March to Shadows

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Description:

Book Two of The Judges Cycles finds Jerah, Gratas, and Reslo as guests in the palace of King Velat, and they’ve arrived just in time for a royal ball. Instead of fighting Ogres, Dark Elves, and Ancient princes, the three must now navigate the luxuries and intricacies of the royal court. That is until they are sent to Galeberth’s northern border in order to attempt to parlay with the northern raiders from the exiled portion of the Templars’ kingdom, who have been pillaging the villages in the shadow of the border mountains.

 

Excerpt: 

Despite the torches and giant fireplace in the center of the room, the stone walls of the throne room held onto the chilly night. Reslo, who had seen fit once more to wear only his vest, tried to keep from shivering. The throne room lacked the luxury and comfort of the rest of the palace. It was part of the old keep built in the early days of the Nolterite Empire. King Serinaum had commissioned the palace to be built around the keep after seceding from the empire, and the keep’s bleakness was lost beneath the palace’s elegant towers and hallways.

“So, Belsarik is defeated then?” King Velat finally said after a few moments of musing and scratching at his thin, white beard when the trio finished telling their tale of Ogres, Dark Elves, and the son of Argaroth, slain once more. Velat leaned back into the plush satin cushions of his tall, golden throne. The throne upon which he sat and the crown he wore bore the same pattern, two sweeping wings of gold, upright around a pillar in which was laid an enormous diamond surrounded by rubies.

“I would hardly consider myself an expert on whether or not such creatures are even capable of dying, Highness,” Reslo said. He inclined his head in a bow before the king. There was no dais in the old keep, and both Galeberthian kings had refused to allow too many renovations to be done to the building. The cold stone and torches, with the occasional tapestry depicting a scene of battle from the kingdom’s birth, served as a reminder to the monarchy of their origins.

Beside the throne a statue stood: four faceless figures forged in gold divided a land of silver. Despite the incredible wealth poured into the statue, it did a poor job recreating the majesty of the Four Antiquities.

“And you knights will swear oaths that you truly walked through Seelie Lands? That you passed through the Veil of the worlds and trod upon the ethereal ground within the Urkraft?” Passion filled the king’s trembling voice.

The Templars nodded and knelt. “By the gods and their thrones in the Skies, we swear it was so.” It was Jerah who swore the oath. As he was a herald to the king and gods, Gratas let him do most of the talking.

King Velat leaned forward, his eyes glazed over with wonderment at the idea of being able to set foot into the Seelie Kingdom. “Amazing,” he whispered. He turned to a man in gaudy and ostentatious garb, a feather pluming from the crest on his cap. “Mister Pelian, you will write a hundred songs about the beautiful land these three were able to witness.” The man removed his cap in a flourish and bowed deeply.

“It appears the problem of your lost champion and artifact that started this whole escapade has at least been solved enough to satisfy your knightly orders,” Hebric said from where he stood next to the king, looking a little unaccustomed to being hungover. “The Armerian Templars have begun withdrawing from the Ashland Mountains now that you two have returned from the forest, and the Sylvan Elf queen has promised to continue searching for your lost relic and return it to your lands upon its finding. Twilian has also given their word they will inform us should they find a clue as to the whereabouts of Sir Gersham. I believe that has solved the original problem between our kingdoms that landed you two in His Highness’ service.”

The knights nodded in agreement with the general.

“However, several problems still remain,” King Velat said. “Queen Saeve has closed off Old Column Road in defiance of Oldendarf’s Treaty. She somehow believes it is my responsibility to keep all these Elves and Ogres from sneaking into her forest. Now…” The king stood and plucked up his iron-and-gold scepter with a glowing crystal mounted onto its top. The three gulped, realizing the king was about to make a very important, and very official, statement that would likely affect them all in a very inconvenient manner. “There is no use in getting upset about Old Column Road. The issue can be solved in a diplomatic manner and my armies have been made tired by all the long marches.

“Yet, I will need soldiers to man posts around Miradep to watch for Ogres and Dark Elves. Filling those posts, however, will be difficult with so many needed along my northern border with the kingdom that bears the same name and golden eagle as yours.

“Now, while I understand that King Ricarius does not hold sway over your Northern kingdom, I still find it fortunate that I have two Holy Temple Knights of Nolterland in my service during a time when this wayward, savage land is spewing raiders and plunderers into my kingdom to burn and pillage.”

“Sir Jerah, you are a herald, are you not?” Hebric asked, much more formal and authoritatively than he had spoken with them the night prior.

“I am, General.”

“When you speak, you proclaim the word of your king and your gods, do you not?”

“That is correct.” Jerah was beginning to see what the king and his general had planned and he did not like it.

“Then I have suggested to His Highness that he use you one last time before he releases you from his service to return to your homes.”

“Sir Jerah and Sir Gratas,” the king said, “I ask of you to go north to the Sudthenåk Mountains and attempt to treaty with your kinsmen and bring an end to their ravaging of my kingdom.” Both knights’ mouths dropped open in disbelief.

“Y-Your… Your Majesty,” Jerah finally said after regaining his wits. “The two halves of our kingdoms have not spoken in over three thousand years. We know nothing of their ways and customs, or if they even recognize our king as theirs.”

“Then now seems like a wonderful time to find out. Who knows, maybe they’re doing this as an attempt to retake our lands and reunite the Empire.”

“Majesty, Sir Jerah can barely walk, let alone ride all that way,” Gratas pleaded, looking for any way to get out of this final duty.

“Dear sirs, calm yourselves please.” King Velat set down his scepter and relaxed into his throne. “You will be given time to convalesce and to heal from your previous quest while the general forms a suitable party to escort you on your way.”

“I realize your sword arms have grown tired over the past month, so I will order that a hundred soldiers and cavalry escort you on your way,” Hebric said. “With so many swords and shields at your side, you will not have to worry about being once more up to your necks in Ogres and the walking dead.”

Gratas’ and Jerah’s faces hardened at the idea that they needed to be protected from the ardors of combat, but with all they had endured, they both admitted that it would be a welcome relief to have a hundred swords at their back, even if they were Galeberthians.

“And by royal decree, we will make use of the canal,” the king said. “Thus, you won’t have to march all around Miradep.

“Given the distance and what we ask, this should take no more than three weeks from when you leave, likely a week from today. That will give you plenty of time to be home with your families for the Time of Giving celebration of your country,” the king said.

With heavy hearts, the knights bowed before the king to whose service they had been loaned until he saw fit to release them. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”

“Now, Reslo Tailrep,” King Velat turned his attention to the Elf. “Seeing as you serve my interests on Old Column Road, ensuring Oldendarf’s Treaty is indeed kept and the merchants who pay a hefty sum of money to travel through the woods are kept safe, and that treaty has been defied by Queen Saeve, I have no need of you on Old Column Road. You will therefore go with these two knights. Consider yourself an ambassador to all involved parties. To ensure the well-being of the comrades whom you fought beside, to ensure my wishes are carried out, and to ensure peace is brought in the North. I can then allocate the necessary resources to ensuring Saeve’s forest-kingdom is kept safe, since it is so desperately in need of my protection.” Velat’s irritation slowly seeped out as he went on with his tirade. Reslo wished he could hide away, but the cold, gray chamber offered nowhere to run.

“Yes, Your Highness, as you wish,” Reslo said with his own bow.

“Your Majesty, what about what Belsarik said? About having agents already within your councils?” Jerah asked.

“Ríaman, will you look into it?” Hebric called.

“Already on it, General.”

Gratas almost jumped out of his boots when the soft, hissing voice spoke from directly beside him. He turned and saw that a Fairysuddenly stood next to him, almond eyes bright beneath the cowl of his cloak, and tall ears poking through coal-black hair that spiked like sharp crags at odd angles after the earth had moved.

“Now, gentlemen, I realize this seems like I am abusing your services by keeping you tasked well after peace has been restored in the South. I also realize the champion and artifact you were supposed to have recovered are still lost. So I promise you that, upon your return, there will be a hefty ‘donation’ waiting for you to take to your knightly orders, as a show of good faith on the part of the King of Galeberth. Maybe I’ll even throw in an extra gift or two specifically for the gracious service you have given me and my people,” the king said.

“A hundred thanks, Your Majesty,” Jerah said.

“Now, I have other matters to attend to. You may go.”

The trio bowed at the king’s command and turned to walk from the throne room, but not before giving the Fairy Ríaman a suspicious glance.

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