The Daughter of Pernius
by John Whitehouse
The plan was simple enough. Yet the feeling that something would go wrong continued to steal over me, as I practiced my knife-throwing against the trunk of a nearby tree. I was standing on the bank of a river which meandered through a wooded valley, broad and shallow. On the far slopes, the walls of Naashem – the city state where I had lived for most of my fifteen summers – could be seen.
I wondered how the people were faring under Saddara's rule. Niece to King Pernius, who she had 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 had gathered an army of mercenaries, many of whom were 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. The King’s soldiers had fought with desperate courage but, outnumbered and caught off-guard, their resistance was futile.
In the chaos and confusion, Pernius had succeeded in escaping, along with his son, Prince Tormas - to whom I was page – and two loyal servants, myself and Gromek, blacksmith to the Palace stables. The King’s daughter - Princess Lyssia - had been captured, however.
Together, the four of us had journeyed south to the land of Turshia, settling in the capital, Kodan.
Then, one day, a wandering merchant caravan had brought a letter, written by Lyssia, in which she pleaded to be rescued. She told how, following her capture, she had been thrown into one of the Palace dungeons, where she had languished for more than a month. Then, in a surprising act of kindness, Saddara had ordered that she be moved to more comfortable surroundings. She was now confined in a villa, situated in a quiet suburb, guarded by two men. 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 was of medium height and strong build. A small dark beard adorned his handsome features.
“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 first light the following day we set off on the long journey, the spare horses and pack mules loaded with blankets and provisions. Our garments were simple and practical. For my part, I wore a pair of calf-length leather boots which had belonged to my late uncle Siberius; heavy woolen trousers; a leather jerkin over a horsehair tunic; and a cape of heavy dark wool. We had travelled for almost two months, and had entered the valley earlier that day. We had made camp in a cave close to the water’s edge, and the Prince and Gromek had set out to hunt for food.
Sheathing my dagger, I set about the task the Prince had set me, that of gathering firewood. The trees dripped golden leaves onto the woodland floor as I picked up large twigs and broke off low branches. 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. There was a chill in the air now evening was drawing on, and I savored the warmth of the flames, which threw a dancing yellow light onto the rough walls.
I heard the Prince yelling my name and, ducking out of the cave, I saw he and Gromek had returned. The blacksmith, a giant of a man whose strength was awesome, was carrying the carcass of a young deer on his massive shoulders. Both men were staring into the darkening sky, their faces grim. Following their gaze, I froze in astonishment. Heading toward us, from the direction of the city, was a large cloud of dense bluish-grey mist. It was travelling at considerable speed and, 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 stored in the rear of the cave, while he and Gromek set about saddling the horses, which grazed nearby, along with the mules.
Hurriedly, I scrambled into the cave. When I emerged, I saw the cloud was now directly above us. Coming to a halt, it hovered for a moment. Then, like a bird swooping on prey, it descended, enveloping my companions and I, along with the animals.
I found myself in a blue-grey cocoon. The mist was so thick and heavy that 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, my vision began to shift in and out of focus. Dizziness flooded over me, and I felt weak and nauseous. With the strength draining from me, I dropped the bags I was carrying and fell heavily 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. Sitting up, I peered around. 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 bars running from floor to ceiling. Gromek was in the cell adjacent to mine, while the Prince occupied the other. 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 darkness.
“Where are we?” I asked.
It was the Prince who answered. “Inside the Temple. I recognize this as one of the dungeons.”
We heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and a man and woman appeared in the entrance to the passage. The woman - who looked to be in her mid-thirties - was of medium height and slender, with finely sculpted features framed by a mass of dark curls, which foamed down her back. She wore a long gown of turquoise silk, gathered at the waist by a fine golden chain, and a tasteful adornment of jewels. There was no denying she was beautiful. Yet it was a cold, hard sort of beauty, like a summer flower clothed with autumn frost, or 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 have placed warding spells around 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. His garments were made of leather 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. My father’s rule has been wise and tolerant. Naashem has grown and prospered.”
Saddara moved to stand in front of the Prince’s cell, facing him. “The throne was bought with the blood of my own father.” 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 all his schemes will avail him 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 to challenge me. I failed before because I was young and foolish. I will not 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 an animal.
Gromek spoke. “What are you going to do with us?” he asked.
“I intend to sacrifice you all to Mytak,” came the reply. “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. Meanwhile, I will see that you are 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. If a way out of this existed, I had to find it. And soon.
As I pondered our predicament, I thought about my uncle Siberius. He had been involved with the criminal underworld and, on one occasion, had succeeded in escaping from prison. He had recounted the tale to me on more than one occasion, and as I recalled it, an idea formed in my mind. Thanking the gods he’d bequeathed me his boots, I tugged at the heel of the right one, the bottom coming away to reveal a small hidden compartment. From this I extracted a metal disc, the width of a medium-sized coin, whose edges had been sharpened. Fitting the heel back together, I glanced at my companions. They were each lost in their own thoughts, the Prince’s expression one of haunted despair. Stepping up to the bars, I called to Gromek in a low voice, and beckoned him over. In the same hushed tones, I told him of my plan, and he nodded in understanding. Then I sat down and waited.
Presently, I heard the clump of booted feet, and a man – one of the Temple guards – came into the dungeon. Strips of gold-plated metal adorned his garments, which were of dyed-black leather, and a long curved sword hung at his waist. He carried a silver tray laden with wooden bowls, containing stale-looking bread and water.
My stomach tightened with apprehension as I rose to my feet. I pointed to the contents of the tray. “I don’t want any of that,” I said to the man. “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 scrutinized me for a moment, trying to decide if this was some sort of trick. Then he gave a shrug. “Alright. Stand back from the door.”
Putting down the tray, he drew his sword and there was a dull clunk as he unlocked the cell. I stood facing the adjacent cell as the guard swung open the door and stepped through. He held out his free hand. “Come on, then. Hand it over.”
With a sudden movement, I flung the metal disc at his face, the sharpened edge slicing open his cheek. Startled, the man staggered backward, and in that moment I sprang at him, dashing the sword from his grasp. The force of my lunge was sufficient to send him crashing against the bars, and as we grappled, Gromek sprang to his feet. Reaching through the bars, he grabbed the guard’s head, twisting it until a crack was heard. As the man slumped to the floor, I snatched the keys and began to free my companions.
“Well done,” said the Prince, as he stepped out of the cell. He grabbed the sword belonging to the guard. “We must try to save my sister,” and he hurried from the dungeon.
Gromek and I followed him up a narrow winding stair, at the head of which stood a heavy wooden door. Pulling it open a fraction, the Prince 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. As the man froze in astonishment, Gromek charged forward like a maddened bull, driving him against a wall. Seizing the guard’s head, he smashed it savagely against the stonework, and the man went limp. Gromek seized his sword.
“Pray we’re not too late,” said the Prince, and he led the way deeper into the Temple.
We halted before an arched portal. Peering cautiously through, we saw a large circular chamber illumined by a smoky glow. On the far side stood a ten foot high statue of the god Mytak, a vulture-headed figure with a lizard-like body and multiple wings and arms. Beside this 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.
Facing the wall, Saddara muttered a spell. A section of the stonework began to glow, and the image of a man appeared. The hood of a black 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.”
The Prince snarled. Glancing at him, I saw the skin of his face was stretched taut with hate. His teeth were bared and his eyes blazed with vengeful fire. Telling me to keep lookout, he beckoned to Gromek and the two men strode into the chamber.
As the occupants froze in astonishment, the blacksmith sprang toward the acolytes. Yelling with fear, they ran for the doorway on the far side of the chamber, as Roganar's sword hissed from its scabbard. 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. Backing against the wall, she pointed to him and began to bark out a spell. Racing forward, I grabbed the ceremonial dagger and hurled it at her, the blade thudding into her chest. Saddara stiffened, features frozen in uncomprehending horror. Then she crumpled to the floor.
As 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, as Gromek and Lyssia joined us. “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 recessed alcoves, which served as shrines to minor deities. At the end of the passage, he stepped into one of the alcoves and, moving behind the altar, stood facing the rear wall. He began pressing his hands against the stones. “One of them is loose,” he told us. “If I can just locate it ...”
Stepping up to the wall, Lyssia began to help.
Then Gromek gave a cry. Running toward us along the corridor, brandishing their swords, were a half dozen temple guards. Bounding forward, the blacksmith grabbed a four foot high statue from one of the shrines and, with a roar, he hurled it at the guards. The stone figure crashed into the two leading men, dashing them to the ground. Grabbing another statue, he held it above his head, menacingly. The 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 at the guards before running to join us.
Taking a torch from its bracket, the Prince stepped into the tunnel and threw a lever set into the wall. A flurry of yells and curses erupted from the guards as the stonework swung back into place. Then my companions and I were alone in silent darkness.
As we set off 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 which 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.”
John Whitehouse enjoys writing in various genres, including mystery and fantasy. To date several of his stories have appeared in small press and national publications, both in the UK and US, and on the internet.
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