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Excerpt for Silverwood by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Silverwood


By


Amber Reifsteck

Copyright © Amber Reifsteck 2013

All rights reserved


ISBN - 9780463957240


All places, characters, and events herein are purely fictional.

Any resemblance to actual persons, places or events is

simply coincidental.



Primary Category: Fiction / Fantasy / General



Summary: After a dark force of Shadow demons is awoken,

a secretive sorceress enlists the help of a reluctant

swordsman.



Language: English



Country of Publication: United States

Contents

Chapter One: The Darkening Sky

Chapter Two: Restless Ambitions

Chapter Three: The Gypsy in the Wood

Chapter Four: The Reckoning

Chapter Five: Anger

Chapter Six: Friends and Enemies

Chapter Seven: The Besieging

Chapter Eight: Deviation

Chapter Nine: The Guardian in the Darkness

Chapter Ten: Rebellion

Chapter Eleven: Emotions

Chapter Twelve: Prisoner

Chapter Thirteen: Truth

Chapter Fourteen: Ancient Magic

Chapter Fifteen: Sedition

Chapter Sixteen: Morbid Confessions

Chapter Seventeen: Escape

Chapter Eighteen: Fear

Chapter Nineteen: The Guardian’s Deception

Chapter Twenty: Ready

Chapter Twenty-one: Shadowy Attack

Chapter Twenty-two: Aftermath

Chapter Twenty-three: Sides of Darkness

Chapter Twenty-four: The Hidden Library

Chapter Twenty-five: The Final Confession

Chapter Twenty-six: The Whole Truth

Chapter Twenty-seven: Bargaining

Chapter Twenty-eight: The Mark of the Outlaw

Chapter Twenty-nine: Tarkweed

Chapter Thirty: No Return

Chapter Thirty-one: Heir to the Throne

Chapter Thirty-two: The Seventh Tier

Chapter Thirty-three: The Toppling of the Lumidian

Chapter Thirty-four: Afterward

About the Author

Silverwood


By


Amber Reifsteck

Chapter One


THE DARKENING SKY



“Guardians! Guardians!” the shepherdess screamed as loudly as she could, running into the Temple of Aurora. The Guardians of Light and the temple dwellers met the shepherdess as she climbed the stairs.

“Guardians,” the shepherdess panted, “the moon is gone!” A murmur of fear rolled through the temple and the Guardians exchanged nervous glances. Without a word they filed out onto the balcony to gaze into the night.

As true as the shepherdess had said, the sky above the land of Argentum was black as pitch, illuminated only by the cold glow of the glittering, white stars. The three Guardians stood silent and motionless, not wanting to believe their own eyes. They looked into the west where the second of Argentum’s five moons had set.

The third moon should have risen in the east by now, but it was nowhere to be found. The sky was empty, the darkness was coming and no one could do anything to stop it. Fear began to fill the room.

“The Shadows, the Shadows,” people whispered, not daring to raise their voices lest the Shadows hear them. None of them had ever seen a night without the moon, for in Argentum, the moon always shone brightly across the land.

More than three hundred years earlier, a group of sorcerers had captured the light of the sun and broken it into five moons. As soon as one moon began to set, another would begin to rise, ensuring that there was always a comforting silver light across the land to protect the people from the Shadows. But now one of the moons was gone, leaving just a swath of darkness in its place.

It would only be a matter of time before the Shadows realized that the moon had vanished, and if the moon stayed gone, the Shadows would leave their valley. Once outside of their valley, they would have free reign so long as the absence of the moon remained. The Shadows could consume anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. The Shadows were a force no one could stand against and they knew it.

“To the Lumidian immediately,” Kelgar commanded. Notelcea and Enira nodded, following the old man as he hobbled up staircase after staircase until he reached the seventh tier of the temple. Together the three Guardians fixed their eyes upon the form of the Lumidian.

The Lumidian was the device that held the captured power of the sun. It was the Lumidian that distributed the sun’s light among the five moons of the world. It had never failed. The device consisted of a large, glowing pedestal positioned in the very center of the temple’s seventh tier. The sun crystal, the largest of six crystals, sat at the center of the pedestal, orbited by the five silver moonstones that floated through the air. But as the Guardians gazed upon the Lumidian that evening, they saw with certainty that one of the crystals was missing. Where the stone that represented the third moon should have hovered, there was now only open space.

“Selene has gone dark,” said Kelgar, naming the third moon. The light of the Lumidian’s remaining crystals cast an unworldly glow upon his wizened face.

“But how could the moon have gone dark?” breathed Enira in fear.

Enira was the youngest of the three Guardians, still being in her twenties, and still a bit new to the ways of the Guardians of Light. Despite her training, the young girl’s slender frame trembled in what could not be mistaken for anything other than fear. Her blond hair sparkled all the more, as though trying to make its own light in the darkness.

“The moon has gone dark because it is no longer there,” said Kelgar. “This is a fact that none would wish to believe, but whether we choose to believe it or not, the fact still remains. The third moon has gone dark because it has been destroyed.”

Enira gasped. Kelgar might as well have told them that the world was ending because his words carried the same weight. If something could snuff out one moon, what was to stop it from striking another?

Selene was one of the late moons; the moon that rose while most people were sleeping. Few people would realize its absence immediately. Sooner or later, however, people were going to notice, and when that happened, panic would spread throughout the land. Such would only make the darkness stronger, for the Shadows fed upon fear.

“But that’s not possible,” Enira protested, the prospect being too terrible to believe. “The power of the Lumidian prevents the moons from destroying themselves. Someone would have had to steal the crystal and none but the Guardians are allowed to enter the seventh tier. If someone had come into this level of the temple we would have known. No one could do that. It must mean something else.”

“It can mean only one thing,” said Notelcea, the third Guardian speaking at last. “The Keeper of Darkness has infiltrated the temple.”

Though a well-seasoned Guardian of Light, Notelcea had never lost her youthful appearance. Her hair was brown as ever, her skin was smooth as silk, and her body had all the energy of a youthful maiden. Because of this, Notelcea rarely spoke, letting Kelgar be the purveyor of wise words. She knew that wisdom was more easily believed when it was spoken by an elder, and Kelgar had the appearance of a wise old man. When Notelcea did choose to speak, however, the other Guardians saw fit to listen.

“The Keeper!” Enira choked. “Do you really believe the Keeper of Darkness has penetrated the Temple of Aurora?”

“I think there can be no other explanation. It will not be long before the Keeper of Darkness emerges from the valley and all the Shadows shall follow.” Notelcea’s blue eyes glowed like a sapphire flame, enhancing her fresh-faced appearance.

Even Notelcea didn’t completely understand the reasons for her prolonged youth, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to understand. She had a strong suspicion that it had something to do with the vanishing moon, though she couldn’t say exactly what. The events of the evening had frightened her perhaps more than anyone else because she had been a Guardian longer than anyone else.

She knew it could not be a mere coincidence that the stolen moon just happened to be Selene. That particular moon had always been weaker than the others, almost since the beginning of the Lumidian itself. Most people had attributed it to a discrepancy in the construction of the Lumidian, but as the suspected mistake had never been found, it had eventually been ignored. It never seemed to hurt the light of the moon, however, it simply left it a bit misshapen on one side, like that of a moon which rises two days after the full. There was only one person in the world who knew why Selene was misshapen and that person had never spoken of it.

Notelcea sighed as she stared at the vacant space where Selene’s crystal should have been floating. She knew something was happening, but she would not disclose more than she already had. Talk of the Keeper was worry enough and Notelcea knew that no good would come of panicking the temple dwellers, not when there was so much important work that had to be done. Notelcea had her suspicions, and she could only hope she was wrong.

“I am in agreement, Notelcea,” said Kelgar. “I cannot begin to imagine how the Keeper of Darkness could have broken through our boundaries of light, but the Keeper has had hundreds of years to plan this with little else to think about.”

“The Keeper has been striving to break free of the Valley of Shadows since it was first exiled there,” Notelcea reaffirmed.

Enira was practically shaking as she listened. Notelcea slipped a comforting hand over the young woman’s shoulder. Enira had only taken up the position of Guardian little more than a month ago. Before Enira, a ninety-four year old man had held the position of the third Guardian of Light, but when he died quietly in his sleep, Enira had taken his place. She had been raised in the Temple of Aurora with the other potential Guardians of the future.

When one of the Guardians passed on, it was the duty of one of the potentials to take their place, ensuring that there would always be three Guardians, just as there had been since the creation of the Lumidian. None of Enira’s training or temple life had readied her for the events that were now in motion, however, and she was finding it difficult to compose herself. The Shadows had never been a threat during her life, or even the lives of her parents, but now they were a very real peril and Enira was little prepared to deal with them.

“For too long we have ignored the Keeper of Darkness and its Shadows, believing ourselves and our powers to be superior,” said Kelgar. “Tonight we have been proven otherwise. We can ignore this threat no longer. We must undo what the Keeper has done. We must rouse the moon that the Keeper has darkened and we must make it whole. We have long known that Selene has been misshapen since before we were born, and we know that whatever caused that defect is what allowed the Keeper to silence Selene’s light this evening. Now that the Keeper has taken Selene, it has a window open to the Lumidian. Who can say how fast the Keeper can work or how complete its plan is. We can only hope to stop it before it silences the lights of the world forever.”

“What do you suggest, Kelgar?” asked Enira, desperate for anything that would seem to cast hope on the dreary situation.

“I suggest that we go immediately, Notelcea and I, for there is not a moment to lose,” Kelgar replied.

“Me?” Notelcea’s eyes locked with Kelgar’s. “And what is it that you would suggest I do?”

“Go to the Hall of Records in the royal city beneath the king’s palace.”

“Kelgar, I know the information that lies within those records. There is no knowledge in them that I do not already possess,” Notelcea protested.

“There is always something in the records that we do not know, Notelcea. That library holds the history of the world. I know that you were a Guardian long before I came to the temple, but–”

“What?” Enira whispered in shock. “Kelgar, how could Notelcea have been a Guardian before you? You’re ancient.”

Notelcea shook her head. “Kelgar is not as old as he appears. A childhood encounter with the Shadows left him much scarred and aged him before his time. He is hardly more than fifty.”

Kelgar nodded. “And Notelcea is not as young as you may believe. She was already a Guardian before I came to take my place.”

It was all new information to Enira. It was a rule of the temple that no one spoke of the previous Guardians who had passed on. Their names were not to be recorded or spoken after their deaths, for fear it would cause inequity among the ranks. The Guardians were all meant to be equal, for when they took up the position, they relinquished their personal identities and became merely the Guardians. The position of the Guardians was meant to be remembered and revered, not the people who filled that position. As such, the Guardians almost never spoke of those before them.

“We have no time to dwell upon this now, Enira,” said Kelgar. He turned back to Notelcea. “Despite your age, even you could not know everything in those records, for they extend to the beginning of this very temple. There may be secrets in there that we need to know, perhaps secrets concerning the construction of the Lumidian that will point out its weakness. We are the Guardians and only we are allowed to access that information, but even we do not know the names of the first Guardians, the Guardians who captured the sun for us all.”

“You as well as I do that we do not speak of the Guardians who have gone before us,” Notelcea chided.

“Yes, I know, but now we may have to. Go to the records and see what you might find.”

“I tell you with certainly that there will be nothing in those records that I do not already know, but I shall go if it will satisfy your curiosity.”

“It will.”

“And what then will you do?”

“I shall find the gypsy.”

“The gypsy who dwells in Silverwood?”

Kelgar nodded and Notelcea narrowed her eyes. It was rumored that Kelgar had been raised by the woodland gypsy and that such had been a factor in his selection for the position of Guardian. It was a rumor that Kelgar had neither confirmed nor denied, but at the moment, it was certainly making Notelcea curious.

“What can you hope to find from the gypsy woman?” asked Notelcea.

“Answers,” said Kelgar simply.

Notelcea shook her head. “You are nearly crippled. Let me find the gypsy while you stay here to protect the temple.”

“She is a gypsy, Notelcea. She moves throughout Silverwood, not remaining long in one place. You could never find her yourself. I will go to Mordrelina the gypsy and seek my answers. You must go to the Hall of Records and whilst there you must alert the king to what has happened as well. Enira will remain here to guard the temple.”

Me?” Enira squeaked.

Kelgar nodded. “You are young, but you are still a Guardian and you have the power of the Guardians.” He fingered the silver moon pendant that hung from Enira’s neck. “If you mind what you have learned, then the temple will be protected.”

“Are you sure I am ready for this?”

Kelgar nodded. “Advise the others in the temple to begin making candles and many of them. Have them sent to all the homes in Argentum and beyond, for soon anyone caught in the dark will be taken by the Shadows. It is nearly five hours until Maan, the forth moon, rises. Let us hope the world can hold out that long.”

The three Guardians marched back down the stairs and out to the balcony once again. The sky was just as dark as it had been when they left. Kelgar looked at Notelcea. “We leave as soon as Maan rises.”

Notelcea nodded gazing up at the sky once again. A weighty covering of clouds began to roll in, something that hadn’t happened in hundreds of years, and a chilly wind blew from the west. Notelcea turned toward it, feeling it weave its airy fingers through her hair, and she knew the Keeper had sent it.

“Aecleton,” she breathed.

Chapter Two


RESTLESS AMBITIONS



Raede Bremmin slowly made his way down the darkened steps of the palace, heading toward the kitchens. Due to a natural insomnia he was often awake while the others in the palace slept. In his own belief, it was due in no small part to the fact that he had lost the crown of Argentum, a crown that should have rightfully been his. He’d never slept well since then.

Raede was a dreamer and a conniver, spending many a sleepless night hatching plan after plan. Some were worthy of tucking away for later use, and some came in streaks where each was as useless as the next. But worthy or useless they continued to come, one right after another.

Raede spent many of his waking hours and nearly all of his few sleeping hours, dreaming of what might have been or what might still be. As was bound to happen, the incessant strategizing and wakeful nights often left him hungry during the late hours, so he had recently taken to haunting the kitchens, devouring whatever was left from the day’s meals.

As Raede made his way down to the kitchens that evening, he glanced out one of the open windows on the stairwell to gaze over Argentum, the kingdom that he still felt belonged to him. He was surprised to find it pitch black across the land outside. He could barely make out the line of trees in the palace gardens and the familiar hills had all but vanished. It was dark, very dark, and in a land where the moons were always full, the darkness was anything but ordinary.

Raede leaned further out the window and perceived a sky choked with clouds far too substantial to be the normal rain clouds of Argentum. They blocked out everything, limiting Raede’s vision across the land. The familiar light of the moon was nowhere to be seen.

Raede quickened his pace down the stairs, abandoning his trip to kitchens for the time being. Instead he raced out the palace’s grand entrance in search of Herric, the night watchman. Raede found the soldier in his usual place as though nothing were amiss.

“Herric,” called Raede. “Where is the moon?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Herric replied. “Lua, the second moon, set shortly after I began my watch, but the third never rose. It has been nearly two hours since the covering of clouds rolled in and I’ve seen not a glimmer of Selene.”

Raede fixed his piercing brown eyes on the clouds covering the world. They were the thickest he’d ever seen in his lifetime. Even so, he should have been able to see the faint glow of the moon beneath them, but there was nothing. The moon was truly gone.

Raede stretched himself to his full height, looking as noble as ever standing there in the darkness of the palace’s steps while he contemplated the situation. His square jaw was firmly set and his chestnut hair blew in the unusually strong westerly wind. Though he’d lost the crown, Raede still wore his hair in the manner of a king, cut off at his shoulders and sporting a line of short bangs across his forehead. The king of Argentum had never ordered Raede to change his hair, and while that secretly pleased Raede, it also made him view the king as a very weak man for failing to enforce the laws of his own kingdom.

“What are your thoughts on the matter, Lord Raede?” asked Herric anxiously.

“I think that Aecleton has at last found a way to breach the boundaries of the shadow world,” Raede replied.

Herric nodded. “Those were my thoughts as well, sir, though I didn’t want to admit them aloud. It is very unpleasant thinking that the Keeper of Darkness may be here within Argentum.”

“Does this frighten you Herric?”

Herric nodded. “It does indeed, My Lord, though it is not for myself that I fear, but rather for my wife and children. I expect that they are home even now, sleeping peacefully, completely unaware of what has happened.”

Raede nodded. “The Shadows have not left the Valley in almost three hundred years. It will take them some time to find their way back to Argentum. You will have warned your family by then.”

“What are your orders, sir?”

Raede did not answer right away. He was still staring at the vacant sky with perhaps a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. Ever the optimist, where others saw only fear, Raede saw opportunity. His glass was always half full, no matter what the occasion. He quietly bided his time playing the role of submissive adviser, but all the while making his own deductions about a given situation. He could find what he considered the good in any circumstance, and he always kept a sharp eye open for anything he could use to further himself on his own quest for redemption.

“When are you to be relieved Herric?”

“An hour and a half from now,” Herric replied.

“And who is to relieve you?”

“Meclellon.”

Raede raised a hand to his chin. “He is here in the palace now isn’t he?”

“Yes sir. He came in before Lua set,” said Herric.

“Tell him he is to relieve you now, then go and wake my brother. King Laede will need to know what has happened.”

“Yes, My Lord.” Herric bowed and hurried away to do as Raede had bade him.

Raede reveled in the moment of silence, embracing the gloom of the evening. Herric was frightened and he was looking to Raede for guidance. It made Raede feel important; it made him feel big. It was a feeling he’d rarely felt on many occasions in his life.

Raede had been small-framed as a child and that form had never changed as he’d gotten older. Even now he retained his slim body, almost to the point of finding that it inconvenienced him in its weakness. He’d always tried to make himself appear bigger and more powerful than he was, but to no avail. No matter how much he ate or how hard he worked, he stayed small as ever, a pathetic figure of a man who came second to everything…even the crown. What Raede lacked in physical strength, however, he more than made up for with mental cunning.

Raede had a mind that worked like no other in Argentum. If anyone in the palace court had a question, it was well known that Raede could probably answer it. He was the king’s senior defense adviser, a task well suited to someone who had been fighting a personal battle for most of the forty-eight years of his life. He knew that under the present state of affairs the king would soon call upon his wisdom, but this would not be like any other defense the king had been faced with. This time it would not be a fight with unruly citizens or foreign invaders; this would be a fight against shadow itself. Raede knew the king would never be able to win it alone.

Raede would be only too happy to provide the king with essential information about the events of the evening. He’d learned long ago that flies were drawn to honey more quickly than vinegar, and flies were exactly what the members of the court were. Mindless little insects hovering around their king as though their lives depended upon it. Each one seeking to appear more courageous, more wise, or more valuable than the next. Their entire lives were spent putting on airs for a man who’d received the crown by mere chance that the spirits had given him the imposing form than Raede had always desired.

It wasn’t Raede’s fault that the spirits had made him a small man and he didn’t feel he should have to pay for their mistake. He knew he was worth far more than the other insects of the palace. He truly did have value and the king would never be able to do without him. Oh yes, he would advise the king on all matters necessary, because the people would need someone to look to now. They would need someone wise, someone who could answer their questions, someone who could make them feel safe. It would be Raede whom the people would look to now. He grinned. He’d been waiting for an opportunity like this for a very long time.

“Good evening, Lord Raede,” came Meclellon’s voice.

“Good evening, Meclellon,” said Raede turning toward the guard. “Does the night appear different now than it did when you arrived at the palace?”

Meclellon resisted the temptation to gasp in surprise as he noticed the darkened night around him. “It does, sir,” he replied, “for Lua has set, the sky has become clouded, and as far as I can tell, Selene has not yet risen.”

Raede nodded. “Then you see what Herric and I have seen as well. It is an ill tiding, Meclellon, and I may require your help very soon.”

“It is my duty to protect the palace, sir, even from the Shadows. I will do whatever I can.”

“You are brave, Meclellon, but swords cannot fight the Shadows. I fear this darkness may have been caused by the Guardians.”

“The Guardians of Light? Their one duty is to protect us from the darkness. Why would they remove the light?”

Raede could hear the idealism in Meclellon’s voice. It was obvious that the soldier bore the great respect that the presence of the Guardians commanded. Perhaps there was even a bit of admiration there. In any event, Raede decided to change the subject. There was work to be done and Meclellon would have to help…whether he knew it or not.

“It is simply that I’m worried an accident may have occurred there,” Raede replied switching tactics. “We shall have to send someone to the Temple of Aurora to learn what has happened, but for now I have a different task for you. A task to protect the people of Argentum.”

“I am at your service,” said Meclellon, always ready to undertake a noble assignment.

“First go to the cellar and gather as many torches as you can find. Dole them out to all the guards of the evening watch, telling them what we believe has happened. When you have finished, wake the kitchen maids.”

“The kitchen maids, My Lord?”

“Yes. Tell them to begin constructing more torches immediately. If Selene’s absence is to continue, torches will be our only salvation in the coming nights. When you have completed that task, rouse two of the horsemen and have them ride immediately to the Temple of Aurora to find out why the sky has gone dark. Then return here and take your place on the night watch.”

“Of course,” said Meclellon making to leave. “What of Herric, sir?”

“I have given Herric orders of his own. He is waking the king even as we speak, but his watch is over for the evening. When you have done what I’ve asked of you, return here, but be sure you bear a torch. It would not do to fall prey to the Shadows.”

Meclellon nodded as Herric had done and ran off to fulfill Raede’s orders. Raede watched him intently. The man was a true noble, perhaps too much of one. He was an unmarried man with no family to be concerned about and nothing but his own glory to strive for. Like any true noble, however, Meclellon cared little for his own glory, wanting only glory for the kingdom he served. Herric was a different story.

While Herric did have a very good heart and a kind disposition, he also had attachments. A wife and three children was not something a man would wish to lose. Some men would do anything for love of their families…or for fear of losing them. Fear was dangerous thing, but it could also be a powerful ally, for fear could transform a man. All his ideals could be shattered in one gripping moment. Herric was standing at such a crossroads, and with just the right amount of pressure, the soldier might prove to be very pliable.

Herric reemerged from the palace a few minutes later. “I have done as you asked, Lord Raede.”

“Well done, Herric. Did the king send you with any messages?”

“No, sir. It was the bedroom guard who awoke the king. I did not actually speak to him.”

“No matter,” said Raede. “If the king wishes my counsel, he need only ask.”

Herric nodded, but he still seemed anxious.

“There is nothing to be concerned about, Herric, for I do not fear the night.”

“Nor I, sir, but I admit I still fear for my family.”

Raede nodded in understanding. “How far away does your home lie?”

“At the far end of Argentum, on the outskirts of Silverwood.”

Raede rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment. “Then you must go, Herric.”

“Go?”

“Yes, there is not a moment to lose, for Silverwood is west of Argentum and the Shadows will reach the forest long before they enter our city. I have sent Meclellon on an errand, but he will soon return to take his place on the watch. You are free to go. Take as many torches as you can carry and return to your home. Tell your family of tonight’s events. Leave them torches and bid them make more, or bring your entire family into Argentum where you might keep watch over them and be sure they are safe.”

“It will take me several days, Lord Raede.”

“I know, but you have my permission. I will take the burden of blame if the king protests. Every man has a right to warn his family.”

“Thank you, My Lord,” Herric breathed in relief. “Thank you.”

Raede merely nodded in reply, knowing that Herric was his. He had given Herric the much-desired opportunity to protect his family, and now Herric would follow Raede anywhere. Raede stifled a grin. With Herric at his side, Meclellon would soon see fit to fall in line. Raede would bide his time until then, letting his familiar quiet disposition calm everyone in the palace. He would appear to silence their fears, but all the while secretly fan the flames. The wheels in his head were rapidly turning, but he kept his outside demeanor just as tranquil as it had always been. It was something he’d been practicing for decades and it had never failed him yet.

“I will try to return as quickly as I can,” said Herric.

“Whenever you can, Herric. I would never expect a man to sacrifice his own family for his kingdom. Go.”

Herric nodded and turned to leave. Just as he ducked inside the palace he paused and looked back at Raede. “You are a very wise man, sir,” he said and then he was gone.

Raede glanced at up the cloud-encrusted sky once more and smiled. “I know.”

Chapter Three


THE GYPSY IN THE WOOD



Kelgar watched as Lua slipped below the horizon and Selene refused to rise for the third night in a row. He balled up his fist tightly, closing his eyes in deep concentration, then quickly released the hand. A ball of white light glowed upon his open palm. He was in Silverwood now and the assortment of trees was the only thing standing between him and the Valley of Shadows. If Aecleton, the Keeper of Darkness, left the valley, the forest would be the first place attacked. Kelgar’s ball of light would be the one thing protecting him.

It had taken Kelgar two days to reach Silverwood on foot. The borders of Argentum were not as well guarded as they used to be and Kelgar had found little trouble slipping beyond them unnoticed. He’d always been well practiced in stealth anyway.

He was cloaked from head to toe in black. He’d abandoned his white Guardian robes before leaving the temple, choosing peasant garb that he felt would make him less conspicuous. The people of the land were frightened enough as it was and the sight of a Guardian outside the Temple of Aurora would only increase their uneasiness. They would know the Guardians were searching for answers as well. That was something the Guardians could not let the people know, for utter chaos would follow such a confession.

Kelgar glanced around the now darkened forest. The patches of silver moonbeams had set with Lua and his own palm light was the only source of illumination in the black woodland. He knew he was getting close to the gypsy. It was not that she left any signs; he just always instinctively knew where to find her, no matter where she was.

“Mordrelina?” he called feeling the gypsy was near.

“I wondered how long it would be before you turned up here,” a cracked and gravelly voice spoke in the darkness. Kelgar turned around and watched as the gypsy stepped into range of his light, her ragged clothing more tattered than ever.

“Then you know?” asked Kelgar, blowing on his palm to lessen the light a bit.

“Just because I spend my life in the woods doesn’t make me oblivious to what’s happening in the rest of the world. Who would know better than I when a moon disappears?” She pushed a strand of gray hair back into her unruly chignon. Her almond eyes looked almost black staring out from her wrinkled face in the dim light. “I taught you how to read the stars. Do you think I have forgotten how to do so myself?”

“No,” said Kelgar quietly, waiting to see if the gypsy would grant him an audience.

“It has been many years, Kelgar,” she said at last.

“I know,” Kelgar admitted, “and I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” said the gypsy.

Kelgar relaxed knowing that she was giving him permission to speak freely at last.

“I’ve come for your wisdom, Mordrelina,” Kelgar explained.

“I thought as much,” Mordrelina replied. She touched the white glow on Kelgar’s hand as though testing to see if it was real. “Your power has grown stronger in your absence.”

“It is not my power,” Kelgar corrected. “It is the power they gave me when I was made a Guardian.” He fingered the moon pendant that hung from his neck.

Mordrelina nodded. “Come.”

Kelgar followed the gypsy through the trees back to her tent. It was the same deerskin dwelling that he had been raised in and it brought a familiar comfort in the dark forest.

“Your home looks well,” he said, sidestepping the gypsy’s campfire to run his hand across the smooth leather of the tent.

“Yes,” the gypsy agreed, “when one considers that every third night or so I roll it up and move to a new place in the forest.” She pointed to a patch of ground not far from the tent where the plants had been cut and the earth was trampled every which way. “Raede’s men have been in the forest gathering tarkweed,” she explained.

“Tarkweed!” Kelgar gasped. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” the gypsy nodded. “Perhaps now you can forgive me for what I did to you.”

Kelgar sank to the ground, leaning his back against a tree. “I forgave you a long time ago, Mordrelina,” he sighed. “I’ve just been too proud to admit it. How could I begrudge the woman who took me in and raised me as a son when my own family abandoned me?”

“Then why did you take so long to come back?” the gypsy demanded. “It’s been over thirty years.”

“It was my own stubbornness that prevented me from doing so. I didn’t know how to say I was sorry. It’s just that…it was difficult for me. I was only seventeen and I looked like I was forty. I should have been making love to women who thought I was old enough to be their father. They were repulsed by me and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I was too arrogant to apologize, so I left.”

“And I am sorry that you had to. I never meant for your appearance to be aged before its time.” Mordrelina stroked the earth beneath her fingers. “That was a side effect I had not foreseen.”

Kelgar laughed lightly. “You would have done it anyway, even if you had known.”

The gypsy smiled back. “Yes, I would have. I knew it was something that had to be, for I had seen it in the stars. I knew that someday the experiment would serve you well, even though I didn’t understand how at the time. But now with the events that are currently under way, I think we both know why the stars gave me warning.”

Kelgar nodded. “Do you think it will really come to that?”

“I think it already has. It is not Laede that sent the men to the forest and my sticks tell me that the king will not sit much longer upon his throne. Raede is no fool. He’s had many years with nothing else to do but think.”

“A potentially dangerous pastime.”

“Indeed,” the gypsy agreed. “That ill-timed side effect of your past may now be your greatest ally, for who would suspect a shriveled old man?”

“If Raede is smart enough to be gathering tarkweed, he may suspect me sooner than we think. The Guardians know I’m younger than I look.”

“Yes, but there’s no reason for them to tell anyone else. Besides, they don’t know why you look like an old man do they?”

Kelgar shook his head. “No, they don’t. Notelcea still believes I had a childhood encounter with the Shadows that gave me this appearance. I don’t think she’s even certain whether you raised me, though she’ll find out soon enough.”

“Where is Notelcea now?”

“I sent her to the palace library to read the ancient texts.”

“A pointless excursion.”

“Yes, but I didn’t want her following me. She’s older than I am and can overrule my decisions. I didn’t need that now. Besides, it would be difficult to talk openly if she were here.”

Mordrelina touched a bug that was crawling across the ground. It waggled in a form of dance before ascending to the air. “Are you sure Notelcea went to the library?”

Kelgar looked up quickly. “Why do you ask?”

“We all know it is a pointless journey and she does not seem to be one who would waste her time with it.”

“You know something, I can see it, but per usual you’ll not tell me straight out. You’re still playing mind games with your student.”

“My student has not been here in many years to play mind games with,” she smiled. “I am only saying that your faith in Notelcea may be misplaced. You are planning to send her against Aecleton aren’t you?”

Kelgar shook his head. “I never could hide my thoughts from you, Mordrelina.”

Mordrelina smiled. “A mother always knows what her son is thinking. But I warn you, Notelcea may not have as much power against Aecleton as you hope. She is older than you and has more experience in games. She may be playing with your mind as much as you are with hers. Don’t forget, she no more appears her age than you do.”

Kelgar smirked. “Just don’t tell me that you did to her what you did to me and she ended up looking like that, while I ended up looking like this. If so, I truly couldn’t forgive you.”

“No, I did not raise Notelcea, nor has she ever seen me. But if she does not have the power that you hope, your plan will fail.”

“That’s why I came to you,” Kelgar confessed.

The gypsy nodded. “Come back to the fire.” Kelgar followed the gypsy and sat down beside her while the flames burned next to them. “What do you need to know?”

Kelgar bit his lip. “It looks like Aecleton, but is it really?”

The gypsy picked up a mirror, tilting it this way and that until at last she nodded. “Yes, Aecleton is the moon swallower.”

“Where does he get his power?”

The gypsy shook a handful of acorns and tossed them onto the mirror. She seemed surprised by what she saw. “From the light?”

“From the light! How could the Keeper of Darkness, or any of the Shadows for that matter, obtain power from the light?”

“Aecleton is different from the other Shadows. Aecleton is not as old, but bears far more power. For every moon that vanishes, its power is converted to darkness increasing Aecleton’s strength.”

“So Selene’s power, now belongs to Aecleton?”

“Yes.”

“But how is that possible? How did he manage to get hold of Selene in the first place?”

“That is complicated. Even I cannot see the full answer.”

“And you wouldn’t tell me if you did.”

Mordrelina looked up at Kelgar. “I only tell people what they are ready to hear. The signs tell me there are things that must be learned before either of us can fully understand this.”

“Then tell me what you do know about it?”

“I know that Aecleton was born bearing a piece of Selene,” said the gypsy.

“The misshapen moon,” Kelgar breathed. “That’s why it has never been completely round. Aecleton had it from the start, from the very beginning of the Lumidian!”

“Aecleton has been playing the world for fools for a long time.”

Kelgar rubbed his forehead. The new information was complicating matters a bit, and there was still something he needed to know. “Who were my parents, Mordrelina?”

“I don’t know, Kelgar. You were not the first child of nobles that was abandoned to save the parents’ reputations and you’ll certainly not be the last. Had I known who your mother was, I would have had you nursed by her instead of the wild sow. The nobles abandon their children to protect themselves. I don’t know who your parents were.”

“But you can find out.”

“Why do you want to know?” asked Mordrelina.

“If what we fear is true then I have work to do and I want to make sure that I’m not about to kill my brother.”

The gypsy smiled. “Will it matter?”

Kelgar smiled back. “No, but it will make me feel better if I’m not.”

The gypsy conceded. “Give me your pendant.”

“Mind you don’t break it. Remember, I don’t own it. I’m just a Guardian.”

The gypsy nodded, taking the pendant as Kelgar handed it to her. She twisted the rope it hung on and held it over the fire, watching the light flicker across it as it unwound.

“What do you see?” asked Kelgar, watching the gypsy intently.

“I see Laede,” said Mordrelina.

Kelgar sighed leaning his head back against the tent. He had feared that.

“And his father,” the gypsy added.

“What?” Kelgar sat up straight.

“You are the son of Laede’s aunt and a man who appears to be a woodcutter. He died many years ago and is of little consequence.”

“Then I am Laede’s cousin?”

“Yes, does that displease you?”

“Well, it makes my task easier, as I’m not his brother,” he breathed in relief. “Tell me about Raede.”

“He’s a man of limitless ambitions,” said Mordrelina, handing back Kelgar’s pendant. “The night Selene disappeared he sent men to Silverwood to gather tarkweed.”

“He’s waiting for the Shadows isn’t he?”

“Yes. He will unleash the blow he has been holding since he lost the crown.”

Kelgar shook his head in frustration. “I don’t have time to warn Laede do I?”

“No,” whispered the gypsy. She looked up at the sky. “The Shadows are coming.”

Kelgar looked up at the sky as well and saw that the thick covering of clouds had rolled in again, but this time there was something else. He couldn’t quite put a name on it. It was more of a feeling than a vision. There was a penetrating coldness threatening to grasp his heart and that was when he knew.

“The Shadows have left the valley,” he whispered.

Mordrelina nodded. Kelgar had never seen the Shadows. They had been confined to the valley for hundreds of years, but now they were riding the skies above him and it made his heart clench. He knew they were looking for victims, anyone they could catch unawares without a light. Kelgar slipped his pendant back over his head and relit the white glow in his palm, knowing he would need it in a moment. He looked back toward Argentum.

“If Raede is gathering tarkweed, it can only mean one thing,” said Kelgar.

The gypsy solemnly nodded. “Yes.”

“I must return to the Temple of Aurora,” said Kelgar. He rose making ready to leave. As he did, he glanced at the gypsy who still sat by the fire. “I am sorry I left you, Mordrelina.”

The gypsy met his eyes. “I’m sorry that what I did made you leave.”

Chapter Four


THE RECKONING



The Shadows had come at last. Raede held tightly to his candle as they made their presence known throughout Argentum, scouring the land with their dark forms. Only the previous night the Shadows had swept in during the nearly five hours of darkness and taken a man who’d been unfortunate enough to be caught without a torch. Now the Shadows had again returned and Raede perceived that his time had come.

This was the moment Raede had been waiting for. This was the opportunity he’d recognized two nights earlier when Selene first failed to rise. All his many years of planning and relentless scheming had been building toward this one moment, and now it was here at last.

Raede began to walk toward his brother’s room, a coveted packet of white power hidden beneath his green tunic. Laede had been nothing but trouble to Raede from the moment his babyhood form first sprang into the world. It was time to put an end to the misery. It was time for Raede to reclaim what was his, and who better to help him than Aecleton, the master of the Shadows.

There would be no need for knives or poison. Such approaches often left the user easily identified. The obvious suspect was always the last person who had visited the king. But Raede was smarter than that. He had no intention of using methods that would single him out as Laede’s murderer, not when there was something so much easier and far more difficult to trace. Raede would use the Shadows themselves. He would allow them to strike the king in such a manner that no one would ever suspect Raede, the brother who had always served the king so faithfully.

Raede made his way down the stone steps, still holding tightly to his candle. Everyone in the palace had taken to carrying some form of firelight since the disappearance of Selene. It was the only way to ensure protection from the Shadows. Raede knew that the king had his own candle as well. It was the only thing that stood between him and a gruesome death should the light happen to go out. The question was, how to make it do exactly that.

The evening watchmen were standing outside the king’s door as usual. They were both holding torches for their own protection. “Good evening, Lord Raede,” said the watchmen.

“Good evening,” Raede replied smoothly. “Is my brother in his chambers?”

“Yes, My Lord,” replied one of the watchmen. “He’s only just entered them.”

“Good, good,” said Raede, “then he’ll not yet be asleep. I must speak with him.”

“Of course, sir.” The watchmen stood aside and allowed Raede to enter the king’s room. Raede entered and the door closed behind him. Now it was just Raede and his brother in the room.

“Who is it?” called Laede from somewhere in the room.

“Who is the only member of the court that calls on you at all hours without first being announced?” Raede responded with a question.

“Raede,” the king breathed, “I should have known.”

“Yes, you should have,” Raede agreed, spying his brother. Beneath his mat of red hair, Laede’s pasty face looked more ghostlike than usual. He sat in a chair beside his enormous bed, reading scrolls about the Lumidian in hopes of discerning a solution to the current problem facing the land. His own candle sat upon the nightstand within arm’s reach, so it would be easy to pick up should the Shadows decide to pay a visit to the palace. It was upon that candle that Raede’s attention was deeply focused. It left dark shadows on the king’s weary face and Raede knew it would not take his powder long to work its will.

“What is it this time? Have you come to lecture me again, brother?”

“Lecture the king of Argentum?” Raede feigned shock. “Never.”

“Oh yes, never,” Laede replied sarcastically.

As the younger of the two, Laede had been listening to his brother’s lectures since before he was king. Laede’s taking the crown had never dampened Raede’s words. Laede generally took his brother’s advice into consideration, however, for Raede did indeed possess a certain wisdom that seemed to be lacking among the other members of the court.

“I expect you’ve come with advisement then?”

“Yes,” said Raede, “but first let us have something in the way of a drink.”

“A drink?”

“You have objections to the idea? As it is, we will not sleep until Maan rises.”

The king shrugged. “This is true.” He stood up and stretched. “Very well, you gather the glasses, I shall gather the wine.” Laede turned away and headed toward the closet which always contained his private stash of wine.

Raede grinned darkly watching the king turn his back. He wasted no time in snatching two goblets from a nearby shelf and carefully setting them upon the table. Checking to be sure the king wasn’t looking, Raede quickly pulled out the packet that had been hidden in his tunic and dumped the contents into Laede’s empty cup. He shook the glass to settle the white power then hurriedly stuffed the empty pack back into his tunic. He knew Laede would never notice in the dim light.

“There are better years,” said Laede, returning with a dusty bottle of wine, “but this should do for a simple discussion.”

“Yes, it should,” Raede agreed, watching as Laede filled both goblets.

“To Argentum,” said Laede, raising his glass.

Raede smiled and nodded. “To Argentum,” he toasted.

“And now to the matter at hand,” said Laede after draining his glass. “What have you come to talk about?”

“The Guardians,” said Raede. “Your rider informed us that only the youngest remains at the temple. Enira, I believe she is called.”

“Yes, they said the elder Guardians have gone to find answers.”

“Which must mean they know little more than we do.”

Laede nodded. “Yes, but that is something that must remain between us. I cannot image the panic that would ensue if the people knew that the Guardians had lost control of the light.”

“Where have the elder Guardians gone?”

“You heard the rider as well as I did, Raede. Enira would not divulge the elders’ locations to anyone but me. As I have not yet been to the temple, I don’t know where they are.”

Laede was beginning to look very sleepy. Raede fought back a smile.

“We should find out as soon as possible,” said Raede.

The king nodded, fighting to stay awake. “Raede, perhaps we could continue this discussion in a few hours? I’m really more tired than I had realized.”

“Of course, Laede. I’ll just put away the wine.”

“Thank you, Raede.”

“You’re welcome, brother.”

Raede made sure to take his time gathering up the wine bottle and the glasses. He slowly walked to the wine closet and gently set the bottle back in its place, listening as the king laid down upon his bed. Raede smiled his darkest smile. He shelved the glasses and quietly walked back to the king’s side.

Laede was fast asleep. Raede’s drug had done its work well. The king’s candle still burned on the nightstand, but Laede was not awake to know. Raede drew a chair up next his brother’s bed. He leaned in close and began whispering the speech he had wanted to give for so many years.

“The Shadows will soon take you, brother, but before they do, know this; Argentum is mine. You were nothing but a curse to me since the day you were born. Father always favored you because you were bigger and stronger. You could hunt and fish better than I. You were far more the sportsman. Father loved you so much that he even gave you what always should have been mine; the crown of Argentum.”

Raede rubbed his tongue over lips as his poisoned words poured into his brother’s ears. “The crown always passes to the elder child. As first-born I was in line to receive it, but father saw fit to deny me of it, simply because you were stronger in body. But there are other forms of strength. There is strength of mind. My body may be small, but my mind is stronger than any.”

Laede lay unmoving in his sleep. The drug Raede had given him was very potent. Raede didn’t even know if the king could hear him, but he didn’t care. He would say his piece and depart.

“The people of city are sheep. They need a strong shepherd, not someone who would rule with the soft touch that you use. If you want respect you must demand it and you my dear brother never have. You never even executed those who have tried to assassinate you over the years. Father chose you because you looked strong, but you ruled with a weak hand. You will rule no more.

“For too long I have asked myself what would have happened had I been stronger? What would have happened if I tried harder to court father’s favor? What would have happened if you had never been born at all? But now I realize there can be no what-ifs, for there is only what is. Now what is shall be what I say. You took my crown and now I will take your city. Goodbye, Laede, my unwanted brother.”

Raede took a breath and blew out the candle beside his brother’s bed. Laede under the influence of the sleeping potion had no knowledge of Raede’s actions and could do nothing to stop them. The effects of the drug would last almost a half hour more. Raede knew his brother would not have time to relight the candle before the Shadows arrived.

Carefully holding his own candle, Raede arose and made for the door. He did not give his brother another look. As far as Raede was concerned, the king was already dead. He smiled at the thought and exited the room.

“Lord Raede,” the watchmen acknowledged as he stepped out of the king’s bedroom.

“Gentlemen,” Raede nodded in reply. “Long discussions encourage my appetite,” he said. “If my brother should request me tonight, I’ll be in the kitchens instead of my chambers.”

The watchmen smiled. Raede’s midnight kitchen visits were well known throughout the palace. “Still pinching late evening meals, My Lord?” one of the watchmen mused.

“As much now as ever,” Raede smiled.

He left the watchmen and made his way down to the kitchen to enjoy a long awaited victory meal. He would sit in the solace of his food while he awaited the king’s forthcoming death. After that he would have little time to eat, for Argentum would be his, and he would have all the responsibilities of the king. His blood pulsed with satisfaction at the thought.

Raede did not have to wait long. He was only on his second leg of turkey when he heard the screams sounding from three floors above. It began with the shrieks of the king, followed quickly by the sound of the watchmen.

Alerted by the king’s screams, the watchmen threw open the door to his room, both holding tightly to their torches. They entered just in time to see the wispy forms of the Shadows slipping out through the darkened walls. The king’s screams were carried in their wake and when they were gone, all that remained was silence. The candles were out and Laede’s body was gone, taken by the Shadows. The two watchmen were frozen in place.

Several other members of the palace, roused by the king’s screams, ran in behind the watchmen. “We heard the screams,” said a page. “What is it?”


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