Lightning sears a scene against the eye. Trapped between reality and death, every scrap of life is fighting for existence. To stop fighting is to die. Some precious moments of peace can be stolen from small pockets of calm. Life can take a breath and wonder at the harsh beauty, but only for a moment, then struggle resumes. And others watch…
Is Talkar the tool of the Council or the fangs at their throats?
Shaytonians will use anything and anyone to succeed. So why does it always seem to fall on him? And what of the Enemy?
A prophecy is made: “She is the start of the Circle, you are the end.” Talkar fears he’ll end up trying to save the world–again. And it’s not as if he even likes it.
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Pressure, darkness and then a searing light. He was being crushed against his own ribs. The pain was unbearable. The Power was eating him away, even as the room imploded around him.
Grimly he held on. He had to hold the Power within the Link. He knew that he would have to die to make sure that was done – and he could not fail. Too much depended on his success.
He wanted to say goodbye; hold his son, make sure his sister was safe. But there was no time. An eternity of pain and no time. Only the Link.
He woke to the harshness of bark against his cheek and the feel of grass and twigs along his back. For a long while, he lay still, trying to escape the pain. He knew it would hit him all the harder when he opened his eyes.
Sounds began to fight their way through the pounding of his head. Male voices, horses’ hooves, the sounds of a chase. Sounds that were getting closer.
He forced his eyes open.
A woman riding a pure black horse was galloping towards him, her horse running at full speed across a rolling meadow. She lay close to the horse’s neck, not worried about where she was riding, just concentrating on fleeing. Behind her, six men rode strong horses that were obviously bred for battle. The horses’ harness rang with the metallic sounds of weapons and armoured legs. Dressed in dark tunics, they bore wolf-head badges on their tabards. Warning bells began to ring in his mind, though he had no idea why. All he was sure of was that he knew Wolf Heads were enemies.
Slowly, he forced himself to his knees. Stars of pain burst across his eyes.
A cry from the pursuers forced his attention away from himself and back to the fleeing woman. They had almost caught up to her. In spite of her lighter weight and obvious riding skills, they had the advantage of numbers. Slowly they were herding her towards the trees that would turn her back into their arms.
He looked around him. He had no armour, no clothes, but there was a weapon lying on the grass, a dark sword. He gazed at it for a moment. He could not fathom the sort of metal that would give such a dark finish, but this was his weapon. It called to him like an ancient weapon of legend.
He lifted it. The grip and reach were moulded to his needs. It felt right. As he raised it, the accustomed weight almost brought him strength instead of costing him. Feeling more secure, he began to study the pursuers in depth.
He made a decision. Reaching for a stone, he drew himself up to his full height. Allowing the woman to pass him, he waited until the nearest pursuer was well within range. Then he let fly with all his strength. The ringing sound of stone meeting helm surprised him. His blow had unseated the rider and thrown him backwards over the horse’s rump. He realised he was strong, far stronger than a normal man. He mentally catalogued this with the other facts he was slowly gathering.
Reaching out, he tried to gather in the horse’s reins as it cantered past. The reins were almost in his grasp when the pain blurred his vision again. The horse thundered away.
Ignoring his failure to stop the horse, he tried to force his eyes to focus on the remaining attackers. The five remaining riders had seen their companion fall. As one, they veered to confront the one naked man that stood between them and their goal. Another stone flew. Another rider fell. The horse behind the fallen rider stumbled as it tried to avoid the limp form on the ground. Its own rider fell prey to another blow. An arrow appeared in the ribs of another. The remaining two hesitated.
They all followed the arrow’s path back to its origin. More riders. He noticed that the woman had changed course and was now riding towards the new arrivals. A Raven’s-head badge declared them, if not friends, at least different enemies.
He braced himself as one of the remaining wolf-heads shook off the surprise and rode towards him. He tried to cleave the man from his horse. His sword whistled through the air but the pain pulled his blade. So much for the dramatic. He lowered the sword and as the rider turned to attack again, he grabbed for the nearest foot. One heave pushed the man from his saddle. This time, he succeeded in taking his place.
Astride the horse, he hesitated for a moment. The remaining enemy had turned to flee. Should he give chase? The woman called to him. He turned to see her now escorted by the Raven riders. As a group they beckoned him to hurry. He rode towards them, seeming to fly across the intervening ground.
He had barely drawn aside her, when the woman flung herself into his arms. “Tamal, again you have saved me.” She reached her arms around his neck, drawing him into a deep kiss. After a moment’s surprise, he returned the kiss, enjoying the moment.
“Highness, please, we must hurry.” The guard captain eased her away, smiling indulgently at Tamal over her shoulder. He offered his cloak to Tamal, which he drew over his shoulders covering most of his nakedness. The squad wheeled and galloped back over the hill, Tamal with them.
Excitement gone, Tamal leant back into his saddle struggling to stay conscious. To keep the darkness at bay, he began to review the things he knew. His name, evidently, was Tamal. He had to admit, it sounded familiar. Familiar, just as the soldier’s badges, even her Highness’s kiss, had seemed familiar. It all seemed second hand, as if suddenly he was now a character in a favourite book.
If he concentrated he could remember the road, the next turn, that tree. He could even remember the guard captain’s name. It was Harold. Harold’s face brought images of evenings spent by the warmth of a fire and battles fought, some on this very ground. Carefully, he examined his companions, trying to test if his memories were real, or were even his own.
The princess rode tall in the saddle. With some mental figuring, Tamal judged that, standing side by side, she would come up to his chest. Her shining, blonde hair was bound in a decorated leather thong. Untied, it fell to her waist. He remembered it in such a fashion, surrounding him with a shimmering fall of light. The memory was so vivid, that for the moment, it seemed real. Her lightly tanned skin brought memories of horse rides and long hours in Council. Whenever she faced him, he could see the chiselled features, the beauty that used to make him lose his breath. Memories battered against him, trying to make themselves his.
Tamal shifted his scrutiny to Harold. A big man, he had the heavy build that spoke of a life spent in armour. A slight greying of the hair showed just how long a life that was. His worn face showed battles fought in the heat of summer and the snows of winter. It was all off-set by a ready smile.
That smile was the real man. A fighter he may be, but he was above all a loyal follower of the King, a father of numerous children, and a good friend. At least he was when Tamal had been here before. If only he could shake the feeling that Tamal was not really him.
Fighting the growing frustration, he scanned ahead. They seemed to be heading towards a village that sheltered at the foot of a stone castle. Slowly, he forced himself to relax. It was only when Harold brought his hand up to catch him, did Tamal realise that he had started to sag. The Princess also noticed his weariness, and dropped back to ride beside him. Riding three abreast, they continued towards the castle.
Eventually they came to the first straw-thatched cottages of the village. Townsfolk watched them pass, some cheering, others in content silence. All seemed overjoyed to see the return of their Princess. Many called out to her, some reaching up to touch her hand in greeting. She smiled down from her mount, returning the greetings, often calling the watching peasants by name.
Their only reluctance seemed to stem from his presence. Some greeted him warmly but most were cautious. Maids seemed to smile, only to be drawn away by guardians. Tamal began to realise that something other than his nakedness caused their reactions. Some seemed to be fascinated, others wary, maybe even fearful. Harold noticed Tamal gaze at one particularly fetching miss. She was definitely not afraid.
“You have not changed, my friend. Still have your appetites.” Harold gave a wolfish grin. “All your appetites, I have no doubt. Well, you should be able to satisfy them all soon enough.” He seemed to be implying more, something that caused Tamal to question the implication. Before he could probe Harold more deeply, the Princess heard them speaking and turned to follow their gaze.
“Yes, he will have all the fighting he can handle.” She said looking back with a stern face. As Tamal looked down at her, her look softened to a smile. “And other things too, if you are worthy,” she added. Seeing him about to reply, she cantered forward, suddenly eager to gain the castle walls.
The horsemen clattered across the cobbles in the castle courtyard to be met by pages. As each rider dismounted, the horses were led away to the stables. Tamal felt the strange mixed sense of remembering. He knew where the stables were, even the groom’s name. Wondering how he knew, he almost missed the Princess being whisked away by concerned ladies in waiting.
Suddenly, she was the gracious Royal again. Tamal watched her go, conscious that only her slightly askew hair showed any sign of her recent ordeal. She was a strong woman.
She turned to blow him a kiss and then she was gone, gathered into the protection of the castle like a straying chick. Her maids definitely appeared to be mother hen types. He smiled at the contrast between the confident rider, terrified girl and gracious Princess. It was interesting that they were all the same person. There seemed to be a great deal to explore in this one.
Harold returned from seeing to his men and beckoned to Tamal. “Come, my friend, let us retire to your old room. There should still be some of your clothes there. I will show you the way.” Harold’s smile melted into a knowing, concerned look. “You have forgotten everything again, have you not?”
Not knowing how to respond, Tamal merely nodded. Harold led the way up a staircase to a tower room. As he stepped aside to let Tamal into the room, Tamal took the chance to look around. A sparsely furnished room, it looked like a place to sleep rather than a place to live. Still, the furniture was solid and well-made.
He stepped around the curve of the tower, to find a small dining table and benches. Further around, he spotted a sleeping area with shelves of clothes and books and a large bed. Brushing his hand along a thick decorative wall hanging, he felt behind them. His hand touched solid stone, no chinks to let in winter cold. A fireplace promised more warmth when it was needed.
These were a noble’s quarters, but the tower seemed to be a strange place for them to be. Tamal studied the room, remembering them in that same strange way. It was still as if they were all from a story told to him so many times that he could picture himself there.
Maybe this was all a dream. An astonishingly real one. He could remember so many details. The creating of this room when he first came to this castle. The relieved looks from both the staff and nobles alike when they learned he was not to stay in the Castle proper.
Harold strode to the shelves, assuring himself that everything was as it should be. He turned with some clothes in his hands. “These should do you for now. I will let Mother know that you are returned. She will be glad to hear you are back.” Harold then left the room to let Tamal dress.
A soft knock heralded another guest. A maid dressed in serviceable brown stood just inside the door. Her downward cast eyes and demurely folded hands showed the proper respect. Slightly taller than Alicia, she was pretty rather than beautiful. Straight, brown hair that framed large, brown eyes and rose lips on a tanned face. Peasant stock, solid but still young enough to hold the bloom of youth. He smiled and beckoned her enter.
It struck him, how did he know the Princess’s name was Alicia? He seemed to realise that very few would know it; true names were a closely guarded secret. He blinked and forced himself to concentrate on what the servant girl was saying.
“Lord, I have prepared you a supper.” She hesitated and then slowly lifted her eyes to his face. “But if you would rather feed first.” She ended on a hopeful note, hesitantly stepping closer. She reached up, drawing her hair from her throat leaving it open and inviting to his gaze.
Suddenly the need hit him. Hunger surged through his mind. He could feel his fangs ache with desire. The fight, the ride, and before…. the Circle, they all demanded that he should feed.
It had all been building. It was not until Elizabeth had offered herself – again her name surfaced unbidden from his memory – did he realise what he had been feeling. It was strange. He had no memory of himself, of anything, and yet all these things seemed natural. He knew that Elizabeth had offered herself before. And that he had accepted. Then.
Tonight, something held him back. There was too much happening. Could he trust himself when there was so much he could not remember? He was not sure he could.
“Not tonight. I am tired. I will have the supper and then retire.”
Subdued, she immediately lowered her eyes again, “Yes, my Lord.” She poured him water to wash in and helped him dress for bed. He barely managed to finish the small bowl of gruel before he found himself dozing. He dragged himself to the bed to find it turned down and warmed. Slowly, he eased between the sheets. In spite of the thoughts coursing through his mind, his eyes were closed almost before his head hit the pillow.
A stream of sunlight woke him in the morning. The warmth and position told him that the morning was almost past. He could hear the sounds of the Keep, horses and men training, women and children doing the multitude of tasks that are necessary to keep a castle running.
He lay there for a moment feeling content. He felt as if he was home. Then the realities of the previous day began to make themselves felt. He had no idea who he was, where he was, why everyone seemed to know him…and why he seemed to know everyone else. Nothing made sense. He could hear the sounds of someone approaching the door to his rooms. Sitting up in bed, he saw the door open to reveal Elizabeth.
She was carrying two buckets filled with steaming hot water. Wearing an undertunic, with the soft hide overtunic only partially laced, she revealed ample leg, and, as she bent to empty the buckets into a wooden tub, a more than ample cleavage. She straightened and noticed his gaze. A blush began to warm her face. It reminded him of his hunger. Last night his mind was a maelstrom. In the morning’s light, the storm seemed to have calmed. Now he could trust himself. Or so he hoped. His need would no longer brook an argument.
She came towards him, loosening her laces even further until her bodice slipped from her shoulders. A bare throat and shoulders seemed to fill his vision. He became aware of the girl only when she spoke. Her soft voice drew him back from the edge of the hunger. “Lord, I carried the water myself, the way you like it. It should please your taste.” She pressed herself against him, again drawing her hair away from her throat. This time he gave in.
Using one arm to draw her still closer, he brought a hand to her throat. He could feel her pulse racing beneath his touch. Gently, he tilted her chin. His head lowered towards her. Lips brushed against warm skin. Teeth brushed against her pulse beat. His tongue followed the same path, invoking an involuntary sigh. He felt her breath against his own throat. He could feel her hearts speed, responding to his touch. He smelt her excitement. This is what he craved. That proof of life, that flow of power that each being held inside them. The power, the strength that he needed. He took it.
She tensed as his teeth entered her throat. Then her mind was his. Her blood surged, filling his senses with her. For that moment there was nothing else. Only the release, the pleasure, her complete surrender to him and his need. Finally he withdrew. Their breathing came in pants as their hearts tried to return to normal. For a brief moment, their hearts had beat as one. Now he could feel his own beats begin to slow. Tamal watched Elizabeth’s chest heave as she regained her own composure. She sank to her knees, trembling legs unable to hold her. She looked up into his eyes, holding his gaze. Her words all in one breath told of her feelings, “My Lord.”
He sat back, looking off into nowhere. Hearts! He was aware, in that same strange way that he had been aware of everything else, that he had always had two hearts, but that normally those around him did not. Maybe, here they did. Was he really back amongst his own kind? Then why were they so wary of him? Still, being different was nothing new. That was one of the few things he was sure of. He gave a snort. Of all the things to be sure of, that had to be it? Fates, he hated irony.
Harold arrived later to find the remains of a more traditional breakfast, and Tamal relaxing in the bath. Elizabeth had massaged a great deal of the previous day’s stiffness away. Tamal had lain there enjoying her attentions. Somehow, he could not rid himself of the feeling that someone else had done this for him. Someone trained to provide pleasure. Elizabeth was doing just fine though.
Harold grinned at him. “You better get yourself dressed. You have been called to attend the King. Seven years is a long time between audiences. He has a great deal to say to you.” Harold dismissed the girl with a nod. Then he sat himself at the table with the last of the breakfast.
Tamal tried to picture the King. He remembered a feeling of respect and… He was interrupted by his companion’s voice. “Why do you travel like that if it always robs you of your memory?” He turned to see Harold watching him.
“I could probably answer you if I knew what you meant.”
Harold laughed in reply.
Tamal continued. “For instance, how often have I been here? How long has it been since my last visit? Where do I travel from?”
Seeing that Tamal was serious, Harold sobered. He ran his hand through his hair. “Well, you have only made one other visit that I know of, but the legends of demon visits go back into the distant past. I do not know if those visits were also you.” He paused, “How long it has been since your last visit? Well, it has been seven summers, enough time for a boy to grow old enough to know. You will have to ask the Priest where you travel from. I will tell you one thing though, your arrival this time will set a lot of tongues wagging about our Princess again. She is supposed to be the Witch that summoned you. Still, however it happened, I am glad to see you here.”
Tamal nodded his acceptance of his friend’s words. All the time though, his head was spinning trying to make sense of it all. He reluctantly left the bath. Going over to the shelves, he selected suitable clothes for his audience with the King. Before he put them on, he stood before the polished metal mirror that Elizabeth had brought in for him.
It was the first chance he had to find out what he looked like. Just over six feet two, he was lightly tanned, with broad shoulders narrowing to well-muscled arms and legs. At first glance, he seemed a strong man with nothing to separate him from the norm. Only a slight point showed his canines to be fangs at rest. Only when needed did they make themselves noticed.
He turned slightly to try to catch his back in the mirror’s reflection. His shoulders and legs were slightly more muscled than normal, but it was not that noticeable. A casual viewer would not remark, until Tamal summoned his wings or other forms from the darkness. He shook his head. There again, the memories flooding into his mind. He knew that shapeshifting was not a power he had, and yet, this body knew the skill. And now, so did he. His hair was still damp from the bath, but it hung past his shoulders in waves of colour. The left hand side was raven black, almost blue. The right was the deep red of a setting sun. Between the two colours lay a streak of white blonde. He began, almost unconsciously, to plait the centre colours into a braid that flowed from his forehead back to the nape of his neck. As his hands worked, he kept taking stock of this body that he still did not quite feel was his.
It was a body crisscrossed with scars, the most noticeable being a deep gash from his right shoulder down across his chest to the bottom of his left ribs. It looked recent but fully healed. He estimated it had been inflicted some six months ago. It was a white streak that could tell a story, if only he could remember what story it was. He stared into the face before him. Was it really his? Golden eyes stared back at him filled with a haunted curiosity.
“Come my friend, even demons do not keep their King waiting, especially not you.” Harold rose from his seat and started towards the door.
With smooth movements, Tamal dressed and followed him. Harold led the way through the corridors. When the corridor widened, Tamal drew abreast. “What do you mean, especially me? There is something you are not telling me my friend.”
Harold’s face creased in mock sternness. “The man may be a King, but he is still a father. A father with a bedded daughter.”
“Bedded?” Tamal saw again in his mind’s eye the golden wave of Alicia’s hair. Well, whatever happened when he arrived at the King’s audience, he knew one thing, he would not be able to deny that someone had bedded the Princess. If only he could rid himself of the feeling that it was this body, not him, that had held her. How was he going to explain that feeling to the others to defend himself, if he did not understand it himself?
Harold seemed ready to say something else when he paused at the doors to the Throne Room. He shook his head. “I am not sure whether to tell you or not, but a man needs a chance to blink.” Harold gave him a wry smile. “There is proof positive that it happened my friend, and he is definitely yours.”
“He?” Tamal barely had one moment to think the word and the significance it held before the doors swung open.
Almost the entire Court filled the Throne Room. As one, they turned to watch him walk towards the Thrones. The room was as he remembered it, generations of history echoed in the carved columns holding up the high roof and rugs and tapestries decorating the walls and floor.
The King waited for him, seated on the royal dais. On the slightly smaller throne beside him, Alicia sat impassively, pure Royal again. Both of them could be made of the same carved wood as their seats. They were statues clothed in royal purple. Beside the King stood his advisers. A massive man in both height and girth stood in clerics robes. Beside him was his opposite, a gaunt, short man dressed as a courtier. The cleric’s warm smile was more than matched by the glower of his companion. Mushtuk and Thenlorn, at least they had not changed. Tamal was surprised by the warmth that accompanied that unbidden thought. Obviously these men were friends.
The feeling from the crowd washed over him. It was as if they were watching him before they decided whether he was friend or foe. It was the same as the village, smiles from some, others just watching, and, from all, fear. It was as if they were gazing on a stilled lion. Whether they wanted to stroke it, admire it, or burn it, they all wanted to make sure it was chained first.
It felt as if he had walked a mile against a torrent by the time he reached the Thrones. Harold left his side, and he stood before the King alone. For a moment he hesitated. He sensed a reluctance in himself to bow before any man. But a deep respect for the man before him seemed to spring up to counter this. He compromised with a bow that kept his eyes firmly on the King’s own. A brief smile passed across the King’s face, then it was gone as if it had never been. Tamal turned slightly to include the Princess in his bow. Her smile was a great deal warmer and stayed, brightening her face. As Tamal straightened, he could sense the King studying his daughter.
“It seems you have returned to us, and once again I am to thank you for saving my daughter.” The King’s deep voice filled the Court without effort. Tamal studied his face before replying. There were lines that had not been there before but there was still the powerful essence of a true king.
While he did not hold the same bulk as his erstwhile cleric, he was a solid man. The grey in his beard did not diminish the sheer force and power that he held in his eyes. Standing before him, Tamal was struck with the presence of the man waiting for his reply.
“It is always a pleasure to save someone so beautiful,” Tamal said with another small bow towards the Princess. He continued quickly to counter the fatherly protection he could see growing, “And at the same time serve such a noble King.”
The King held a long, still moment, and then chuckled, “Still the courtier, I see. It is a pity that you come at such a troubled time. We do not have the time to waste on pretty words like we did in the past.” The King looked across at his daughter. She blushed and lowered her eyes. He turned the same meaningful stare on Tamal. A slight swell of laughter went through the Court behind him. Tamal chose to say nothing.
“Why do you come to us now, on the eve of war, Demon?” The King’s tone brooked no more familiarity.
Tamal’s thoughts raced as he tried to plan an answer. In the end, he decided on the truth. “I do not know. I was brought here by the Fates. They alone know why. It may be that I was needed.” Tamal’s voice rang confidently through the Court. He may have not been sure of his own name, but he did not doubt his power.
The King nodded slowly. “That may be. It would be good to have you returned to my side.” For an instant, Tamal could see a brief look of …was it love, cross the King’s face. A brief flash of his borrowed memory brought the image of the King standing before the Court with his arm over Tamal’s shoulders to a roomful of cheers.
Tamal’s attention came back to the present with a sharp exclamation. “Your Majesty, you cannot be serious.” Thenlorn had stepped forward as if to physically drive his point home. Mushtuk strode forward to stand beside him. Thenlorn continued quickly before the cleric could cut him off. “Majesty, no one is disputing Tamal’s abilities in battle, but he is not a suitable…being to represent you on the field. His indiscretions aside,” the thin Courtier gave Tamal a withering glance, “he has been gone from our kingdom for over seven years. We cannot trust him. Common sense alone forbids all consideration of it. That is without even considering the laws of propriety.”
It was Mushtuk’s turn to let out a snort. “You are an old complaining woman, Thenlorn, you always have been.” A few laughs rose from the Court at the insult. “You have said it yourself, he is the best weapon on the field we have ever had. We need every man we can get, and he is worth ten of any other soldiers in reputation alone. Why five enemies drop dead out of fear before he even raises the soul-stealing sword of his. And what of his indiscretions?” Mushtuk glanced at the Princess. “You can hardly blame him.” His smile was almost paternal as he watched Alicia’s face turn an even darker crimson.
Mushtuk continued, his voice rising in volume even as it deepened in tone. His last words where rumbling quakes felt in the bones. “One thing we cannot doubt is his loyalty. He has fought and bled for all of us.”
Calmly, Tamal stood before the Court, watching the two as if it was one of their countless arguments on religion or philosophy, and not his honour being discussed before the whole Court. Only Alicia’s shiver at the word blood caught his attention. She was not the sort to be queasy. He glanced toward the King.
The King had leant back on his throne. Tamal realised the King was letting the words of his two advisers wash over him. He had often said that he kept the two because they could never agree on anything. He could listen to both sides of any argument before he passed judgment. The only problem was that they argued over everything.
Tamal returned his attention to the two men. They were just warming up. He recognised the start of a long argument. Even the Court started to settle on the benches scattered through the room. They all knew how long these two could talk.
Even as Tamal tried to concentrate, he could hear Harold’s words going through his head. “He is definitely yours.” He…a son? It would have to be. Tamal remembered taking Alicia into his arms, into his bed. It was possible. Did he really have a son by her? There was only way one to find out.
Tamal opened his mind. Gradually, he let it flow through the room. Between the two thrones. It would be the logical place for someone who wanted to see but not be seen. Tamal sent out a thought. “Hello.”
At first, there was nothing, then a faint wisp of curiosity. Tamal focused on it. He could feel a mind, young and strong. He could break the link forming between their minds if he so chose, but he left it, amazed at its vigour. Even this young, he could sense a resolute block trying to keep the boy’s thoughts hidden. Tamal knew that there was no one else at Court with the power of telepathy. The boy must have learnt on his own. That was impressive. He allowed that thought to float towards the boy. He could feel the boy’s slight swelling of pride with this praise.
“Enough!” thundered the King’s voice as he raised himself on the Throne. Once again, he was pure monarch. “I have decided. The Demon is here now, and we must use him. But first he has a duty. He must show his son what he truly is. Every man must know what he truly is.”
The King nodded. He seemed to be sure of what he was doing now. Alicia looked across to her father, doubt on her face. The King looked at her and gave another nod, acknowledging her concern but still sure he was right.
Alicia’s eyes went from the King to Tamal and back again. Then she reached out her hand behind her. From between the Thrones, a boy stepped forward. He stared at Tamal with open curiosity. Alicia’s hand stayed on his shoulder. The King’s hand rested on his opposite shoulder. The boy looked at each of them and they smiled in return. Somehow it seemed important to Tamal that both Mother and Grandfather looked on the boy with open love and affection.
Alicia looked up at Tamal, concern for both him and the boy showing on her face. The King leant back in his throne, gesturing for Alicia to do likewise.
“His name is Simon,” the King’s voice rumbled. “Simon, this is your Father.”
The boy tilted his head as if reserving judgment on that fact. He looked at Tamal with frank curiosity. Tamal gazed back. If looks were anything to go by, he definitely was his son. Deep red hair fell to his shoulders, parted by a blonde stripe. He had Tamal’s colouring but he had Alicia’s features and build.
Tamal repeated his earlier greeting, this time aloud. “Hello.”
“Will you show me how to be powerful?” The boy asked with no hesitation. It was as if he had known about Tamal’s arrival and planned his question before time. Considering the Court’s ability to gossip, it was highly likely the boy had known Tamal had arrived, even if his Mother or Grandfather had not told him. Still, Tamal found the choice of question oddly disturbing.
The King interrupted any reply. “First, he will show you his own power. Guards!”
The guards dragged a side door apart and four prisoners were dragged through. One Tamal recognized as the escaped Wolf rider from yesterday. Another was a Noble from the Court, judging by his clothing. The remaining two were dressed as servants. Going by the colours, Tamal guessed they were the Noble’s own household.
“Cousin, why am I to be subjected to this outrage as if I was a common criminal?” The Noble spoke, confirming Tamal’s earlier conclusion.
“Because you are worse than a common criminal. You have betrayed your King. For that offence, no punishment is too harsh.” The King’s anger blazed down.
Tamal noted with interest that, although his fellows cringed away from the King, the Noble did not. Traitor he might be, but at least he was brave. Or perhaps he knew something that made him brave. Tamal watched with more interest.
The King continued. “There is a way to deal with traitors. They must be interrogated, and they must die. One of you will live to tell of the fate of the others.”
The King leaned further forward. He pointed to the Noble. “But it will not be YOU who lives.” With that statement ringing in the Court’s ears, the King gestured to the guards. They each grabbed an arm, and forced the Noble to his knees before Tamal. One reached forward to the man’s collar and ripped it away. The rich fabric tore, leaving his throat exposed. One guard roughly dragged the Noble’s head to the side. Now, for the first time, the man was afraid. Tamal could smell it. His fear called to him. His hand reached out, almost on its own. Tamal could feel his breath growing sharper as the Hunger gnawed at him again. To take this man, to drain his mind, it was almost as intoxicating as the thought of draining his body of its strength. Again he felt the familiar ache. His fangs began calling for the blood he could hear pounding through this man’s veins. It made him wish he knew the man’s name, but of course as a Noble, no one knew his real name but his own parents. Still, Tamal could take it from his mind, take control, even as he took his blood. Once he had his name, the man’s soul was his.
Tamal stopped. He could feel another Hunger in the room. He looked up to meet the eyes of Simon. He stood there, fangs extended, echoing Tamal’s own need. Show me the Power! The thought screamed in his mind.
Tamal stepped back from the kneeling Noble. What was he doing? He could feel the memories of doing this before. He could see himself, standing wings outstretched, the victim cowering before him. He could feel himself enjoying it. This was not right! It was not him! Holding his son’s eye, he raised his voice so the whole room could hear.
“I am no Demon. I will use my powers to help the Throne and its rightful King, but I have learned that there are other ways.” Tamal was torn between the look of puzzlement on Simon’s face, and the look of surprised, quiet approval on the face of the King. The sigh of relief from his feet drew his full attention downwards. “But this man is still a traitor, and must pay for his crimes.” His hand went to his belt, finding the hilt of his sword.
The look of relief on the traitor’s face froze. A startled cry left the Noble’s lips as he focused on Tamal’s blade at his throat. Tamal was reaching for the man’s mind, when overwhelming fear swept from it. The man leapt to his feet driving Tamal’s sword through his throat. Tamal forced his mind through the pain. He tried desperately to find the cause for the man’s fear, a fear so great, he would take his own life.
He only caught a glimpse before he had to retreat from Death. He saw only a fear of magic, fear of the demon. He could not shake the feeling that it was not him who terrified the man. He had seen another like him somewhere. Maybe someone who would be able to explain Tamal’s presence? Maybe someone who was responsible?
Slowly, Tamal withdrew his blade. For a moment, the whole room seemed to still. For him there was nothing but the blade and the blood. Then his eyes returned to Simon. The boy’s eyes were locked on the blade, too. Why did you not take him? The child’s thought echoed his bewilderment.
Tamal pondered briefly before his thoughts replied, You have to control the power or it will control you. If you continually use fear, it will turn on you one day. There are other ways…better ways. Tamal felt the argument fail to convince the boy even as it had once failed to convince him. He remembered the words, but not the person who had said them, nor their face.
The King’s voice interrupted. He gestured at the body. “Clear that away. And deal with the others. Choose one to bear the news back to my dear Cousin. I will not allow harm to me or mine. I now have the power to back that up. I will not tolerate any further intrusions. Further spies will be killed out of hand.”
The guards dragged the remaining spies out of the room. The King rose off his Throne. “This Court is adjourned.” He gestured towards Tamal drawing him in closer. “You have grown, my son. It is a good thing to see,” he paused looking at his daughter and grandson, “especially now.” He smiled and held out his hand. “Walk with me; we have a great deal to discuss.”
Tamal followed the King into his private room behind the Thrones. Mushtuk, Thenlorn and Harold joined them. The King seated himself at the head of the table before a jug and platter. He gestured to the others to seat themselves. Then he seemed to sag. It struck Tamal again how much he seemed to have aged in the few years he had been away. The King’s normally fluid grace was tempered with age. His step was heavier and his face more deeply lined. The weight of the world seemed to be pulling at his shoulders. What had happened?
The King poured them all a drink. “To your timely arrival and the safe return of my daughter.” He toasted Tamal.
Tamal watched as they drank deeply from the goblets. He took a sip from his own. Almost instantly, he could feel the warmth of the drink flow into his cheeks. He threw a wry look at the goblet.
The King noticed his reaction and laughed. “So, the Demon still cannot stand the demon drink. Maybe we should make you drink the whole goblet. Then you might be drunk enough to tell us what really brings you here.”
Tamal smiled at the friendly chiding, but he caught the undercurrent of seriousness. He let the title Demon pass for the moment. “Even with my gift for drinking, I do not think there is enough wine in your whole Kingdom to answer that question. I am afraid I do not know why I am here.” Tamal looked into his goblet. “I seem not to know a great many things.” He muttered to himself. The other men also looked into their drinks, as if the answer was written in the cool, red depths. Each of them nodded slowly. For a moment, they all sat in companionable silence.
The King shook himself out of his reverie. “Well, we must just take your arrival as a good omen and a timely one. We have had all too many bad ones of late.” Seeing Tamal’s curious look, the King continued. “We are on the eve of war. Ever since the Princess’s failure to marry…” The King paused to look at Tamal.
The pause was filled with a sniff from Thenlorn, followed by a kick to Thenlorn’s ankles from Mushtuk. The King smiled and continued. “My Lord has used the excuse to raise forces against me. Spies fill the Court. Yesterday’s incident with her highness just showed that they are ready to move. They never would have shown their hand here unless they were ready for war. Perhaps now, we are ready, too.”
Tamal regarded the King for a moment. “I appreciate your confidence, but I think you overestimate my powers. I am not a Demon. You should know that more than any other I am merely a magic user. Your army is one of the best I have ever fought with. Have things really changed that much that magic is so important?”
“There appear to be a great many things you do still remember,” the King chided warmly.
Tamal began to wonder again at the strength of his memories. The only thing that seemed more powerful was their stubbornness in surfacing to his consciousness in any sort of order.
“Unfortunately, the answer, my friend, is yes. My Lord has found himself his own Demon, and this one has no qualms about being Demon or magician. The Outer Tribes are flocking to his side. They know as well as we do the spoils to be gained when an Empire falls. Now they have the Magic on their side as well.”
“I have lost my hold over them. It has been a hard year. The harvests were small. I cannot give them anything but reminders of past aid and glory. People have a bad memory when their bellies are rumbling.” The King rubbed his hands over his face. “I have lost them.”
Mushtuk leaned forward, concern for his King showing in his face. “Not true there are still many loyal to you. And we do not know that the rumours of another Demon are true. Those loyal to you will still fight, regardless.”
The King smiled at his old friend. “So I look forward to a civil war. Maybe if I have lost all loyalty, I could just step aside and avoid the war all together. But no, I have to fight. I will not let that murdering bastard take my lands, or subjugate my people.” The old fire returned to his eyes for a moment as he stirred in his chair. It quickly faded. “We have to plan. We have a long day ahead of us, my friends.”
Together the five pored over the maps of the area. It was decided that the most likely place for the enemy to attack would be on the plain near the border. It was decided that Tamal would take a small force and scout the area to find out if the rumours of gathering forces were true. “You would also be able to find out if there is another Demon. There was a recent skirmish in that area. Apparently, a freak storm allowed the enemy to escape. I want you there to see if it was caused by Mother Nature or by the Hells.”
“I will,” Tamal replied, “but before I go, I want to make sure of the defenses here. If there is another magic-user out there, I want to make sure there are no spells around the Castle.”
“Harold will assist you with all you need.” The King nodded towards Harold who acknowledged the task. Battle strategies made, the King allowed himself to relax. Pouring himself another drink, he looked towards Tamal. “I am glad that you think you have things here to defend. I only wish that I could allow more time for you to be with them before you go.”
Tamal rose with a gesture to Harold. “My Liege, I have always considered this place a home to protect. And sometimes duty comes before personal needs.”
The King smiled approvingly and gestured his permission for them to leave.
Tamal was almost through the door when he heard Thenlorn’s sour voice mutter, “It would have been nice if he had remembered that before all this began.” Tamal smiled as he heard the King’s chuckle, and Mushtuk’s rebuke. He reflected that, if you were to have fathered a son, it did not hurt for him to be the grandson of the King. Especially, as the King did not seem to mind.