I should have posted a long time ago. Truth be told, I thought I had but it was sitting in my draft folder.
Long delayed thanks to Victorine Lieske, author of Not What She Seems, and other best sellers. She took the time and effort to critique the first chapter. Her advice gave me a lot to think on. I also want to thank K.C. May, author of The Kinshield Legacy, for her help. Without further ado, here is the long delayed excerpt from The Crown and the Ring. Enjoy.
It had been decades since Danr last visited the Sanctuary. The peaceful gardens and sprawling grounds separated it from the rest of the capital. In a way, it was a living museum. Along the winding paths, amid statues of the gods, flora from all over the world could be seen. Priests and priestesses led tours. A paladin practiced the art of meditation. A couple walked hand in hand, taking in the sights. Children played in a field amid flowers from southern lands. There was something for everyone.
The Sanctuary itself was walled off from island of natural beauty. It was the home to the priests and paladins. This was where they lived, trained, and taught. It was also very well protected, though it might not seem that way. There was only one guard visible but there were more watching the gate, ready to respond quickly and violently to any threat.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
The young man confronting him was a paladin, one of the men and women supposedly chosen by the gods to defend this place and their followers. Danr knew otherwise. From the look of his armor and weapons, he was a novice. It was strange for a paladin, even a novice to be on guard duty. Something was going on that warranted the extra security. He was about to walk past him when the novice spoke again.
“The Gods have little love for your kind,” he said.
The words were delivered with heat and venom. They weren’t enough for Danr to draw steel but they did get his undivided attention.
“What do you mean by ‘my kind’?”
The novice’s sneer marred his otherwise handsome features. “The act of branding criminals has fallen out of practice but I know the meaning of the rune seared into your flesh. You’re a thief, a spy, and a killer of men.”
Without thinking, Danr touched the brand on his cheek. Most people didn’t know the meaning of the rune. They just saw it as something that set him apart from common folk. Even fewer knew how he came by the mark. It was one reason why he didn’t bother trying to hide the brand. The other more important reason was that, as far as he was concerned, he had done nothing to be ashamed of. Still, the novice’s words bothered him. They brought up old memories best left in the shadowy corners of his mind. It caused his reply to reflect some of the man’s heat back at him.
“If the ‘gods’ didn’t want me here then they shouldn’t have summoned me.”
Danr could have handled the matter more diplomatically. He could have chosen his words better. He opted for the truth knowing full well that sometimes people didn’t want to hear it. They either can’t accept it or they were unprepared for it. The novice seemed about to say something when he was interrupted.
“Let it go, Bryce,” the newcomer said.
“Magni,” Danr said, turning to face the man. Time had changed the paladin’s voice, deepening it. “It’s good to see you again.”
The rescue was timely and welcome. He didn’t want to hurt Bryce but he would have done just that if the novice had called him a liar. Danr was the first to admit he wasn’t perfect. Still, there was a price to be paid for insults and disrespect. People have killed one another for less.
“You know this ‘man,’ master?” Bryce’s anger was replaced with disbelief.
Danr gave Magni a long look. The big man’s red hair was now touched with gray. It was the only clue to the paladin’s age. He looked as strong and powerful as he did in his youth. Along with his hair, his eyes had changed. They lacked the recklessness that had almost gotten him killed during their first meeting.
“Yes, Bryce, I do,” Magni replied, with an amused smile. “And it’s good to see you as well, Eternal One. It seems that history has repeated itself. Didn’t our first meeting go a little like this?”
Bryce’s eyes widened. His mouth opened only for the novice to close it. He was far enough along in his training to know the title and its significance but not far enough along to recognize Danr’s face. Now, it was all coming together for him.
“Please, I really hate that title,” Danr said.
Magni shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said, dismissing Bryce with a nod.
Danr watched the younger paladin depart. Bryce was jogging towards the barracks, like Magni had done decades ago. Soon, every paladin in the Sanctuary would know he was here.
“So why was half the order sent out to look for me?”
Magni turned to lead him deeper into the Sanctuary before replying. “More than half, Eternal One. The giants and their allies are on the move.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Magni. The giants are always on the move. What’s different about this time?”
“Priestess Arelyn will explain matters.”
Danr didn’t press him for more information. If he asked, Magni would share what he knew but it might put him in a difficult position. That wasn’t his way. Instead, he shifted the conversation to a safer topic.
“Where’s Bria hiding? I hoped we could talk before we got down to business.”
Magni hesitated briefly before answering the question. Danr knew and dreaded what was coming. It was the one answer he had heard too many times, the one he despised.
“I’m sorry. She passed away two years ago,” Magni said. Not willing to let the silence build between them, the paladin placed his hand on Danr’s shoulder as he continued speaking. “I know this is hard for you. I’ve lost friends and family but you…. I can’t imagine what it is like for you. I wish I didn’t have to add to your pain.”
“I’m fine, Magni. You’re a good friend, so was Bria,” Danr said, hoping his smile was enough to mask his sadness. “Thanks.”
He left it at that, not wanting to say more as they walked past the training grounds and large building where the clergy lived, trained, and taught. Anything else he might have said would have given voice to his bitterness. It was always that way when he felt the weight of years and memory threatening to crush him. The loss of friends and lovers always made him feel old. Danr wouldn’t give into that now. He would bury the pain and focus on why he had been summoned. Later, when he was alone, he would unearth the pain. He would remember Bria and all the others who had gone before him.
♛ ♛ ♛
Magni was leading Danr to the Fountain. He knew the winding path well enough to find it on his own. Even if he didn’t, the power radiating from it would guide him to its source. In another age, the Fountain had a different name. Back then, the area surrounding it was a different wilder place. The gods and heroes of old came here to gaze into the crystal clear waters, seeking visions and portents of things to come. Back then, there was no Sanctuary. The magnificent city of Havardr that sprouted up around it hadn’t been built yet. The Rising Realms wasn’t even a reality yet. This was all untamed wilderness.
Very few visitors to the Sanctuary were permitted this close to the Fountain. There was power here. How that power manifested depended on the visitor. Most of the time, there was no visible effect. His approach caused the reflections in the water to solidify into diamond hard clarity. This part, more than any other part of the Sanctuary, made him homesick.
In his youth, he made frequent visits to a pool much like this one. There, his father and others taught him history. He listened to the stories of distant lands and talked philosophy with his kin. They showed him the wonders of the last age and what could be but he wanted to see the world in the here and now. When his teachers weren’t around, he used the pool to do just that. In a way, that led him to the path he now walked.
“Welcome, Danr. I’ve been expecting you.”
The priestess’ words drew him back into the present. They carried no hostility, only uncertainty. That didn’t stop her from smiling at him.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
It was a silly question. There had to be something wrong for the paladins to go to this much effort to find him. The young woman’s smile faltered. She averted her eyes from him to look into the waters of the Fountain, noticing their change. “It’s nothing,” she said, though her voice seemed a little shaky. “I just thought you would be……”
“Taller,” Danr suggested, with a smile of his own. It was a line that was old when he was young. Even so, it was almost enough to draw a laugh from his hostess.
“Older,” she said. The laughter she held back, filled her voice with amusement.
Of all the words Danr expected, this wasn’t one of them. He shouldn’t have been surprised. He never really measured up to people’s expectations. The stories and tales didn’t quite mesh with reality. Most people didn’t recognize him until he did or said something to tip them off. The man from the stories everyone knew so well was a bit taller and more handsome. They left out the price he paid for all his adventures. Still, they did get a few details right.
They all mentioned his dark clothing and storm gray coat along with the hat he usually wore. It added a mysterious quality to his look. It wasn’t intentional on his part, just the way he liked to dress, even if the style was no longer fashionable.
“She doesn’t believe the stories,” Magni said.
“Of course, I do. Well most of them,” she said, still smiling. “I’m sorry. I just find it hard to believe you’re the same man people have been spinning tales about for years.”
“If it makes you feel better, I won’t tell you what to believe. I’m more interested in why you need me,” Danr said.
Arelyn nodded, her voice losing some of its amusement, as she got down to business. “I don’t need you, the goddess does. She wants you to recover the Crown.”
Danr opened his mouth only to close it, doing an imitation of Bryce’s expression from earlier. He glanced at Magni wondering if he knew about this. The paladin shared his slack jawed and wide eyed look. He asked himself “Why do priests and priestesses always want the impossible?”
“Priestess, you know the stories about the Crown of the One King?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. “None of them have happy endings.”
To most people, they were only stories passed down from generation to generation. For him, it was history. The Crown was a relic from the last age, lost when the city of the gods fell to earth. Some said it caused the city’s fall. Danr knew better but that didn’t make it any less dangerous. Recovering the Crown of the One King would set a chain of events in motion. Any search for it would definitely be enough to stir up the giants and their allies.
“You’re the only one who can do this.”
“Priestess, I can’t do it,” Danr said. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking.”
“Arelyn, you may call me Arelyn,” she said, as if familiarity would change his mind.
“Okay, Arelyn. I’m sorry. I still can’t help you.”
It was a half-truth. He wasn’t sorry. From the look she gave him, the priestess was confused by his refusal. When she spoke, she lowered her voice as if she were afraid someone might overhear her. “What if I knew where it was located?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t change a thing. The Crown is too dangerous to trifle with. I would need a very good reason to go after it.”
Arelyn frowned. The amusement in her tone was a distant memory. It was replaced with righteous anger and indignation. “You would defy the gods?”
For the second time today, Danr took the path of least diplomacy. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Magni sighed and palmed his forehead as Arelyn snarled the word ,“Coward!”
Danr took a step forward, drawing himself up to his full height. Clouds gathered, darkening the sky. It matched his foul mood. All the while, the priestess kept speaking oblivious to the warning look the paladin gave her. Her words were lost to him yet her final sentence managed to penetrate the red haze of his anger.
“I can understand why you might be afraid but the goddess demands this.”
It took most of his willpower to stand his ground and not storm out of the Sanctuary. That wouldn’t solve anything, especially if Reya truly needed his help. Still, he couldn’t let this go unanswered. As heated as Arelyn’s words were, his words were cold, without a care for her feelings or the consequences.
“Are those her words or yours? Reya knows better than to make demands of me,” he stated, with certainty. The goddess of love and battle was a good friend to have. She was much more than that to him but he didn’t worship or answer to her. The same was true for all the gods.
“Blasphemy,” Arelyn croaked. “You dare to speak as if you are on equal terms with the goddess. It seems the tales about your irreverence for the gods are true.”
Throughout the exchange, Magni hadn’t moved or spoken. Now, he intervened, coming to the rescue again. “Danr, this is important. Please, calm down and consider her request.”
Magni was right. Danr nodded to the paladin before walking away from the Fountain and Arelyn. With the location, this shouldn’t be too difficult. It would be a simple matter to go wherever the Crown was and recover it. Reya wouldn’t need him for that. There had to be more to it.
“She told you I was the only one who could do this?” he asked.
Arelyn was still angry. It made her words and tone sharp. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t know why it has to be you. Now, I wish it weren’t. You’re unworthy.”
This time Danr resisted the urge to batter her with the truth. He chose his words carefully. “I’ll recover the Crown but there will be a price to pay.”
“Anything,” she said quickly.
Danr repeated the word out loud and to himself. Death was a very real possibility but not a concern. It was all the things that would come later that troubled him.
“Anything,” Arelyn said again.
From her expression, she had the wrong idea. Maybe she thought he would ask for wealth or even her favor. He didn’t need or want either of those things. Money was something he never lacked or needed and finding company wasn’t a problem.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“One last thing,” she said, clearly relieved he had acquiesced. “I will be accompanying you. I wouldn’t want you to disappear with the prize. After all, you are a thief.”
Danr expected that. He also knew she would not want to leave the Sanctuary without an escort. He didn’t want to turn this into a traveling circus. “Just keep the group small. No large entourage or baggage trains. I want to get this over with as quickly as possible.”
Magni expected this too but from the paladin’s expression, he liked it even less than Danr. “I will oversee the paladin contingent,” he stated.
That was a welcome relief. Danr liked Magni. He was a good man to have at your back. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all? It would be like old times. There was just one detail he needed.
“Okay, where is the Crown?”
Arelyn seemed ready to answer the question when he felt a disturbance in the Weave. A thunderous crack obliterated all other sound. A beam of reddish orange light stabbed down from the sky, setting the clouds on fire. He recognized the power and knew what was coming.
Danr was already in motion. He shoved Arelyn out of the way as the beam punched through him and the spot she was standing in. Water from the Fountain flashed into steam. He looked down at the fist-sized hole burned though his chest. As he sunk to his knees, he smelled the delightful aroma of burnt meat.