Child of Promise (High Fantasy) By Paul H. Kogel
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
This is the first chapter of the first book of what is to be a three book series called "The Crystal Serpent". Let me know if this makes you want more. Thanks.
The fjord was deep, its waters black as night. The moon reflected silvery off the surface of the cold, calm water. High upon his rocky perch, Jehrifiid peered over the river, watching the glow as the night watchmen lit street torches across the way. The hood of his dark cloak slipped slightly as he cast his gaze upward and counted the stars. There, he thought to himself, yes, that’s the one. It had been a half-century since he had first heard from the Oracles of Dragonon. By his best calculations, this should be the night of their prophecy’s fulfillment. He was glad to see it come. After all, fifty years was a long time for even a druid to wait.
As he watched, a gust of wind blew the hood the rest of the way off, and the star seemed to dip slightly before shooting to the west, leaving a streak of silver dust in its wake. The star shall fall to the west and the wind shall announce its descent. A smile crossed his hard face and with a wink of his dark, stone-cold eye he said aloud, “It has begun.”
The child shall be born under the sign of this westward shooting star, the prophecy declared, and shall bear the mark of the serpent upon the palm of his right hand. This was the sign of only the second male child in the history of Ardesia charged with the task of carrying the elfin talisman, and the mark in the palm of his right hand sealed him to his destiny.
He would be sickly; all of the Guyatrin males had been. The child's father lived only long enough to bless Ardesia with this prophetic child of promise. Even his own acclaimed ancestor, Roppa, had the affliction and lived a sick and feeble existence just long enough to destroy the Weirding Gate in old Taftagald. There was no reason to believe that this child would be any different.
* * *
At that same time, far to the north, Kordeck rounded the last turn in the road that marked the near completion of his journey from Jarga. Jae’haun had the distance of the trip through the Ferbellinon Mountains all wrong, as usual.
Kordeck understood, however, that Jae’haun knew all too well that his estimates were short by one whole day. It was a game he liked to play. But Kordeck had expected something like this and had allotted for the extra distance in supplies as well as time. Nevertheless, when at last the cave came into view he was pleased to know that the journey had finally reached its end. At least the first leg of it had, for soon he would just have to turn around and make the grueling three-day trek back to Jarga.
His two riding companions had held up well. It was a good thing too, for he would have had no compunctions against slitting their throats had they not. After all, wolves had to eat too and they had seen plenty of them along the way, large ones, fierce and hungry.
Kordeck’s leather vest creaked beneath his fur cloak as he raised his black-gloved hand and brought the two riding behind him to a halt on the small flat at the mouth of the cave. The entrance was not the least bit inviting. The loose rocks that lay scattered about before and just inside, shouted a foretelling of the near future from a bit of its violent past.
The moonlight revealed little of the hazards that Kordeck sensed all around him. Shadows hid the pitfalls that would endanger his footing. But the slight light was enough to highlight feeder-roots protruding downward into the cave from barren trees and shrubs above. They seemed to wave a beckoning invitation in the chilled mountain breeze. It was an invitation that anyone would think hard upon before accepting. But Kordeck was not just anyone. He threw his left leg over the saddle and slipped gracefully to the ground.
“Wait for me here, I won't be long.”
At that moment, a cold wind blew in hard, casting his hair before his face. Something moving above caught his eye. A comet shot through the heavens leaving a streak of misted light in its wake. He nodded his head in recognition and smiled. At least Jae’haun had that part right. Seems I’m just in time.
He mumbled a few choice words of profanity as his heavy boots skidded awkwardly off some of the scattered stones. He did so again as the dangling roots slapped their moist droplets onto his face and tangled briefly in his long, black hair. Grabbing a handful of roots, he tossed them aside. Glaring back at his men, he dared them to laugh at him. They didn’t.
He waited a moment for his eyes to grow accustomed to the bitter darkness but realizing that the pale would only deepen with his trek forward, he removed the glove from his right hand and produced a large orb of mage-light in his palm. Holding it up above his head, he was startled by the skittering of fleshy-tailed rodents as they scurried into the shadows. He shuddered. Demons! I hate rats.
As he walked, his dim light revealed ghastly webs with grotesque creatures caught in them and enormous spiders lying in wait for yet another meaty morsel. In addition to the spiders’ contribution to the cavernous décor, patches of moss within trickling streams gave rise to an eerie fog. He shivered as he met a wall of icy cold air but cinched up his cloak more closely and continued his trek forward.
After only a few turns and twists, Kordeck soon found himself halted before a rickety wooden door that seemed out of place in this stony cell. It stood as the only barrier he had found along the way. He had finally arrived at his destination. After knocking, a narrow slat slid open and a pair of weak, elderly eyes peeked out from behind tufts of gray, stringy hair.
“Who are you, and what do you want?”
“I am Kordeck. Jae’haun has sent me.”
“Are you alone?”
Kordeck stood to the side of the door and watched as the eyes slowly examined the passage. The slit snapped shut and he heard a heavy metallic bolt slide open from the other side of the door. The latch lifted and the door opened, its squeaking hinges echoing through the chambers.
“Come in and close the door.”
Kordeck stepped into a dreary, low-ceiling chamber and closed the door behind him. Standing before him was a ragged old hag of a woman, hunch-backed and bracing her meager frame against an old, worn half-staff.
“Jae’haun promised eight pieces of silver.” She held out an impatiently shaking thin and wrinkled hand.
He sighed as he removed the glove from his left hand. He wasn’t used to paying for things before they had been delivered, but somehow he knew that his objections would fall upon deaf ears. He simply loosened the drawstrings of the purse he had tied at his waist and counting out the fee, placed them into her upturned palm.
“Come this way.” She turned and swaggered through an arched opening in the far wall. She led him into another chamber with a large cauldron that boiled over a wood-stoked flame at its center.
Stepping upon a wooden dais, she peered over the lip of the cauldron and into the greenish-brown soup within. A ladle rested against the rim. She took it in hand and stirred as she glanced over her shoulder at Kordeck.
”Over there on the table, bring me that basket.” She pointed a pale, boney finger to the table at the far end of the room where a large woven basket stood next to a scattering of dusty books.
“I'm not here to apprentice.”
“Very well,” she replied, a note of exasperation in her voice, and slowly rested the large ladle against the rim of the witch's kettle. She shuffled her way to the edge of the small wooden platform, deliberately making her movement painstakingly laborious and slow.
“Oh never mind,” he grumbled, and took the several steps to the table and retrieved the basket. “Here,” he said, shoving it toward her. “Let’s get on with it. The sign in the heavens was streaking across the sky as I entered. Time slips away from us.”
“Patience,” she cackled triumphantly, giving him a narrow-eyed smile. “I know what time it is and we have plenty of it.” She shoved the basket back at him. “Hold it up for me. I will need both hands for this.”
As he held the basket up for her to easily reach inside he was repulsed at what he could see of the contents. There were many small wooden boxes, jars and vials filled with gruesome articles of what he hoped were non-human body parts. There were such things as straggly hair, frayed and blood-tipped feathers, red-streaked eyeballs, gray and black tongues and other fleshy objects he could not, and did not care to recognize. He turned his head away with disgust. The odor was fetid with the putrid, rancid stench of rotted flesh and decaying organisms of who knew what origin.
She looked askance at him. Her smile broadened as she withdrew a silver box marked HAIR OF THE WOLF. ”What a brave man you are, Kordeck,” she chided. Looking at him through cold, narrow eyes, she laughed.
He turned and glared at her. At this moment, he thought her as bad as Jae’haun, as if that were possible. “Just get on with it, witch.”
She only laughed more as she dropped a few strands of hair into the boiling cauldron. She followed that with a few more gruesome articles and stirred the magic witch’s stew again with the large wooden ladle.
Kordeck placed the basket back on the table, shifted his heavy bearskin cloak about his shoulders and brushed it as if to wipe away some unseen contaminant. He hated witches and their deviations from the true mystical arts. Magic was one thing when in the hands of a sound practitioner; he used it himself, what little he knew of it. But this—this abomination, this was altogether another matter, potions and enchantments—dark—far too dark for his liking.
There was one other he knew whose magic, so black and foul, could not be rivaled even by this wretched sorceress. It was his master, of course. Lord Jae’haun, Master of Chaos they called him, only never to his face. He merely considered himself Lord of Jarga and Emperor of Northern Ardesia. He certainly was that, but he was soon to be much more. Soon he would be Lord of all Ardesia and Kordeck would be his Southern Ambassador—if all went well. He would do his part to see that it did, and this little mission was just the beginning. He must see it through, no matter how repulsed he was by it.
The hag chanted in an ancient tongue as she continued to stir her wicked brew. Louder and louder, she chanted and swayed as she stroked across the cauldron’s bubbling contents. She stopped and peered into the soup. Her eyes narrowed on something that Kordeck could not see. Smiling and nodding, she mumbled something inaudible under her breath. Straightening, she dropped the ladle, then turned and stepped gingerly off the dais. Wobbling, she made her way to a wooden-backed chair at the table and sat down.
Kordeck followed and leaned against the table. "What did you see?" She only stared at the dancing candle flame; her mind seemed far away. He took her by the shoulder and shook her. “Come to, Witch! Answer me. You saw something. What was it?”
She turned to face him, her eyes glistening in the candlelight and smiled. “It is done. The child was born this very night, to the south in Shanandor in the small city of Pendabar.”
He leaned in closer to her. “Are you sure?”
“I saw him, man," she shouted, and sprang to her feet. “He had the sign of the serpent in his palm. I fulfilled my commission. Now leave me and be about whatever business you have with the boy. I am finished with you and your Dark Lord. Go.”
“Not just yet. You have not given the name the child was born under.”
“Jae’haun said he knew the family name.” She tilted her head slightly as though a new thought had entered unexpectedly.
“Yes, and he never told it to you. You must confirm it. You must prove yourself, that you’re not leading us on a wild chase.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I can't afford to. Not for a moment.”
She smiled and walked off a few paces then peered back at him through squinting eyes. “Eight pieces of silver, to confirm the date and the place was the bargain that I struck with your master. If you want more information than he requested, then there must be more silver in that purse of yours.”
Kordeck’s eyes narrowed in on hers. He knew better than to return to Jarga without being certain of bringing the truth back with him. She knew it too and so she was playing a hard bargain. He returned her smile. “Very well,” he answered, and tore the purse free of his belt and tossed it over to her.
She bounced the pouch up and down in her palm weighing its contents. Satisfied, she replied, “Guyatrin. The name is Guyatrin.”
That was the correct name. It was an ancient one. Roppa was the first Guyatrin to possess the elfin token called the Crystal Serpent, and only a male ancestor could put it to hand. If anyone else touched it for more than a brief moment, they would perish. In order to be protected from its magic, anyone other than its true keeper must carry the token in an oaken-box. There were no more Elves, but it is said when an Elf made a token for someone, it was for him alone, and the Serpent was for the Guyatrin males. At least that is what was believed, and no one was prepared to test the theory.
”You have done well Witch,” he said. He put on his gloves and headed for the door in the outer chamber as she followed close behind. “Jae’haun will be pleased to hear that his coins were well spent. Perhaps he will have need of your services in the future,” he lied.
Passing through the open door, he created and set a glowing orb upon the ground at intervals as he went. As he exited the mouth of the cave, he nodded to his two companions. They slipped from their horses and entered the cave as Kordeck mounted. Soon, the first man returned, wiping the hag’s blood from his sword on a cloth he must have found somewhere inside. He smiled with a nod of his head as he tossed the bloody rag on the rocky ground. As he mounted, the second man exited the cave and tossed Kordeck’s coin purse up to him. By its weight, he knew it contained all his coins.
Kordeck smiled at this man and nodded. "Well, I suppose Jae'haun will have no further need of her services after all."
Once the last man had mounted, Kordeck pointed toward the mouth of the cave and lightning shot from his fingertips, striking inside. There was a sudden explosion, and fire and smoke plumed out of the cave, dissipating just before it reached the three men on horseback. The entrance closed completely as more broken rock and debris continued to fall. Its past had indeed foretold its future.
After the cloud of dust settled and all three had regained full control over their mounts, Kordeck gave the order and they turned toward Jarga and home. They did not see the figure in the dirty gray robe detach from the shadows and bend over the discarded cloth to examine its bloody contents.