The plan was simple. There was little that could go wrong. Yet feelings of unease flickered inside me as I practiced my knife-throwing. Time and again I sent the dagger whickering end over end into the trunk of a fallen tree, pulling it free with a swift jerk of my hand. I was standing on the bank of a slow-moving river which meandered through a wooded valley. On the far slopes the walls of Naashem could be glimpsed through the trees. I'd lived in the city state for all of my fifteen summers and, for the past two years, had worked as a groom in the Palace stables.
I wondered how the people were faring under Saddara's rule. Niece to King Pernius, who she'd driven from the throne several months earlier, she was reputed to be a mistress of dark sorcery. Aided by a bandit leader named Roganar, she'd gathered an army of mercenaries, cut-throats and outlaws. On the night Naashem had fallen traitors inside the city had slain the guards and opened the gates, allowing Saddara's forces to swarm through.
I'd been woken by shouting, screaming and the clashing of steel, and had clambered down from the loft where I slept. I'd been trying to calm the horses when the King had burst in, followed by his son, Prince Tormas. They told me that Princess Lyssia - the King's daughter - had already been captured, and they were fleeing for their lives. While we were saddling some horses we'd been joined by Gromek, the royal blacksmith. Together, the four of us had managed to escape amid the mayhem and confusion. We'd journeyed south, finally settling in Kodan, the capital of Turshia.
Then, one day, a wandering merchant caravan had brought a letter from Lyssia, in which she pleaded to be rescued. She told how, following her capture, she'd been thrown into one of the Palace dungeons where she'd languished for more than a month. Then, in a surprising act of kindness, Saddara had ordered her to be moved to more comfortable surroundings. She was now confined in a villa situated in a quiet suburb, guarded by two soldiers. She added that she'd written at the urging of a servant girl, who'd offered to smuggle out the letter inside her garments.
The news that the Princess was so lightly guarded had raised our spirits, and together, Pernius and Tormas had devised a plan to steal her away.
On the eve of our departure from Kodan the Prince had summoned me to his rooms. In his twenty-fifth year, he had strong, well-cut features adorned by a small dark beard.
'Gromek and I intend to enter the city disguised as peasants on our way to market,' he told me. 'My father regrets he cannot travel with us, but in his current state of health he needs plenty of rest. We'll wait until nightfall, then overpower the guards. With luck, they'll be drunk or dozing. With my sister disguised also, we'll make our way to the Great Temple. From there, a secret tunnel leads out of the city. That's our means of escape. You will accompany us as far as the city, Lokan. It will be your job to guard the animals until our return.'
At dawn the following day we set off on the long journey, the spare horses and pack mules loaded with blankets and provisions. We'd travelled for several weeks and had entered the valley earlier that day. We'd made camp in a cave close to the water's edge, and the Prince and Gromek had set out to hunt for food.
I sheathed my dagger and set about gathering firewood. When I had as much as I could carry, I went back to the cave and built a fire, which I lit using flint and steel.
I heard the Prince yelling my name and hurried out of the cave. He and Gromek were standing on the riverbank. The blacksmith, a colossus of a man whose strength was awesome, carried the carcass of a young deer on his massive shoulders. Both men were staring into the evening sky, their faces grim. I followed their gaze and the breath froze in my chest. Heading toward us, from the direction of the city, was a large cloud of dense, bluish-grey mist. It was travelling at considerable speed, billowing through the air like some amoeboid creature swimming the ocean depths. Within the cloud, smoky tendrils swirled and writhed, like serpents participating in a mad, frenetic dance.
'It's Saddara's doing, I'll be bound,' said the Prince. 'We'd better get out of here.' He told me to retrieve the saddlebags, which we'd stored in the cave, while he and Gromek set about saddling the horses.
Hurriedly, I scrambled into the cave. When I emerged a few moments later, I saw the cloud was now directly above us. It came to a halt and hovered for a moment. Then, like a bird swooping on prey, it descended, enveloping my companions and I.
The mist was so thick and heavy I could barely see an arm's length in front of me, and there was a thin, acrid smell to it. Around me the smoky tendrils whirled like living things. As I groped forward, stumbling over the uneven ground, a wave of dizziness flooded over me. Nausea gripped my throat and my muscles felt as if they'd been turned to water. Unable to go on, I fell to my knees. Then my world dissolved into blackness.
I swam into consciousness to find I was lying on damp straw inside a gloomy interior. I sat up and peered about. I was inside a prison cell, two sides of which were solid rock. To my left were two further cells, the three separated from each other by rusted iron bars running from floor to ceiling. Gromek was in the cell adjacent to mine, while the Prince occupied the far one. Before me was the cell door, similarly constructed of full-length bars. In front of the cells ran a narrow passage lit by burning torches, whose sullen glow provided the sole alleviation to the gloom.
'Where are we?' I asked.
It was the Prince who answered. 'Inside the Temple. I recognize this as one of the dungeons.'
We heard footsteps approaching, the clump of boots accompanied by the soft scuff of slippers. A moment later a woman appeared in the entrance to the passage. Behind her was a male companion. She was tall and slender, and looked to be in her mid-thirties. A mass of dark curls foamed down her back, framing her finely sculpted features. She wore a long gown of turquoise silk and her hands were a blaze of jewels. There was no denying she was beautiful. Yet it was a cold, hard sort of beauty, like the crisp elegance of a fresh snowfall, and her dark eyes, though full of pride and intelligence, gleamed with hidden menace.
The Prince sprang to his feet. 'Saddara! I suppose you've come to gloat. But how did you know we were coming?'
'You forget my skills in the magic arts, cousin.' She spoke from a wide, sensuous mouth and her voice was sickly sweet, like poisoned honey. 'I've placed warding spells at various places outside the city. When you came to the river you disturbed one, and I was alerted.'
She gestured toward her companion. Around the same age, he was tall and muscular, with rugged features topped by a square-cut mane of fair hair. He wore leather garments and a sword hung at his waist.
'Let me introduce you. You've heard of the famous Roganar, although I don't believe you've actually met. Well, this is he. Thanks to him, I now have what is rightfully mine.'
The Prince gave a sigh. 'Oh, Saddara. The people didn't want you as Queen but you could never accept it. Under my father's rule Naashem has grown and prospered. The people respect him for his wisdom and tolerance.'
Saddara moved along the passage and stood in front of the Prince's cell. 'The throne was bought with my own father's blood.' Her voice trembled with an anger she could barely contain. 'I know what happened during the battle with the Zoramian forces, how Pernius hired an assassin to slay his elder brother, making it appear he'd been killed by the enemy. It was Jamilla who told me. Using ancient arts, she discovered the truth of the matter.'
'And you believe that old crone? She's lying to you, Saddara. She's using you for her own ends.'
Saddara ignored him. 'My spies in Kodan tell me Pernius has been busy these past months, forming alliances, trying to raise an army against me. A pity that his schemes will come to naught. As he will discover tonight.'
The Prince's face darkened. 'What do you mean?'
Saddara gave him a look which could almost have been pity. 'Oh, my dear cousin, don't you see? The whole thing was a trap. The servant girl, the one who smuggled out the letter - she was in my employ. I knew you'd try to rescue your sister sooner or later. It was simply a matter of waiting.
'The assassin is in place, cousin. When I inform him of your capture, he will move against Pernius. When you and your sister are also taken care of, there will be no-one left of the Royal line to challenge me. I failed before because I was young and foolish. I won't make the same mistakes again.'
The Prince stared at her with incredulity. Then he uttered an inhuman cry. 'You filthy treacherous witch!' he screamed. 'May you burn in a thousand hells for this.' He gripped the bars of the cell door and shook them with uncontrollable fury. He howled like a gutted animal.
Gromek spoke. 'What are you going to do with us?'
'I intend to sacrifice you all to Mytak,' Saddara told him, 'in return for his continued blessings on the city. Along with the Princess Lyssia, of course, who is being prepared for the ritual as we speak. In the meantime, I'll see that you're fed and watered. After all, I'm not a barbarian.'
She beckoned to Roganar and together they strode from the dungeon.
An icy wave of dread surged over me, but I forced myself to remain calm. An idea had blossomed in my mind. Hopefully, it would lead to our escape.
Our current surroundings had stirred memories of my late uncle Siberius. He had been involved with the criminal underworld and, on one occasion, had succeeded in breaking out of prison. The manner of his escape had sparked the plan I was working on.
Glancing at my companions, I saw they were each lost in their own thoughts, the Prince's expression one of haunted despair. I rose to my feet and stepped up to the bars. In a low voice I called to Gromek, and beckoned. In the same hushed tones I told him of my plan, and he nodded in understanding. Then I sat down and waited.
Presently, one of the Temple guards came into the dungeon. He wore gilded armor and a curved sword hung at his waist. He carried a tray laden with water and stale-looking bread.
My stomach tightened with apprehension as I rose to my feet. 'I don't want any of that,' I said to the man, pointing to the contents of the tray. 'What about some fruit? And some wine to wash it down.'
The guard threw me a contemptuous sneer.
'I can pay for it. With gold.' I pointed to my tunic. 'In here. There's a bag of coins.'
The man peered at me, no doubt trying to decide if this was some sort of trick. Then he gave a shrug. He put down the tray and reached a hand through the bars. 'Come on, then. Hand it over.'
I took a step toward him, then grimaced as if in pain. Clutching my stomach, I turned so I was facing the adjacent cell and sank to my knees. Hurriedly, the guard unlocked the cell and stepped inside. I waited until he was standing before me. Then I sprang to my feet and lunged at him. The force was sufficient to send him crashing against the bars and, while I grappled with the man, Gromek scrambled to his feet. Reaching through the bars, he grabbed the guard's head and twisted it until a crack was heard. I released my hold on the man, and his body slumped to the floor. Then I snatched up the keys and set about freeing my companions.
'Well done,' said the Prince. He grabbed the sword belonging to the guard and hurried from the dungeon.
Gromek and I followed him up a winding stair, at the head of which stood a heavy wooden door. The Prince pulled it open a fraction and peered through. Then he beckoned, and we stepped out into a deserted corridor. Warily, we proceeded along the dimly lit passage and were almost at the end when we heard footsteps approaching. A moment later a guard emerged from around a corner, coming face to face with us. He froze in astonishment. Before the man could reach for his sword Gromek charged forward, driving him against a wall. He seized the guard's head and smashed it repeatedly against the stonework, until the man went limp and slid to the floor. Gromek seized his weapon.
'Pray we're not too late to save my sister,' said the Prince, and he led the way deeper into the Temple.
Presently, we halted before an arched portal. Cautiously, we peered through and saw a wide circular chamber lit by a smoky glow. On the far side stood a ten foot high statue of Mytak, a vulture-headed figure with a lizard-like body and multiple wings and arms. Close by stood an altar draped with a white cloth, on which the ceremonial dagger lay. Saddara and Roganar were there, along with two acolytes, shaven-headed young men wearing long scarlet robes. The latter flanked Princess Lyssia, who'd been dressed in a long pale garment for the occasion. Her flowing red hair was confined by a narrow golden band around her temples and her pretty features were contorted with weeping.
Saddara muttered a brief incantation and, on a section of the wall directly in front of her, the image of a man appeared. The hood of a dark cloak partially obscured his sharp, angular features. Saddara spoke to him. 'The Prince is safely under lock and key. Is everything ready?'
The man nodded. 'Tonight, when Pernius retires to his rooms, I will strike. Without his son to guard him, my task will be much easier.'
'Excellent. Do not fail me.'
Glancing at the Prince, I saw his face was pulled into a rictus of hate. His lips were drawn back in a ferocious snarl and his eyes blazed with vengeful fire. He told me to keep lookout and beckoned to Gromek. Then the two men strode into the chamber.
Shock held the occupants frozen for an instant. With a fearsome snarl, Gromek sprang toward the acolytes. Yelling with fear, they ran for the doorway on the far side of the chamber. There was a rasp of steel as Roganar drew his sword. With a roar, Gromek leaped to meet him and the clashing clangor of steel rang out as the adversaries engaged in mortal combat.
Meanwhile, the Prince was advancing toward Saddara, his sword raised. Saddara backed against the wall and pointed to him, black words of magic tumbling from her lips. Before she could finish the incantation, I raced toward the altar. Grabbing the ceremonial dagger, I hurled it at Saddara, the blade thudding into her chest. Saddara stiffened, features frozen in shock. Then, like a string-cut puppet, she crumpled to the floor.
Over the far side of the chamber Gromek and Roganar continued hacking and slashing for all their worth. Lyssia took a burning torch from the wall and circled around the two men. With a sudden movement she thrust the firebrand into Roganar's face. Screaming in agony, he dropped his sword, the weapon clattering to the floor. A moment later Gromek's blade plunged into his heart.
The Prince stood over Saddara's body, staring at the hilt of the dagger, around which a red stain was blossoming. 'Thank you, Lokan,' he said. 'I was so blind with rage I forgot she would seek to use her magic on me.'
The sound of approaching voices made us start.
'The entrance to the tunnel is close by,' said the Prince, and he sprinted for the far doorway, the rest of us close on his heels. He led us along a corridor lined with small alcoves, which served as shrines to minor deities. At the end of the passage the Prince stepped into one of the shrines. Moving behind the altar, he stood facing the rear wall. 'One of these stones is loose,' he told us. 'If I can just locate it ...' He began searching, pressing his hands against each of the stones in turn. Lyssia joined in.
Then Gromek gave a cry. Running toward us along the corridor, brandishing their swords, were a group of temple guards, around a half dozen in number. The blacksmith bounded forward and grabbed a four foot high statue from one of the shrines. With a roar he hurled it at the guards. The stone figure crashed into the two leading men, dashing them to the ground. Gromek seized another statue and held it above his head, menacingly. The remaining guards drew back, reluctant to advance.
The Prince called to us. 'I've found it! Come on.'
With a grinding sound, the wall swung inward and Lyssia and I hurried into the gaping blackness. Glancing back, I saw Gromek fling the statue before running to join us.
The Prince grabbed a torch from its bracket. Then he stepped into the tunnel and threw a lever set into the wall. The stonework swung back into place, igniting a flurry of yells and curses from the guards.
As we made our way along the tunnel, I spoke to the Prince. 'What do you think will happen, Sire, now that Saddara and Roganar are both dead?'
The Prince gave a shrug. 'Roganar's men will choose a new leader, who will sit on the throne that is rightfully mine.' His jaw clenched in anger. 'When we return to Kodan I'll continue my father's work. I'll raise an army and win back the kingdom. And woe betide any who stand in my way.'