Third book in David Burrows' fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy of the Kings
Prophecy of the Kings
The threat from Trosgarth is growing and betrayal is in the air. The Priests of Ryoch are no longer a minor faction and their ranks now include warrior priests with empathic powers. Armies are marching to war and the balance is no longer in the favour of the allies, for without the Eldric and their sorcery they cannot hope to win. Desperate to redress the balance a new power will be sought, but this will not be all that it seems.
Kaplyn’s nightmares are plagued by dragons and his fear of them has driven him from Thrace, seeking the truth behind an image, shown to him by Astalus the Court Wizard. Vastra is alive and if that is true then the enemy has a crystal from the tree of life and can open a permanent gateway between the worlds. They will be able to summon demons and no one will be able to oppose them.
Kaplyn will be driven to the very brink of despair, having touched a kara-stone he has awoken the link with his Shaol and madness threatens his fragile hold on reality….
Kaplyn wearily shifted his weight as he kept watch over the small camp. It was dark. Not the complete blackness he had become accustomed to during the recent battles that had been unbearable. Now faint moonlight bathed the land, enabling him to see the silhouettes of the surrounding hills and thick gorse that grew in profusion in this part of Thrace.
Even though he could see, he still glanced down at his unsheathed sword. The onyx metal remained dull, reassuring him there were no krell or demons in the vicinity. If there had been then it would have glowed blue in warning. The wild was a dangerous place, made more so after the recent battles. Roving bands of defeated enemy had fled to the surrounding lands, seeking to escape to their homelands. Kaplyn and his companions were far beyond the range of any help and to make matters worse their journey was taking them north, deeper into enemy territory.
Absently he fingered the scar on his chest, the cold, crystalline surface felt alien. He shuddered as he recalled the final days of the battle at CarCamel and being spurned by those closest to him. His thoughts turned to Catriona, the newly crowned Thracian Queen and her memory tugged painfully at his heart.
He tried to dispel his gloomy thoughts, contemplating instead the men who had chosen to accompany him; Lars, Lomar and especially Tumarl who was such an enigma. He had sworn vengeance against the krell for the death of his family; a tortured soul who could find no peace. And yet strangely, of the three men Kaplyn felt he understood Tumarl the most. The loss of Kaplyn’s family and friends was a difficult burden and he felt guilty that he could have prevented their deaths. It would be too easy to become like Tumarl, to live only for the moment, seeking war against his enemies and losing himself in that single goal.
Kaplyn tried to focus on the task at hand and his eyes searched the surrounding night. Suddenly a nagging feeling that he was not alone swept over him. His blade remained dull but even still his discomfort grew. He laid down his sword, taking up his bow and reaching for an arrow.
“Hold,” a voice commanded from somewhere alarmingly close. Kaplyn’s heart was racing and although his bow was strung he did not have an arrow to hand.
“Put your weapon down and back away,” the voice said.
Kaplyn hesitated and considered calling to his friends. “A quarrel is aimed at your heart,” the voice growled.
Kaplyn stood, backing away from his weapons, inwardly cursing himself for daydreaming. A shape detached itself from the gorse closest to Kaplyn. The silhouette was shorter than Kaplyn but much broader across the shoulders. Other shapes peeled away from the shadows.
Behind him he heard firstly Lomar’s and then Lars’ voices as they were woken. Tumarl’s angry shouts filled the air and there followed sounds of a scuffle before silence abruptly descended.
A fire was lit and Kaplyn was forced to sit close to the flames. Lars was jostled to sit opposite him and two of their captors appeared dragging Tumarl’s unconscious body between them. Then Lomar joined them, his pale complexion standing out in stark contrast to the dark of the night.
In the light of the flames it was the first chance Kaplyn had to see their captors and the realisation sent a shock through his soul.
He did not know whether they were friendly or not for recently there had been little contact between the races.
“Well they are not krell,” one of the dwarves stated, joining the others by the fire. His tone suggested disappointment. “But I’ll warrant that fellow is a demon,” he said, pointing his axe blade at Lomar whose scarlet eyes marked him in stark contrast to the others.
“He’s not a demon,” Kaplyn interrupted, seeking to dispel their fears. “We are enemies of Trosgarth.”
One of the dwarves snorted. “Then more fool you, travelling abroad with so many krell about.”
More dwarves joined them about the fire, carrying the captured weapons. One dwarf held Kaplyn’s blade in his hand and he looked on it in wonder. “It’s Eldric made!”
“Let me see it,” demanded another. Kaplyn tried to turn to see the dwarf who spoke but was shoved by one of the captives. “Keep facing the fire,” a voice warned.
Behind him several dwarves muttered in surprise, but he could not tell what was said. Instead he looked at the dwarves opposite. They were not as he had imagined; they were too grim for one thing. They were also taller than he imagined, although the tallest still barely reached Kaplyn’s shoulder. Otherwise they were similar to that in his imagination; each wore a long beard, platted and tucked into broad leather belts from which hung decorative pouches and other objects that Kaplyn did not understand. Their tunics were of tanned leather, their trousers made from wool and they wore sturdy boots, laced up to their knees. They favoured dark colours possibly to help them blend into the night and each carried a double-headed axe.
A gasp by his side made him want to look around, but after his earlier warning he refrained. “That one there,” he heard one of the captors saying.
Two dwarves came to stand in front of Lars. One was carrying the big man’s axe in his broad hands and, even though it was huge by comparison to his own weapon, he looked more than comfortable with it. Lars looked up from where he sat, remaining silent, the fire highlighting the ginger streaks in his otherwise blond beard.
“Where did you get this?” one of the dwarves asked.
“We found it in Tanel, an Eldric city,” Lars answered.
The dwarves murmured excitedly.
“Are you one of the Eldric?” the dwarf questioned.
Smiling, the big man shook his head.
“You are certainly not a dwarf,” the other stated. Lars stood and he towered over the dwarves, causing them to take a step backwards. “If it was not for your height, I would have judged you to be one of us,” the dwarf stated. “Never before have I met a race who favour the axe.” The dwarf bowed before Lars, although the others still eyed the group darkly, clearly not yet convinced they were friends.
One of the dwarves stepped forward and Kaplyn marked him to be their leader. He was older than the others were and his beard was greying. “You are our prisoners and must be judged by our King.”
“We cannot,” Kaplyn stated bluntly. “We are on an important quest. The people in CarCamel are relying on us.”
“Bind and gag them,” the dwarf ordered, ignoring Kaplyn. “Free their horses. We dwarves prefer to walk!” Strong hands grabbed Kaplyn, nearly lifting him from the grass as his hands were bound behind his back. A coarse cloth was pushed into his mouth. He could hardly breathe; inwardly he cursed.
Some of the dwarves tried to arouse Tumarl, shaking him until he came around and then setting him on his feet where he swayed alarmingly.
Then the fire was doused plunging them back into darkness. With dwarves flanking them they set off into the night. Occasionally Kaplyn stumbled and each time strong hands prevented him from falling, but there was little compassion in their grip and swiftly he was herded on. He tried to remember what he knew about the dwarves, but his knowledge was scant. For many generations contact had been lost between the races, partly due to the remoteness of Thandor, the dwarves’ ancestral home.
Much later the column stopped and an outflanking scout appeared from out of the darkness by Kaplyn’s side, making his way to the head of the column. The prisoners were forced to lie down on the damp ground. The rest of the dwarves crouched where they had stood.
After a moment longer a party of about ten dwarves left the column, swiftly blending into the night. Kaplyn listened but could hear nothing and then the silence was shattered by hoarse cries of alarm.
Krell voices, Kaplyn realised fearfully.
Abruptly silence returned and within moments a dwarf returned for the prisoners and their escort, ordering them forward. They entered a deep hollow within which Kaplyn saw several shapes which he initially mistook to be boulders. He soon realised his mistake. Small bolts from the dwarves crossbows protruded from the shapes he now realised were krell bodies. Some lay on the rim of the hollow where they had been killed, trying to escape. A krell lay close to Kaplyn and he stared at it in revulsion. It looked gaunt, as though it had not eaten for some time, and its clothes were rags.
They didn’t stop and were led out the other side of the hollow. Kaplyn felt a sudden urge to look up and then heard soft flapping of wings overhead. One of his captors pushed him in the back. Kaplyn planted his feet firmly and desperately tried to nod in the direction of the sounds, hoping the look of fear in his eyes would be sufficient warning.
The guard pushed him harder, forcing him on.
A bolt of blue light streaked down from the heavens catching Kaplyn’s guard full in the chest and narrowly missing Kaplyn. The dwarf was thrown back by the blast and Kaplyn hurled himself to the ground whilst all around him pandemonium broke out. A second and a third bolt followed, accompanied by loud explosions.
Kaplyn crawled to the dwarf’s body and found that in his death grip he was still clutching his axe. He rolled onto his back and felt for the sharp blade with his hands. As bright lights danced before his eyes he sawed at his bonds which swiftly parted. With relief he pulled the gag from his mouth and scooping up the dead dwarf’s axe he ran to find his friends.
The flapping of wings was more obvious now and a shrill scream of rage split the night air. Kaplyn knew that a grakyn had found them. The dwarves were busy returning fire and several crossbow bolts streaked skyward in the vain hope that in the darkness they might hit it. More explosions shook the ground as the grakyn continued its attack.
Kaplyn realised it was futile trying to find the others in the ensuing pandemonium. Crouching on one knee he concentrated on the flapping of the grakyn’s wings with the intention of throwing his axe, but the dwarves’ shouts and the explosions confused him. He gripped the axe and was preparing to make a desperate throw when a ghostly spectre materialised from the darkness by his side. His immediate thought a demon had found them, but then he recognised Lomar, or at least his shaol. None of the dwarves close to Kaplyn seemed able to see the spectre.
Another explosion erupted, killing another dwarf whose body hit the earth with a sickening thud; his skull cap rolled from his head and came to a halt a few feet from the body. Lomar’s shade frowned down on Kaplyn uncertainly and for a moment Kaplyn sensed that the albino was looking at something by, or close to his side. So convinced was Kaplyn that he, too, glanced by his side but there was nothing there. When he looked back questioningly at Lomar he seemed to have recovered his wits and a sense of urgency came to his eyes.
“Kaplyn, I can see the grakyn,” he stated. “With my help you might be able to kill it.”
Kaplyn nodded and Lomar floated close to his side and pointed into the sky over Kaplyn’s shoulder.
“Throw along my point of aim when I tell you to.”
Kaplyn drew back the heavy axe and waited.
“Now,” the albino shouted all at once. Kaplyn hurled the axe with all his strength and the weapon flew into the sky, unintentionally spinning end over end as it went.
A cry of pain followed and a few heartbeats later a dark shape hit the ground only a few yards from Kaplyn, bouncing on the hard earth. The grakyn stirred and tried to rise but shadowy shapes arose around it and axes descended, severing the neck and splitting its wings before the creature had time to recover.
Kaplyn was immediately surrounded by dwarves, their weapons raised, but there was no menace in their eyes. Kaplyn rose, spreading his arms wide, making it clear he was unarmed. Glancing around, to his relief, Lomar’s shade had disappeared.
The dwarf he assumed to be their leader came over to him.
“He brought down the grakyn with an axe throw I would have been proud of,” one of the dwarves standing by Kaplyn’s side stated by way of explanation. The leader nodded and looked back at the body, its black skin glistened oily in the faint light.
“Untie them,” the dwarf said. “You will come with us. You will not be bound again unless you attempt to escape.”
Kaplyn agreed as Lars, Lomar and Tumarl were herded from the surrounding darkness. Tumarl was rubbing his wrists, trying to get the circulation back, his eyes blazed angrily, but for the moment he held his frustration in check. When he saw the grakyn’s corpse his gaze fixed on the body as though feeding his hatred.
“I have agreed we will accompany the dwarves to their home,” Kaplyn explained to the others who nodded, although their eyes reflected uncertainty.
The dwarves took stock of their situation. In all three were dead and two badly burned. Quickly, the column was formed and without further delay they set off; the dwarves carrying the dead and wounded as though their bodies were no heavier than their axes.
Lomar reflected on his out of body experience. It chilled him for he had never done this before whilst awake. It was the urgency of the situation that had forced him to consider the possibility. He had concentrated hard, seeking the elusive link with his shaol, his guardian spirit, and almost as soon as he did so he had felt his spirit slip from his body, abruptly finding himself by Kaplyn’s side.
What had shocked him most though was the ghostly shape, standing by Kaplyn’s side. He had seen other people’s shaols before, but they had always looked vague, like an indistinct fog. This time the shaol had looked as real as Kaplyn although it had shimmered in and out of view as though his presence in this world was tenuous.
The spirit’s attire was bizarre, unlike anything Lomar had seen before. An ornate breastplate covered a bright tunic, flaring excessively at the wrists with cuffs decorated with gold thread. He wore long riding boots and baggy trousers, tucked into the tops of his boots. A dagger and several pouches had hung from a thin belt. His hair was long and fine and he wore a tall conical helm, ornately wrought with fine carvings. The spectre’s gaze was intense and his eyes penetrating. His bearded face had been long and angular, and his look almost regal, but his eyes suggested an intense cruelty that had caused Lomar to hold his breath.
As he had studied the figure he had realised that it, too, was studying him. That came as a shock. But then the figure had flickered from view as though it had never really existed. Lomar had been left looking bewildered upon Kaplyn before he had remembered the grakyn. Now, as they walked in the complete darkness of a moonless night, Lomar glanced back at Kaplyn who was walking mechanically with weariness reflected in his eyes. There was no sign of the spectre by his side, although Lomar somehow knew he would not see it unless his own spirit travelled on the astral plane.
He turned his attention back to the column ahead. Should he tell Kaplyn what he had seen? That was his dilemma, for he doubted Kaplyn would believe him. He had a premonition that worse was yet to come. As he walked he pondered upon why he could only see Kaplyn’s and the priests’ shaols, sensing an urgent need to solve that riddle.
They walked for the remainder of the night and at the first signs of dawn the column took shelter in a small wood. As soon as they were settled the leader of the dwarves approached Kaplyn.
“I’m Thaneck,” he said holding out a hand.
“Kaplyn,” he replied taking the dwarf’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Why are you travelling in our lands?”
“We have come from CarCamel. Recently there was a battle against an army we believe was sent by Trosgarth. The krell you slew last night were probably remnants from that army, trying to return to their homes.
“We are going to Drishnack, the Aldracian capital to find out how large their army really is.” Kaplyn continued. He refrained from mentioning that he was drawn to Drishnack by a vision of Vastra, now an old man, captive in a golden cage. Vastra was a wizard, or sorcerer as he had always insisted, who had led the group when they had searched to discover the fate of the Eldric so long ago.
Vastra had betrayed them after taking a crystallised fruit they had found hanging from a fossilised tree deep in the heart of BanKildor, one of the tallest mountains in the PenAmPeleas range. Kaplyn bore the remains of another crystal, now a crystalline scar embedded in his chest. Inadvertently his hand had strayed to it and absently he rubbed it beneath his shirt. How he had got the scar he did not know, but suspected Vastra was to blame.
Kaplyn feared if Vastra’s crystal fell into enemy hands, the enemy would be able to open a permanent passage to the demon world. The thought made him shudder. He was nervous enough having told only half the truth, but he held the dwarf’s steady gaze, hoping that his deceit would not be discovered; the scar on his chest itched uncomfortably as though it, too, was part of the lie.
“You and your friends look nothing like Aldracians,” the dwarf snorted, eyeing particularly Lars and Lomar. “Put one foot in Aldrace and you will be arrested.”
Kaplyn smiled, knowing that the dwarf spoke truthfully. Neither Lomar nor Lars could ever hope to enter the enemy city, both were markedly different to the other races: Lomar with his white complexion, and hair and Lars with his blond hair and sheer size.
“It’s a problem we have yet to solve,” Kaplyn admitted.
“And how do you intend getting through KinKassack? That forest will eat you up and spit you out.”
Kaplyn had not formulated a plan and was embarrassed by the dwarf’s questions. “Tumarl has travelled through KinKassack or part of it, at least.”
Tumarl’s gaze never faltered even though this was the first mention of the fact they would travel through the forest that had so nearly killed him.
The dwarf looked at Tumarl in disbelief. “That’s impossible,” he said “KinKassack is evil. No one could pass through it. It’s an unholy place; krell and trolls live there and even the trees are evil. Namlwyn tried, he was my friend. He took with him over a hundred dwarves, intending to cut a passage to Thandor, our ancestral home. Neither he nor his men were heard of again.”
“We live in dark times,” Kaplyn agreed.
“Your tale suggests we need to make haste,” Thaneck decided. “Do you have a head for heights?” he continued with an impish grin. Behind Kaplyn, Lars groaned which only served to broaden the dwarf’s smile. With that he walked off towards his fellows who had gathered together a short distance away.
“What did he mean by that?” Lars asked uncertainly.
“I don’t know,” Kaplyn answered, also concerned by the dwarf’s glib statement.
Thaneck spoke to another dwarf who removed an object from his pack before walking to a tall tree, which he commenced to climb. He shuffled on to a large branch high above the ground where he unwound a length of cord at the end of which dangled a small object. Slowly at first he swung the wood in a circle by his side and a low eerie whistling started which gradually grew in intensity as he increased its speed, alternately increasing and decreasing in pitch as it sailed through the air.
Kaplyn and the others felt uneasy and they glanced about the treetops. Thaneck approached and seeing their apprehension grinned wolfishly. “Do not fear, we are merely calling to our steeds. You might have heard of them dristal?”
Kaplyn remembered the name from childhood tales. “I thought that they were a myth.”
The dwarf shook his head. “Many dristal live in the mountains of our homeland, but their numbers are dwindling,” the dwarf said. “They are difficult to catch and even harder to train so we rear them from hatchlings.”
“What is a dristal?” Tumarl asked. As though in reply to his question a plaintive cry echoed through the wood, causing everyone to look up.
“Come and you will soon find out,” Thaneck said, leading them to the edge of the wood. In the distance they could see several small specks against a dark and forbidding sky. As they watched, the shapes grew in size until they could clearly see giant wings beating against the chill air. Tumarl sucked in his breath in awe.
They were gigantic birds of prey, very similar to an eagle, but much larger. The first alighted gracefully on a small grassy knoll not far from the wood. Its talons were huge and Lars could not help but stare uncertainly at the massive birds. A dwarf ran out to greet the dristal, running his hand through its neck feathers.
“No!” Lars said. “There’s absolutely no way that I’m going to ride one of those. If Valra had meant us to fly he would not have asked Kantral to give us legs.”
“Valra?” Kaplyn asked.
“The god of the air,” Lars pronounced, making a sweeping gesture with his arm.
“I agree,” Lomar said. “They look like they would rather eat us than carry us.”
“It’s the dristal or KinKassack,” Kaplyn said.
Tumarl grimaced. “I’ll take my chance with the dristal,” he said. “Besides, dwarves ride them and survive.”
“Maybe the dwarves taste bad,” Lars said, his eyes wide with fear.
They watched as the dwarves unloaded some of their heavy packs. They then unrolled leather saddles that looked too fragile to support them. A short while later, six dristal were ready for the dwarves to ride, each bird now wore a double saddle and harness.
“A dristal normally carries two dwarves,” Thaneck explained, re-joining the group. “One controls its flight well as much as possible,” he admitted somewhat sheepishly. “The other rider is armed with a crossbow and watches the sky in case of attack: the grakyn have become bold of late.”
Behind him, five dwarves mounted the giant birds and adjusted the flying harnesses. Clearly, the bulk of the patrol was remaining where they were. Thaneck led them towards the great birds. “Do not worry about your supplies, I have asked Delbarl to follow us.” A dwarf standing by Thaneck’s side bowed low to Kaplyn at the mention of his name.
Kaplyn thanked him and then approached the foremost bird, eyeing it warily. Thaneck mounted first, making it look easy. Kaplyn found a stirrup and put a foot in it and taking Thaneck’s proffered hand he climbed up. Once on the bird’s back he grinned down at his companions, but no one returned his smile.
“Valra,” Lars said solemnly. “Hear my prayer and do not let this bird fall from the sky. And, if you are listening, do not let it eat your servant.”
Kaplyn smiled. The stories that he had heard about Lars’ gods suggested they were likely to ignore the big man’s prayers in any event. Lars mounted and sat on his dristal looking completely miserable. The others also mounted and without waiting further the great birds launched themselves into the sky. They were much slower and less graceful than the dragon Kaplyn had ridden and he at least felt at ease.
He looked down at the ground far below and watched as the small wood receded into the distance. Glancing around at his companions he saw that they were coping although Lars’ eyes were tightly shut. Tumarl had overcome his fear and was looking around wide eyed with curiosity whilst Lomar sat erect, seeming indifferent to the experience.
Flying only served to remind Kaplyn about his dragon flight and recurring nightmares. Thinking about them now, he realised that he did not even know how he had actually summoned the dragon. He cast his mind back to the rooftop in CarCamel with the smoke of battle partially obscuring the breach in the wall and the enemy flooding through. He had raised his sword and for a moment the runes on the blade had seemed to dance, unless it had been a trick of the light. To his surprise the dragon had not appeared evil as in the dreams and yet a voice within his mind seemed to urge him not to trust it.
After the battle he had been asked to lead an army against Trosgarth, riding on a dragon at the army’s head. Kaplyn could not explain his concerns but the prospect had terrified him. That was one reason why he had left the city; the other was Vastra. Thinking about him made him angry. If it was not for him, Kaplyn would have returned to his family and perhaps could have saved them.
Abruptly he noticed a mountain range looming up on their right and was distracted from his melancholy by their bleak magnificence. Each peak rose sharply into the sky whilst rocky crags plunged steeply into deep valleys. Unlike other mountains he had seen these were bare and forlorn, being mainly rock; nothing seemed to grow on their sheer slopes. Each summit they flew over seemed to be more perilous than the last, and vast screes marked ancient rock falls.
Kaplyn was riding with Thaneck and throughout the journey the dwarf had remained silent. Now he pointed down and shouted above the noise of the wind. “Kaldor,” he said simply.
Kaplyn looked where he was pointing. Below was a narrow plateau. Three sides of the plateau were surrounded by cliffs, on the fourth side the mountain rose sheer, disappearing high in the sky, wreathed in sombre looking clouds. Small, dark openings in the mountain marked windows and doors overlooking the plateau and Kaplyn guessed that this was a city. To Kaplyn the rock walls were dark and gloomy, but Thaneck beamed down at the city with obvious pride.
The dristal spread their wings and spiralled down toward the high walls and, as Kaplyn’s stomach lurched at the sudden descent, he suppressed a growing feeling of dread.