The Third Prophecy

Foreword

This was written for NaNoWriMo 2008. As such, it has not been much edited, and suffers from a few obvious problems: needless repetition, verbosity, awkward sentence structures here and there, and inconsistencies (like Erilanthas running until the moons have set, although I’ve clearly described the effects of a supernova). I blame it all on trying to get the story down as fast as possible. :)

One thing you might find amusing (because I certainly do): in the last section, I start off with Khrel being the viewpoint character, and then he’s abruptly not anymore. Why? Because I spent a lot of time developing the character, and then when I started to write him, he wouldn’t coöperate! The jerk was too nice and too full of himself. His brother needed to be on the throne, not Khrel. So I…took care of it </mafia voice>.

Hey, this was NaNoWriMo. There was no question of going back and rewriting. That would lose words. And I have to admit…I kind of like how that bit came out. It demonstrated the ruthlessness of Daglan from the get-go.



Chapter One

Melva awoke knowing that something was wrong. She grabbed the pail she kept near her bed and was sick into it.

After she was done, she wiped her mouth with a cloth she kept with the pail, stood, and steadied herself with one hand against the wall of her bedroom. It had gotten cold overnight and she stifled a shiver.

She walked on unsteady feet to where her robe and slippers were hanging, put them on, and hugged herself for warmth in the chilly room. She needed a fire. And she could make some herbal tea to help the arthritis she felt more and more each day. “Getting old isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” she said as she rummaged in the wood bin for kindling. The coals from last night’s fire were still glowing faintly, so she hoped some slivers of pitchy wood would do the trick and she wouldn’t have to go to any more trouble.

She still felt queasy. This was by no means unusual. She had many teas that would settle the stomach. Over the years, she had learned many ways to disguise the bitter flavor of the main herb, and had even come to enjoy that same bitterness that had once so vexed her. The intensity of this morning’s nausea surprised her. The last time she’d felt this intensely nauseated had been long ago.

She put the thought out of her mind as she found the kindling she was looking for and thrust the small slivers of wood into the coals of the previous night’s fire. Soon, flames were curling around the wood she had added, and the fire had begun to crackle nicely. She took a few moments to warm herself. These cold mornings were getting harder and harder as she got older.

Another twinge of nausea set her in motion. She fetched the kettle from where it hung next to the fire and shuffled to the door. She would brew some tea to settle her stomach and then try to figure out why it was so upset. The well was a few steps away from her front door at most, and she was glad of its closeness on this cold morning. Winter would not be long in coming, if she was right.

As she opened the door, she noticed that it had snowed during the night. Not much, but just enough to soften everything under a thin layer of white that was—

Her nausea slammed her so hard that she doubled over with pain and fell to her knees, dropping the copper kettle with a thunk. Something about the light was wrong. She vomited into the pristine snow, then forced herself to get to her feet, being careful not to slip on the ice.

She had thought it was the dawn, but as she forced herself to look around through the intense pain in her stomach, she realized at least one reason the pain had been so bad. The light was all wrong. It was a cold light, like moonlight, only much brighter. The sun’s light, even glinting off snow, would be warmer. A single glance into the sky told her everything.

To the northwest, a star that had been barely bright enough to see last night was brighter than the moons that hung low in the sky to the south. It was as bright as the dawn sun. A sun that, Melva realized now, would not rise for some hours.

She stood on her front doorstep, her kettle forgotten at her feet, and drew her robe more tightly around her. She continued to stare into the night sky. “No,” she murmured. “It’s all wrong. They’re too old. It can’t be now. They’re not ready. Sithel doesn’t even know.”

After a few moments, she turned and went back inside her cottage, all thoughts of tea forgotten. She had to get a message to Dernon. And Erilanthas, but she had no idea how to contact the Aldemaari.

She sat at her desk writing a terse note and shivered, but not from the cold. This was a chill that no warm tea or fire would touch.

* * *

Dernon gasped for breath. He had been coughing so hard that he could see little points of light at the edges of his vision. It had been happening more and more, lately. His insistence that it was merely the cold weather and the usual ailments of an old man were less and less convincing, even to himself. He looked down at the handkerchief he had been coughing into, and saw a fine spray of blood.

Dernon was no healer, but even he knew coughing blood was a bad sign. He sat down heavily in the chair next to the window, breathing raggedly. He looked out onto the courtyard, which was covered in a thin layer of fresh snow.

I’ll not live to see spring, he thought. He’d been to a healer, and before the woman had said a word, he saw the truth etched in the wrinkles around her eyes. “How long?” he’d asked.

“Not long, Dernon. You should take it easy, move south where it’s warmer. These cold winters are not doing your lungs any good.”

He’d nodded and agreed that he should do that, but the woman knew as well as he did that he wasn’t going anywhere. Dernon lived for one reason and one reason only: Torri. He had raised the girl, and now that she was off on her own, he couldn’t just leave. She was on her first solo assignment, and he’d be damned if he’d spoil that honor by giving the girl something else to worry about. He’d just have to make sure he lived until she got back, he thought. Just to see her one more time.

And how would he tell her? She was all he had, but by the same token, he was all she had, as well. And there were things he needed to tell her.

As he sat, pondering, he was startled when the courtyard was lit by a bright, cold light. It was as though someone had lit dozens of lanterns all at once, but with that dratted coldfire and not the warm stuff he preferred.

He heard exclamations of alarm from rooms around him, and realized he wasn’t the only one who had noticed.

The window was a hard one to raise, and always had been. But he at last wrenched it up and he stuck his head out, suppressing the coughs that tried to come. The light was coming from high in the sky, but it must be obscured by the building, because he couldn’t see.

People emerged from the lower floors into the courtyard of the building. They were all pointing into the sky over Dernon’s head and exclaiming.

“What is it?” he called down to them. “I can’t see!”

“A star, Master Dernon. One of the dim ones. Only now, it’s bright as the sun!”

“And getting brighter!” someone else shouted.

Dernon felt a cold knot forming in his throat. Without another word, he slammed the window closed, shutting out the sounds of alarm and amazement from the courtyard as more and more students and masters emerged into what should have been a dark night to stare at the new light in the sky.

Melva’s sign. It has to be. It had been decades, and he had begun to think Melva had finally been wrong about something, but now he realized she had not been. His heart clenched. “No!” he said through clenched teeth. “There’s no time. No time left.”

Another fit of coughing took him, wracking his body for long minutes. Finally, he was left gasping for breath, almost sobbing as he drew lungful after painful lungful of cold air into his body. The handkerchief was stained pink with his blood.

He had to tell her, that was all. But he couldn’t pre-empt her first assignment. She had been so proud—

No, he told himself. No time for regrets. He strode over to the fireplace and fed it more wood until it was blazing warmly. As a master, he had one of the few rooms with a fireplace. He was grateful for this, now, as he had something to do that needed privacy.

He checked the door of his room and made sure it was locked, then wove a glamour around it that made it far less likely that anyone would interrupt him. He needed absolute privacy for what he was about to do.

First, he would send a message to Melva, although he was positive it was unnecessary to do so. She would have seen the light by now, and would know better than anyone—including him and Erilanthas—what it meant. He didn’t even consider trying to contact the tall foreigner. He was on his own for now.

After he composed the letter to Melva, he pulled down a new, blank book from his shelf and opened it to the first page. He closed his eyes, concentrating. After several moments of silence, he dipped a pen into ink and began to write.

“My dearest Torri,” he began.

* * *

Far to the south, the night was considerably warmer than it was in the northern climes, but the air still held a distinct chill that heralded the coming winter. Erilanthas wriggled slightly in the asham he had woven for himself, shifting the vines and limbs for a more comfortable fit against his backside. Although he did not show it, he was getting older, and felt the small discomforts of a night spent in the wilderness more and more each year.

He pulled his blanket closer around himself and started to drift off to sleep when someone shone a light in his face.

“Oh, for—” he began, but then remembered that he was alone. He opened his eyes to a world lit by a cold, white light that was growing brighter even as he watched.

Part of him wanted to just close his eyes and pretend he had not seen, but he couldn’t. He sighed heavily, then gathered his blanket into a bundle, grabbed the limb he had anchored the asham to, and pulled the vine that unraveled the comfortable sleeping place. He would have no more need of it tonight.

“Damn,” he muttered. He shivered, but it was not from the cold. Melva had been right, after all. But why now? he wondered. Bria was finally in command of her own regiment, and at her age, that was nearly unheard of among his people.

Of course, Bria was not of his people.

He swung himself easily onto the sturdy branch to which he had anchored the asham, and stood on it, making his way easily along the curved surface until it intersected the trunk of the tree. Bracing himself against the sturdy trunk of the tree, he turned and looked at the bright star again.

He became aware that the forest was filled with sound. The eerie, cold light was beginning to have an effect on the wildlife around him. The birds sounded confused, and he could hear muted squeaks, grunts, and howls as other, larger animals voiced their confusion, as well.

I’m with them, he thought. This changes everything. I could lose Bria. But, she’s been aching to prove herself, and she’s as ready as I’ve been able to make her.

He hopped lightly down the tree-trunk from limb to limb until he was as close to the ground as the limbs got in this forest, then gently lowered himself to the ground using the vine he’d used to ascend in the first place. He turned his back on the source of the light and began a distance-eating light run. He would travel this way until the light was gone. Hopefully, that would get him close enough to home that he could make his way even in the moonless darkness.

Once he got home, he would send for Bria, and after he calmed her down, they could begin the long journey north.

* * *

The servant backed from the room, bowing, but Khrel paid no attention. He picked up the wine glass and sniffed, his eyes closed. He grimaced. It wasn’t the worst vintage he had been served, but it was far from the best, as well. He knew they had better in the cellars, and he made a mental note to have a talk with the wine steward.

With eyes still closed, he took a small sip of the wine.

“Sire?”

The voice came from the door. Someone was disturbing the king in his private study at dinner.

Khrel opened his eyes and saw a young man dressed in a common soldier’s uniform. The young man was keeping his head down and his face averted to avoid looking at the king, as was proper.

“Yes?”

“Sire, I—that is, we—need… there’s a problem at…”

Khrel sighed. It was always like this. “Young man, what is your name?”

“Um… I’m Nakhun, Sire. Sergeant Nakhun. Of the Scouts.”

Although Khrel had already deduced this information from the young man’s uniform, he didn’t stop him.

“Now, Nakhun, what is this trouble that you have?”

“I… that is, Captain Grolim said that you would want to know immediately, Sire. And…” The young man cleared his throat. “He said that I was not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Sire.”

Khrel smiled. Grolim had been a friend years ago. In fact, the man had trained Khrel in combat. Grolim would not have lightly sent this young sergeant to disturb him. Something must actually be important.

He carefully put down his wine glass and removed the napkin from his lap and tossed it casually on the table. He knew that when he came back, he would have a fresh meal brought to him within moments. Sometimes it was good to be the king.

He rose from the table and approached the young man who was still looking away from him. “Sergeant Nakhun, please take me to Captain Grolim at once. And do stop averting your gaze. It annoys me.”

Nakhun took Khrel’s statement as permission to proceed him, and ushered him out of his study and down a long sequence of passageways. Khrel was hopelessly lost almost immediately.

“Where are we going?” he asked the young sergeant.

“To one of the watchposts, Sire. It’s not far ahead.” The young man sounded far less afraid, now, to Khrel’s ears. He was so intrigued by what could be so important to Grolim to interrupt his dinner that it never occurred to him that he was in danger.

Until he felt the knife blade slide between his ribs.

His attacker had emerged from a side passage and thrust the blade into Khrel before it even registered that he had seen someone he knew.

He looked up into the face of his brother.

His last words were, “Dag, why?”

Daglan gently lay his brother’s lifeless body onto the stone floor of the passageway. He looked into the older man’s lifeless eyes. “Because we need a real leader, and you were too soft by far, brother. I’m sorry,” he added, as he closed the former king’s eyes.

King Daglan stood and said, “Sergeant, you did well. I need you to clean up this mess and convene a meeting of the chiefs of staff immediately. Do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Take along a few men you can trust. If they give you any trouble, explain the situation to them.” He gestured at his brother’s body, now lying in a small, cooling pool of blood. “And Sergeant?”

“Yes, Sire?”

“Leave Captain Grolim to me.”

The young man saluted, then hurried off into the darkness of the passage.

Daglan strode purposefully along the passage behind the Sergeant until he came to the watchpost Nakhun had been ostensibly leading Khrel to.

“Always wrap a lie around a truth,” he said to himself as he donned the darkened goggles he and his people had to wear when making any excursions onto the surface.

He climbed the ladder and emerged into the semi-darkness of a hidden cave. The brightness at the mouth of the cave still caused his skin to crawl even though he had been the one to discover it.

“Captain,” he called to the man standing silhouetted in the cave’s entrance.

“Is it done?” came the reply. Grolim’s voice was soft.

“Yes, Captain. I did it myself. I’m the new king.”

“Not officially,” Grolim replied, his back still turned.

“Young sergeant Nakhun and a few select men are going to round up the chiefs of staff. I will be recognized as the new king within the hour or there will be a few replacements in that august body, as well.

Grolim said nothing for a long time. Then, “It’s amazing, isn’t it, Dag—Sire?”

Daglan smiled. “Grolim, old man, you can call me Daglan when we’re in private. We’ve known each other too long for formalities.”

Grolim didn’t answer, and Daglan finally approached the cave mouth.

Through the dark goggles, the view from the cave mouth looked like a landscape at the tail end of twilight, when daylight was at its darkest.

It should be dark enough that they didn’t need the goggles, but a star—now nearly as bright as the sun—shone in the sky. It was bright enough to cast shadows, but gave no warmth.

Daglan stared at the sight for a long time, then said, “Grolim, I never believed I would live to see this.” He turned to the older man. “Are you absolutely sure? Is this truly the sign? The one spoken of in the old legends?”

Grolim finally turned to face his new king. “What else could it be? Don’t the old legends say it will herald a new king, a great war, and the end of our banishment from the surface?”

“So they tell me.” Daglan had been the first to see the new light appear as he was taking his turn at watch. He had immediately sent for Grolim, and the two of them had put their plan into action right away.

Daglan cleared his throat. “We have much planning to do, old man. I need you with me. Choose someone you can trust and put them in your position. You’ve just been promoted to my military advisor.”

Grolim laughed dryly, with no humor. “General Haghaan won’t be happy to hear that, you know.”

“General Haghaan is an old man.” At Grolim’s look, he laughed and added, “Old and set in his ways. Not like you. He’ll either see my way or…perhaps it’s time for him to retire.”

They stood and looked at the bright star for some time, thinking their own thoughts, and planning for the coming changes. It would take months to get everything prepared, and it would not be easy. They would face resistance from within, but he knew—as did Grolim—that there were many among his people who dreamed of a time when they were not imprisoned beneath the earth and could walk the surface like other men.

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