Second book in David Burrows' fantasy trilogy - The Prophecy of the Kings
Prophecy of the kings
Vastra has dealt a cruel blow to the very men that befriended him, but even he cannot predict the outcome of his betrayal. Armies threaten Thrace and an alliance must be forged but Trosgarth has been busy and which nations can be trusted is in doubt. Friend is set against friend whilst the enemy, no one believes exists, quietly awaits the outcome. The prophecy predicts a king will save them, but for many years monarchs have been assassinated so few if any remain.
In a cold summer, after years of famine, war will finally be joined. But who will fight who? People will turn to the Prophecy for salvation. Demons will be summoned and fear will haunt Thrace and its people will be isolated, their moral shattered. Hope will come, but is it a fools hope…?
Tumarl crashed through the thick undergrowth, half running, half stumbling in his haste to escape. He ran with the unsteady gait of a man close to both his physical and mental limits. He had long since given up trying to reason and madness threatened his fragile hold on reality. Even the trees seemed threatening. Claw-like branches snagged his clothes as though deliberately seeking to hinder his escape.
A forest of such dread that no sane man would volunteer to walk beneath its shadow. A place heard of only in tales, best told sitting in the comfort of home, the storyteller murmuring in whispers, lest the evil in the world hear and curse the teller.
He was a sad reflection of a man. At one time his face had been broad and strong, but now grey flesh hung from his bones and he looked far older than his thirty years. He wore a permanent scowl, born from years of hardship.
Slow down, fool, a voice nagged.
Eyes wide with fright he stopped, looking about for the speaker.
Idiot, continued the voice. It’s you. You’re talking to yourself.
Gleefully he hooted. Wonderful! He had a friend.
“Shut up!” he screamed back. A bird took flight close to his legs, causing him to yelp in fear. Staggering like a drunkard he ran, cackling dementedly. In two more strides he misplaced his footing, stumbling headfirst into thick undergrowth. He struck his head on a root. Blackness engulfed him and mercifully he knew no more.
Some time later he awoke, cold and confused. Rain lashed down, running in rivulets along the length of his upturned face. Overhead a rook cawed, the only sound of life in the dismal forest.
The shock of the fall had partially helped him to regain his sanity.
“Where am I?” he croaked. The memory of a narrow smelly mine, men working with picks until their hands bled, sweating bodies, and cries of terror descended on him. Then he remembered his escape.
They would be after him. He had to flee.
Muttering, he willed his madness to remain at bay. Picking himself up he continued to lope along the narrow trail. The night was nearly done and he needed to be much further by dawn.
All too soon his hopes were dashed. Dodging between low branches he almost collided with a rock face that seemed to appear from nowhere. His mind wailed in frustration. Would he never escape this accursed forest?
Looking up, the rock towered high into the night sky, its surface bleak and forbidding in the difficult light. To his frustration the wall continued as far as he could see on either side of his position.
“Now what do I do?” he sobbed.
How many friends had he seen die while he stubbornly sought to escape his fate?
No! He refused to give up.
Knowing it was folly he started to climb. It was easy at first and he felt elated that he was finally escaping and level with the treetops he paused. Looking up he still could not tell how high the cliff was, it disappeared in the dark of a dismal night.
A scream from below froze his blood, causing his heart to lurch and his fingers to slip on the surface. Scrabbling he prevented himself from falling but at the cost of bruised and bloodied fingers. The sound was inhuman and an image of a grakyn sprang to mind. That they could fly made his predicament all the worse.
In his haste to climb he tore his already bloody fingers on sharp outcrops of rock as he hauled himself higher. It was a desperate ascent. The rock face was slippery with wet moss and the handholds few and shallow. Panting with exertion he pulled himself onto a ledge. It was not very wide and on it a scraggly bush clung tenaciously to life.
At that moment the moon chose to peek between the clouds, bathing the land in a silvery glow. Foolishly he looked over the edge and his mind reeled with vertigo as he scrambled back. It was a long drop to the ground. A cold wind gusted, causing him to shiver and he realised at some time during his ascent the rain had stopped, but that was no longer a blessing. He could see every leaf and twig far below which also meant anyone following could now see him.
Another scream sounded, stretching further his over-taut nerves. Taking advantage of the light he looked up to the next stage of the climb. It was smooth and slick with water, with few, if any, handholds.
He cursed bitterly. He was trapped.
The bush he shared the ledge with prevented him from leaning back and turning around he angrily pushed against it, seeking to make more room. His hand met with little resistance and shocked he tumbled forward, throwing up his hands to protect his head from the inevitable collision. But it never came and instead he fell flat onto his chest.
Untangling himself he realised he had unexpectedly found a cavern. Gratefully he scrambled forward and to his surprise, instead of narrowing, it widened and there was even sufficient room to kneel. Inside it was completely dark and he was forced to explore with his hands. His fingers traced a rough stone surface that stretched as far as he could reach to either side. The darkness was threatening and he glanced back towards the entrance and the faint outline of light.
An assortment of rocks and nesting material littered the floor. Taking up two rocks he experimentally struck them together. Nothing happened so he discarded one rock and tried another, repeating the process until a spark rewarded his perseverance.
Next he groped about the nesting material, seeking soft down. Striking the rocks he nurtured a tiny flame, feeding on more down and twigs as the flame grew. Grateful for the light he looked about. A long tunnel stretched away into the distance to either side, but he dare not explore without a torch.
By his foot, roots protruded from the rock and by continuously twisting one he managed to break it off. Eagerly he tore strips from his shirt, wrapping these about the wood before holding them in the fire.
Once lit, he scattered the fire, pocketing the stones he had used to light it. As he rose, his joints creaked in protest. Trusting his instincts he chose the right hand tunnel, hoping it would lead to safety. After a while it forked and without hesitating he took the left hand entrance, almost as if guided by an invisible presence.
Exhaustion started to make his mind wander and then, abruptly, he was standing in front of a large cavern, swaying on unsteady legs. His torch spluttered, threatening to expire.
Someone was in the cave and he stepped back into the shadows, pressing himself against the wall, already knowing it was too late to hide. Nothing happened though and upon reflection something about the scene seemed unnatural. A shiver ran down his spine; a compulsion seemed to be driving him on, even though he was nearly dead on his feet.
If there was somebody in the cave, they would have seen your torchlight, a voice reasoned. He looked about for the speaker. This time it was not his own mad ramblings and he could almost feel warm breath on his cheek.
Timidly he looked into the cavern. The figure had not moved and then he realised there were actually three figures, huddled together as though deep in conversation. Entering the cave he went over to them, stepping over objects cluttering the floor. The assortment of shapes caught his attention and he recognised a long knife and more importantly several torches. Gratefully he bent to retrieve one, nearly fainting as his vision swam.
With trembling hands he lit it using his own makeshift torch which was already threatening to expire. Dropping that he bent to pick up the knife and, armed, felt more confident.
His attention went back to the figures and to his pain-racked mind, finely balanced between sanity and madness, they seemed a mixture of reality and imagination.
“Statues?” he croaked uncertainly.
Silence! the voice warned.
He touched the nearest shape, feeling a cold, hard surface. The figure was that of a large man whose bearded face was contorted in a look of abject horror. In one hand he grasped a double-edged axe while the other rested on the shoulder of his companion.
Why would anyone make a statue and then hide it away in the depths of a cave? he thought.
Swaying, his attention went to the next stature. This man was smaller and conveyed an air of nobility. His features were fine and delicate although he, too, looked dreadfully afraid.
Whereas the first two men looked terrified the third looked strangely resolute. One hand rested on the shoulder of the smaller man while his other clenched a sword held on the big man’s shoulder. Something about his look suggested inner strength, a power beyond that of the cavern and his eyes seemed distant as though he were looking into another world.
Tumarl touched the statues, gently as though sharing their pain.
There was a flaw in the last figure, a large chip of rock had been broken off below the breast. The wound was deep and around it the stone was discoloured.
A feeling of unease suddenly overtook Tumarl and he felt a thrill of alarm.
Hide! urged the voice.
Without thinking he cradled his torch in the arm of one of the figures and retreated into the shadows. Briefly he giggled, reminded of his youth, believing he was back with friends, playing hide and seek as his madness sought dominance once more.
Entering the tunnel leading away from the one he had entered he waited and watched for his brother to come and find him, intending to jump out and frighten him with his knife. He looked down at the blade, wondering where he had found it and a frown creased his brow.
Gradually his racing heart slowed. He pressed himself against the cold rock. Feeling very tired his eyes started to closed.
Wake up! demanded the voice.
The voice was annoying him now and angrily he clutched the dagger. Glancing into the cavern nothing had changed and he was getting bored. He yawned as once again sleep threatened.
Stay awake. Just for a few moments, the voice whined but instead warmth stole over him and his heavy lids seemed to fall of their own volition. Movement jolted him to wakefulness. A creature stood at the light’s periphery. Immediately came recognition.
It pointed its arm and barked guttural words and a ball of flame leapt from its outstretched talon, illuminating the cavern and blinding Tumarl. An explosion followed, causing him to duck instinctively as a hurricane tore at him, trying to dislodge him from his hiding place. An ear-splitting bang followed, penetrating the very depths of his soul and causing the ground to shake.
When the blast died down Tumarl risked looking back into the cave where he saw the grakyn approaching the statues, lifting its feet to step over small fires. The grakyn’s wings were tucked behind its back as it stole across the cavern floor, like a cat hunting its prey.
Tumarl stifled a sudden urge to giggle, gripping harder the hilt of his dagger.
Silence, said the voice and he quietened, trusting the voice. Suddenly, he frowned as the smoke from the explosion drifted away.
The statues were gone and instead three men lay where the statues should have been. Not broken remnants of stone but people of flesh and blood.
Instantly Tumarl’s madness fled. Too often he had witnessed friends butchered by creatures such as this. A red haze descended as with a strength borne from despair he leapt from his hiding place, raising his blade which gleamed in the light from the burning wreckage. He covered the short distance as an eerie howl rent the air; not even aware that he had screamed.
Too late the grakyn turned as he drove the blade deep between its shoulders. With a cry of triumph he forced the blade deeper, clinging desperately to the hilt while trying to sever the grakyn’s life force.
The creature reared as a scream escaped its lip-less mouth. Wildly it thrashed, seeking to dislodge its assailant. In desperation it smashed Tumarl against the cavern wall, inadvertently driving the blade deeper.
The impact forced air from Tumarl’s lungs and waves of agony lanced through his body. Gritting his teeth he twisted the blade, screaming his defiance and then his strength failed and he collapsed, trying desperately to breathe.
The grakyn stood with its back to him, the hilt of the knife protruding starkly from its back. Then, with a thud, it, too, collapsed.
Tumarl sucked air into his lungs and on wobbling legs he stood. The fires within the cavern were dying and darkness was swiftly returning. Tumarl hung on to consciousness not needing the voice now to urge him on.
Reaching out for the double-headed axe, lying on the ground he took it up but its weight threatened to topple him. Bracing himself he lifted the weapon over his head and with the practised ease of one used to chopping wood he swung the blade. The weapon clove through flesh and bone as though nothing more than brittle twigs and the blade rang from the rock, sending a shower of sparks flying across the floor.
The sparks were the last things Tumarl saw before falling unconscious to the floor.