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The Black Kingby Sebastian
The sleeping girl stirred fretfully, pulling the furs closer. the fire had died down to luminous orange coals, and the bitter mountain winds of the Goblin Kush penetrated even here, the innermost sanctum of the Afridhi people.
The girl's eyelids fluttered open and she stared into the darkness, clutching her furs.
Toska, the call repeated, more gently now that she was awake. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, and the girl was vaguely aware that she was not hearing the voice with her ears, but rather inside her mind.
"Lord?" she asked into the darkness, her voice quavering. She forced down the butterflies which had sprung up in the pit of her stomach and told herself to be brave. She had known this moment would come. She had prepared herself for it all her life - physically, mentally, and spiritually. She would be brave.
Toska, child. The voice was powerful yet gentle, and the girl felt her fears draining away. Will you follow? I await you.
"Follow, lord?" The girl was confused. "Where?"
A vague luminescent green light came into being on the far side of the room. As the girl's eyes adjusted, she saw that it was coming from a passage leading down farther into the mountain.
The girl rose, letting her furs and blankets fall away, and stepped forward. She felt no fear, although she was aware that the passage existed where there had before only been rough stone wall. She wondered briefly whether she was still dreaming. Others before had received visions from the One in that manner. But, while surreal, this felt subtly different from a dream. There was something which told her it was utterly real.
She put aside her curiosities and entered the passage. Vision or manifestation, it made no real difference. Her god was going to speak to her.
Although the tunnel floor was smooth, the walls were jagged and winding. At first it wasn't apparent from where the greenish light was emanating, but as she descended it seemed to grow stronger.
She emerged into a vast circular chamber, filled by an inky pool of some black liquid. Green flames played across the surface of the pool, racing back and forth, and illuminating the chamber.
Step forward, child, and learn wisdom.
The girl stepped forward, to the edge of the pool.
You are to be my mate, Toska. Does this not frighten you?
The girl stood erect, proudly. "It honours me, lord."
Truly, you are a worthy leader. Are not my people strong, Toska?
"Strong as the mountains, lord."
"Hard as the glacier ice, lord."
"Faithful as the morning sun, lord."
Truly, it is so. I have given them the greatest of gifts.
The girl bowed. "Truly, lord. The sacred gift of fire."
No Toska. the greatest gift I have given my people is hardship. I have purified them in the fires of destruction and made them strong. I have broken their hearts and remade them. And I am well pleased.
The girl stood proudly. "The Children of the Fire live only to serve you, lord."
Even so. And now they are prepared for my purposes.
"Speak lord, and I will lead them to the very depths of hell in your cause."
Gaze into the pool, child, and I will show you lands to the south. Lands which are lush and ripe. These are the lands to which you will lead my people, child. this is the birthright and destiny of my children.
The girl looked, and marvelled.
You will lead them, child. It is your destiny. You shall conquer all who stand in your path, sweeping aside their armies like chaff. Only you may lead them.
The girl was still staring at the images in the pool. "Yes, lord."
You shall return to your chambers now, my child. On the morrow you shall begin preparations for the movement southward. It will be a long and difficult task, child, and it will be many years before it is completed and my children hold that which is theirs by destiny, but you shall lead them. And I will make you my queen.
* * *
Lord Stuyvesant gazed down on a scene from hell.
The city of Port Dacoit was burning, a hazy mixture of choking smoke and roaring flames which painted the night sky glow a deep orange.
The screams of the wounded and dying came thinly from this height, yet the clash of steel on steel and the crack and rumble of war machines failed to overwhelm the cries of the stricken.
"My lord!" The man who approached was breathless from running, his face smudged with soot, grime, and sweat. "My lord, the lower postern has fallen! Kierost's company was slaughtered where they stood, and the enemy is pouring through the breach like water! We must fall back to the inner citadel!"
The young knight would have said more, but at that moment there was a thunderous booming sound, and the stones beneath their feet trembled violently. The young man stumbled to one knee before recovering himself. He lurched to the parapet, leaning far out over the side, heedless of the arrows streaming up from below. "The gate has fallen!" he said, his voice a mixture of disbelief and despair. "We are lost!"
Lord Stuyvesant merely stared down at the flames, his eyes haunted. "The ravens are away," he said softly. "That much was done."
Earlier in the day, when the fierce Afridhi had descended on the city like a nightmare, Stuyvesant had ordered messages to all nations be dispatched. The entire rookery had been released, hundreds of birds, but the Afridhi bowman had shot down all but a handful. He had hoped to be able to hold the city against them long enough for some relief to arrive, but the city walls had been breached in the first hour. The ravens were away, but it would not save them.
How in the name of the gods had they done it? Stuyvesant's intelligence had suggested the nearest Afridhi were more than two days march off. Yet they had arrived, overwhelming the Port Dacoit forces almost immediately. And the savages had siege engines! How such a large force had managed to come overland bearing engines of war without so much as a whisper or a rumour to precede them was... it was unnatural. Even under a forced march, and with orders to slay every peasant they encountered, some word should have come, some warning. Yet there had been none. Perhaps there was some truth to the rumours that the priestess who led them had mastery of dark sorceries.
Lord Stuyvesant turned slowly, his heart torn by the sound of her voice.
Lady Alyse Stuyvesant had never been a particularly beautiful woman. She was tall and muscular, her face coarse and planed. The kindest thing that had ever been said of her was that she was handsome. Their marriage had been arranged when they were only children, a ceremony that was performed for duty. But she was a good woman, loving and kind, and Lord Stuyvesant had grown to love her. To his eyes she was beautiful, and it broke his heart to see her.
Clutching her skirts was young Justin, his only son. They had tried for years to have children, but the gods had not favoured them. Until five years ago, when the physicians and priests had all told them it was too late, and Justin had arrived like a miracle. Stuyvesant had doted on his only son, but the boy was not spoiled. At the moment, the boy was badly frightened, but trying hard to look brave. He had tried to get them out before the Afridhi had descended on the city, but the attack had come so swiftly...
For a long moment Stuyvesant looked them with haunted eyes, and when he spoke his voice was broken. "Alyse," he said at last. "Alyse, I have failed you."
Tears were shining in her eyes. "Never, my love."
A flaming arrow came whistling over the parapet and clattered as it fell to the cobbled walkway atop the wall, making Justin flinch. The flaming pitch at the tip of the arrow guttered and fizzled out almost instantly, but if one archer could send an arrow to this height...
"You must not let them take us, my love," said Lady Alyse, and there was a fierce look in her eye. "You must not."
Stuyvesant tried to speak, found he could not. He knew what she was asking, knew that it must be done, knew that he could not do it. When Robinsport had fallen to the Afridhi a month before, Baron Peel and his family had been taken alive. Toska Rusa, the witch-priestess who led these merciless savages, had made an example of them. The Baron was made to watch while his entire family was slaughtered before him. His wife had been flayed alive, his sons beheaded. His daughters had been raped to death. Even his infant son was not spared; an Afridhi Handmaiden of Death had dashed his brains out with a mace. Afterwards, Toska had ordered the Baron drawn and quartered. His head now adorned a spike atop Robinsport's tallest tower.
"My love," said the Lady Alyse. "Port Dacoit has fallen. You must not let us be taken."
Stuyvesant turned away, unable to face them. "It is unsafe here," he managed at last. "You should take Justin back into the citadel. I... I will join you shortly."
She stared at him for a moment, then gave a slow nod. She took her son's hand and turned away.
"Mama," the boy asked in a small, frightened voice as they turned, "I'm frightened. What's going to happen to us?"
"Hush, child," she said, pulling him closer. "Everything will be alright. Soon we'll all be somewhere else. You must try to be brave for a little while."
"I will be brave, mama," said the boy, their voices fading with the distance. "But it's hard."
For several long moments Lord Stuyvesant stared out at the flames. From this distance there was a terrible beauty in the destruction of the city.
"My lord," said the young knight at last. He had held his tongue during the interchange between Stuyvesant and his wife, but he could hold it no longer. "We must repair to the inner citadel. It is not safe here. If we are to hold out for any hope of rescue-"
"There is no hope of rescue," said Stuyvesant. "The citadel will fall within the hour. The ravens that were dispatched can only serve as warnings to our old enemies in Blackmoor."
The young knight was flustered. "But we must do something!"
Stuyvesant glanced at him. He was hardly more than a boy, really, and couldn't have been past his nineteenth summer. Likely the only fighting he had seen before this day was drunken brawls at jousting tourneys. "What's your name, boy?"
"Clain Hargrave, sir. Of House Brond."
"House Brond," said Stuyvesant. "A noble lineage. A good family. That sword you bear, boy, is it good Tenian steel?"
The young knight was confused by the question. "Yes, my lord. What other?"
"I would not have my family line die on foreign steel."
The knight was bewildered. "My lord?" Then, in a flash, understanding came, and horror painted his face. "My lord!"
Stuyvesant had turned back towards the flames. A single tear crept down his roughened cheek. "I must ask a boon of you, Sir Clain."
The young knight was stricken. "I cannot!"
"You must!" roared Stuyvesant, then his voice quieted. "You must. Toska Rusa must not be permitted to take my family."
There was a choked sob from behind him, but he did not look back. He hardened his voice. "It is an order, Sir Clain. Do your duty."
For a moment there was silence. "As you command, my lord," the knight said at last, his voice so husky it was almost a whisper.