extracts from Earthbow


Eight--and a half--extracts from Earthbow (Narenta Tumults #2)


My Narenta Tumult fantasy, "Earthbow" begins with three plots--each focusing on the actions of 1 or 2 characters, The plots begin overlapping eventually as the geographical distance between all  the characters shrink and the various protagonists, antagonists & some unusual supporting characters meet for the first time. Every interaction builds tension and raises questions only to be answered near the end of the tale.

I found it difficult to choose a single set of characters & their isolated thread from all the rest to use here. Having created everyone for this book, my first impulse was to offer introductions to everyone taken from the manuscript, but the only way to accomplish that would be to publish the whole manuscript on this website!

Instead, let me introduce you to the newly knighted Coris bidden to join the Latimin commander's "royal progress" through the southwestern provinces of Latimus during a lull in his war with the Pannians. The commander's "progress" is actually an inspection tour of the small & scattered keeps, for battle-readiness. Little does Coris know that Cenoc... Well, little does Coris know about a lot of things.  :-D

CORIS IN DANGER

Extract 1

“I better get back before Riptis passes through,” Coris said. He stared through the fiery cimris tree leaves but saw no movement over by the gate. A soft thump and the creak of a rope sounded from a few feet away, followed by a squelching sound and the renewed stench of blood and entrails. He turned back.

Glisa yanked her knife free from the swaying ragos. She shook guts from her hand and wrist and shifted toward the next furred body dangling from a branch covered with stains and buzzing insects. Lifting each shoulder in turn, she tried to shove the loosening braid of her reddish-brown hair back behind her shoulders. The scullery maid lifted her knife, then paused to smile at him. “Why so anxious? Are we under attack?”

Coris shrugged. “One of Sevris’ servants is loitering over by the gate and I’d better find out why. I’m responsible for this part of the courtyard. If my captain...”

“Sir knight.” She jabbed at the last corpse with a grunt. “You take your job too seriously! Lord Cenoc and the keep-master are friends. All rulers are.”

Coris snorted. “Friends! Glisa, you ... innocent!”

Glisa straightened from the bucket in which she had been washing her hands and the butcher knife. “Oh, am I? How old are you, Coris? Twenty?”

“Twenty-seven.” Coris felt his face redden. He cursed his fair-haired family. ‘Uh, in a few months.”

The woman chuckled.

Coris shrugged, and plunged into speech before she could add more. “My overlord trusts no one. Many envy his rise to power and he needs to know who. That’s why he’s traveling all over Latimus: to find out where pockets of resentment lay. There’s no reason why he and the keep-master should be friends.”

He untied another ragos and tossed it unto the waiting canvas next to the blue-gray boll of the tree’s trunk. His sticky fingers made him regret his unthinking impulse to help. Well, too late now. What had he been saying?

“Sevris is of the old nobility, so he probably wants the old order to regain power. What better time to accomplish that, than today during a hunt? A chance arrow...” Hopefully not. Why had he spoken such a thought aloud? Not that spoken thoughts became deeds…

Glisa was nodding. She looked vexed. Well, he had said enough. He reached down and swished his hands in the bloody water. Probably making the mess worse.

“I know all that, Coris, even if I am only a kitchen wench.”

Coris snorted. “Hardly a wench!” He offered the protest with as much outer conviction as he could manage.

Glisa smiled. “I’ve been called far worse.” Her dark eyes indicated movement inside the scullery door--Tabistis, the master cook, his back to them lighting the meat ovens. “Tell me, Coris. Who were you quoting just then?”

“Who was I?” He shrugged. “Oh, Riptis. Captain of Cenoc’s personal guard.”

“Um. And how long have you been one of Cenoc’s guards?”

“I’ve been training in his service for years of course but I was just named to his personal guard. It was-”

“A great honor, no doubt.”

Coris glared at her, but resisted the urge to slap her. Did she understand nothing, to make so light of it? “Yes, a great honor. When I was knighted last month, I expected to serve at Talon Keep near my family’s ancestral lands, but then Cenoc commanded that I be sent to him. I never guessed my arms master… I mean, I just joined the royal progress a few miles north of here, at Empsa Keep.”

Glisa gave another impatient nod. “At which time this Riptis explained Latimin politics to you, and told you that you should be proud to wear the Screeching Hawk.”

“I am proud of it!” Coris drew himself up to his full five foot ten height. “The captain was my father’s friend, but Lord Cenoc himself spoke to me and told me what I needed to know.” Glisa’s gaze was unaccountably scornful. He decided to try again. “Lord Cenoc is welding this country into one against the werewright menace and the Pannian sorcerers in the north.”

“Glisa! You sluggard, get in here! Where are those idiot Young Ones of yours?”

Glisa sighed. “I’ve got to go.”

Coris stifled a sigh. Had he made any progress? “You’ll meet me tonight?”

The scullery maid raised a finger. Turning, she called to the master cook, “I don’t know, sir. Perhaps, in the pantry. I’ll check.” She started slowly toward the door, her face half-turned toward the young knight.

Coris drifted after her. “Tonight?”

Glisa gave him a measuring glance. “Twenty, uh, six, huh?”

“Almost twenty-eight.”

The scullery maid choked in amusement. “Liar. Twenty-first bell, then. We can discuss Latimin politics, if you like.” She winked. “Apparently I have much to learn. And...Perhaps, I can teach you something...”

Coris opened his mouth to answer but she’d already slipped through the door. He took a step, only to stop at the swift approach of Tabistis. The cook was a head taller than himself and powerful, and armed with a knife that made Glisa’s look like a boy’s toy. A knife fight would win him no friends. Coris remembered his assignment in the courtyard.


Extract 2 

And he’d thought it hot near the scullery next to the bread ovens. They could bake bread on the courtyard stones. Coris stretched, and then tugged his sweat-dampened surcote back into place from where it clung to his sword belt. That same bug was flying about his head again! He flapped one hand at it and brushed its iridescent orange wings. It disappeared only to buzz annoyingly by his ear. Tempted to squash it between his temple and his palm, Coris restrained himself at the thought of what a fool he would look. Chances are it would escape anyway.

He shifted further into a tiny patch of shade, his eyes trained on the servant clad in Lord Sevris’ purple livery and Silver Fox tabard, who stood across the court from himself. The man paused briefly at the gate to joke with its sprawling keepers. After a moment, he strolled away and Coris relaxed. No conspiracy against his overlord there. Nothing anywhere, of course. He yawned. What a desolate, uninteresting land this southern province was! Did anything ever happen here?

Well, perhaps tonight, when it was cooler...That Glisa was pretty in spite of her ragged clothes and blood-tinged sweat ...He’d heard tales of Cenoc’s knights and the servant girls at the keeps they garrisoned, even while he was still only a squire...When he’d hinted at what he’d heard, Captain Riptis and the others...

A rattle of pebbles in the courtyard only feet away interrupted his thoughts. Coris spun to face the sudden sound, his hand instantly on the hilt of his sword but, before it was a quarter-drawn, he shoved it home with a self-conscious snort.

Two boys stood just beyond the door of the scullery and looked around furtively, then raced across the courtyard as though they thought themselves pursued. Coris grinned. They must be thick in some game of Elders and werewrights. The taller boy darted toward the stone stairs leading to the battlement overlooking the gate, and motioned for his friend to join him.

Too slender bodies. Misshapen long hands. Coris’ smile at their antics changed abruptly to discomfort. They were subhuman Young Ones captured probably on one of Sevris’ forays into the local, alien woods. Like all Young Ones, they were small-boned and rather short. From what he had heard between Tabistis and Glisa, it fell to their lot to do the most menial tasks in spite of their meager size. That explained their caution and the second thrall’s repeated refusal to climb to the battlement wall. Given no free time to roam about, the two were doubtless truants from some task and could expect to be whipped were their idleness discovered. Defiance of command or attempts to escape changed the sentence in degree only--death by the executioner’s whip.

Now what? It was his duty to report this, but he had no desire to reap the accompanying reward. The thought of personally wielding lash against such childlike beings, whether from an inferior race or not...

Coris glanced around for sign of Sevris’ men. Most of his fellow fighters wouldn’t care. One thrall was climbing up the deserted battlement steps. Coris stifled a groan of dismay. Worse and worse! The boy was going to get caught. Someone must be up there, even today with nearly everyone at the hunt. He trotted across the courtyard toward the Young Ones, still not sure what he was going to do when he got to the steps.

The Young One at the bottom of the steps called out softly, “Telkis, get down!”

Coris cringed at the sudden noise and glanced about him again. No one paid him any attention. The gatekeepers looked to be in a stupor, whether from heat or ale was hard to say. He clutched at the youth still standing in the courtyard and missed. Outside the walls, a hunting horn blew, bidding the gatekeepers open to their lords.

“Telkis!”

“Lanis!” came a voice from the battlements. “They’ve got a strange-looking man in a black hood and cape with them. He’s all tied up. Someone was hurt. I think it’s Nereg...”

Coris grabbed again and this time his hands closed on two thin arms. The Young One struggled feebly in his grip and cried out, “Telkis!”

“All right! I’m coming.”

Coris gathered up the little thrall in his arms. The guards hauled on the gate chains. In another moment, someone would ride through and see them. He raced toward the wall and slipped behind the inner gate as it was shoved back toward them.

The Young One in his grip kept struggling. He heard it whisper, “Telkis, no!”

Coris slipped beyond the edge of the open gate door and glanced back toward the battlement stairs. The other thrall raced down them, a man-at-arms in pursuit until the boy reached the ground.

The first of the hunting party clattered through the gates: two middle-aged lords, Cenoc and Sevris, with Sevris’ young cousin Ofemer. All were clad in the customary green parti-color for the hunt but the splendid satins and velvets were grimed with dust and sweat, and blood. More than bokhorn and boar had felt the blow of weapons this day. The lord’s faces were grim and preoccupied. One man in the party was moaning in fear or pain.

Telkis had just reached the courtyard when a ground bird, escaping from the clutches of an apprentice cook, fluttered near the feet of Lord Cenoc’s mount. The stallion bugled in challenge and exploded into a rearing mass of flailing legs. The next thing anyone knew, Cenoc, Telkis and the horse were all on the ground together. A disquieting silence reigned in the courtyard, broken only by the happy cluck of the escaped hen and the frantic fluttering of Cenoc’s bating hawk.

Coris looked on in horror as Cenoc arose without a word and remounted. He had been with the entourage long enough to guess the mood behind those white lips and pinched nose. Filled with dread, Coris heard Sevris murmur to a man-at-arms,

“Find out where that thrall is supposed to be and see to it that he’s properly punished.”

The keep-master reined his horse around to fall in beside Cenoc’s mount then added, as if nothing had happened, “My Lord Cenoc, have you decided on a suitable disposition of your captive?” He nodded toward a black-swathed figure, tied securely to a horse in the midst of the hunting party.

Cenoc watched Sevris’ man-at-arms lead the thrall away. He barely glanced at the huntsman by his side as the man eased the capped hawk from his wrist.

Coris felt the Young One is his grasp struggle. He tightened his grip with one hand and groped for the youth’s mouth with the other.


Extract 3

Cenoc watched Sevris’ man-at-arms lead the thrall away. He barely glanced at the huntsman by his side as the man eased the capped hawk from his wrist.

Coris felt the Young One is his grasp struggle. He tightened his grip with one hand and groped for the youth’s mouth with the other.

At last, Cenoc glanced back toward Sevris, “A thought has just occurred to me. I’ll consider it. What did you call the remedy for your man’s injury?”

“Werebane, my Lord Cenoc. They’re taking him in now to be treated.” Sevris pointed toward the bailey.

“And only werebane will counter the effects of werewright blood?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Cenoc smiled unpleasantly. Coris shuddered. Sevris looked to be doing the same.

“Tell me more of this werebane, Sevris. But first, I’m parched. Have you anything worth drinking in this foul hole you call a keep? Or are your cellars as empty as your battlements?”

One man wearing the fox surcote behind them swore at those words. Cenoc ignored him. No hot-headed man-at-arms had any hope of challenging his authority and Cenoc knew it. Whereas, a keep-master with loyal followers... Cenoc’s gaze remained fixed on the middle-aged commander.

Coris grimaced, willing the man to be silent. Another of his lord’s studied insults. How better to measure loyalty?

Sevris’ eyes burned with impotent fury at the affront. For one perilous moment, his hand strayed toward his sword’s hilt... In that moment, a number of Cenoc’s men took a half pace forward.

The keep-master’s hand dropped back to his side, and Sevris forced a courteous, “I shall do my best to please you, my Lord Cenoc. Come to the east tower and you will have your pick of the cellar as we talk.”

Lord Cenoc studied him silently, triumph in his eyes.

Coris let loose a long-held breath, glad the challenge had passed, glad it had gone as he had hoped. Hadn’t his overlord and Captain Riptis explained it all to him at Empsa Keep? Sevris was of the old, outlawed nobility and had the bad sense to be openly proud of the fact. Potential trouble Cenoc had predicted. He had been wrong and Coris admitted to himself, he was glad. He, at least, wished to fight in no civil war between his overlord and the old nobility. That wasn’t why he had trained all these years.

As the lords rode away from the gate, a voice whispered, “You can let me go now.”

Coris moved away from the door so that the gatekeepers could do their work, and loosed his hold at the same time. “A little more and you might have ended up with your friend. No purpose would have been served by running out there. You couldn’t have helped.”

The brown-haired scullery thrall answered, “You’re right. But why did you risk punishment to protect a thrall of the Young Ones?”

Coris frowned, and answered as though speaking only to himself, “I don’t know... It was stupid, as stupid as what you almost...”

Coris’ eyes strayed to the prisoner which the hunters had brought back. As he watched him being hustled into the east tower, the thrall took the opportunity to ask,

“What is that creature?”

The door slammed shut behind the prisoner and his captors. Coris turned back to face the Young One. “Werewright. No wonder they took Sevris’ man inside so quickly! Some blood must have gotten into his wound when their band attacked. It’s poisonous if the wound isn’t treated swiftly.

“As for you, don’t you think it’s about time you got back to whatever it is you usually do? You won’t help your friend by being punished for your absence.”

“You’re right. Thanks!” The boy’s face broke into a fleeting smile. He darted across the courtyard and slipped cautiously through the scullery door.

Coris watched him go, but his thoughts remained on the werewright prisoner. Why had they taken him captive, instead of killing him outright? Coris shuddered. He had a pretty fair idea. Serving under Cenoc had not turned out quite the way he’d expected when he’d arrived at Empsa Keep. Cenoc was a brilliant military leader but he had barbarous ideas when it came to what constituted “entertainment”. And he expected his men to share his tastes.


Extract 4

Cenoc mused that his host sat on his cushions as though they were filled with nails. A week’s warning that this outpost would be the next stop of his inspection tour should have been enough time for Sevris to prepare. But the actual presence of his fabled self, the only victor ever over the Pannian sorcerers, the savior of Latimus, tended to make the sternest of his keep-masters apprehensive. He found the repeated scenario both amusing and frustrating.

Obviously seeking for a topic pleasing to his lordship, Sevris commented, “Lord Cenoc, I was ... perplexed when you ordered us to capture one of their party. But now, to bring a werewright up here? To speak with one of them?”

“I told you that a thought occurred to me with his capture. I’ve learned to think ahead, to make every situation pay. One of the reasons I rule Latimus, while you command this derelict keep.” Noting the wince, he continued, “Your man with werewright blood in the wound. Faring well?

“As well as possible given the hour delay before the remedy could be applied.”

“My sympathies. Those leaves—what did you call them?” Cenoc settled back on the red velvet cushions and looked across the low round tile-inlaid table at his host. Both had changed from their hunting attire as soon as they arrived back at the keep. The satins and velvets were stained now past hope. Probably best burnt.

Sevris had replaced his satin hunting tunic with even more sumptuous, long-sleeved floor-length robes of green, then added chains and cuffs of precious bronze. In the near-lethal heat of midsummer, Cenoc could only marvel at his host’s obeisance to proper attire. He, as was his custom, had changed to the same rust-colored tunic and mail which he wore into battle, but without the surcote. The only clothing in which he truly felt comfortable.

“Our herbalist calls it werebane-”

“Which is the only cure?”

“Yes, my lord.” A drop of sweat dangled briefly from the bottom edge of his mustache, then trickled across Sevris’ lips to join its fellows in his trimmed gray beard.

Sevris might be of the old nobility, but no one would ever have known it. Cenoc’s eyes traveled from the keep-master’s dissolute face, to his pale skin and slight paunch. How long had it been since Sevris had had to deal with anything of more importance than the empire crop’s yield? The season’s looked to be a good one. His shares across this province as Lord of Latimus would go far toward wages and supplies for his surviving armies.

Sevris’ eyes were locked just below the level of his own gaze, as he awaited a response. Cenoc let him wait.

Peace! Peace made a man soft... Indeed, it had made this whole southern province soft: keeps in disrepair, ill watch kept, bands of werewright cut-throats, this room - richly decorated with tapestries and ancient banners of Sevris’ ancestors. He glanced down. Even the stone floor was covered with a thick fleece-like cloth... decadent, wasteful... and unmilitary.

His gaze returned to the keep-master’s apprehensive face. A small-hearted man, with no skill of command, no foresight. Here was one who wouldn’t threaten his hold on Latimus.

Cenoc smiled unpleasantly and noted that Sevris shivered.

“Tell me more of this werebane, Sevris.”

Half-listening while the man talked, Cenoc pursued his own line of reasoning. That same lack of imagination also meant that he might be getting less out of this shire than he should be. This was rich agricultural land, with the perfect climate to support empire shrubs. The tax records didn’t reflect that. Sevris neither knew how nor where to squeeze the last drop out of an opportunity. Or he was stealing from the coffers. Perhaps, he should be replaced... Cenoc tucked the possibility away for later consideration. He noted with satisfaction that Sevris seemed to guess his thoughts. So much the better. That might wring some usefulness out of him yet.

“How do you expect to make the capture of a werewright pay? They’re best dead, before they can call the spirits of the Shadow to their aid. You’ve made a dangerous prisoner, my lord.”

“He shall find that his captor is more dangerous still. But first, I’m parched.” Cenoc paused in reaching for the wine bottle. “Do you fear the Shadow sorcerers, Sevris? They’ve been dead for thousands of years. I never thought you a superstitious man.”

“Me? Oh, no. Of course not. But sometimes, ignorant warriors can be superstitious...” Sevris’ voice trailed off. He was doubtless remembering too late Cenoc’s own past as a common warrior in the old king’s guard.

Cenoc surveyed himself through Sevris’ eyes. Gray-haired now, but finally the Lord of Latimus, he still possessed the bearing of a fighting man. And the skills. Born of low degree, he had spent decades training his every expression and word. His face had long since acquired the arrogance, and his voice the quiet forcefulness, of command.

But one of his favorite weapons worked best at table or during close inspection -- a cold grimness in his gray eyes. Right now, he mixed in more than a hint of disapproval.

With servants banned from the room, Sevris himself reached forward to refill Cenoc’s goblet and, after a moment’s hesitation, his own. Returning to a safer topic, he asked, “But what do you hope to gain by keeping him alive and ordering him brought up here?”

“Sometimes, one must spread one’s nets wide to make a catch. ...Ah, here he is now.” Cenoc turned to the bound prisoner and his personal guards who stood in the doorway. “Seat him here.” He gestured to the patch of floor across the table from their cushions. “Palis, stay just outside the door. Dismissed.”

Cenoc gazed curiously at his prisoner. The creature still had its black cloak on with its hood in place. It was slightly smaller than a man, shorter at least, though the folds of the cape’s dull material curved over what seemed dense muscle. All that could be seen of the werewright’s features was the fanged wedge-shaped mouth, twisted into a permanent toothy grin... like the hideous, vacant smile of a skull.

Why had no one ever exterminated these creatures? Werewrights had dwelt in these south marches and in other lands of Narenta, some said, since the Elder race first appeared in the ancient past. ...Indeed, they were said to be Elders themselves, but of hideous aspect, the product of Wenos Zex’s own deep sorcery.

Wenos Zex. Shadow overlord. Cenoc snorted in contempt: Fairy tales. These southerners would have learned about the reality of true evil, if he’d ever allowed some of the Pannians to slip through.

He quietly drew his sword and leaned across the round table. The werewright tensed as the blade approached. Idiot. Would I go to all this trouble, just to kill you? Cenoc caught the front of the black hood with his sword point and flipped it back.

Beside him, Sevris reached for the decanter again, with a trembling hand.

Something seemed to look through the slitted dark red eyes under the protruding V-shaped brow. As hardened as Cenoc was by years of battle and secret murder, the creature’s gaze briefly caught him off guard.

Nonsense! The thing was merely glaring.

The reptilian werewright hissed in amusement at his reaction. But Cenoc regained his composure at once. He turned to Sevris, and away from the prisoner’s gaze. “Now you will see first-hand what I spoke of earlier.”

Cenoc turned back and placed the point of the sword against the prisoner’s yellow-scaled throat. “What reason can you give me for sparing you?” Cenoc’s steely eyes narrowed. “How will your life benefit me?”

The prisoner considered the question only for a moment, then answered in the repulsively-silken voice of his race, “You should keep me alive for the information with which I was entrusted. You rule all the land of the Elder in Latimus. Would you like a wider kingdom and power over other lands?”

Ah, this was more like it! Without turning from the werewright, Cenoc spoke, “You see, Sevris. Sometimes you hardly need to spread the net at all and the fish swims in. Speak on, werewright. First, your name.”


Extract 5

Cenoc turned back and placed the point of the sword against the prisoner’s yellow-scaled throat. “What reason can you give me for sparing you?” Cenoc’s steely eyes narrowed. “How will your life benefit me?”

The prisoner considered the question only for a moment, then answered in the repulsively-silken voice of his race, “You should keep me alive for the information with which I was entrusted. You rule all the land of the Elder in Latimus. Would you like a wider kingdom and power over other lands?”

Ah, this was more like it! Without turning from the werewright, Cenoc spoke, “You see, Sevris. Sometimes you hardly need to spread the net at all and the fish swims in. Speak on, werewright. First, your name.” 

+++ 

The drummers and dancers were skilled enough, but the pipers were close to setting his teeth on edge. Thralls had cleared away the last of the supper dishes in the great hall. Cenoc had played the honored guest long enough and, besides, they had yet to perform a little test he had planned.

He leaned forward, nodded, and pounded applause on the table during a lull in the performance. In the uncertain silence that followed, Cenoc commanded that Alarz be brought into his presence.

By now, his guards would be glad to be rid of him – he’d ordered Alarz unbound when taken from the east tower. Even detained in a locked room, they doubtless had worried the werewright would disappear leaving nothing but the scent of brimstone to mark the end of his visit to the land of the living.

“Now?” Sevris wobbled upright on his reclining pillows, brought back to his senses perhaps by the sudden silence from the musicians.

Cenoc’s smile disappeared at the sight but, fueled by much less wine, his own wits were performing little better. He’d asked for the one ingredient for their experiment and nearly forgotten the other. Casting his mind over the day’s events, he remembered the infraction of a Young One scullery thrall. Proper punishment and a handy subject. That would do nicely. He called his ever-vigilant officer, Beroc, to him with a gesture and gave him his orders.

Beroc and one of his men had barely left to secure the scullery thrall when here came the werewright, fairly leading his relieved guards into the hall. Obviously, the prisoner had made no effort to escape as they accompanied him. And Sevris had thought it impossible to work with werewrights.

Guiding Alarz to a position a couple of yards from Cenoc’s seat at the head table, the guards saluted with fists to chests, and turned to leave.

Cenoc called them back. Palis and the other - what was his name? - deserved to be a part of this. Theirs had been a strange duty.

“Stay. I have an entertainment planned.”

The one guard grinned at the other, and they took places to one side. Cenoc approved of their anticipation. Such pastimes had helped sustain many of his following through long years of brutal war.

After a brief bow and nod, the werewright stood his ground with a confidence that, Cenoc suspected, few of the onlookers felt they could have matched under the same circumstances. Impudent. Well, things were not always as they appeared. Just two small matters and ready for his little test.

“Alarz! Welcome!” Cenoc picked up Sevris’ goblet and poured its contents on the floor. “We require that one more thing of you now. I’m sorry not to have mentioned the particulars during our earlier talk.”

Alarz’ eyes darkened from an amused red to the grim hue of dead blood. He gave a sharp nod, and then yanked on the rust-black of his tunic sleeve.

“Sevris. If you would be so good.” Cenoc handed the empty cup to the thunderstruck keep-master. “Fill this. It should hold a sufficient quantity. You’ve had enough for this evening in any case.”

Sevris gaped at his lord with bleary eyes. At Cenoc’s impatient shake of the vessel, he reached forward and took it, staring at it in turn as if Cenoc had just handed him some rotten entrails.

Cenoc had a great deal of trouble refraining from rolling his eyes. Blast the time wasted with those pipers. Was the man already too far gone to deal with a simple task? Or, maybe he just had no stomach for it?

The faces of his closest men tended toward the latter.

And wasn’t that a fine thing for a keep-master? Should be replaced became a firm will be replaced.

Sevris had managed to stand. With his hand resting on his sword hilt, he stumbled to the center of the room.

The werewright broke the anticipatory silence, “What does he intend, Cenoc? We have an agreement. Beware of breaking such an arrangement with those of the Shadow.”

“Peace, Alarz! This is a small matter and will take but a moment of your time. Sevris! Get on with it.”

Weaving a little and squinting at the werewright, Sevris drew his sword. Cenoc swore. A knife would be more practical. Was the man an incompetent fighter as well? He muttered through clenched teeth, “Your dagger, Sevris. It’s not a bucket.”

The spectators, who had seemed puzzled by all that had gone before, murmured. This they understood. Several, seeing Sevris’ condition, hastened to wager on the outcome. Cenoc considered shouting new orders, then forbore. The man was incapable of hearing him, and he would not give observers a chance to see his orders ignored. Well, they could always trap another werewright if Sevris botched this.


Extract 6

Weaving a little and squinting at the werewright, Sevris drew his sword. Cenoc swore. A knife would be more practical. Was the man an incompetent fighter as well? He muttered through clenched teeth, “Your dagger, Sevris. It’s not a bucket.”

The spectators, who had seemed puzzled by all that had gone before, murmured. This they understood. Several, seeing Sevris’ condition, hastened to wager on the outcome. Cenoc considered shouting new orders, then forbore. The man was incapable of hearing him, and he would not give observers a chance to see his orders ignored. Well, they could always trap another werewright if Sevris botched this.

Much to Sevris’ evident discomfort, and the amusement of the warriors, the werewright whipped off his cloak to wind it as a shield about his forearm and suddenly produced a dagger seemingly out of nowhere. His eyes burned with a deadly challenge as he faced the keep-master. Many stalwart knights and men-at-arms whispered to each other at the sight of that misshapen face and those taloned, claw-like hands. Cenoc smiled to see brief consternation replaced by arrogant disgust. Men shouted new wagers now that the werewright was armed.

Sevris’ first blow was parried by the werewright’s cape. As he struggled to free the sword point, the keep-master left his side vulnerable to the dagger. The unexpected pain of a shallow cut sobered him into cautious retreat. He glanced at the slow drip from the cut, snarled, and attacked more viciously.

The creature dropped and tumbled into a roll as graceful as the dancers.

Sevris’ blade sliced through air feet above him.

Amidst catcalls, the voice of one of Cenoc’s guards rose above the others, “Lord Sevris, you’re supposed to fill the goblet with his blood, not yours.”

Sevris ignored the comment and the ensuing laughter. Soon his powerful strokes began pushing Alarz back toward the high table. His sword flicked through the heavy folds of the wound cape, leaving a long gash on the werewright’s shield arm. Unable to raise it to defend himself, the prisoner twisted one way then the other to at least get out of the corner into which Sevris was forcing him. At last, Sevris landed a solid blow to the broad torso below the ribs. The werewright cried out and fell to his knees, his dagger skidding across the stone floor. After a moment, he staggered to his feet, one taloned hand clutching the wound through which greenish-black blood welled. The stench of it was in the air, but Sevris made no move to fill the goblet.

Turning to face Cenoc, Alarz grasped the table edge for support. “Beware, human, if this is the manner in which you keep your promises.”

Cenoc shrugged, “Lord Sevris was a tad enthusiastic, but you shouldn’t have obstructed his attempt to obey my command. We wished only a sample of your blood for a little experiment. I said it would only take a minute of your time. Do not blame me if you insisted on resisting Sevris’ attempt at the operation.”

The werewright smiled a ghastly smile that made even Cenoc shudder inwardly. “But I do blame you. Let Mexat be my witness.”

A quiet murmur of consternation swept the length of the hall at the fabled sorcerer’s name, and then an uneasy silence. Cenoc noticed the evening had become chill.

Alarz pointed a taloned forefinger at Cenoc and went on, “You have broken your agreement with the Shadow. Mexat shall see that I am revenged... You will never rule beyond your present bounds, and though you search the limits of this land, the Stones of-”

As Alarz spoke, Sevris crept up, raised the sword, and slashed off the werewright’s head. Dark blood splattered across floor and table but Cenoc merely pulled back in distaste, and commented, “Clumsy, Sevris... and wasteful. We needed only a few drops and now you’ve killed him.”

Sevris now weaved from more than the wine. He stifled a moan of terror at the sight of midnight green stains on his tunic. His eyes reminded Cenoc of a day’s dead fish’s, as he tried to focus on Cenoc’s face. “Didn’t you want him dead? He was starting to talk about...”

“Peace, Sevris! Your mouth runs as much as his did. Would you like the same cure?”

“But why did you want him alive now?”

Ignoring Sevris’ question, Cenoc turned to his aide, “Bring the keep-master back to his seat... You!” He pointed a finger at the closest man-at-arms in Sevris’ livery. “Fill that goblet before the blood dries. And someone get a handful of that werebane.”

He turned back to his host as Sevris sank awkwardly unto the cushions by his side. “It appears that you’ve splashed yourself quite thoroughly, Sevris.”

Sevris looked down at his spattered robes of green and wiped at them ineffectually with one hand. He looked back up, silent horror in his eyes, and asked again, “Why didn’t you want me to kill him?”

Cenoc gazed at his host distastefully, “I told you earlier. He would have served as a deterrent.”

Sevris smiled happily, “I remember. Keep him alive and you’ll always have wereblood handy to keep rebels and renegades in line... Cenoc, I feel strange.”

Cenoc studied the keep-master, and snorted. He called to the page just leaving for the werebane. “Wait! Have someone help you carry Lord Sevris to his apartments. Then get the werebane. Looks like he needs it. You’d better summon Mittlis to deal with his cut.”

He nodded in response to the startled youth’s repeated nods, then shooed the page out with one impatient hand. Where was Beroc with that scullery thrall, for the next stage?


Extract 7

Coris decided to skip supper in the great hall rather than find himself part of Cenoc’s captive audience for his latest “entertainment”. That Cenoc’s most recent victim would probably be the werewright rather than some subhuman thrall made little matter.

So far, it seemed a good decision. Now that the sun was below the ramparts, the courtyard was cooler than it would be inside. The scullery would be another matter. The ovens would remain hot until Deadwatch. Consequently, he wandered about the courtyard, kicking a rotten tuber and waiting for the kitchen wench, Glisa, to finish her duties.

Heavy boots scuffled on the path behind him. He turned. Two men had just passed and were creeping up to the scullery door. Hand drifting to his sword hilt, he stared at the surcotes in the flickering torch light. The Screeching Hawk. Brother warriors, taking command from Cenoc like himself, rather than from Sevris.

He relaxed and decided to trail them to pass time.

Then he recognized the taller warrior—Beroc. They had nearly crossed swords back at Empsa Keep, thanks to some mix-up at the stable. They’d patched it over with a verbal shove from his captain. Even so, he’d been left with an unpleasant feeling about the senior officer, but he was too new to fish for gossip on the man. What mischief was Beroc up to now?

Coris frowned and quickened his pace. He reached the doorway’s amber pool of light just as the two men entered, eclipsing it. Coris glimpsed of Glisa’s white face as the men strode toward her.

Towering over the maid, Beroc demanded, “Where’s the thrall who frightened Lord Cenoc’s horse this afternoon?”

She curtsied and answered at once, “They’re not here, my lord. The thralls sleep in the stables.”

Beroc’s partner spun to his left and pointed beyond the scullery maid. Beroc glanced toward him and barked a rough laugh. Coris heard a growling curse, and knew too well what was about to happen.

Glisa stepped back but not quickly enough. Beroc’s gauntleted left hand smashed against the side of her face, knocking her to the floor. Drawing his sword, he smiled ferociously, his teeth white against his bronzed skin. Ignoring his subordinate’s call from the dark lean-to, he took a step nearer and raised his blade to strike.

With both men’s backs turned, Coris slipped through the doorway and stood close to the inside wall. Already sure he was going to regret it, Coris found himself shouting, “Beroc! Leave the girl alone.”

The knight turned to glare at him. “Coris? What’s she to you?” He laughed unpleasantly, “Ah! This is the one you were going on about this morning?”

Coris’ mouth moved in a silent curse. The other man called again from the room beyond the great ovens, “Beroc! I’ve got them cornered out here in the lean-to. What are you about? Cenoc’s waiting.”

The burly knight glanced irritably toward his partner, then back at Coris.

“Which one is it?”

Beroc shrugged. “Let’s take both.” He followed the other guard into the room.

As they passed by on their way out, Beroc turned back to Glisa. “The stables?”

The woman struggled to sit up, one hand clutched to her face.

With a wolfish grin, Beroc allowed his sword’s point to hover close by Glisa’s throat. The maid scrambled back from the blade. Her mouth formed a silent “Please!”

At that, Coris drew his own blade.

Beroc snorted his contempt. “I’ll not spoil your evening, Coris.” He withdrew the blade, studying the point just before sheathing the weapon. “Enjoy the little time you have left, wench. The master-cook will hear about your lie tomorrow.” He scowled at Coris, and then followed the others out the door.

After the guards shoved the thralls into the courtyard, Coris turned to help Glisa, only to find her already on her feet. Coris touched her blood-scored face. One cheek was puffed and red. The darkness of bruising hinted at the extent of the damage. If bones were broken, they’d need Mittlis the surgeon.

Glisa pulled away from him and ran through the door. “Why didn’t you stop them? Those boys are being taken to their deaths! Lord Cenoc asked for them.”

Coris grasped her arm and pulled her back inside. “I know, but you go running over to the great hall and you may well die, too.”

She tried to pull from his grasp. “Hurry then! We’ll overtake them! Stop them before they reach the hall.”

Coris shook his head. “And fight them—you and I, for two thralls--with Cenoc’s and Sevris’ men all around the courtyard? Look out there! Two men from each lord guard the inner gates. Two from Cenoc’s army stand with Sevris’ doorkeeper at the hall door itself. There’s Sevris’ own door guard just inside that door. Then, there are the poor fellows on foot patrol, circling the keep. It’s like a tinderbox within these walls--everyone watching everyone else. We’d be taken before I could even draw blade, and for what?”

“For who! In the corridors! If no one saw us-”

“You talk as if there’d be no one else inside but us! Besides, Cenoc would wonder at the delay and send others to search for the thralls. Or, just find a couple of other ones. If we actually rescued them, where could we hide them in a keep filled past capacity?”

Her fingers curled close to her ears as if to rip them off. The answer was nearly a scream, “I don’t know! Coris, isn’t there anything?”

He murmured, “No. You know there isn’t. At least, not while they’re still in Cenoc’s presence. Perhaps later, after ...” He reached to caress her cheek, but she pulled away.

“They could be dead by then!”

“I know.” Coris answered.

Glisa was certainly attached to those two scullery thralls. Perhaps, he could have stopped Beroc and Tridias, here at the scullery. He glanced toward the bailey uncertainly. And risk his place in Cenoc’s personal guard? Or, worse, risk impalement for insubordination?

No, they were just thralls--subhuman Young Ones. To defend Glisa had been different. Hadn’t it? The words and the smile of one of them—Lanis—this afternoon returned to him even as he continued to stare down the path. He turned away in confusion, a confusion in which a vague guilt played no small part.

“Coris, I’m sorry. I promised their mother I would care for them.” Glisa added bitterly, “So ends my obligation.”

There. Even Glisa realized he couldn’t have done more. In relief, Coris repeated his claim, “There was nothing either of us could do. But you heard Beroc. He’ll report you in the morning. You have very little time.”

She laughed bitterly, “So Tabistis will have his way at last, and I shall have to give in to him or be the new kitchen thrall to, to replace...”

Coris sighed to himself. Why couldn’t she see reason? “I fear Beroc won’t be content with that. Leave right now. Gather together whatever you own, and pack some food. I’ll slip past Gamis and get you a draft animal. You can ride, can’t you?”

Her dark eyes snapped with fury as she answered, “Not like the grand ladies, sir knight, but I used to ride bareback on my grandfather’s farm, until Sevris took it!” She flung down the damp cloth she had used to wash her face, then watched it sink into the basin of water. “Why should I run? There’s no place to go, no place to hide anymore.”

“There are better places than this keep and better masters than that cook. Ride east, Glisa! You like Young Ones? Go to a wood of the Young Ones! I’ve heard there’s a Throne hidden to the east, a refuge for those without friend or recourse. Go there. Or do you prefer to take your chances with Beroc and Tabistis?”

Glisa’s eyes burned. “Meran’s Choices! As it has always been. Get me something to ride and I’ll leave. But some day I’ll come back to even certain accounts.” She grabbed his arm. “Come with me! You’re too decent to be taking orders from the likes of Cenoc.”

He looked down at her with a grin. “Strange compliment. Meet me at the gate in five minutes. We must find a way to have it opened without arousing suspicion.”

Glisa shook her head. “I know of an old postern gate beyond the stables, nearly covered by vines from the grape arbors. Sevris hasn’t posted a guard there in years.”

Coris snorted in disgust at the bald allusion to Sevris’ carelessness.

Ignoring the snort, Glisa added, “The thralls and I use it for unauthorized outings.” She turned to face the hall. “Used it.”

“There’s nothing you can do for them. Come on!”

 

He freed a donkey with little trouble, and it would have to do. He waited hidden in the deepest shadows at the edge of the grape arbors, watching as Glisa crept toward the curtain wall, a few pitiful things dangling within the knotted shawl by her side.

The donkey snorted and began a dismal bray of protest. Coris got his palm over the creature’s nostrils just in time. It tried to shake his hand away but it shut up.

Glisa walked out of the moonlight and into the shadows. She gave a great gasp on spotting him and stumbled to a stop. “Oh, it’s you. We go that way.”

The murmur echoed in his ears and he winced. All his fellow fighters must be deaf tonight.

She led him through the tangle of old vines amid the faint scent of fermentation, then along the south curtain wall to the postern gate hidden behind the arbors. Moonlight shown vividly through the gate’s iron arabesques and the brittle remnants of dead vines. With it came the faint hint of a cool breeze, a taste of the freedom just beyond its confines. The metal hinges were thick with corrosion and the gate opened reluctantly, Coris pushing it inch by inch to avoid a telltale groan.

Glisa turned to face him. “May Alphesis reward you, Coris.” She put a hand on his arm. “If they still live, help them. Promise me.” She looked searchingly into his eyes.

His heart sinking at the commitment, he nodded. “Remember. Go east to the Young Ones.” Stumbling over the unfamiliar words he added, “May Alphesis protect you.”

Then she was gone. Closing the gate carefully, Coris raced toward the great hall, cursing himself for a fool at every step.


Extract 8

As Coris muttered the keep password to the door guard, Lord Sevris stumbled out of the hall, leaning heavily on two men. The stench of fresh-drawn blood and something worse followed the three. The “entertainment” must have begun. At the guard’s distracted nod, Coris slipped past them all and went looking for Captain Riptis to check in.

The captain gestured to the newly-vacated seat beside him. He muttered to the newcomer, “You missed a strange fight, Coris. Where have you been, anyway?” He studied the young man, stern appraisal on his creased face. Sweat on his bald head glimmered in the dim light.

Coris knew he could hide neither his flush nor rapid breaths, even with the lamp lit semi-darkness and the noise of a dozen conversations and half as many competing songs. “I arranged to meet a kitchen wench. She didn’t show. I, uh, waited for her. Just gave up.”

“Hmm.”

Doubt clouded Riptis’ eyes. Why so flustered if that was all? He should have insinuated he went to meet one of the few noblewomen traveling in the entourage—or a member of Sevris’ family. The women would have all left the room as soon as dinner was over.

Looking around nervously, Coris shrugged and added, “Well, not a kitchen wench.”

Riptis grinned. “Almost discovered by the husband? No. Don’t need to know more.” The captain’s eyes twinkled as he turned back to the keep-surcoted officer on his other side.

Coris tried to relax. However, the thrall named Lanis stood by one barred side door, his face white and hands clenched at his sides. That was the one that had spoken to him this afternoon, seeming so like a human lad that he had been hard-pressed to remind himself what he was looking at. Where was the other one? What had his word to Glisa gotten him into?

He followed the thrall’s gaze to the high table. A keep man-at-arms crouched by the werewright’s body. After a few minutes, the man got to his feet and placed a green-filled goblet on the edge of the table. Poisonous werewright blood.

Another man-at-arms balanced the hideous head on its owner’s chest, in preparation for lugging the remains of Cenoc’s guest from the room. Serving thralls were washing the table and floor. The second scullery thrall was doubtless off somewhere, being ‘prepared’.

The goblet on the table edge suggested what Cenoc had planned. Sickened, Coris reached for a fresh earthenware bottle and forced its beeswax seal loose. He couldn’t leave again with Riptis so suspicious about his earlier absence, and he despaired of getting drunk enough quickly enough to blur what was about to happen. As for helping either thrall—he snorted to himself—easier to fly.

Coris was glad of one thing. At least Glisa would be far away before it started.

Captain Riptis took it upon himself to recount the fight between the keep-master and the werewright. He took care to give Lord Sevris the verbal respect that few of his acquaintances seemed to feel for him, but he failed to hide that Sevris had been drunk and that the werewright was uncommonly skillful for one of a band of cutthroats.

Coris responded with a random string of nods, smiles, and expressions of disbelief but his thoughts rarely gave his eyes freedom to glance away from the remaining scullery thrall. No one seemed to have noticed him. Why didn’t he leave? Waiting for his mate or had he been commanded to stay?

He swore to himself as the kid gasped and then stumbled close to one of Sevris’ warriors, probably coming back from relieving himself. Following the boy’s gaze, Coris saw now what the thrall evidently had just seen—his friend and a guard were walking through the open side door across the way, the Young One thrall in chains.

Like watching paralyzed in a nightmare, Coris saw the unattended thrall slip a dagger from the keep guard’s belt. The werewright’s body was being carried out the door at the same moment—the owner of the dagger was probably distracted, watching it pass.

The newly-armed thrall turned toward his chained mate, as captive and guard approached the gap between tables in the center of the hall.

Coris swore, and scrambled to his feet. The chained thrall was dead on his feet but this other one might still be spared. He spun around the end of the side table. Riptis sputtered confused sounds behind him.

Another guard somewhere warned, “Thrall’s armed!”

Great. Like fire in a barn. No weapons, Coris warned himself. Things were already too volatile.

He lunged just as the thrall finally got a good grip on the knife and waved it at the taller guard holding the thrall’s chains. The tip of the blade was still yards from its intended target but that made little matter.

Avoiding the wild back swing of the knife, Coris wrapped both arms about the thrall and lifted him right off the floor, applying enough pressure with his arms to signal what had better happen and that immediately. The thrall’s lungs emptied in a whoosh of air, and the dagger clanged on the stone floor.

And there was Beroc, in striking range and unsheathing his weapon. His eyes glittering with anger, the man advanced toward them.

Before he could strike, Coris spoke in a conciliatory voice, but loud enough to be heard by the captain. “Enough, Beroc. He grabbed a dagger, and he dropped it. What harm could such a stripling do you?” Coris reached down with one hand, and picked up the dagger, handing it back to its embarrassed owner. He kept his other arm about the thrall’s body, swinging the Young One across himself so that it was as far away from Beroc as possible.

“Who put you in charge of the filth of the world, Coris?” Beroc’s voice was cold. “Some day, you will step too far-”

Lord Cenoc’s voice cut in, “Beroc! Get on with it. Coris, get rid of that thing!”

Coris smiled, indicating Cenoc with a nod of his head. “Until that day, I’ll do what our lord says and remove him.”

“Not what he meant!” Beroc growled to his back.

Gripping Lanis’ arm, Coris guided the weeping Young One to the main door. Before he was through it, a shriek pierced the room. Unwillingly, Coris stopped and turned.

Lanis pummeled his restraining arm with both small hands.

Beroc stood over the chained Young One, carefully wiping his sword before he sheathed it. Blood ran down the long cut on the thrall’s arm. Picking up the goblet gingerly, Beroc returned to the thrall and poured its contents down the length of the wound.

The dark green blood covered the fresh cut and flowed on to drip off the thrall’s fingertips. Shuddering, he cried out in terror.

Beroc gripped the chains and dragged the struggling thrall toward two pillars at the foot of the room near the main door. He yanked the thrall upright and looped a ring over a hook in one of the two columns, then untangled the second chain to do the same at the other pillar.

Coris turned, intent on taking the thrall in his keeping through the door, only to see Riptis’ gaze locked on him.

His task done, Beroc had wasted not a second before he walked over to their captain.

An icy knot forming in his innards, Coris whispered a warning to the Young One lad and pushed it through the door, barring it with the aid of the door guard. Then he walked as nonchalantly as he could toward the pair but with every muscle tensed, his wits sharp.

Riptis nodded impatiently at Beroc’s continued comments. Turning, he beckoned to Coris, his hard-bitten face stern. If Beroc had told Riptis about the little encounter in the scullery, his life would be worth less than a thrall’s once Glisa’s escape became known. How much had Beroc told him, by now?

“Coris. Beroc tells me that you prevented him from punishing that thrall a few moments ago. Beroc is a superior officer. Lord Cenoc would not approve of your insubordination.”

The chill Coris felt in the pit of his stomach was spreading, but he spoke calmly, his eyes on Riptis alone. “Captain, Lord Cenoc ordered me to remove the thrall.”

“Hmm. What do you say to that, Beroc? I heard the order myself.”

Coris felt the burning hatred in Beroc’s eyes but he pretended not to notice.

“Yes, he obeyed an order before it was given! Irrelevant. And, not what our lord meant by ‘get rid of’, Riptis. All three of us know it. The thing stole a weapon.”

“Yes. We’ll deal with that when we have the right equipment.”

“Equipment?” Beroc reached to the back of his belt and tugged out a stained arm sweatband, fitted with a buckle. “All we need is this to slow the bleeding, and someone willing to hold an arm still.”

Icy blue eyes scored Coris’ face, seeming to ask if he were up to the task. He schooled himself not to react. Leave it to Beroc to carry about the means for a formal dismemberment.

“This was not the first time this young whelp has interfered with my duties. He did so last week when a stable boy brought the wrong horse at Empsa Keep, and earlier today-”

Riptis broke in, “Is this what you call insubordination? I was at the stable, too, remember? I saw what happened. As for the thrall, we’ll do it properly. What if Cenoc meant execution rather than dismemberment or tossing him out of the hall? It can wait until he tells us. Keep your complaints to yourself, Beroc, or I will give you cause to complain!” The captain turned away and stalked back to his place at the table.

Coris started to follow him. As he passed Beroc, the knight spoke low, “Beware, Coris. Cross me one more time and the blow meant for ones like him will land on your own head.” Beroc pointed to the chained thrall. Without waiting for a response, the older knight went to his own place at the other side table. 

+ + +

Deep within the mountain chain that sundered Latimus from its nearest neighbor to the east was a chamber fashioned by Alphesis himself. An ancient prison for the Shadow it was, but the evil that dwelt within it was older still—enchanters of the Light who had turned to sorcery at the dawn of time. Long had they slept or seemed to. Even so, those who used the mountainway felt their malign presences sometimes, ever seeking to destroy that which went freely past whilst they must remain bound.

The stirring on this night would have filled the stoutest traveler with a consuming horror. A cry came forth from Latimus to one who dwelt here in the cavern, an ancient cry not heard in centuries.

The mind of Mexat stirred.

Those in the hall of Sevris felt the chill of his malevolence as he listened to his follower’s words.

Mexat smiled. There would be revenge. Alarz deserved no less for his obedience. But more than revenge. The time was at hand.

+ + +

The following Coris scene wasn't used in "Earthbow" but appeared at my short-lived
http://narentantales.blogspot.com  Coris fragment taken from Earthbow part 2; 4-1-2008

As Coris led the saddled horse from the barn, he took one last look around. Suppose they were out there waiting for him? He'd be riding right into a trap. Mounting, Coris decided to go through the copse rather than use the road, which would certainly be under surveillance if anything was. As he gazed in his intended direction, the knight saw a dim light filtering through the trees. He rode a few paces forward, only to have the light disappear. It had seemed the light of a lamp.

...Perhaps the road would be better after all.

He paused and dismounted reluctantly. It would be better to know what lay within those trees. Coris drew his sword and crept amongst the horses toward the spot where he'd last seen the light. He was already on the edge of the first line of trees, when the shadowy shape of a low building resolved itself from its attendant shadows. Was that the spot from which the light had come and were all those mysterious people within?

Coris stole forward until he could see a narrow band of light emanating from under a door. When he was close enough to touch its panels, he stopped. Listening intently, Coris could hear voices within, many voices in hot debate. He strained for the words without success.

The young knight had just decided that he might as well leave while he had the chance, when he tensed instinctively. Someone was behind him! On the point of whirling around, Coris felt cold steel against his back. Trapped!

"Drop your sword, Coris. ...And open the door."

With now other choice, he did as the gruff voice bade him.

Dozens of people were within, most of them armed with crude weapons. Everyone rose and turned toward him, each with the same expression on his or her face. The same words burst from every throat,

"April Fool!"


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