Etchings of Power
Alys Valdeen’s nails scratched under Ancel’s chin and down his neck. Each stroke soothed the itch from the short black hairs sprouting through his skin. He closed his eyes and sighed as he contemplated shaving off his beard soon. How other men in Eldanhill managed the itching, he couldn’t fathom. They must have stone for skin. Maybe that was why most who grew facial hair were miners. All that quarrying and mining must have made them extra tough. Either way, his days growing a beard to impress the women were done.
“Do you really have to leave now?” Alys’ voice purred. Her long fingers, each with a matching silver ring, traced slow lines down Ancel’s muscled chest and stomach.
Ancel squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and forced himself to stop her hand. The last thing he needed right now was to be caught up in another session, no matter how much he enjoyed her naked curves and the intoxicating scent of her sweet perfume. “Yes, I have to go.” He brought his hand up and brushed her delicate, sunset orange and red strands from her face. “If I let myself go with you again, I’ll miss the chance to pick the kinai at its ripest.”
She rolled over and pulled him on top of her. “You and those damned fruit. They can wait. I want you,” she implored, her green eyes shining with need.
“If I miss this chance, I’ll have to hear my father’s wrath tomorrow.” Ancel stroked her hair. “You know how important Soltide is this year. Inspectors are coming from the capital, and the Council expects the best product from my father’s winery. I—”
She acted as if she didn’t hear a single word he said and curled a leg over his. Without thought, he stroked her thigh, his tan hand offsetting her pale skin. Her soft, supple body called to him, and her hand reached down below his waist as the warmth between her thighs pressed against him. A groan escaped Ancel’s lips. Almost on its own accord, his back arched with pleasure. He looked down to see Alys staring into his face, her eyes reminding him of his own emerald ones, except his had a slight shade of blue.
In an attempt to resist the ecstatic tingle easing through his body, he pictured his parents’ scathing tongues and the off chance he may miss class if he indulged himself once more. His Teachers’ berating would be just as bad. Another demotion would loom over his head. What did it matter? Surely, he could…No. Mirza had been right. He needed to focus on his training. As the thought crossed his mind, Alys’ hands tugged on him with slow sure strokes. He shuddered. I guess I’ll have to miss my studies. How much could that hurt? Unbidden, his hands reached for her breasts.
“Ancel!” Mirza’s voice rang out. A fist pounded on the bedroom door. “It’s time, man. You don’t want to hear Stefan’s voice today, do you? And the Clan Council’s. And Teacher Calestis’s.” Another thump sounded on the heavy oak door. “Alys, don’t drain the man. He has work to do, classes to attend.” A cackle followed.
Her face reddening, Alys jumped up and pushed Ancel off her with a squeak. “You really need to tell your friends not to interrupt when you have company.”
Ancel rolled over on the soft bed and groaned. He’d forgotten about the bet. His best friend never could resist the chance to play a part in something he found funny, or what he saw as a decent wager. “I’ll be right there, Mirz. Give me a few minutes,” Ancel called.
Mirza snickered. “You have five minutes. If you’re not out by then, I’ll come back with your father.” Footsteps receded down the hall.
Ancel swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. Running his hands through his hair, he heaved a great sigh and gathered himself. He stood, walked to where his light green silk shirt and matching linen pants lay in a pile on the polished wood floor, and picked them up.
“Gods, I love your ass.” Alys’ sultry voice trembled.
Turning to her, Ancel grinned. “You probably like this more.”
Alys’ green-eyed gaze roved down his naked body, past his waist and she giggled. She eased from under the satin covers and squirmed in the bed, the red silk sheets beneath her setting off her smooth white flesh. “Are you coming back when you’re finished?” Her voice purred once more.
He shook his head. “I have to train when I return, but you’re welcome to come watch.” He picked up his longsword, still in its white scabbard, from the floor.
Alys’ face reddened again, and her eyes flashed angrily. “I’m not one of those tramps. I’m not going to ogle you while you practice.”
With a shrug Ancel turned and headed for the oak door, grabbing a towel from a wooden rack. “It didn’t seem to bother you yesterday. Either way, I’ll be enjoying myself later tonight. It’s your choice if you want to be a part of it.”
The sound of a frantic shuffle and the clink of metal on glass made Ancel duck. A vase flew over his head. Water droplets sprinkled across his back as the vase crashed into the door, pretty, blue bellflowers spilling onto the floor and the thick, mountain cat fur rug. The head of the beast still attached, its great jaws leered at Ancel. He looked over his shoulder.
Alys stood with the silk sheets gripped in one trembling hand. Her eyes were glistening pinpricks of loathing. “You said I was special. I bet if Irmina was here you wouldn’t treat her this way.”
Ancel’s blood boiled. How dare she mention that woman? He opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut, his lips pressed tight against the hurtful words he might utter. Turning back to the door, he yanked it open and slammed it behind him.
Not long after, the Streamean temple looming ahead, Ancel and Mirza sat atop their dartans as they trotted along the Eldan Road past the neat stone edifices of the now closed Mystera. Dusk lay across the town like the gray cloaks they wore, matching the clouds that roiled above the Kelvore Mountains to the north. Arcane lamps heralding the Soltide Festival hung from almost every building in the town and across the quiet streets, their glow reflecting from the windows, tinting the granite and sandstone buildings like cobalt lightning. Charra loped next to the young men, his bone hackles sighing in soft swishes, and his padded paws near inaudible.
As they rode by the Streamean temple and its tall clock tower wreathed in blue light, Ancel dipped his head in prayer. Their mounts carried two long wooden racks, each nailed to the bottom of the animals’ humped shells. Thick leather straps slung over the dartans’ backs helped to hold the carriers in place. Empty sacks were tied in even spaces on each rack, one hanging to either side of each of the beasts’ six legs. The dartans mewled to each other, snake-like necks swinging from side to side.
Other than Ancel, Mirza, and the occasional town watch, no one else traveled this part of Eldanhill. Most had retired after a long day filled with Soltide preparations. In another four weeks, the festivities would begin in earnest, and these same streets would overflow with revelers. Eldanhill’s celebrations and its kinai juices and wines were well renowned, bringing people from all across Granadia even from as far south as Ishtar and its port cities. Each year Ancel looked forward to the festival more than the year before. The revelry often helped him to forget Irmina. He pushed the thought of her away before it set him to brooding.
“Which patch do you want to go to first? The glen?” Mirza asked.
Ancel tied his shoulder length hair into a ponytail with a leather cord and shook his head. “Let’s go through the Greenleaf first, see if we can’t find a wolf or two for Charra to have some fun. Then we head to the glen.” He flapped his reins. “I fed these boys fresh beef this afternoon. They’re ready for a good run. I’ll race you back home when we’re done.” A grin tugging at his face, he added, “If you’re up to it that is.”
Mirza chuckled and shifted his position in the saddle carved into his mount’s shell. “It won’t be a race. You know, you’ve already lost one bet today. Best not to make another. Dartans may be more suited for the work we’re about to do, but if you think that’s your advantage, then you’re mistaken. Dartan, horse, hmmm…” Red eyebrows raised, his head bobbing to the left and right, he weighed the choices. “It makes no difference.”
Ancel smiled at the opportunity to win back his coin. “If you feel so good about it, I’ll hold onto your coin until we get back here. Double the bet?”
Mirza looked down at his yellow shirt and dozens of frills that covered the sleeves. “I could use a new shirt anyway. I’ve been putting on weight, I think.” He flexed a skinny arm. “You’re on.”
“Weight?” Ancel shook his head and chuckled. “Is that what that is?” He glanced at the frills. “Fooled me.”
Mirza waved him off, his tone becoming serious. “How hard is she taking it?”
Ancel shrugged. “She’ll get over it. They always do. If she doesn’t—its Soltide. There’ll be plenty new women to dance with this year. I heard the princess herself is coming from Randane.” His lips twitched. “Ilumni knows, I love this time of year.”
Mirza’s voice rose in a brief cackle, mirth dancing in his eyes. “You have as much chance of bedding the princess as you have of bedding a High Ashishin.” Mirza appeared thoughtful for a moment. “No, you’ve a better chance bedding the princess if it came down to it. Hydae’s flames, you’ve a better chance bedding the Queen than a High Ashishin.” He shook his head slowly and smirked. “My good sir,” Mirza’s tone became mocking and aloof in imitation of a lordling, “I admit I envy your luck with women, but the princess is above even you.”
“Ha. Luck? Never luck. It’s all in the tongue.”
Mirza grunted. “Spare me the details. They’ll wise up when that ass of yours becomes old news.” He burst out in another cackle and flapped his reins before Ancel could reply. His dartan bounded forward in four great, yet feathery, leaps before breaking into a gallop. Mirza’s cloak streamed behind him.
With a loud, throaty bark, Charra chased after Mirza. Laughing, Ancel whipped his own reins. His dartan’s six thick legs stretched as it sped along with a silent grace that easily outstripped a good horse’s gallop without the uncomfortable jounce. They headed north toward the Greenleaf Forest and the black sentinels of the Kelvore Mountains’ shadowy forms looming beyond.
Just over an hour later, sweet smells from fist-sized kinai drifting upon the breeze, they rode along the trail to their secret glen hidden among the sandstone hills at the edge of the Kelvore Mountains. The ripe fruit filled the sacks on Ancel’s mount. They’d kept Mirza’s sacks empty so as not to mix the two crops. Charra had run off to scout the way ahead.
Their hunt for wolves had not gone as well. Ancel wrinkled his brow with the thought. Every wolf trap they visited had already been triggered, paw prints in various sizes covering the ground, yet they saw no wolves. The missing wolves and Charra’s disconcerting whines had put Ancel on edge. The promise of a storm from the charcoal clouds gathered above the mountains did little to help.
However, neither his mood nor dusk’s dim light could hide the beauty around them. Enhanced further by the dying sun’s orange hues, low foothills lush with long needle grass, and yellow and blue bellflowers rose about them. An occasional copse grew along the slopes, the young pine and cedar often thinning out until just one or two trees grew between each thicket strung together like jewels on a necklace.
Ancel frowned. Not a hint of song from the usual evening birds drifted on the stiff breeze that was blowing. He slid his hand to the reassuring feel of his longsword’s pommel.
Loud, incessant barks burst from Charra, startling Ancel and Mirza. The dartans mewled to each other, eyes rolling back in their heads, their necks swinging.
“You smell that?” Ancel scrunched up his face at an earthy, rotten odor.
Mirza gazed at the narrow entrance between the hills where the daggerpaw stood. “Yes. It smells like spoiled kinai.”
Bone hackles forming a ridge of hardened, knife-sharp edges, body straining forward, Charra stared down into the glen. The daggerpaw’s tail whipped back and forth, and a spiky bone appendage slid in and out from its tip.
The young men pushed their skittish dartans into a gallop and topped the rise at the glen’s slim opening. Ancel’s breath caught at the sight beyond the daggerpaw. Mirza gasped.
Fungus crawled over decaying kinai fruit trees, hanging in thick dark ropes. Some of the head high trees bowed to the earth under the weight, dark worshippers at pray before a forsaken god. Branches still visible under the fungus were black rather than brown or green. The rotten stench choked the air as the sickly growths strangled the orchard. Bloated, decaying kinai covered the ground in clusters, their fluff spread like thick, red spider webs. The buzzing of thousands of flies gorging themselves rose with a chill breeze as the insects swarmed over the crop, their wings glinting with blackness.
Cold, clammy fingers trailed down Ancel’s spine. “What, in Amuni’s name, could’ve done this?” he whispered, his voice shaky.
“I-I don’t know,” Mirza uttered, his often flushed face now a pallid mask.
Ancel reached a tentative hand down next to his saddle and retrieved his bow. He slung it over his back. Steeling himself against the dread running through him, he said, “I need a closer look.” He dismounted and double-checked on his longsword at his hip.
“Y-You sure about this?” Mirza dismounted next to him with a spear in his bony hands.
“Yes. We need to find out what did this and report it to my father.” Ancel’s voice trembled, but he fought down the urge to mount and ride home.
“We’re only in training, Ancel. Remember that.” Mirza looked up at him, gray eyes radiating fear, his hands shaking. “I’m with you though.”
Ancel glanced at his daggerpaw. “Charra can protect us.”
Mirza nodded, but his knuckle-white grip failed to keep his weapon steady.
They squished their way through the decayed fruit toward the small stream feeding the glen. Disturbed flies buzzed about before they settled once again among the squashed kinai that stained the youth’s leather boots and Charra’s paws, a somber red. A reek similar to moldy unwashed fur mixed with shit underlay the odor from the kinai. The stench reminded Ancel of Master Javed’s disgusting dog kennels and grew to near unbearable levels as they approached the stream. Charra whined.
“Oh Ilumni…” Mirza pointed as the stream’s muddy banks became visible.
Black clumps of shit littered the water’s edge, and some floated in the stream. Ancel turned back to the kinai field. Black mounds lay among the trees, half hidden by the fluff. Huge paw prints, similar to a humongous wolf’s or a mountain cat’s, but twice as big, trailed from the muddy banks. He couldn’t tell if the other tracks he saw were manmade.
“We have to leave this place. Now.” Ancel’s gaze swept across the glen for signs of movement, but he saw none.
Mirza needed no prodding. They both sprinted for their dartans, their cloaks flapping around them.
“Home, Charra!” Ancel shouted.
At the command, Charra bounded ahead, growling the entire time. Ancel and Mirza mounted and dashed from the glen down the long trail.
With Charra leading the way, they galloped from the sandstone foothills. Not once did they look back as they crossed a field of long, swaying grasses, oak trees, and gooseberry vines. A wind blew with tangy gooseberry smells upon it, but it carried no warmth. Ancel took a deep breath, grateful to be rid of the stench from the glen.
Insects chirped and lightflies flitted among the grass and trees. Twilight’s glow had disappeared from the sky, replaced by the brilliant twin moons. Still, the celestial bodies did little to brighten the Greenleaf Forest when they entered past looming pines and oaks that stood sentinel. Ancel didn’t need a lightstone to guide them through the dark woods, but he used one anyway. Uneasiness tickling the hairs at his nape, he and Mirza wound their way through the trees.
Resinbuds with their yellow, purple, and white blooms blinked on and off among the trees—the light within the flowers attracting numerous insects. Several times, he thought he saw movement from the corner of his eye, but when he tried to glimpse the source, he saw nothing but shadowy trunks and brush.
Charra stayed next to them this time with his ears pricked up and a low rumble in his throat. The daggerpaw’s hackles remained upraised. Ancel scratched at his itching neck in an attempt to shake the uneasy feeling, but it stayed. Mirza must have sensed the same thing because his wary gaze swept around them often.
Even with the usual hooting wood owls, buzzing insects, and other noises from foraging night creatures, the feeling not only persisted, it grew. So did Charra’s rumbling growl. Ancel fidgeted with his bow and made sure he could reach it with ease.
They pushed the dartans harder through snarls of gooseberry vine snaking through the bushes in their path. Branches like reaching fingers snagged at their cloaks. Once, Ancel was almost yanked from his mount as his cloak caught then tore free. Breaths coming hard and fast at the close call, Ancel pulled what remained of his cloak tight around him.
Charra’s rumble increased to a sharp snarl that could challenge a mountain cat’s growl. The wind picked up, carrying with it the same fetid stench from the glen. A chill slithered through Ancel’s gut.
They urged their mounts on, but the foul odor grew stronger. Cold sweat trickling down his brow, Ancel flicked a hand across his eyes to clear his vision and snatched a look behind.
Shadows flitted between the trees, and branches crashed and snapped. Resinbuds, that moments before had added light, blinked out in an advancing trail ahead of the shadows, racing toward Ancel and Mirza as if the dying glows chased them.
Ancel whipped his reins harder.
The dartans crashed through small branches and brush, oblivious to the rake of broken wood and scratch of thorns. They warbled in short spurts, and their breaths came fast and heavy. The wind swirled through the trees around Ancel and Mirza, the rotten smell chasing them, riding the breeze.
Ancel’s heart pounded in tune with his dartan’s stride. He pushed his mount until they burst from the Greenleaf Forest. The tingle within him had grown into the familiar feel of energy he gained when he sparred. Wind whipping at his face, his cloak billowing behind him, he glanced over his shoulder and abruptly drew rein. Mirza followed suit.
Charra had stopped and was standing prone, eyes fixed on the dark forest. Growls issued from his throat in a steady rhythm. Tail whipping back and forth, he made to bound forward to the woods several times. Each time he did, the daggerpaw’s growls ended in a sharp, barking howl.
“Hold, Charra,” Ancel yelled.
The daggerpaw obeyed, backing down into a snarl, but his hackles didn’t recede. His tail, with its spiked appendage, thrashed furiously from side to side.
The shadows melded with the darkness of the forest as the last of the resinbuds winked out. Then all was deathly still. Ancel sucked in a breath at the sight within the trees.
Two giant wolf silhouettes, Charra’s size, with glowing, green orbs where the moon reflected in their unnatural eyes, appeared among the trees. The eyes burned into Ancel’s own as if they stared only at him. Silence reigned.
Ancel’s heart thumped. Calling on his training, he sunk into the quiet place within him. As his heart calmed, he snatched his bow from his back and nocked an arrow. In the back of his mind, he heard Charra growl. Ancel ignored him, not allowing his gaze to waver from the creatures’ dark outlines or those eyes.
He drew the bow, fletching to ear…and blinked.
The shadowed forms and the eyes had disappeared. The night sounds resumed once more.
With his focus on where the beasts once stood, Ancel backed his mount away from the forest. His gaze went to the surrounding trees but saw nothing. Wiping away salty sweat that stung his eyes, he retreated several feet without seeing the creatures again.
“Let’s go, Ancel. Now!” Mirza shouted sending his dartan rushing toward Eldanhill.
Ancel turned and galloped toward the distant town’s blue lights.
Charra’s growls started again behind them. From the woods, a howling screech sounded. Charra’s barks became a roar.