3 weeks to go until release! Here's chapter 2 for you to enjoy now. If you missed the synopsis and chapter 1, you can find them here. Don't forget to sign up to my mailing list to receive the next chapters, some of which will NOT be shared anywhere else!
The Brooding Crown
The Second Book of Caledan
The golden-domed watchtowers of Arrans, capital of Roher, blazed on the horizon under the punishing sun. Zaki ached. A deep-seated, dull, pulsing ache that encompassed his entire being: his bones, his muscles, even his head. At last…
Beside him, Reynard sank to the ground. “Thank you, Lord God, for blessing us with your divine intervention, by showing us the way to our salvation.” Reynard murmured fervent prayers to himself, his bobbing head bowed over shaking, clasped hands, and his eyes scrunched shut.
Zaki looked at him through narrow eyes, disdaining the wreck of a man kneeling at his side, but Reynard was still in a better state than most of the others who had survived the torturous journey. There is no God, you fool. After all “God” has done to me, he cannot be. If he exists, then he has wronged me and should be damned to hell himself.
His eyes flicked back to drink in the vista before him. Where they had tramped for endless weeks through desert, now grass grew beneath their ruined feet. With every step they took, the land became lush, green and hopeful.
Before them stood the red stone walls of Arrans. Topped with triangular crenulations, they stretched into the distance, encircling the vast city within their protection. They snaked over the five hills on which Arrans was built, even spanning the river that carved through the city’s belly.
On each of the five hills stood a great watch-tower, a hundred and fifty feet high, an unlit yet blazing beacon reflecting the light from gilded brickwork and mosaic patterns. He could not see the detail he knew to be there – they were still miles away – but the flash of colour atop the closest towers was visible. Below the golden sun of Roher flew the banner of his father-in-law: the red rose and rampant lion of King Harad the Third.
Zaki’s only other visit to the city – to meet his bride-to-be and formalise their wedding – had been a grander and more pleasant occasion. Instead of a harsh journey through the desert, they had sailed to Bera, the sea-port and travelled at leisure to Arrans from there. The men had ridden in upon horses, with the ladies riding in palanquins, fanned by servants. All had been cheered into the city by rich and poor alike who lined the streets up to the royal palace at the top of the tallest of Arrans’s hills.
In contrast to the well-fed prince entering Arrans in triumph, Zaki was now a pauper and passed for a different person. His eyes had sunk into his burnt and weathered cheeks under unkempt, shaggy hair, and his soft skin had been hardened by the long duration of rough travel. His clothes hung off him – he and his men had long eaten all the horses, surviving on nought for days – and his body, which had been so well trained and fed, had melted away to a toughened, wiry frame.
They had little left – no money between them, nor armour. In the blistering heat, it was an unnecessary burden. Even Zaki’s royal armour, worth more than the annual earnings of all his men put together, had been dumped. Instead they survived like bandits, thieving food, drink and luxuries like blankets from those they passed, either through force or by silent theft in the night.
The sight before him made him forget the weeks – or it could have been months, he had lost track of the endless cycle of night and day – of hardship. Spurred on and reinvigorated by the sight he had so longed to see, he drove his men on, commanding them through cracked and dried lips.
His men followed in silence like sheep behind a shepherd. They had little energy to talk and no desire to rejoice after everything they had lost. More than one had died along the way through illness, starvation, dehydration or because their mutinous words and discontent had reached a ruthless Zaki’s ears. But Zaki was no shepherd. He watched them all like a wolf over prey. I will not let them betray me.
The hard, dry earth pained Zaki’s feet; they tingled and spasmed with every step, but he pushed on. It was still hours before they reached the gates. So huge were the towers and walls from afar that they seemed closer; a cruel illusion. But when he stepped under the cooling shadow of the gate at last, it was no vision.
The gate was open, but men barred the way with a makeshift barrier across the entrance to the city.
“Quis est iste?” one of them asked him. “Vade, pauper!” The man shooed him away, but Zaki stood his ground.
“Caledan,” Zaki said. “Do you speak Caledonian?”
“Caledonian?” The guard sneered. “Nulla. Non Caledonian.”
“I must see King Harad,” Zaki emphasised, wishing he could speak some broken words of their language, or they his. “King Harad – take me to him. I am King Zaki of Caledan. King Zaki.”
“King? Regis? Quod homo petit esse rex!” The guards burst out laughing, taking great pleasure in their amusement.
“Regis Zaki!” One bowed mockingly to him, sweeping his hand before him in a grand gesture, as the others continued their raucous laughter behind him. His balding head gleamed in the sun.
Zaki stepped forwards in anger, drawing his sword, the one weapon remaining to him.
At once the merriment ceased. The Roherii drew their own blades.
“I am King Zaki of Caledan. I command you to take me to King Harad immediately, or I swear upon my crown I will kill you all where you stand.” His sword point wavered before him as his arm shook with the weight of the blade, but Zaki’s blood boiled with fury at being so treated. After all he had endured, he refused to be turned away at the gate like a commoner. He stood, glaring at them, with his legs planted upon the ground and his free hand clenched.
Their leader looked him up and down, frowning, his eyes lingering over Zaki’s sword and the gold signet ring, which out of vanity Zaki could not bear to part with. Zaki tilted his ring so the gold flashed in the light, revealing the imprint of his crest upon it. The man turned to his companions, his expression one of doubt.
“Non certus sum… sed ut homo vera praedicat… Vide annulum? Vide viri eius?”
Zaki looked between them, but he did not understand their words. The man pointed to his hand and Zaki lifted it, showing his ring to the men, who were quieter and shifted upon their feet whilst sneaking uncomfortable glances at each other.
“Yes,” said their captain in accented Caledonian. He beckoned Zaki and his men forward, firing a rapid babble of orders at the Roherii men who scattered, their eyes wide. One returned, leading two horses – one for the captain and one for Zaki. He was thankful they had a mounting block, but even then he struggled, trying to conceal his involuntary grimaces beneath his hair.
His men remained on foot, limping along behind him, as they passed along one of the main avenues, bustling in the pre-evening rush. Men, women and children rushed about, some with baskets and packages, others with guards in carriages, but most on foot, weaving in-between each other.
The guards cut a column through the maelstrom before them. Zaki worried they were causing a spectacle and he slouched, flopping his hair across his face. He did not want to be recognised, but he need not have been concerned. Few batted an eye-lid at their passage – fewer stopped to stare. Zaki glanced at his dirty skin and tatty clothes. I look just like one of them. His lip curled with distaste.
The noise and smell of the city was overwhelming after weeks of near silence and nothingness. Zaki’s ears filled with an unbearable level of sound, worsening his pounding headache. The smells turned his stomach, especially the stench from the sewers and waste piles, and even the scent of food made him gag.
At last Zaki entered the palace compound, stopping for a moment at the gate as their guide spoke in hushed tones with those guarding the way, throwing many glances back towards the Caledonians. Zaki was beckoned through the gates, which clanged shut once his men had entered.
Peace returned. On the hill, away from the poorer districts of the city, the wealthy lived in quiet contentment, overlooked by the sprawling royal palace. Vast gardens opened up, and although the wealthier district’s streets on the slopes were more spacious than the crowded roads through the valley-bottom slums, the space in the palace grounds was most freeing.
Fountains babbled amid birdsong. Thirst rushed to the forefront of Zaki’s mind. He licked his lips in frustration, longing to dive into one of the gurgling ponds to drink, cool himself and cleanse the disgusting amount of grime from his body and clothing. It felt so ingrained Zaki feared he would never be purged of it.
They were led to Harad’s throne room, announced, and ushered through the golden doors. Zaki ignored the frescoed walls, the metal-plated and gem-studded marble carvings, and the rich tapestries. He did not even look up to the high ceiling, painted with scenes of the creation as told by Harad’s religion: it was a practice that worshipped many deities, which was strange to Zaki’s mind. Instead, his attention fixed on the figures at the far end of the room. Servants surrounded the king, who sat upon his grand throne.
They had last met in what felt like another life. Unbidden, Zaki recalled the moment when, stood before the gates of Pandora shoulder to shoulder with Harad, his father-in-law had betrayed him. Subdued and shackled like a common prisoner, though he tried with all his might to break free, Zaki had been handed over to Soren in exchange for the freedom of Zaki’s wife, Demara, and her unborn child. Instead of ascending in victory to Caledan’s throne, he had fallen to the deepest dungeon. Despite Harad’s assistance in Zaki’s escape, Zaki had not forgiven him that.
“Your Majesty.” Zaki was forced to greet Harad first, though he longed to stride up to the man and stab him in the gut for his betrayal.
“Your Royal Highness.” Harad returned the greeting.
Zaki felt a hot stab of anger. He dishonours me in public!
“Welcome to Arrans – at last! Let us refresh you,” Harad continued before Zaki could react. He clapped his hands: a sharp, short sound that reverberated around the large space.
At once his servants dispersed, returning moments later carrying trays piled high with sweet and savoury morsels and small glasses of pale yellow liquid.
His men fell upon them, so desperate were they for sustenance. Zaki longed to do the same, but forced himself to stand, waiting, until he was offered something, trembling as he suppressed his desire to move. He waved away the food, not trusting himself to eat with reserve, but he could not refuse the drink. I need a feast, not these pathetic scraps.
Zaki took – with meticulous steadiness – a glass between his forefinger and thumb, tipping its entire contents slowly down his throat, all the while with his eyes fixed on Harad. The liquid swirled around his mouth and swam down his throat, cool and refreshing. Zaki took another glass, and then a third, touching his lips with shaking fingers and savouring the wetness there. He waited for Harad to speak, to make the next move.
“You do not look well,” the king remarked, regarding him with veiled eyes.
Zaki could not control his temper any longer. “How dare you! How dare you betray me – abandon me to my death and pretend all is well!”
“I welcome you, do I not? I offer you good food and drink, no? What is past is past.”
“I nearly died! Look at me! I have travelled for who knows how many weeks or months through that God forsaken desert trying to stay alive – we ate every last damn horse and it wasn’t enough,” Zaki raged, storming around with frustration. The delicate glass shattered in his clenched fist and he paused, swearing. He dropped the shards to the floor and sucked his bleeding palm before he continued, his hand throbbing.
“My men are dead. My hopes are dead. You have crushed everything. You have stolen my future when it was there for me to take. I have nothing – and it is all your fault! And now, when I arrive here, starving and a wreck, you have the nerve to offer me sweets?” Zaki slapped a tray from the hand of a nearby servant. It smashed upon the floor, food and glass cascading everywhere.
Harad stood, snarling. Thunderous eyebrows sunk over narrowed eyes as his guards moved forward in synchronisation. The king waved them away with a slash of his hand and they melted into the shadows.
Around Zaki, a flurry of servants crawled upon the floor, picking up every last morsel in blank-faced silence.
“Take these men away to bathe, eat and rest,” Harad commanded, gesturing at Zaki’s ragged band. They were led away. Harad stepped down ever so slowly from his throne, though he kept a distance between himself and Zaki.
“There was no successful outcome for us that day,” Harad said as the door shut behind the last of the Caledonians.
Zaki didn’t need to ask which day. Us? Zaki noticed Harad’s choice of word.
“I made the best decisions I could based on the moves we could have made. You are lucky that I helped you to escape.”
“This is not a game, and your fire device almost killed me in the process!”
“Then you are lucky; I admit it is not perfected. However, I disagree. It is very much a game – of strategy – and that day, whatever had happened, we would have lost had I not acted thusly. I would have lost – and Roher does not lose. Roher is strong and Roher is feared. And why do you think that is?
“Because I always choose the battles we will win. We could not have won with the men we had that day. Yet, if I had retreated with you, my daughter and her babe – the heir to your claim – would still be in Pandora, and Roher’s reputation would be ruined.”
Zaki looked up, his eyes wide and mouth open. “I have a son?”
“No. You have a daughter.”
Zaki growled, an inhuman sound. “I did not risk my life for a daughter!”
Servants scurried away from him in fear.
“You have much to learn if you dismiss the value of a daughter,” said Harad. “In any case, you still have a wife to give you many sons. Stay, and recover. There is nothing to say that Caledan’s throne will not someday be yours.”
Zaki was thrown by the offer. He regarded Harad with suspicion. The older man seemed genuine and caring in his offer, which made Zaki more distrustful. Harad never gives something for nothing. But there was little to consider; no man in his right mind would choose to turn back into the desert, away from such a haven. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Harad shrugged. “You do not. I helped you escape with a gift of our newest and most expensive warfare technology, experimental as it may be. Make what you will of that. But you have my assurance that you will have a chance to redeem yourself here in Roher. I am impressed that you have made it so far.”
Zaki splashed absentmindedly in the bath; it was a huge depression carved in the floor of his room and lined with polished stone – a novel concept compared to Caledan’s wooden tubs. The warm water filled with oils soothed his aching body, and he could have fallen asleep there, drowning in the enticing scents and the sheer comfort of such luxuries.
He ate from the snacks offered to him by the tiny serving boy next to the bath for the sake of it. Despite gorging himself on a meal after his meeting with Harad, he felt the need to eat after his enforced starvation, as if the supply of food might soon cease again.
Not concentrating on what he consumed, Zaki chewed upon the latest bite whilst contemplating his father-in-law’s plans.
Why would he have me incarcerated only to then help me escape in order to come all the way here? The device was a brilliant contraption. I wish we had such technology in Caledan. Perhaps he knew I would escape, that I would reach him here. Perhaps he seeks to help me regain the throne of Caledan with all of Roher’s might, not that poxy guard with which Harad and I returned to Pandora.
He relished the thought, but it was not satisfying. He still did not feel confident that he had a grasp of Harad’s plans. All I know for certain is that he uses me for his own ends. I must work this to my advantage. It may be a game, but it is not his. I must use his resources to take back my kingdom.
As he hauled himself out of the cooling bath, a maid hurried to wrap a towel around him. Neither the woman nor the boy spoke. Zaki took a moment to appreciate her slender form as her uniform pressed against his skin for a moment. It had been a long time since he had remembered the existence of women, let alone enjoyed one. Her dark skin fascinated him. His was burnt from the harsh sun, but hers glowed.
Thinking about the woman reminded him of his wife: a much less tempting prospect. Zaki sighed. A wife and a daughter. What use are women? I suppose I must visit her.
~It was mid-afternoon by the time he had dressed and followed his guide to Demara’s chambers. He wore Roherii clothes, far different to Caledonian attire and better suited to Roher’s hotter climes. Loose fitting, the finely woven, light material slithered across his clean skin, sending it tingling with pleasure.
To have new shoes upon his feet pleased him more than anything. The soles were so soft that he sunk into them, his newly scrubbed and tended feet relishing the relief. All of his old clothes had been disposed of; they were not even worth cleaning to salvage the fabric.
The palace was as different to Pandora’s castle as the garb was to his own. Pandora’s castle was spacious, yet it held a darkness to it that daylight could not shift. It was a true castle, built for war and only later converted for living in comfort. In contrast, Harad’s palace had been constructed purely for luxury.
Spacious, high corridors linked the various quarters and private apartments within the building, which were given over to various branches of the family. The palace sprawled over a wide space, and in places was several stories high, extended as needed.
Instead of windows were giant openings with drapes hung on the inner wall and shutters outside to protect against sun or rain if needed. Arrans had certainly never known the same winter snows as Pandora.
The palace was constructed from the red stone that had built most of Arrans, but most of the surfaces were marble or polished stone. Floors were laid in patterns, some even made of the tiniest coloured tiles to depict scenes. Wooden floors were all of the highest quality, laid in intricate designs – all far from Pandora’s simple stone floors or wooden boards.
Open dining areas, large courtyards with fountains and greenery, and frequent open mezzanine levels held up by the columns that seemed to be a staple of Roherii architecture offered chance glimpses at the scenery over the city, the countryside or parts of the palace and grounds.
Zaki shook his head at such opulence in disbelief that such a place could exist, but he was also envious of the lifestyle Harad surrounded himself with. At last his escort gestured towards a door.
“Hic est. Demara.” The man knocked on the door, which was opened by the tiniest crack. A young woman’s face peered out.
Her maid. Zaki recognised her in a flash, though he had never bothered to learn her name.
Her eyes widened as she looked him up and down, her mouth ajar. The escort must have introduced him, for he heard his name amongst the babble of Roherish, but instead of being admitted that instant, the lady withdrew her head and called into the apartments within. A muffled voice replied and the door opened, the lady moving to the side to allow him to pass. Zaki strode in, his guide following.
Before open doors that led to a stone edged balcony sat his wife. Demara held a babe swaddled in layers of colourful fabric and gazed into its face adoringly. As she looked up, her smile faded and her face closed.
“Husband,” she greeted him.
“Wife.” His reply was just as awkward, yet it was as if nothing had passed between them, that he had not endured the last months and she had not ridden away and left him to his fate. Her face showed no emotion at his unexpected return. Does she care? he fleetingly wondered.
She gestured for him to sit and he perched on the opposing chair. Silence fell.
“Would you like to see your daughter?” Demara asked him after the lengthy pause, shifting the babe in her grasp.
Zaki nodded curtly. If I must.
Without a word Demara passed him the girl. She was tiny, made huge by the cloths swaddling her, and so young he could not tell her gender. Would that you were a boy, he wished. He stared at her, but could not see the attraction that had caused Demara to gaze at her with such open love. It’s a baby. Unremarkable. He sighed.
Tiny eyelids fluttered open, revealing brown eyes matching her mother’s. They bored into him.
“She is called Leika,” Demara volunteered, shifting in her seat with agitation as if she wished to take the child from him again.
Zaki looked down at his daughter and thrust her back at Demara.
“Do you not love her?” Demara asked, indignant. She clutched Leika to her chest, stroking the cloths.
“She is a girl.”
“She is your daughter.”
“Yes, a daughter. What need do I have of daughters? None. I need a son. A daughter is nothing more than an insult.”
Demara’s mouth fell open at that, and her eyes flashed with rage. “You dishonour me with your callous words. Get out!” She stood and turned away, dismissing him with her body too.
“I will not,” he replied, incredulous that a woman should give orders to him.
But the maid stepped forward to add insult to injury. “Please, this way, sir.” She gestured towards the door.
Zaki stood, stepping towards the girl with menace.
With no fear in her eyes, she clapped.
From seemingly nowhere several guards appeared.
Zaki’s eyes flicked around the room.
“Please, this way, sir,” the maid said again. Her next words must have repeated her sentiments to the guards in Roherii for they crowded Zaki, forcing him from the room.
The moment the door shut in his face, he struggled against the guards, but to no avail.
“She is a woman! How dare she order me about! I command you to let me back in.”
The guards moved him along, blank faced, as if they could not hear him.
When he was alone in his own chamber, he stood white-faced, his entire body shaking with fury. How dare she! My own wife, ordering me around and throwing me out! He stormed around the room in a chorus of curses.
To be continued...
I hope you enjoyed the first taste of The Brooding Crown! Don't forget to sign up to my mailing list to receive the next chapters, some of which will NOT be shared anywhere else!