Daen was keeping a strict watch when the next assassin arrived.
Zeph came into the light sporting a new-looking, though similarly styled, black leather jerkin and pants. A gash marked his brow, and his movements seemed stiff as a pole.
“Three days for what?” inquired Daen.
“That’s how long we can stay here.”
“More likely how long we have to survive. Assassins have been sent to kill us, Zeph.”
Zeph snorted. “Couldn’t have been serious; I heard it was Gursey and Henig.”
“I would consider any assassination attempt serious.”
“It’s either that or Darseer Rolt’s grown a soft spot. I thought for sure he’d send Teryn. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation—there’d just be blood everywhere. No bodies, of course.”
“Cahrin is not conscious—and may never be,” Daen said in frustration. “Even if you are right about their intentions, we cannot be expected to leave so soon.”
“Hey, no one ever accused the Carcs of being hospitable. You should be happy they’re not using our body parts for building material. Anyway, Etta here is a jewel among healers. She’ll have Cahrin back hurling insults in no time.”
“You better hope—”
“Squash soup!” Zeph exclaimed. He stared hungrily at Cahrin’s mostly finished bowl on the night table before turning to Etta. “Any chance there’s some left for your favorite adopted son?”
Etta broke her vigil over Cahrin to glance in Zeph’s direction. “By Etta’s loom, what have you done to yourself?”
“I suspect Darseer Rolt had everything to do with it.”
“Him and thirty others.” Zeph winked.
“Thirty.” Etta’s eyes widened. Whatever had happened, Daen could tell it was significant and Zeph was lucky to be alive. “You best get food into you.”
She placed Cahrin’s hand gently on the coverlet and went to the kitchen for another steaming bowl of the orange liquid. She stopped short of handing Zeph the bowl, pausing with a delighted expression. “And who, may I ask, is this cute little guy?”
It seemed Zeph wasn’t the only one who smelled the aroma of Etta’s soup. There on the bed approaching Cahrin’s half-eaten bowl was her pink, paunchy companion. Etta pushed the food closer to the newcomer, who looked up at her with grateful eyes and began voraciously licking the bowl clean.
Zeph shuddered. “Why does everyone insist that thing is cute? Don’t you realize it’s bald, fat, and has claws that could shear a sheep? I’ve seen cuddlier scorpions.”
But as Daen watched the pink-bellied creature pause in its eating to give Zeph a wounded expression, he realized that this familiar of Cahrin’s was much more than some animal.
Etta addressed the “cute little guy” as if he were any guest in her home. “Don’t you fret what he says, my child. He’s just worried about your friend, that’s all.”
“C’mon, Etta,” said Zeph. “I was only joking—sort of.”
“You will be nice to this one. He looks like he’s been through a trauma.”
“What about my trauma? Did I mention there were thirty of them?”
“It does not seem so many when you keep bragging about it.”
“Anyway, how do you even know it’s a he?” asked Zeph.
“One can just tell these things.”
Daen picked up his empty bowl to take to the kitchen. He decided he agreed with Etta’s assessment as he watched the pink creature sloppily finish the bowl’s content, then look desperately about for more.
The old Carc placed the bowl she was carrying in front of him. “There you go.”
“Hey, that’s my soup,” said Zeph.
Etta clucked. “You always were a terrible sharer.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“There’s more in the kitchen. Go get it yourself.”
As he walked stiffly past, the pink creature shot him a wide, toothy grin complemented by the thick orange soup covering his face.
“I should have known,” Zeph grumbled. “Even her pet has it in for me.”
Daen settled in for more rest as Zeph sat down to talk with Etta and watch over Cahrin. He awoke sometime after midmorning. Through bleary eyes, he noted Zeph was sitting in the same chair he’d been in earlier. Etta was gone. Perhaps she had finally taken a break from her caretaker duties.
Daen watched Cahrin’s chest rise and fall with regularity. He was relieved to see the color returning to her smooth, exquisite features. Looking at her now, one would never suspect the harsh temperament she often displayed. Bred from the mountains which hold no mercy, they said of the Northerners. Not that Cahrin was truly mean-spirited. Daen could tell that she dearly cared for those she considered friends—including Zeph, despite their contentious words.
Deep in thought, he didn’t immediately realize her eyes were open until she spoke. “Azren,” she whispered. “The man in the charcoal cloak is a servant of Azren.”
“She’s awake,” Zeph said in disbelief. “Etta, she’s awake!”
The Carc healer entered the room and let out a gasp.
“Did you hear me?” Cahrin grabbed Zeph’s arm. “Do you know what that means?”
“I heard you all right. Just don’t worry about that right now.”
Cahrin’s sudden strength disappeared. She let go of Zeph and her eyelids drooped closed.
Daen and Zeph exchanged glances. As long as Daen had known her, she had insisted that Azren was alive and well and that his servants in the north were recruiting her people for war. Not that the Council had ever done anything about it. Either they put little credence in her claims, or they didn’t care. After all, the Glasshorn Mountains were a long way from Korinth.
But it was different this time. If what Cahrin claimed was true, that the charcoal-cloaked man they’d seen in the heart of Draza served Azren, it changed everything.
Etta switched to a regimen of cold rags. Now that Cahrin’s body had been shocked back to consciousness, she explained, it needed to stay refreshed. She prepared a thick, cream-colored drink for Cahrin, who managed several more lucid moments between bouts of sleep.
With Cahrin on the road to recovery, Zeph allowed himself to nod off. Daen watched over them both, helping change out Cahrin’s cold rags, even making sure her pink companion was well fed.
Darkness came sooner than he expected. He sat next to the bed, eyes open the width of one of Zeph’s throwing daggers. It was how sentinels of Nalesc learned to sleep. If something moved in front of him, he would become instantly alert.
Zeph’s voice interrupted his quasi-slumber. “You awake?”
He groaned. “Eternally.”
“I was thinking about where we might go from here.”
“I have as well.” He sat up in his chair and grudgingly blinked back his sleep. “The guards of Yridark may have given up their search, but the Council is not so easily deterred.”
Zeph nodded. “By now, they could’ve stationed assassins in every nearby city.”
“Cahrin is in no condition to travel far or fast.” Daen cast a glance toward her. She looked fragile with the covers pulled up to her neck and her lips still a shade away from their normal hue. “I am not sure what we will do if spotted.”
“What we have to do—we fight.”
Easy for Zeph to say. He believed the very moment of death was preordained. “If assassins are our enemy, we may not be given the opportunity. How many victims have you made without their knowing?”
Zeph shrugged. “It does tend to get messy if they’re awake for the deed.”
“Exactly. Even if we catch the assassins’ approach and prevail against them, how about the next time? Or the time after that? No. What we need is a place to hide and for Cahrin to recover. You must convince your people to allow us to stay longer.”
“You might as well convince a cockroach to fly. There’s one thing I’ve learned as a Carc, more than all the rules and lessons and skills: a darseer doesn’t change his mind.” Zeph kicked his feet up lightly onto the bed.
“Maybe you just need to push harder.”
“There’s a Carc legend that might better make my point.” His voice took on a storyteller quality. “Long ago in the early days of our people, a young Carc was determined to stay in the valley despite the darseer’s wishes. To plead his case, he said, ‘Let me stay, Darseer. I know all the lessons, and I will teach them to the children.’ The darseer shook his head.
“But the young Carc would not give up. He said, ‘Let me stay, Darseer. I know the way of the staff, and I can defend the valley.’ Still, the darseer was unmoved.
“The boy couldn’t understand why he was being denied. This time, he got on his knees and begged. ‘Let me stay, Darseer, unless you can tell me why it is so important that I should go.’ The Darseer spread his hands and said patiently, ‘It is true you are wise and skilled and could do much good in the valley, but we need your eyes to watch for us and there is nothing you can say to sway the words of a darseer.’
“The young Carc knew this to be true, so he took out his knife and popped out each eye and placed them in the darseer’s hand. ‘Here, take my eyes to watch for you. The rest of me will stay in the valley.’”
Daen gave a hideous grin. “A story told to breed obedience, I expect.”
“Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it untrue,” Zeph said. “I do have another idea. There’s a friend of mine—also a liege lord—who happens to reside on the outskirts of Embia. We’ll hold out there, at least until Cahrin regains her strength.”
“From experience, I can attest the closest friend of any liege lord is his purse.”
“By experience, you mean your difficult childhood spent among the privileged?”
“I witnessed merchants and minor lords with their petty differences, all scheming to gain the upper hand.”
“If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.”
He didn’t. In retrospect, Cahrin was lucky to be in the care of the Carcs. Independent of the Four Realms, they held no prejudice against her kind. The Northerners had joined Azren during the Great War, and before that initiated the Northerner Assault on central Draza. Any “friend” of Zeph’s might likewise look past Cahrin’s heritage and provide a needed refuge.
“So be it,” said Daen. “We shall visit this liege lord of yours.”
“And what about the other matter?”
Daen knew exactly what he was referring to. “A supposed servant of Azren this far south is troubling.”
“It could be she’s delusional. Half the time when Cahrin’s healthy, she’s delusional—thinking we didn’t rescue her back in Yridark. As if I’d have allowed that third-rate assassin to have her.”
“Regardless, we have other things to keep us awake at night than speculating about the man in the charcoal cloak.”
“But if it’s true—”
“If it is true, if Azren has indeed returned, then all on Draza should fear the days ahead.” Daen let his eyelids creep closed.
The next day, Cahrin showed even more signs of improvement. She sat up and ate on her own accord, talking in depth with Etta about her experiences as a summoner’s apprentice. To Daen’s keen senses, her raised spirits were due in part to the fat pink creature she called Norweegee. She spent most of her energies caring for him.
Now that Cahrin was feeling better, Zeph left the residence to catch up with old acquaintances. Daen offered to come along, but apparently it was forbidden for an outsider to move around the Carc city. Stuck inside the stone cottage for days, he was almost grateful when it came time to leave.
Etta followed them outside to say her good-byes. Daen had never known Cahrin to make a show of affection, and true to form, she bent her knees and bowed her head to the older woman respectfully.
“I will forever owe you a debt of gratitude,” she said in her delicate Northern accent.
“It was my pleasure to have cared for you, dear one,” Etta replied. She looked down, and a glimmer of amusement played across her lips. “What’s this?”
There, clinging to Etta’s left leg, was the pink, hairless creature Cahrin had informed them was a xaffel. She reached down and patted him on the head. “This one has a loyal heart.”
Norweegee gave her hand a giant lick, then leapt to Cahrin’s shoulder.
Etta turned to Zeph. “My motilio, come to your Granddam.”
Zeph stiffly walked into her wide, open arms. Daen couldn’t help but notice Zeph wince from her embrace. It would be some time before he was fully recovered.
“Thanks for taking care of my friends, Etta. I could always count on you.”
“You just make sure to visit again much sooner next time. Another five years and old Etta might not be here anymore.”
“Our threads are bound to meet again, Granddam. That I promise.”
The two only parted when Daen came forward for his own farewell to the Carc matriarch. He reached down in a neighborly embrace. Grasping his shoulders, she tightened her grip. Her back went rigid.
He stared at her in surprise. She seemed to be looking through him, her eyes milky.
“Protector of the two-legged stag, enemy of the she-lion,” she crooned rhythmically, bringing her face right up against his. “To stop what should not be, speak with which does not breathe, to learn what ceases to be forgotten!” She finished with such intensity that he felt the vibrations of her words. He was speechless.
Cahrin was not. “Etta?” She rushed over. “Etta!”
“He who is burdened must learn to carry more,” Etta continued. “For only when the tides are at their strongest can the six that were become the six that are.”
Then as quickly as it had begun, it was over. Etta ended her embrace with a coy smile. “You watch over my motilio. That one lingers about trouble like a hummingbird to a spring.”
“Of . . . course.” Daen stared after her as she ambled back to her house.
Zeph acted as if nothing unusual had happened and set off toward the edge of town.
Cahrin hastened to catch him. “Care to explain?”
“Let’s just say that Etta is a seer of sorts. She’s no Kalendistrafous,” said Zeph, referring to the legendary seer who presciently vacated his position as head of the Council of the Alliance just days before his replacement died mysteriously. “But every once in a while, she has these outbursts.”
“Is there any truth to her words?” Daen asked.
“Who can say? You’d have to figure out what they mean, first. ‘Protector of the two-legged stag . . . speak with which does not breathe…’” Zeph mimicked Etta’s droning voice. “She could be describing the end of the world and no one would know it until it’s too late.”
Daen pondered her words in silence the rest of the way to the edge of the city. He did not wish to make a point of it, but he knew the message was meant for him. Etta had stared right at him when she spoke. But more than that, it was the cryptic words themselves.
In the days of the high king, His Majesty would select his personal guard from among the sentinels of Nalesc. On the isle, they called this “serving the stag,” likening the king and his elaborate crown to a stag and its antlers. “Protector of the two-legged stag” referred to a sentinel—to him.
They stopped at the tall, splintered rock slab as instructed to wait for an escort to take them the rest of the way. It was not long before a Carc riding a roan horse came into view. Daen made out deep, sun-etched lines in his face, and what little hair he had was stark white. Most pronounced were his eyes—sockets without orbs. Daen could not help but wonder if this was the Carc from the legend Zeph had told.
Zeph gaped before gathering himself. “Darseer Caspar, I—I didn’t know you would be our escort.” He grabbed the reins and helped lead the horse.
“There is much in life that is kept hidden from us, sometimes until it is too late. Please, introduce me to your friends.”
Zeph made quick introductions. Although blind, the darseer appeared to study each of them. Daen found the effect unnerving.
“Are there no others with you?” asked Darseer Caspar.
Zeph started to answer “no” when he stopped short. “My friend Cahrin, she has a . . . pet.” At the mention of him, Norweegee climbed from the pocket of Cahrin’s riding cloak and onto her shoulder.
The Darseer reached forward and received a small lick for the trouble. “Sometimes it is the smallest of creatures that have the largest of hearts. Come. We will ride together and talk.”
The elder Carc led the group back toward the canyon. He cleared his throat, calling attention to what he was about to say, and when he spoke his voice was strong and captivating. “Not all of you treat Dela with the same deference as we Carcs. But even those of you who regard her as a lesser goddess should understand she spins the very threads that make up each of your lives. Some threads are long and some are short and others—well, they are intertwined.” The old man paused and gave Daen a sightless stare. “It is these that are of interest, because it is unknown even by Dela herself which of the intertwined threads continue and which are lost within the confines of the many.”
Daen did not put much credence in Dela, believing he controlled his own destiny. But he found it interesting that even in this valley of the Carcs there were those who admitted Dela had her shortcomings.
“Why are you telling us this?” he asked.
“It is a warning. There has never been a time when so many threads have become intertwined, when the fate of the masses relied on so few strands. It is said by Jurn, the founder of our people, that the thread that leaves the knot defines the lot. Determine yourselves if such is a children’s rhyme or sagely wisdom.” He concluded with an amicable smile.
They rode in silence for the next several minutes. “We are almost to our journey’s end,” declared the darseer, sensing the canyon ahead despite his lack of eyesight. “You should do well to forget this place and focus on the road ahead. Zeph has spoken of your encounter in Yridark. If Azren is alive and intending to start another war, we must begin preparations, though I’m afraid to admit that this thinking is not unanimous. Many of my people refuse to concern themselves with the Afflicted One. It is said that he is outside Dela’s influence. So why, some Carcs would argue, should mere servants of Dela intervene?”
The old Carc let his question sit unanswered before continuing. “It is because of this: Azren’s power is strong, so strong he can enter Dela’s domain and disrupt the threads, ending them before their time.” Darseer Caspar’s chin rose profoundly. “I say we Carcs are much more than servants of Dela. We are protectors of the threads. That is why I encourage Zeph to seek the truth in his journey, no matter how great the danger or how dire the consequences. To you who travel with him, stay the path at your own risk, for those who oppose Azren become the targets of his aim.”
They had reached the canyon entrance. The Darseer’s foreboding words hung over them much like the towering red rocks.
Zeph shifted restlessly in his saddle. “Darseer, may I ask you something?”
“The wind might as well ask if it could blow.”
“You said back at the Adalhelm that you believed Dela had woven a long and purposeful thread for me. Why is that? Is there something you know about my past or how I came to be with the Carcs?”
Darseer Caspar pressed his lips together. Daen imagined if he had eyes, they would be closed in thought. “As you are well aware, our people do not speak of such for good reason. You leave here with a blank slate. And while your death may be foretold, you alone must discover the path that takes you there. Our task is merely to prepare you for that journey, not to send you in a particular direction.”
“But how can I prepare for a journey from which there is no starting point? My own parents are a mystery to me. I could be some long-lost prince—and with my good looks, I wouldn’t be surprised.” His expression was nothing but serious.
“Your birth rank does not matter here, nor is it information we Carcs care to keep. I will tell you this: Some of our recruits are rescued from where they do not belong. Others were abandoned where they were sure to be found. But your parents sought us out and asked that we keep you.”
The look on Zeph’s face—he was crushed. Who wouldn’t be, thought Daen, to learn their parents had willingly given them up?
Darseer Caspar turned his horse around and began heading back. “Good-bye to you all. None shall I meet again. Take that as good or bad—or simply as a fact of how the threads were woven.”
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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books.
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