SWORD & FIRE CHAPTER 3

V O L . ID Y N A S T Y

AXEL CREED

“Now and then.

The friction between time present and past. The ambition of a legacy envisioned flush against the weight of a dynasty inherited. At this cogent juncture, the destinies of men are oft defined.

At the end of the Age of Peace, this was such a moment.”

(Seer Tomrin, the TrueHeart)

The Drooks of the Eastgate

CHAPTER 3ZAKORIAH

Sword & Fire, Chapter 3: Zakoriah

LOCATION:
En route back to Noldrade

KINGDOM OF THE EASTGATE

CAPITAL: NOLDRADE
CLADE: DROOK
KING: GARIN DROOK
PRINCE: REX DROOK

“Wait! Wait for it,” the King’s deep, gravelly voice resounded around the dawn-lit forest as the great beast bore down on him with astonishing fury.

Huddled behind him, the royal Drook family of the East stood frozen like ice sculptures. If anyone so much as moved, the huge sabre-toothed shadow would settle on another target upon whom to vent its terrifying rage. On the King’s orders, the Gold Helms—the King’s own guard—were ordered to remain out of sight for this most perverse of family traditions.

Fearless, the King of the Eastgate shifted deftly in his heavily strapped hunting boots, adjusting his long steel spear to meet the charge, his lance wedged between ground and rock. Precision was required. The perfect angle, essential. An error in judgement would be fatal. Though the big man’s breathing was heavy, it was even. His brow shone with an urgent sweat that ran over tense furrows, but there was an eager glee in his dark brown-green eyes. Few things gave him more pleasure than spilling blood. And holding the lives of his children in his own hands was a thrill second to none.

Watching his father and king, with equal share awe and distaste, Zakoriah’s fist tightened on the hilt of the longsword his father forbade him to unsheathe. His heart pummelled against his chest. He was not entirely afraid of the beast that they’d provoked from the dark lair, taunting the angry creature out before it could sleep after its long night of hunting. It was not cowardice that made the muscles in his shoulders and neck so taut now, for he had endured this family ritual twice before. Nay, it was the icy fear addling his two youngest siblings that concerned him. It mattered not that they were his half-sister and half-brother. He loved them both, and if one of them caved, if one of them bolted, the Black Terror would tear them apart before he could clear sword from scabbard. It had never happened, as the dread the children harboured of their father was greater than the fear wrought in them now. The visible terror in a maiden’s eyes, however, distressed him terribly. “Women are weak,” his father had preached on many an occasion, “and need to shelter in the strength only men can provide.”

At ten-and-two years of age, this was Penti’s First Blood, and in accordance with Garin the Ghastly’s demented initiation ritual, she held the prime spot directly behind the madman … in the path of the black beast and its jaws of flashing white fury. That young Penti was timid of spirit had only made the King more determined “to purge her penchant for diffidence.” Don’t bolt. Show courage, girl.

“Come to me,” the King growled red-faced as the Black Terror leapt high through the air with astonishing power, all fangs and claws and muscle and rage. The roar that tore from deep within the beast’s chest was enough to quail a stout-hearted warrior. Penti’s high-pitched squeal and swoon were lost in the blur of the final charge.

Zakoriah caught the stench of his young sister’s loosed stomach and saw the spittle discharge from his father’s open mouth as the crazed King met the Black Terror’s roar with his own. The chords in the King’s neck were stiff as iron rods, and the muscles in his shoulders and arms bulged in his chain mail jerkin.

Man versus beast. Reckless courage up against raw instinct and rage.

The great shadow fell on the King, for a heartbeat eclipsing the dawn sun. A jarring crunch accompanied by his father’s grunt filled Zak’s ears, as beast flesh seemed to swallow human flesh. A hideous throttled growl followed not a beat later.

The King’s spear struck true. As the massive beast impaled itself on the lance, Zakoriah heard his father grimace under the sheer weight of the charge and the ringing bend of steel. Zak froze. Though nigh impossible, for a disconcerting heartbeat, it looked as though the javelin might snap.

Towering over its antagonist, with its last enraged breath, the enormous sabretooth swiped its long teeth at fresh air and slashed extended claws at the King’s puce face.

Locked in this life-and-death embrace, the violent King blocked the razor-sharp claws with the steel armoured bracer strapped to his forearm, bone rasping against metal. A deep guffaw erupted from King Garin’s belly in perverse delight, triumphing over the majestic but pitiful creature. Just as he had prevailed in every one-on-one combat he’d faced.

The mighty warrior-king—who at the age of twenty-and-one had slain the great champion of the North, Dorian the BloodFist of Frankfast, during the War of Weeping—drew an ivory-hilted black dagger in hand. He thrust the long, sharp blade into the beast’s unblinking onyx-black eye, puncturing the brain. The instant spray of dark blood was greeted by his siblings’ spontaneous, relieved cheer. Exhaling, Zak eased his grip on his sword’s hilt as the big cat began to slide down, skewered on the spear.

When the last breath guttered out of the great shadow, propped tragically upon man’s steel, a lamentable sight, the cruel King wrenched the blade from the animal’s eye. He roared before plunging it into the creature’s exposed stomach. Again and again. Over and over, like a man possessed … until the King’s attire was spattered and blotted with black blood and gory entrails. Heaving and puffing, his ragged rasping sounded like a blacksmith’s bellows. Laughing and drooling, the King of the East stood covered in gooey crimson as the blushing dawn sun shed tears of hazy light across a new day.

“I greet You, Wonder of Heaven, with fresh blood,” the King chanted in demented praise. “This Black Terror is no match for me. Mine own cunning and wits too much for its ferocity and fury. This is why You have granted Man dominion over the beasts of grass and dirt, and stone and mountain.” He threw his hands up in the air with a fisted punch and roared again, emptying his lungs with such release he nearly toppled over his own tree-stump-thick legs.

Man has vanquished beast. But surely man is the beast, Zak concluded to himself. Surely Wonder cannot take pleasure in this spectacle?

He glanced over at his older brother, Rex, whose eyes were glazed at the sight of blood. The man’s mouth was pulled up in that permanent half-smile of his, hailing their father’s bravado. He knew his brother shared their father’s bloodlust, and many a time, he too was drawn into its spell. As much as he’d fought it as a youngster, disgusted by his father’s bloodthirsty antics, he ofttimes felt seduced by its mesmerising lure. Not now though. He grimaced at what was to come.

“Daughter,” the King said at last, his eyes muddy in colour and moist with the thrill of the kill. Turning on his heels like a drunk, still visibly euphoric from his grisly duel, the King barked again. “Where are you, young one?”

Zak stooped to lift Penti up onto wobbling feet. While she’d regained her senses, her eyes were glassy and her jaw loose from shock. Her nose scrunched at the gory sight of her father, and when Zak saw her bottom lip begin to quiver; he squeezed her thin arm hard. Just hard enough to startle her. As Penti flinched, he whispered into her ear. “Cry and Parder shall beat you. Show courage, sweet sparrow.” His words were stern, but his heart ached for her.

Penti sucked in her quavering lip and gritted her teeth.

“She merely soiled herself,” said Zak in order to stave off any cruel jibes from his father. “Which of your daughters didn’t at their First Blood?” He cast his eyes at his half-sister, hoping she would speak up in defence of their younger sibling, but Mandi showed little and less concern.

“At least I didn’t swoon,” said Mandi, who at ten-and-seven looked as buxom as a woman ten years older. She shook her head at her younger sister disparagingly, her long flaxen curls whipping behind her. “You are a timid, pathetic sort, you are.”

Zak cut his half-sister a harsh look. I should’ve known you’d only make matters worse.

The King sucked in his teeth and sneered at Penti, “You swooned? You swooned! Are you craven, girl?”

“I-I-I…” Penti stammered.

Zak looked at Rex for help, but his older brother laughed dismissively and shrugged his shoulders, his usual response to their father’s madcap ventures. “Parder,” Zak started tentatively, knowing he faced his father’s wrath, “she tripped over her own feet. She’s not craven, merely clumsy.”

“Come here, girl,” said the King with a snap, his face a mean scowl. “You just tripped, did you? Drooks are neither craven nor clumsy, but if you have to be one, we can beat the clumsy out of you.” The King chortled but his eyes were dark as pitch and his demeanour, cold as ice. “Craven, and you’re dead to me.”

“I-I-I was just clumsy,” muttered Penti as she wavered; the colour had completely drained from her face at the thought of what came next. She flicked a nervous look at Zak.

“You can do it, Penti,” he tried his best to enthuse her with courage. Taking her gently by the arm, he steered her to the King. “Just a mouthful like I told you. Show courage.”

“Parder,” interjected ten-year-old Konin, stepping out from behind Rex, his shield when the sabre had attacked. “I think the Shadow has cubs.”

“Hold your tongue, boy,” the King didn’t bother to look at his youngest son. “Your First Blood shall come in two years’ hence. This is your sister’s chance to prove she’s a Drook. Come now, girl! Don’t keep a king waiting.”

Trembling, Penti stood in the shadow cast by the immense beast speared on her father’s lance, a sight that made her look every bit as small and terrified as she was. Zak felt the muscles in his jaw clench. He too had been scared at his First Blood, but he’d enjoyed the rush of adrenalin in his veins. Above all, it was the first time his father had expressed any pride in him. And as it turned out, even now eight years later, the only time. He knew he risked turning Penti’s First Blood into yet another opportunity to bear the brunt of his father’s abuse, but he was determined to buffer his young sister from whatever fury might be metered out should she disappoint the man. I failed Jed. I shan’t fail you.

He shook his head to put aside the memory of his banished brother, Jed. “Can I join her, Parder?” Zak asked hoping to offer her support.

“Nay, Zakoriah. Stand back!” the King bellowed in the bitter, hard-edged tone typically reserved for him. “In the First Blood, she proves she can stand alone. Strong, like a true Drook.”

“But women are weak, didn’t you say? And need men to be strong for them.”

“Don’t get wily with me, boy,” snarled the King, his bloodied beard twisting down. “Stand back or I swear, my fists shall make you bow.”

Zak bit his lip and yielded.

“Now come, girl. Do not keep a king waiting, I said,” the cruel man spat. “Cup your hands and allow the Shadow’s blood to fill it. Then drain the contents and toast your First Blood.”

Zakoriah watched as his sister plunged her small, cupped hands into the steady flow of dark red that dribbled from the punctured carcass of the big cat. You can do it. White as a sheet, she put her quavering lips to her red-soaked hands. Her eyes closed and her nose wrinkled as she squeamishly drank the thick, warm sludge. Hold it down, sweet sparrow.

“All of it,” the King’s abrasive timbre echoed off the surrounding stony outcrop.

Penti dry heaved but clutched at her throat with bloodied hands and stopped herself from gagging. Keep it down. Help her, Wonder. She dry wretched again but bravely kept her red-rimmed mouth closed, her chin painted dark, sticky crimson.

Zak applauded and an eager Konin joined him when she managed a small, wan smile through blood-lined teeth. “You did it, Penti,” Zak said in celebration and relief.

“More,” the King’s voice cut through him as Penti’s eyes bulged in fear. “You clumsy or craven, girl? Show me that you’re not craven.”

Her pleading eyes whisked to meet Zak.

“Don’t look at your brother,” snapped the King, seemingly bent on causing her to fail. “To me! You have to prove yourself to me. Drink another cup of the Shadow’s blood.”

In a panic, Zak gambled. “Listen,” he said. “Konin was right. I think the Shadow does have pups.” He hadn’t heard aught, but was at a loss what to do. If perchance there was a den of sabre pups—and Konin did have sharp ears—it might divert his father’s attention away from his sister. The King would oft get lost in a feverish distemper, and sometimes, a simple distraction would break his fog of madness.

A few instants stretched out into what felt like a long and tense hour, and just when Zak thought his father would turn on him; a faint wailing sound caught their ears.

With his eyes suddenly dancing again, the King yelled: “Silence everyone!”—even though his family held a collective breath and the stillness was deafening.

Zakoriah was suddenly in two minds. Maybe he’d done enough to give his sister a reprieve, but if there were pups in the sabre’s den, there was every chance that the grim initiation rite would simply move to a new location. He grimaced as the soft mewling of a neglected cub broke the quiet.

“May I slay it?” asked Konin rabid with his father’s bloodlust. “May I?”

The King laughed heartlessly, and looked askance at Zak. “Nay, lad. The girl shall slay it. She’s clumsy but not craven, I’m told. This is her chance to prove it.”

Zak’s heart sank, but he refused to show it. I’ve only made matters worse. He met Penti’s anxious glance with his best attempt at resolve. “Let’s get this done, Penti,” he said, bitter in the mouth. “Show Parder your courage, sweet sparrow.”

Moments later, Zak stepped over the bloodied carcass of the sabre’s kill and into the cave itself, well lit by two cracks in the roof through which the morning’s bright rays stole. He took in a heavy, careful breath, counting not one but three cubs, their soft newborn fur a shiny black speckled with white. He had hoped to find just one, at the most two. Three were very unusual, and he smirked at the idea that if anyone other than his father had found them, the fortunate soul would probably consider it a sign of serendipity, favour from above. A treasure to preserve, not destroy.

“Three of them!” Konin squealed in giddy delight as the little cubs, not yet weaned, shrunk back in fear. “Please let me slay one. I’ve been brave, Parder.”

“Come here,” the King hooked a finger at Penti, ignoring his youngest son. He offered her his bloodied dagger hilt first. “I care not how you do it, but slay two of them and leave one for Konin. Gut them. Or slit their throats. Whatever comes to mind.”

Zak watched his baby sister struggle to swallow as she took the cold steel gingerly in her small trembling hands, and he had to force his head from shaking in disgust. He felt his father’s eyes heavy on him; the King was no longer merely testing his daughter. And Zak knew from hard experience, the futility of pleading with his father in such a dark mood. The King would make a point of degrading Penti further, and would no doubt compel him to do it. In Garin the Ghastly’s warped mind, he was teaching his daughter strength of character, and purging the dross from his son’s weak constitution.

Showing fortitude the King could not see, Penti stood up to him. “I shan’t do it.” Her terror fused into a white-knuckled grip around the dagger’s hilt, and unaware, she held the blade pointed at her father.

The King seemed to mishear her. “You craven, girl? You cannot slay a pathetic cub?”

“Nay,” she said, defiant, biting her bottom lip in a vain attempt to keep her trembling under control. “I shan’t.”

Zak felt his mouth drop open. Her love for Wonder’s small creatures has fuelled her courage. Would that Parder could see her strength.

Asininely, Konin exploded in macabre enthusiasm, “Let me do it!” His excitable lunge forward for the dagger in his sister’s hands came to an abrupt halt when the King purpled in rage. He knocked his youngest son back with one swipe of his massive right arm and then struck his daughter across the face on the backswing. “You shan’t? You whining craven!”

Penti fell in a heap as her father’s sonorous voice ricocheted around the cave, and Zak bit his tongue, praying she would stay down. When the King moved menacingly towards the little body whimpering on the floor, Penti’s moment of temerity now crushed by her father’s violence, he spoke up. “Parder, I’m to blame. I—”

The King’s enraged eyes whipped Zak’s way. With the speed of a man half his age, his father was on him. Swinging his red fists, left, right, left and right, and again and again, the deranged King tore into him.

Zak could not yet stand up to the raw power of his father, but he was quick and sufficiently strong to parry many of the blows, allowing enough to get through so as not to frustrate the King. And he kept his feet long enough for the warrior-king to feel satisfied in the rout, but not long enough to provoke the madman to draw a weapon. Zak buckled to the floor when a swinging ball of raw fury caught him in the midriff, and he gasped for air. Still, he had the presence of mind to shield his head from the stomping and kicking he knew would follow. The onslaught was brutal and the pain terrible, but he focused on the accomplishment of his goal. He had distracted the King from venting his wrath on the little one.

Finally, the mad King stopped; bending over, hands on knees, he wheezed for air. “Blood and hell, Zak! How … how…?” he rasped, his face slick with perspiration, the sweat cutting lines through his blood-stained face. “How do you expect to bring honour to our name if you cannot purge this blemish from your soul?” He spat on the ground next to Zak. “Soon I shall restore the One Throne. Soon you shall be a Prince over all Pangaia … but only if you shed your cowardice.”

Grimacing, Zak swallowed blood from his split lip. My world revolves around sparing my half-siblings from your mad cruelty, he thought to himself. I cannot conceive an entire world subject to your unbridled rule. Could there be aught worse? Bedtime horror stories of fallen angels and fire-spitting monsters sound tamer. He peeked up from under his arm as he lay on the floor, watching his father’s movements. Please let his rage be spent. To his chagrin, he saw the King turn to Penti.

“Come here,” Garin the Ghastly grabbed the girl by her long brown hair. “Come!” he motioned to young Konin, whose excitement had now given way to fear. Behind him, Rex’s grin was all teeth, amused no end by the spectacle. Next to the Prince, Mandi looked to be of two minds. Her eyes were alert and curious, her chin tight and her face stiff. She was intrigued, but she knew that a wrong word or misplaced glance could draw her father’s roughshod ire.

Zak struggled to his haunches, massaging his bruised jaw and molested body as he watched the King drag Penti to where the three cubs cowered. Their small, perfect onyx-black eyes moved from side to side in search of their missing mother, their tiny bodies shivering in fear. Zak’s mind spun. What do I do to stop this insanity? When his hand found itself wrapped around the hilt of his sword, he sensed Rex draw closer.

For half a heartbeat, he thought his older brother might be concerned for him. Protecting him from a moment of rashness. He ought to have known better. Zak’s chest tightened when Rex’s comely face broke into a sneer, his sword drawn.

“You have done this, dimwit,” Rex scolded him. “You wanted to play the hero again, didn’t you? But clear your sword on the King, and I shall have the pleasure of opening you groin to gorge.” He tsked. “Do it. Give me a bloody excuse. You know Parder believes only he can chastise the fruit of his loins. Draw that steel and I wager he shall share the privilege with me.”

He pulled away from Rex angrily, but left his sword sheathed. Starting towards the King uncertainly, his chest tightened when his father shoved Penti to the ground next to the sabre’s nest. As she shrieked, the three cubs flinched, meowing with fright.

“Watch, craven,” the King yelled as he jumped into the air coming down onto the three terrified pups, bringing his full weight to bear upon them. A piteous, agonised squeal was cut abruptly short, as Garin the Ghastly’s stomping legs turned into a blur of manic motion, his heavy boots brutally pounding the nest. Little bones cracked and blood and bits of flesh and fur splashed into the air after every footfall.

Zak felt the contents of his stomach hike up the back of his throat. For the love of Wonder!

When the King of the East had finally spent his fury, he leered at Zak with steely-eyes and pointed at him with a dagger-like finger. “Your decrepitude comes from your Marder. Thank the Wonder of Heaven the woman is dead.” Then he wheeled around to Penti as she sobbed uncontrollably into her hands. “And you, you little runt. You have but a fortnight to prove you’re worthy of the Drook name. Or else you’re dead to me.”

Zak swallowed hard, his chest a tight knot, his heart run through on his half-sister’s behalf. The poor thing is broken and still he’ll not stop until she’s ground to splinters and dust.

The King’s crazed eyes alighted on Rex as he scuffed off blood-matted hair and cub flesh from underneath his boots against a jagged rock. “Come, son. Blood and hell! I’ve worked up a belly-aching thirst.”

As the King and his heir strode off, Zak hurried to console Penti where she knelt, shaking. Her entire little body quavered in his embrace as raking sobs juddered from her. Zak held his sister gently and spoke soft words into her ear. He was unharried by the King’s scathing words concerning his mother. It was not the first time he’d heard them, and truth was, he was merely a ten-month-old infant when she died. He continued offering Penti what comfort he could, barely feeling the pain in his own battered body. The little one’s distress was sufficient in itself to vex him. Forgive me, sweet sparrow. I failed you. Just as I failed Jed.

“Parder…” asked Konin looking bewildered; he gibbered into the darkness, oblivious to his father’s departure. Unable to take his eyes off the tangled mess of bone and flesh and blood where once the three cubs nested, he fiddled with the small dagger he’d drawn from his belt. “It-It’s not fair. You promised I could slay one.”

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