Despite being the most wanted man in the whole of a ninth-century empire, an unlikely hero arises to help bring an end to the bloodiest military coup the kingdom has ever known and finds a way of life worth dying for.
Wanting only his freedom and the woman he loves, Zelian is a man of few desires, but with a passion for them that is anything but small. A simple life would make him happy. Happiness though, for Zelian, is an elusive thing.
Murder, mayhem and the fact that he is a wanted man complicate Zelian's life. Lies and betrayal of friends, the alliance of hateful rivals, and the twists of heros dying and imprisoned, and love both lost and found add greatly to the passion in this tale. And when Zelian gets caught up in the schemes of those who exert little control over the nature of greed, he finds his life complicated indeed.
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Dark clouds rolled across the night sky, troubled by a cold wind. Their massive, black forms blocked the moon's pale light from descending through the gaping holes in the old palace ruins where Zelian stood. Slow drizzle began to fall, the rain adding to the chill in the air.
Zelian rubbed his hands briskly, the friction warming them slightly. He cared little of the cold, however. As each breath fogged around his face he thought only of Sherri’e, his emotions taut with the desire to see her.
Sherri’e had asked him to meet her there and her summons he had answered gladly, his heart full of hopeful expectation. But, as he stood alone, with nothing but a small fire on the floor at his feet to keep the misery of the dreary night at bay, his only hope was that the night would not withhold her from him completely.
"Come to me! Come to me, my love," he cried softly.
The heavy walls of the crumbling palace shuddered around Zelian under the cold blast of an angry wind. The old boards of the castle’s roof, rotten and worn, groaned wearily ... eerily. Lightning flashed dimly through the holes in the palace roof and Zelian looked about the ruins, seeing only shadow and darkness. His frustration was festering into despair. He did not like the loneliness, the whispering thoughts of deviltry and possible mishap to Sherri’e that nagged him cruelly.
"Where are you, my love?" he croaked from his dry throat. "If only I can have you by my side …" He shivered, though not from the cold.
"Where might I find courage if not in your smile?"
Icy tendrils of dread crept up Zelian' s spine. He tried to shake the feeling but the jagged, sharp claws of it scraped against his weary bones. The hairs of his neck bristled, and, with that, he knew something was wrong. Or was it simply the imaginings of a man in an eerie place on a night fit neither for man nor beast, a night that promised nothing but misery?
These ruins were so dreadful to him now. The walls crowded in upon him, their once grand stature oppressive and confining. When last he stood within their crumbling walls they seemed inviting, even cheerful.
On the morning of his last visit there he had been with Sherri’e; maybe that was why the place had seemed so cheerful.
"Things always seemed so much better when I was with her," he thought aloud.
But then, how long ago that had been? Almost a decade now. It all seemed close enough to touch. His feelings for Sherri’e, his first love, had never waned, nor had her love for him. It left him dumbfounded to think of the passion she proclaimed for him.
At Shivail he had received the first letter. It had been months old by the time it finally caught up with him. He remembered the obvious hesitation and caution of her words. He had left her with a broken heart, uncertain of his true feelings for her.
The letters had been slow in coming, their delivery unreliable, with some letters obviously lost. The last letter, asking for a meeting, had arrived at a small inn in Skoally where he had last hidden from those seeking the bounty on his head.
Thunder rolled across the sky like the roaring breath of an angry God, shaking the very foundations of the earth as a bolt of lightning lit the eastern sky and cast the ruins in ghastly shadows. Again dreadful foreboding gripped Zelian.
"What could be keeping her?" he asked the cold night air, his breath fogging around his face before mingling with the wood smoke and disappearing in the drafts of wind overhead.
"She shan’t be coming," come a whispered reply from the black shadows that danced in the castle just beyond reach of the flickering firelight.
Zelian spun to face the blackness. "Who … who's there?"
Silence and the patter of rain were his answer.
"Who's there?" he cried once more.
Nothing. Had he imagined it? No, the voice had been clear enough. The sound had been harsh, mixing with the patter of the rain and the whine of the blowing wind. But the words had been clearly pronounced. He was not alone.
Cautiously Zelian drew back from the light of the small fire, drawing comfort from concealment in the shadows. His mind befuddled, he had been staring into the entrancing flames of the fire, and now his eyes refused to focus in the darkness. He could have been killed for such carelessness. His thoughts chastened him as he nervously began to evaluate the situation.
Sherri’e. He had been thinking only of Sherri’e.
Slowly his eyes began to adjust to the darkness, the small flames throwing little flickers of light into the chamber's enfolding blackness. Zelian strained to see, his hand resting uneasily upon the ornate handle of his dagger, his heart pounding with worry for the woman he loved.
With a deafening roar the sky thundered once more and sheets of lightning, white and blinding, shredded the heavens. Rain began to beat upon the roof in torrents, the roof doing little to stop the water's assault, rotted away as it was.
Zelian could not see the man who had spoken, but he sensed he was still there. Powerful emotions drew his muscles tight and left him struggling to control his rage, born of fear for the woman he loved. In a menacing voice, barely audible above the pounding of the heavy rain, Zelian demanded, "Who are you and what do you know of Sherri’e?"
There came no response and, his concern for Sherri’e overpowering his sense of control, Zelian screamed, "Tell me now or by the God of heaven you shall surely die!"
The form of a man, cloaked in a long wool robe, slipped from the shadows, his powerful build and height unmistakable despite the darkness. With a deft hand the man pulled the shadowing hood of his cloak from his head to reveal his sneering face.
Zelian, remaining hidden, had gained an edge and drew upon his many years of hunting and self-control to discipline his emotions. Zelian noted, of significance should it come to a fight, that the stranger was left-handed, for the hilt of a sword tugged at the right side of the man's cloak when he moved. Moving toward the man’s other side, Zelian silently drifted through the darkness, his movement hidden by the deep black of night as he skirted the fire and the man who now stood before it.
Staring into the black void before him, unaware Zelian had moved, the big man stood silently brooding. At last he spoke, the words coming forth as though distasteful. "The great Zelian! I've heard so much about you."
So, he knows who I am. Zelian quietly eased past a battered stone pillar in the huge, almost empty, palace chamber. He stood well behind the large stranger, his mind puzzling over the man's obvious hatred for him. Perhaps he's kin of the young constable I shot with my bow, bringing this bounty upon my head. But how does he know of Sherri’e? Why did he not kill me when he had the chance? I must not kill this man without first learning his secrets.
Zelian stepped out of the darkness, his senses keen. The rain dripped from his face in tiny rivulets as his dark hair lay plastered to his shoulders, wet and shining like black gems. In a low, confident voice Zelian asked again, "Who are you and what do you know of Sherri’e?"
Startled, the big man stumbled as he spun to face the man he had thought was in front of him, catching himself somewhat gracefully from falling. Their eyes locked, each assessing the other's strengths, the other’s weaknesses, and attempting to determine the other's intent.
"Do you seek the bounty on my head?" Zelian asked, obviously not thinking the man capable of collecting it.
"Bounty? Bah! I care nothing of bounties. I am Delphius, Son of Noam and Keeper of the Phelesian Scrolls," retorted the stranger.
"Delphius? I’ve never heard the name," Zelian lied.
"I've heard plenty of you," Delphius spat.
"It matters not. Tell me, why said ye that Sherri’e shan’t be coming?" asked Zelian, unable to postpone any longer the issue of most concern to him.
Delphius stared at him silently. His eyes narrowed appraisingly, obviously deciding what to tell this man he had such a dislike for. The flickering light of the dying embers played ominously across his face. "I should of killed you when you knew not that I was here," he said at last.
With casual indifference for the man’s statement, Zelian replied, "It's too late for that now. Tell me of Sherri’e."