Rain fell, repelled by the fibers of the cloak which had been woven by an Erish hand. The knotted patterns of his Castallion heritage draped across his shoulders, then Eslaveth’s to cover the girl who clung to the mane of the horse his father had given him. Erish innkeeper, Sentarrian princess, protector, perhaps bride. Her titles and roles didn’t matter.
She was Eslaveth, a friend who knew his secrets and she had chosen to stay, to ensure he didn’t ride into this alone. He tightened the arm that held her steady, wondering if what her father would think if he was here. Her parents’ deaths, his own parents’ sacrifices wouldn’t be for naught. Nor would Decharo’s, he realized, as he spied the man ahead.
Decharo’s cloak made him look like a bear as he stabbed his dagger into the peat, hunched as he sawed the earth free. Tehveor slid from the horse, leaving it with Eslaveth and holding his fingers to his mouth when Shannondant straightened to look at him Eslaveth grinned as Shannondant turned back to tying a horse’s saddle to the small wagon filled with fuel.Tehveor stepped toward Decharo’s back, finding him too engrossed prying the peat free to check the footsteps behind.
He’d meant to tease his friend, but the panting struggle, the dogged loyalty made guilt win. Tehveor rounded Decharo, kneeling in front and reaching to help him cut the last of the slab free.
Decharo lifted a face, grinning beneath the dirt he’d smeared across his cheek. “I knew you’d come back,” he said. “Some of the men feared you’d bolt, but I told them no.”
Blood tinged his face, but Tehveor nodded. “I’m not just back. I’m here,” he said. “For good.”
The smile grew, crinkling the brown eyes before Decharo threw himself across the gap they’d created, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. As quickly, he shoved Tehveor away, saying, “Then why are you kneeling in front of me? On your feet, My Prince. You need not kneel to any man ever again. Don’t degrade yourself digging fuel like a swamp-dweller.”
“You let Shannondant help,” Tehveor said.
The girl tossed her head. “They think I’m out for a ride. I implored with tears to be allowed a few hours of solitude and sunlight.”
Tehveor kept his eyes on Decharo as he gathered the peat, hugging it against his chest. He stood, then froze as his attention shifted to the woods behind them. A Shlaton stood in the trees, flickering his ears toward the group. A lead rope hung from the halter, trailing the ground.
Alerted by Tehveor’s alarm, Decharo turned slowly, then breathed.
“I haven’t seen him before,” he whispered.
Tehveor’s own horse nickered as Eslaveth transferred it into Shannondant’s care.
“It’s Fathoth,” Shannondant said.
Tehveor took a slow step toward the animal before Eslaveth laid a hand on his arm. “Let someone else catch it,” she said. “It could be a trap.”
“Decharo shook his head. “It won’t respond to anyone, but its proper rider. This is Fate’s doing. Tehveor needs a Shlaton before his coronation.”
“Doesn’t mean that he has to be the first to approach it,” Eslaveth said.
“Fate will protect him,” Decharo countered.
Was that what this was? A sign of Fate’s approval? Had the legend been stalled, waiting for him to fully embrace Sentarra? Was this a final test of his heart?
He shrugged off Eslaveth’s arm, and she planted it on her hip with something close to a glare to Decharo. “What would you do if Fate told you that you must die to bring the legend about?”
“Then I would die,” Decharo replied.
“And if it told you to kill Shannondant?”
The boy paled, casting a troubled glance toward the girl as though Fate really had just given him the order.
“Softly, Eslaveth,” Tehveor said. “You sound like Joshah. Fate won’t ask any such thing.”
No matter the intentions behind the horse’s appearance, someone had put on that halter and someone must remove it before it harmed the animal. The horse couldn’t be completely wild. He stepped away from the group, keeping his movements slow, watching Fathoth’s head bob. It matched his steps, backing away as he grew closer, then bolted into the woods.
“After him! After him!” Decharo called.
Tehveor swung onto the gray, pulling Eslaveth up behind him and kicked the animal in pursuit of the Shlaton. Decharo raced to tether Shannondant’s horse. Tehveor slowed his horse as they entered thicker woods, unwilling to harm the animal or the horse they pursued. When Fathoth disappeared ahead, he turned his attention toward the earth floor, following the tracks his future mount had left.
“Too bad they won’t let me be king on you, eh?” he muttered, patting the gray gelding’s neck. He heard the voices behind him, turning to risk a shout. “I’m here!”
“Did you lose it?” Decharo asked.
Tehveor nodded. “I’ve got the tracks. That’s all I need.”
The tracks, however, grew more narrow. They were forced to dismount as the brush thickened, the branches crowding out the light. Undergrowth accentuated the narrow path, more fit for animals than people. The trail wrapped around a group of saplings, covering the source of the thrashing, but snorts indicated they’d caught up to their prey. Fathoth danced at the end of the tether, jerking his head against the reins that had snagged onto a thorny brush. Tehveor grunted as he waded through the branches, “Hey, hey.”
His voice soothed the animal who lowered his head, flicking his ears forward. Tehveor kept out of reach of the hooves, risking his own balance as he leaned over the thorns to unsnarl the lead rope. “You can’t run,” he said. “Fate will stop you every time. You’re lucky you can stand.”
The horse blinked, lowering his muzzle to sniff at Tehveor’s hand. He wasn’t sure it wouldn’t bolt, taking the tender skin of his palms with it, but he coaxed the animal out of the clearing. The others watched silently, but when he turned toward them, Decharo pointed up and behind.
Ivy covered the stones of the tower, tapering at the top as it loomed over them. While in no danger of falling, the structure sat at a decidedly slanted angle. A rusted gate gaped, raised to hide all but the tips of its bars, sharpened like spikes.
Fathath pulled away from Tehveor, and he released the reins, allowing the animal to jog through the gate. He beckoned the others to follow, then stepped through. The walls of the village held back the forest, providing the first cleared steps he’d taken in over an hour. Cobblestones completely covered the square, only allowing the most enduring weed to grow through their cracks. Leaves blew in circular puffs of wind. A lizard climbed along the wall, the only movement that caught Tehveor’s eye except for the spring fountain in the middle of the square. Water bubbled to the surface, carried off in every direction like the spokes of a wheel that ended running beneath the walls of the houses.
From where he stood, he could see through the window where cloth hung in shredded vestiges. The house stood with a cold hearth, its table carved from stone. Quarried limestone benches lined the outside walls as they walked up the street. A few earthen jars sat on shelves, but each home was empty as though plundered or waiting for people to fill it. The village was created entirely from stone, slabs of coral chiseled from primitive tools.
There is a castle that leans which you will find. They mean you to be crowned in it, but danger lurks inside.
Tehveor turned his face toward the castle ahead.
“Decharo, be careful!” he called, as the boy stick his head rather recklessly through the doorway of the castle. As Shannondant pulled back the door, he saw straight through to the throne that sat inside.
“There’s no one in here,” Decharo called.
“Not much of anything really,” Shannondant answered.
She stepped inside, and Tehveor followed. A fine layer of dust layered the benches that lined the main area of the room. It was clean, cared for, but like the rest of the village, entirely empty. Tehveor kept his fingers around the Lastren, but whatever danger the woman had spoken of was no longer here. Light spilled into the tall windows and illuminated the stones on the floor. The golden path striped the passage to the throne, spilling across the wooden seat.
He’d be crowned here. The seal. The horse. The throne room.
Eslaveth touched his arm from behind as she joined him on the doorstep.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I really am a king,” he said.
She laughed. “What did you think all of these years?”
Tehveor eyed the throne, then swallowed. He wouldn’t be a king in theory, the way everyone spoke of Kael as a vague future hope. He’d rule like Galephy with no one to dictate his decisions or curb his power. All of the choices were his, and thus, the consequences they entailed. If he became corrupted, it would be fear, not power that undermined him.
He stepped through the pools of light, to the base of the throne feeling like he was approaching the king. But the throne was empty, the throne was his, untainted by the Erish king’s hand, entirely independent of his power. This deserted kingdom was untainted by the touch of an Erish ruler, unaffected by the events that may arise in Erilerre. A shelter for all of them.
How many Sentarrians had spat Galephy’s name with the disrespect of a foreigner? How many had spoken so carelessly, words that could destroy if said within the walls of the castle? Galephy was not their king. His power did not reach into the caves, the walls. He couldn’t approach as Tehveor. Only Celestion could rule.
He stepped onto the third step, where Kael’s seat held prominence, trembling because it was above his station. His back throbbed from the lashes. When he’d left the castle behind, he’d left his title as a Korvier. Unlike Kael, he need not wait until his father died to inherit the throne.
A prince doesn’t kneel.
Galephy was wrong that his loyalties lay elsewhere, that he would betray Kael. He stepped up again, treading on the fourth step which was only touched by a king or queen. The throne appeared larger as he approached it, the wooden limbs gnarled and twisted, allowed to rise out of the backboard in their natural grain, as though the throne had been coaxed out of the oak itself, instead of the wood hacked and forced into submission.
He took a breath, trained from years of hiding his fear. He trembled, but he was not weak. Fate was not protesting his assent. The final step brought him level with the throne. He reached to touch the backboard, following the grain of the wood. Galephy may laugh if he saw it, but he wouldn’t laugh for long.
Tehveor looked back toward the four friends standing near the rows which waited to be filled. A throne room, a village all ready for the Sentarrians to be gathered and lead back. A table lay next to the throne, waiting to hold the seal he’d found in the chest. It was long, and he frowned at the odd crevices before he recognized the vague pattern. He unsheathed the Lasterin, sliding the tip along the sanded wood until he laid the hilt into place as though the sword had once burned its way into the wood. The sword he’d lit already. The sword he’d light again, but not as a prince.
He smiled. Not as a prince, but a king.
End of Book One