnor were both on their feet, holding weapons that had to have been hidden underneath the table. Oddly, Medra, the person responsible for the safety of everyone in the nation, stood without a weapon in hand, and then he heard it, a faint whistle.

Sorda stayed fixed in place as the room erupted into screams and a scramble for a way out, only to be blocked and pushed back by Garrison guards. A mass of blue dropped down through the wide hole in the ceiling, landing with a thump. The spicy scent he’d smelled earlier now saturated his senses. Even though small for his kind, the fflorin shrunk the room with his size. He rose up, not quite rampant, white wings folded close to his smooth blue body, but with a hand raised. Black talons sprang from three fingers and a thumb. His head swiveled, black eyes sparkling with mischief and menace. Upturned nose lifted, pretty ears laid flat, he exposed spiky teeth with a mocking smile, while scanning the room for the nearest threat.

Torak stepped back, his rump bumping into the edge of the table. The fflorin fastened a narrow-eyed gaze on the sword he held and broadened his smile to reveal the full array of his thin teeth. Fflorin didn’t like the taste of humans but had no aversion to chomping off body parts.

A gruff female voice quietly ordered, “Release the sword, Gracarin.”

Torak did as he was told, allowing it to clatter onto the marble floor, then regretted it, when the fflorin’s nose swung toward the speaker, Sorda. His heart thumped inside his chest as the great head neared her, but the fflorin nuzzled her neck, crooning a plaintive tune before swinging back to confront Torak. Obsidian eyes narrowed, the fflorin snapped at his naked belly and hissed a warning into his face, a sweet-smelling gust that ruffled his hair back off his shoulders.

A second command from Medra’s whistle had the fflorin lowering into an uncomfortable looking squat in the center of the room, where he glowered distrust at the assembled. He didn’t retract his claws.

High Priest stood. Everyone’s attention shifted to the Temple leader. “This conference will reconvene tomorrow. I will speak with the leadership of the Gracarin contingents in the Judgment Court. There will be no delay, no argument.”

Torak grabbed Jaekl’s arm to hold him back from going to his sister. Empathizing with his second’s suffering, they watched her being led away with the harem. It wasn’t like a hill country woman to act so passive. Something beyond drugging had to have occurred to render her submissive.

As everyone filed out of the conference hall, he, Jaekl, Kilamok and Salmysis were directed to another exit. With a glance over his shoulder, Torak watched Sorda give the fflorin’s belly an affectionate scratch before she followed the royal party out of another door. He wasn’t happy about leaving his only weapon behind, but had no choice. With a swift snatch, the fflorin had confiscated it and was using the blade point to pick his spiky teeth. That wasn’t as bothersome as the creature’s expression—an obvious smirking taunt that as much as said out loud that the fflorin now claimed ownership of the sword—Torak didn’t—and wouldn’t be getting it back.

He nodded to the fflorin, looking on the positive side of this change of events. Throttling Kilamok could be as satisfying as evisceration.