Read The Legend of Asahiel: Book 02 - The Obsidian Key Online

Authors: Eldon Thompson

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Fantasy Fiction, #Quests (Expeditions), #Kings and Rulers, #Demonology

The Legend of Asahiel: Book 02 - The Obsidian Key (10 page)

BOOK: The Legend of Asahiel: Book 02 - The Obsidian Key
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Even so, he was finding it difficult to concentrate at this particular moment. An array of plans and diagrams papered the tabletop beneath his white-knuckled fists. Everything from troop registries to proposals for shoring up damaged areas of the curtain wall to maps of the city’s aqueducts and irrigation lines. Ordinarily, he was able to conduct such reviews with an artisan’s flair, attacking even the most mundane report with the same lust that he carried into battle. For it was all part of defending his city and her surrounding lands, doing the work that needed to be done.

But on this evening, his thoughts were elsewhere. An opportunity long anticipated had come to him at last. Not in the manner he had expected, but that was the way of such things. Torin was gone. The city was in the hands of the Circle of Elders and its regent, Allion. All had been agreed to the night before, when the young king had shared with them the ill tidings delivered by the savage-looking Darinor.

His time had come.

Although he urged himself to remain focused on the business at hand, the thought would not stay banished for long. His great-grandfather had been a fool to decline becoming a member of the nobility, and that poor decision had cost his progeny dear. Especially now, with Alson in such dire need of a strong-willed person who could make things happen. Had Rogun had a noble title and not just a military one, he would have found it much easier to assume the reins of this runaway steed his land had become.

The general did not consider himself—as others whispered—to be power-hungry. He already had more notoriety and respect than he required. The simple truth was, he did not trust the son of Sorl to rule this kingdom. Torin may have proven to be more responsible than his father, but the youth was weak, too easily distracted. By his own admission, he did not want to be king. He should therefore leave it to someone who did.

That he had not stormed in, seeking to direct matters over which he had no experience, had endeared him to the general, initially. But any leader, even an unseasoned one, needed at some point to plant a standard, a point around which others might rally. Unwilling to enforce his own will or surrender to another’s, Torin instead wasted time listening to everyone, giving all a fair and equal voice. What he refused to realize was that such politics were impractical at best. Few people knew what it was they really wanted, and those who did
could never be made to agree on a singular course. As a result, nothing was ever accomplished.

Just thinking about it caused the muscles in Rogun’s neck to tighten. Action. Action was paramount. Even poor actions could be undone by assessing the negative results and taking further measures to offset them. Mistakes were to be expected. But the key was to move forward at all times, not to stagnate while every man, woman, and child with a voice expressed feelings and opinions, too obsessed with one’s own needs to give ear to another’s. Torin’s Circle was a romantic notion, but it needed a man of strength, a leader who could unite its members in their thinking. Rogun had long argued that if Torin would not take action to do so, then he should step aside so that someone like himself could.

“General, Commander Zain to see you.”

Rogun looked up from where his vision foundered in the depths of a weaponry supply listing. “Send him in, Corporal.”

The stern-faced sentry saluted, then beckoned to another guardsman posted farther down the hall. A moment later, Zain’s rasping footsteps carried him into view.

“You’re late,” Rogun noted.

“My apologies, sir. There has been a development.”

The general pushed himself from the table. He obviously wasn’t going to get anything done this evening anyway. “You’ve got my attention, Commander. Proceed.”

Zain did, telling Rogun all about his activities of the previous night, during which he had tracked Faldron to the Queen’s Hive. He did so without fanfare or embellishment, delivering straight fact as the general required. Rogun did not interrupt, but waited for the other to finish.

“…I was unable, therefore, to discern the identity of this shadow figure with whom the armorer met.”

“I assume there is more to this,” Rogun replied.

“This morning, sir, I was as distracted as everyone else by news of our king’s departure. It was not until this afternoon that I went to follow up with Faldron. I found him dead, sir.”

“Dead? Faldron?” As a matter of point, the general was not often surprised. But this surprised him.

“Orru as well, sir. Both in the middle of the night, it would seem, in their own beds. And Orru’s wife alongside him. I questioned their children. None of them heard a thing.”

Rogun settled into a hardwood chair, his brow furrowed. “What does it mean?”

“I’ve been working on that, sir. I cannot say for certain, but it would be too great a coincidence if any but this shadow were our killer.”

“Agreed.”

“I can only assume, then, that his actions were prompted by last night’s news, which I imagine to have been leaked from your briefing with the Circle—perhaps before.”

“Torin’s voyage.”

Zain nodded, his ermine mouth twitching. “I suspect, sir, that our young king is in danger, although from whom, I dare not guess.”

Rogun’s chin slipped into his hand as he considered the possibility.

“Shall we send warning, sir?”

The general did not respond right away. “I think not,” he determined finally. “Even if our riders could catch up to him, such warning as we might send would be vague and indirect—and therefore of little use.”

Zain’s features twisted in mild astonishment. “Then we’re to do nothing?”

Rogun glared to keep his smirk from showing. “If the son of Sorl doesn’t return, so much the better.”

D
ESPITE THE FOUL WEATHER, MUDDIED ROADS, AND HOST OF DOUBTS
that dragged after him like an anchor, Torin and his company reached the seaport town of Gammelost on just the second day out from Krynwall. They had spent the night at the edge of the Whisperwood, disguised as vagabonds. At dawn, they had traded their horses to a sharp-eyed rancher for a set of remounts. These, along with the widespread rumors of savage races marauding the countryside, hastened their progress. As did the enthusiasm of his men, Torin noted, each of whom seemed far more eager about this adventure than he.

He had learned their names, at least. Bull and Cordan he already knew from their recent sparring session. Two others, Ashwin and Ulric, he had sparred with before, although too many weeks and too many faces had passed since then for him to recall without a friendly reminder. The last two, Silas and Kallen, were a pair of brothers he’d never met, whose ceaseless, almost comical ridicule of each other helped to keep Torin from dwelling too deeply on more distressing matters.

The town greeted them all with a cold shoulder, its face turned to the west and the boundless ocean that gave it life. The sea itself was not immediately visible, blocked by hills and shrouded by a stone-gray curtain of mist, but Torin could smell its distinctive breath.

Soaked through by a blustery rain that had fought them the entire way, he led his mount down the principal roadway and into town. He kept his head low and his hood up, clinging to his hidden identity. Buildings and storefronts in varying degrees of disrepair leaned down from either side with sagging roofs and drooping eaves. Street gutters overflowed, clogged with natural refuse from winter’s storms. Torin had never before visited Gammelost, and though it may have been just the dreariness of the season or the somber circumstances, he could not imagine ever wanting to do so again.

He continued without pause, ignoring the various side streets and alleys that angled off at random junctures, trusting in his nose and in this principal thoroughfare to lead him to the harbor. Sure enough, as he emerged from the town’s backside and crested a small rise that bent like an elbow around a craggy bluff, he spotted it through the fog, a collection of docks that sprawled below like threads protruding from a frayed cloth.

They reached tentatively into the iron expanse of the cold sea, these jutting
piers and curving jetties, and Torin almost laughed at the absurdity. From this vantage, it seemed as if the slumbering oceans, with a single restless heave, might sweep them all away to reclaim its littered shoreline. It made him think of man’s efforts as hopeless and inconsequential. It reminded him of how small he was.

“Suppose we can find you a woman down there?” Silas asked his brother. “I’ve heard those who comfort these sailor types ain’t choosy.”

“I’ve heard the men ain’t either,” Kallen retorted. “So maybe we’ll both get lucky.”

“Business first, lads,” Bull reminded them before Torin had to. Already, Brown-beard had become an unofficial leader on this expedition, a captain who kept an eye on the little issues so that his king could focus on the larger.

Of which there were many. Torin’s grandfather, Sirrus, had once owned an entire fleet of merchant ships. But Sorl had long since sold those vessels off for short-term profit, leaving the crown without a single schooner to call its own. As a result, they were facing the prospect of paying for transport—and secrecy.

“How long will it take to book us passage?” asked Torin. The question was directed toward Ulric, who’d been raised upon the wharves of this town—one of the principal reasons for his selection.

Ulric breathed deeply of the salty air, savoring it as one might the scent of fresh-baked bread. “Could be awhile,” he admitted, “given the lack of ships at sea this time of year. Longer still, given our destination. We may have to hop vessels more than once before boarding one that will carry us clear to Yawacor. Either that, or wait a few weeks.”

“We don’t have a few weeks,” Torin replied, although deep down, he felt a willing flutter at the possibility of being forced to return home for a time. Long enough, perhaps, to reconsider this entire course.

“I’ll dredge us up something,” vowed Ulric, misreading Torin’s thoughts.

Ulric took the lead, guiding them through a twisted maze of streets, each more lively than the last, as they worked their way down to the harbor, then quayside along the town’s face. Much of what they saw had been battened down for the winter, from vendor booths to fishmonger stalls—even some of the giant shipyards. When he saw the harbor up close, Torin had to admit that it seemed much more impressive than from afar, an expansive network of labor and commerce that bustled with gruff workmen and steadfast activity even in these slow months.

They stopped first at the office of the harbormaster to view the public log of ships in port, as well as general postings of those seeking to hire help. In both areas, the pickings were slim. A sprinkle of coins and a couple of names gave them access to the private logs, including a schedule of incoming vessels, but still yielded little hope.

“Not to worry,” Ulric assured them. “These lists are seldom accurate, and never complete. Just gives us our bearings, is all.”

From there, they visited the offices of every maritime merchant, builder, and recruiter they could find along the wharf, before moving onto the docks
themselves. In most every case, the answer was the same. It was the low season. Some of the most skilled sailors in the land were out of work. If they were lucky, they might find themselves scrubbing barnacles or painting hulls in dry dock, mending sails or repairing rigging. But considering that most of these jobs were taken up by those normally at sea, even this was probably asking too much.

They fared no better when inquiring about straight charter. Once again, the few vessels that dared head out to the deep waters this time of year were already booked to capacity.

It came to the point where Torin feared they might have to reveal their true identities and purpose. They had agreed early on that to do so would bring them no great advantage. Though they might be able to bump a voyaging band of lesser importance, the price for their passage would likely double. Alson was a poor kingdom, its resources bled dry by hedonism and then war. Torin had taken very little from its coffers for this voyage, deciding they could earn their keep and forage their food as they went along.

For even if they
were
to spend the necessary coin, they would not be able to do so without drawing unwanted notice, and above all, Torin did not wish to add to the panic already sweeping this nation. That he’d embarked on this journey was a secret that would not long be limited to the esteemed members of the governing council. Allion and the Circle would then have their hands full—as if they didn’t already—coming up with excuses for his absence and reassurances that all would be well. As it was, he worried that he might be recognized by some prominent townsman who had visited the royal court. For that reason, he’d sullied his appearance and used leather wraps to conceal the jeweled hilt of the Sword. Having taken such precautions, he remained reluctant to simply give himself away.

With the gray afternoon passing swiftly toward night, they split into pairs to widen the search. When that didn’t work, they fanned out as individuals, with the agreement that they meet back at the harbormaster’s at sunset. It was not long before Torin began stopping men he passed in the street. One knew of a local fisherman in need of a hand or two. Another had a cousin aboard a merchant vessel that often made the full crossing, though as best he knew, she had dry-docked in Yawacor for the winter. Everyone knew someone, it seemed, who worked in one capacity or another as loaders or ferrymen upon the pier.

Tired and thirsty, Torin found himself drawn at last to one of many taverns that lined the waterfront, where most of the action seemed to be. A clamor echoed from within—the drone of voices, the creak of chairs and tables, the clack of wooden cups and leather tankards. An occasional shout of anger or laughter punctuated the din and gave him pause. Probably not the best place to seek out those serious about offering employment. Then again, he was wet and shivering and had had no better luck elsewhere.

After tethering his mount, he entered through the open door, dodging swiftly to avoid another who was staggering roughly out. The place was poorly lit, and even more poorly ventilated. Shadows and smoke filled the
musty room, enough to cover the rank odor of fish and brine that clung to this town as tightly as the fog that filled its streets. The bar was centrally located, an island amid the milling throngs. A thin carpet of sand covered the floor.

Everywhere he looked, men and women seemed to be caught up in games and challenges or boisterous conversation. While his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Torin searched the quiet corners, seeking those who were not so fully engaged. At last he spotted his first target, a single man brooding over a tankard at a booth along the far wall. With a deep breath that nearly choked him, he started in that direction, careful not to push or shove too crossly at the jostling patrons who blocked his way. The last thing he needed was to trap himself in a barroom brawl.

He reached the table and stood over it, waiting for the stranger to acknowledge his presence. A moment passed, however, in which the other did not stir. At last, Torin seated himself across from the man, whose eyes were riveted upon his untouched tankard.

“Begging your pardon, this place is packed. May I join you?”

The man never flinched, staring blankly into nothingness. His eyes were shot through with streaks of red and underscored by charcoal rings. His arms lay on the table, gangly in shape and white in color.

“I don’t mean to disturb you,” Torin pressed. “I was just wondering if you knew someone I could speak with about securing passage overseas.”

The man’s cracked lips parted as if to speak, then hung open uselessly. A string of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth.

“Thank you for your time,” Torin muttered, slipping from the booth.

He scanned the room again before pushing toward the counter. Perhaps the barkeep could direct him to someone who was at least coherent.

But that was assuming he could catch the other’s attention. Three times he signaled the man eye to eye. Only on the third attempt did he garner a response. The bustling barkeep nodded curtly, then scurried off to attend a customer on the far side.

“Here then, lad. Share mine.”

Torin lowered his hand and looked to the patron beside him, a swarthy-faced individual with a gold tooth in the middle of his black smile. The stranger nudged a bottle in Torin’s direction.

“Actually, I’m not…” He stopped as he noticed the stranger’s naked arms, mottled with tattoos. And not just any tattoos, but images of sea creatures—both real and mythical—and of flags and symbols, all of a nautical nature.

“Go on. Have a drink,” the seaman insisted, reaching for an abandoned cup. He dumped the dregs of its former contents and gave it a sniff, then poured from his bottle.

Torin eyed the dark brew warily. He’d not been raised on strong drink, and had yet to develop a taste for it. A refill of his empty waterskin would have sufficed. But he didn’t dare refuse this gesture and alienate any potential help.

“Most kind of you,” he said, raising the liquid in salute. Its scent went
clear to the top of his head. With a concerted effort, he tossed it back, grimacing as it scorched his throat.

The seaman grinned, amused by his discomfort. “You look familiar, lad. Do I know you?”

“I have a common face,” Torin replied. He opened his mouth to let in some cooling air, and wiped his lips with his sleeve.

“Perhaps I’ve met someone in your family then. A father or brother.” His grin widened. “A sister, perchance?”

Torin glared. “Not likely.”

The seaman chuckled. “A joke, lad. Meant nothing by it.”

“I’ve never had a sister,” Torin explained. “A father and brother, once upon a time. But I no longer have either.” That was truthful enough, he decided.

“Sorry to hear it, lad.”

“Anyway, I’m not from around here.”

“No, you don’t look it. That’s what had me confused.” He quaffed another draught of his own, straight from the bottle. “Where you from?”

Torin hesitated. Despite a grisly voice, the man seemed affable enough. Only far too prying. “Glendon,” he lied.

“Northern Alson, right? Edge of the Kalgren.”

“You’ve heard of it.” Torin was impressed. Though many times the size of his real home village, Glendon was a small town, out of the way by most respects.

“Been there myself. Been all over. Name’s Malus.”

The man had an unforgiving grip. “Jarom.”

“Well then, Jarom, how can I be of service to you?”

His wink caught Torin off guard. “What makes you think I’m in need of service?”

“Saw you pestering that rooter over there. Then you come to the bar, not looking for drink. The sun ain’t baked
all
the clams in this shell.”

Torin wasn’t sure yet whether he liked this Malus or not. Perceptive, yes, but with an abruptness that set his nerves on edge. There was a wicked gleam to the man’s eye, though that was probably just the lighting.

“Clearly not,” he responded at last. “You’re a seafaring man, are you not?”

Malus smirked. “What gave it away?”

“It so happens, I’m looking for passage to the west.”

“The west? Yawacor? Ain’t too many vessels making that crossing this time of year, lad.”

“So I’ve discovered. I’m willing to work my way, or pay for the privilege.”

Malus looked him up and down, as if measuring him for some task. “Pay with what? That’s an expensive trip you’re talking there.”

“I’ve a horse and supplies to sell. Why? Do you know someone who might help me?”

The man took another drink, seeming to consider. One eye squinted as he
swallowed. “Perhaps,” he said finally. “I’ve a friend setting sail tomorrow, if that’s not too soon.”

“Not at all,” Torin agreed, a bit too hastily.

BOOK: The Legend of Asahiel: Book 02 - The Obsidian Key
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