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Gods Above and Below
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

What does having everything mean when it isn't what you wanted? As yet another Trade Mission takes him out of the kingdom, Stavin wonders why. In Reynadia he finds the estate and town of Aniston, and the Aniston Clans worship the elder Gods Above. Arandar takes Stavin as His avatar, and he must face off with the avatar of Ravashanal. With his natural cockiness reinforced by Aranda's Light, he is certain of his success.

Stavin Kel'Aniston Dragon Blessed book 6 and the conclusion to the series.

 

 

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Gods Above and Below

fantasy

Loren K. Jones

 

 

 

Prelude

Rey on the Glimmer, Capital of the Kingdom of Reynadia, was a city living in fear: Someone was killing innocents. Children, young adults, the weak of mind: Anyone who had never intentionally committed an evil act was in danger.

The streets that had once been brightly lit were now dark. The markets and docks that had once been busy all day and night were deserted. No one ventured out at night anymore. Not even the thieves dared the darkness in these uncertain times. But the city's caution was in vain: no one was safe, not even in their own beds.

* * *

Carandin awoke with a shriek of terror. Her mind screamed, This isn't my room! as she looked around in desperation. This place was dark and dank, and smelled of blood, fear, and dung. She scrambled to her feet and wedged herself into a corner as her eyes desperately searched the shadows. "Who--Who's there?" she asked in a trembling voice.

"I am called Servallan," a soft, feminine voice replied.

"What do you want?" Carandin asked in a little girl's tiny voice. There was a laugh from the darkness in reply to her question that set her neck hairs on end.

"I have what I want," the voice answered in a silky purr. "I have you."

"I'm no use to you," Carandin whined. "I'm not a virgin."

Now the voice laughed loudly, sending a shiver of fear down Carandin's spine. "The value of virginity in human sacrifices is so terribly overstated. It's the purity of the soul, not the body, that is important."

Now a shadow moved and a woman came into view. She was tall and elegantly dressed in the latest Chosen society fashions. She was well proportioned, with everything in perfect symmetry. Her features were so perfect she appeared to be a living sculpture. But her apparent perfection was marred by her eyes: they were dull, dead black orbs, like darkened pits in her face. It was her eyes that frightened Carandin the most.

"What are you!?" Carandin shouted as terror gripped her heart.

"I, little one?" the woman asked in a silky purr as a vulpine smile curved her lips. Her head tilted to the side as she bent her surprisingly long neck forward. "I am something your short-lived species has forgotten to fear. But no matter. I'll remind you." Her expression changed, and the only sound after that was Carandin's screams.

 

 

Chapter 1

The morning sunlight slanted through the inn window, falling on Prince Stavin's leg as it illuminated the common room. "Going to be another hot day," he commented.

Karvik grunted his agreement around a mouthful of sausage. When courtesy allowed, he replied, "Been too hot for too long."

A soft sound drew their attention to the servant who was waiting patiently by the wall. "Yes?" Stavin asked. His expression was open and friendly, as it usually was, so the girl stepped forward and bowed.

"Your pardon, Prince Stavin, but the spring is barely begun. Come high summer we'll be longing for days like this."

Stavin sighed and shook his head slowly as he turned back toward Karvik. "It's going to be a long, hot summer."

All around them the other thirty-two members of Stavin's Royal Guard were similarly dismayed. Lieutenant Varik Kel'Horval, the youngest of the group as well as being Stavin's brother-in-law, dared to grin at his prince.

"At least we're not on the coast, Prince Stavin. Can you imagine this heat and that humidity?"

Stavin and Karvik exchanged a sour glance before Stavin replied, "Yes, I can. You have egg on your chin, Var." Varik's cheeks and ears reddened in embarrassment as he grabbed a napkin to tend to himself while his table-mates chuckled at his expense.

Stavin said, "It shouldn't take us more than another moon to reach Rey," as he turned back toward Karvik. "We've gone as far south as we have to. I think we'll skip the detour to Zel'Kassel."

Karvik nodded his agreement. "That will save us some time as well as getting us back up into the mountains where it's cooler."

There was little other conversation as the group finished their morning meal. When the entire group was finished, Stavin led the way out of the inn. Their horses were already saddled and waiting, so they mounted and rode away at a trot.

"So, Stave, exactly what was the point of telling that girl where we're going?" Karvik asked as soon as they were out of town.

"Because she was being paid to listen to our plans, Kar," Stavin replied. "Let her earn some extra silver. I have no intention of missing the museum at Zel'Kassel."

Karvik shook his head slowly. "You know, Stave, you're getting paranoid. Not every attentive servant is a spy. I think she was just hoping for a crown or two, and maybe a royal romp in bed."

Stavin silently glared at his best friend for a moment, then sighed. "You may be right, Kar, but I'd rather be careful."

"You'd rather be sneaky, even if there's no need," Karvik quipped with a grin. "Life in the palace is too tame for you."

Stavin's expression once again turned rueful. "Maybe so," he admitted.

The expedition continued southwest across the Kingdom of Luxandia and into the Kingdom of Reynadia. Stavin, in his capacity as Evandia's Minister of Trade, was reaffirming the treaties that tied Evandia to the kingdoms of Coravia, Luxandia, Reynadia, Andaria, and the City-States of Kavadia. He was also seeing the world he only knew from books as only a prince or trader could. Traveling long distance was too expensive for almost anyone else.

The trip had begun early in the spring, and was going to take a full year. King Kalin had suggested it both as a trade mission and as a way for the rest of the royal families to meet the famous Stavin Dragonblessed.

Stavin had to admit that he would want to meet someone who had inspired as many songs, stories, and outrageous lies as he had.

He'd accomplished his primary mission in Coravia, as well as renewing his friendship and family ties with King Teravan and Princess Ellissan, and in Luxandia as well. The Ministers of Trade of both kingdoms were very anxious to ensure their Traders' Guilds were obeying the letter and spirit of the agreements between their kingdoms.

His secondary mission was personal: he was expanding House Kel'Aniston into the other kingdoms. Soon his would be the largest trading House in the lands that had once been the Empire of Luxand.

The trip to Zel'Kassel was a family mission. The Royal Reynadian Museum there was supposed to house more than one hundred dragon artifacts made by Dandarshandrake during the twenty-seven hundred years he had guided the people of Luxand to greatness. Stavin was, if allowed, going to prove or disprove their authenticity.

It took another twenty-seven days to reach the southern Reynadian port city of Zel'Kassel. It was old, dating to just before the fall of the empire. Now, after more than five hundred years, nearly three hundred thousand souls called it home.

Karvik looked out over the city from the hill they had just topped and murmured, "Impressive."

Stavin was the only one close enough to hear him, and murmured back, "Yup," just as softly.

Behind them, the assorted Royal Guardsmen, Warrior and Chosen alike, spoke in hushed tones as they discussed the wonder before them. Zel'Kassel, unlike most modern cities, had grown out, not up. Open spaces could be seen throughout the city, as if every building had its own park. It was quite a change from the crowded, cheek-n-jowl existence in most cities.

The road they were traveling on widened and the surface changed from packed dirt to some material that only the Imperial Architects had known how to make. The road was wide enough that three wagons could have driven down it side-by-side.

An elaborate arch spanned the road and a brace of guardsmen stepped out to meet them. "Welcome, travelers," the apparent leader of the guards said as he bowed. "Are you from Evandia?"

Karvik answered, "Yes. We are escorting Prince Stavin Dragonblessed to your fine city and museum."

All the city guardsmen came to attention and then went to one knee. Only the leader kept his head up as he said, "Welcome to Zel'Kassel, Prince Stavin. The Royal Oak Inn is ten dragons straight ahead."

Stavin said, "Thank you, Guardsman," as he passed. The guard and his subordinates stood as soon as Stavin was past them and stayed at attention as the rest of the party filed by.

The Royal Oak turned out to be a very large inn, though it had followed the example of the rest of the city and remained low, just a long single story that spread more than a dragon across the front. A welcoming committee was assembled on the porch, and an elegantly-dressed woman stepped forward as soon as Stavin stopped.

She bowed deeply and said, "Prince Stavin, I am Sovana Zel'Tessel, Lady Mayor of Zel'Kassel." She paused and again bowed deeply to acknowledge Stavin's bowed head before continuing. "We are pleased to welcome you to our fine city. With me are the members of our City Council and the Masters of our craft guilds, as well as the full council of our Traders' Guild. Also, in honor of your scholarly achievements, the Curator of the Royal Reynadian Museum and the Head Master of Zel'Kassel's campus of the Royal Reynadian Academy have joined us." Each of the people on the porch had bowed deeply when they were introduced, and Stavin had nodded to each of them.

Stavin smiled as he said, "I am pleased to meet all of you. While I am here I plan to meet with your council, and with the Traders' Guild as well as the Craft guilds. I will also be visiting your museum. Your collection of dragon-made artifacts is legendary." He paused to chuckle. "King Kalin visited when he was a child and can describe most of the artifacts from memory."

An elderly woman stepped forward and bowed deeply. "I was but an apprentice scribe when your father and his parents visited, Prince Stavin. I am Corian Fel'Dansel, Master Scribe and Curator of the Museum." She smiled and chuckled at Stavin. "Your good father had to be retrieved from several of the exhibits."

Stavin smiled in return as his guardsmen chuckled. "So he told me. I promise to be better behaved."

A new man had joined the greeting party and stepped forward to bow deeply. "Prince Stavin, your suite is ready if you'd care to send in your servants."

Stavin shook his head and replied, "No servants this trip. Just show us to the stables and we'll come in once the horses are seen to." He ignored the shocked expressions on the greeting party's faces and the chuckles of his guardsmen as he followed the innkeeper around the building.

Karvik was right beside his prince and said, "I don't care what you say, Stave. That never gets old."

Stavin laughed out loud as he dismounted, then, contrary to proper behavior, saw to his own horse. The guardsmen ignored the shocked look on the innkeeper's face except for a few who chuckled at his expense.

Stavin took an extra moment to give his horse some personal attention. She was a creamy-tan mare, and he'd named her Tru after his beloved first horse. Like the original, he'd gentled and trained Tru himself. Princess Marina, his adopted big sister, had thrown a fit when he'd announced his intention, but King Kalin had simply said, "Go ahead, Stavin." That had earned him a hard look from his daughter, but she'd held her peace afterward.

Karvik was standing by the stall door when he was through. "I sent Var and his team inside. He's arranging for us to eat before the Chosen mob you."

Stavin rolled his eyes and said, "Thank you. I have a feeling it's going to be another long night."

The inn was crowded with more people than it could comfortably hold, and the faces of dozens of splendidly garbed men and women could be seen looking through the windows, straining to see the famous Stavin Dragonblessed.

Stavin muttered, "Gods Below," as soon as he saw the crowd of people surging toward him, but Varik and his men formed a protective wall to keep even the most insistent of the Chosen at bay. Shouts of "Dragonblessed!" mixed with "Prince Stavin!" as the lords and ladies tried to get his attention.

Stavin ignored them all, keeping his eyes front until he reached his table. Then he turned toward the crowd and spoke loudly as he said, "Lords and Ladies of Zel'Kassel, I am pleased to visit your fine city. It is not possible for me to meet with everyone, and certainly not all at once, but we have ten days to arrange as many interviews as possible. For the moment, however, I would appreciate a little time to eat and get cleaned up. We've been on the road for eight days since the last town, and I don't want to offend anyone." He gave the crowd his best boyish grin, then sat down.

The press of bodies against the royal guards eased and Karvik brought two senior sergeants to join them at the table. Stavin and Karvik had made it a point to share meals with all of their men in turn. Even Varik, the second in command of the guards, only joined them when his turn came up.

An older woman stepped forward as soon as they were seated, bowed deeply, and then asked, "What can I bring you to drink, Prince Stavin?"

Stavin replied, "Beer," then glanced around before adding, "for all of us."

The woman bowed again and backed away as she said, "I will return in a moment, Prince Stavin," as she passed the guards.

"Good servant," the sergeant at Stavin's left commented.

"Royal inn," the other sergeant replied. "I'll bet she's the innkeeper's wife."

Karvik spoke softly as he said, "You know the drill. As soon as she sets the glasses down, switch across. Prince Stavin drinks last."

Both men answered, "Yes, Sir."

The woman returned with tall crystal glasses of dark amber beer. She set her tray down, then set a glass down in front of each of them. "Here you are, Prince Stavin. Our finest beer."

Stavin smiled as he said, "Thank you," but made no move to touch his glass. Then, as the woman watched with a puzzled expression, the guards swapped the glasses around and all three of them sipped, but Stavin still didn't touch his glass. After a moment Karvik traded his glass for Stavin's.

Stavin chuckled at the woman's offended expression and explained, "My father's orders. They've done that at every stop this trip."

The woman bowed and backed away. Once she was gone Karvik took a long drink of his beer and said, "Go ahead, Stave."

Stavin took an experimental sip and raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Good beer."

"Very good," the guardsman at Stavin's left replied.

Karvik caught Varik's eye and waved him over. "Var, take three men to the kitchen and bring our meals, then you and your team eat as well."

Varik snapped to attention and said, "Yes, sir," before turning toward the kitchen. Varik and his men returned just a few moments later with the plates. All four of them were grinning widely, and Varik chuckled when he sat Stavin's plate down. "I don't think I've ever seen an innkeeper that insulted before."

Stavin shrugged. "I don't know why. If we'd brought along our own servants they would have done the same thing." Stavin turned his attention to Karvik. "Any good?"

"Very," he replied around a bite of meat. "It's mutton, but it's spiced very close to Mom's recipe."

Stavin needed no other encouragement and immediately took a bite from Karvik's bowl. His eyes closed with pleasure as he savored the stew. "This is so good."

Around them the eleven members of Varik's team were enjoying bowls of the same stew as their prince. They ate quickly, then allowed the next team to eat, keeping nineteen guardsmen on watch at all times.

Stavin dawdled until all of his guardsmen had eaten, then stood up and nodded to the innkeeper. The man rushed over to his side, and Stavin said, "Lead us to the Royal Suite. I'd like to bathe before I meet with the Chosen."

"Of course, Prince Stavin," he said with a bow. "This way if you please."

Stavin and Karvik followed the man to the royal suite and Stavin nodded his approval to the innkeeper. "This will do nicely," he commented when he saw the size of the suite. "Which is the bathing room?"

The innkeeper bowed and indicated the door to Stavin's left. "Through that door, Prince Stavin. Shall I send Rose or Lila to assist you?"

Stavin gave the man a lopsided grin as he replied, "I can bathe myself. Been doing it for more than a year now."

Karvik didn't hesitate to laugh at the man's expression as he bowed and left. "You know, Stave, Shari didn't really tell me to watch you."

Stavin laughed. "I know, and she didn't tell Var either. She didn't need to. Unbuckle my plate and I'll get yours."

Karvik and Stavin helped each other out of their armor, then Stavin led the way into the bathing room. The tub was every bit as large as the one in his suite in Twin Bridges, and already filled with steaming hot water.

Karvik tested the water and said, "Hot enough," as he stripped off his under-padding and then climbed in. Stavin had stripped as well, but he brought his under-padding with him. He rinsed it out first, then put it aside to drain a bit.

Stavin chuckled as he glanced at his armor. "Dragon-scale cloth is so much more convenient than wool or even cotton. Too bad it can't be duplicated."

"Maybe so, but maybe not," Karvik said as he looked at his friend. "Imagine how many washer-women it'd put out of work."

Stavin nodded as he started washing himself. He and Karvik traded the favor of washing each other's backs, then got out and dressed in their armor again. Stavin had convinced Lord General Zel'Kordil to issue each guardsman two sets of under-padding so Karvik had a clean set as well. Once they were armored up, they left the suite feeling and smelling much better than when they entered.

Varik met them at the entry to the common room. "We kept the table occupied, Prince Stavin. Sergeant Zel'Fordan's team cleaned up when you did and is on watch."

"Well done, Var," Stavin said as he passed.

"Take your men to clean up and try to get some rest. You take the watch again after mid night," Karvik added.

"Yes, Sir," Varik replied with a bow, then turned away and signaled his men to follow him.

Sergeant Zel'Fordan stepped up to Karvik and bowed. "My team has the watch, and your team is standing by, Sir."

"Very well, Sergeant. You know the drill: Let one Chosen lord or lady through at a time unless they are together."

"Yes, Sir."

The first of the Chosen to approach Stavin was indeed a married couple. "Lord Avelin and Lady Alissa Zel'Fallon," the sergeant announced then stepped aside.

Stavin bowed his head and said, "Welcome."

"Prince Stavin," Lady Alissa began in a high, sharp voice, "your guardsmen are very rude and need to be reminded of their place."

Stavin sat in silence for a moment as he considered his reply. He looked her in the eye and said, "Sergeant Zel'Fordan is the second son of Lord Cavael Zel'Fordan, the Lord of Zel'Fordan in Evandia. He is also a direct descendant of Lady Marydyth Ne'Karyn Zel'Fordan, more commonly known in the legends as Mary Death. His place, as a Royal Guardsman, is one he knows very well: it is between me and you. You may go."

"Now wait a moment," her husband objected, "that wasn't what."

Stavin interrupted him before he really got going. "I have limited time, Lord Avelin. It was announced that I would only be addressing one concern of each visitor, and I have done so. Good evening to you both." Turning his attention to the sergeant, he nodded once.

Another guardsman stepped forward and said, "This way, Lord and Lady Zel'Fallon. And before you ask, my name is Kavin Zel'Hestel."

The next visitor was an elderly lady with thick white hair and a very wicked grin on her face when she bowed to Stavin. "Nicely done, Prince Stavin. I am Sahrana Zel'Aniston, Lady of Zel'Aniston."

Stavin had sat bolt upright as soon as Lady Sahrana said her name. "Zel'Aniston, Lady? I have never met anyone from the Chosen Clan of Aniston before."

Her smile deepened as she replied, "Now you have, Prince Stavin Ne'Aniston Zel'Andral. Aniston, the estate and town, lays twelve spans by carriage to the east on the high road. I invite you to come visit the land of your ancestors whenever you wish. We have all been curious about you since we first heard a song about the Dragonblessed warrior Stavin Kel'Aniston."

Stavin stood and bowed deeply to her before replying, "Lady Zel'Aniston, as soon as I have discharged my duty to Evandia, I shall visit Aniston." She bowed in return, then smiled and turned away without another word.

Karvik looked at Stavin and raised his eyebrows. "That's interesting. Good thing we're not on a tight schedule. Add a day to our itinerary?"

Stavin tilted his head to the side and said, "Add two. I'd hate to have to rush." Karvik nodded as Sergeant Zel'Fordan brought the next Chosen lord forward.

The night was, as predicted, a late one. A steady stream of Chosen lords and ladies filed by, most taking just a few moments, but there always seemed to be another waiting.

When the mid night bell rang, Stavin stood and addressed the crowd. "Lords and Ladies of Zel'Kassel, I thank you for your greeting, but the hour grows late. I wish you all a pleasant night." With that he left the room followed by shouts and groans of disappointment.

Karvik was, as always, at his side. "Middle of the night and the room is still full. I guess none of them have to get up in the morning."

"Probably not," Stavin agreed, "but we do." A huge yawn punctuated his remark. "I'm going to hate dawn."

As he had during the entire trip, Karvik shared the royal suite with Stavin. He closed and locked the door behind them, then checked the windows. Per his orders, there was a guardsman outside each of them. Satisfied for the moment, he and Stavin stripped out of their plate armor as well as they could, then helped each other with those buckles that were always hard to reach.

Royal suites always had more than one bed, and Stavin had already picked out his, but it wasn't the big royal bed. Karvik walked over and shook his head. "A servant's bed again, Stave?"

Stavin jerked his head toward the big bed. "I'd feel lost in that thing."

"Do you mind?"

"Sleep there if you want, Kar. It looks like it's big enough that your feet won't stick out." He finished with a grin and Karvik laughed in return. Karvik was so tall that his feet normally extended well past the end of average-sized beds.

 

Chapter 2

The night was quiet except for the comforting sounds of the men on watch. Then a new sound filtered into the room: the sound of a crowing cock out in the inn yard.

"Gods Below, it can't be dawn already," Stavin grumbled.

Then one of the Guardsmen outside the window pounded on it as he shouted, "Fire!"

A hand immediately started pounding on the other window and the call was repeated. "Fire! Prince Stavin, Major Kel'Carin, fire! The inn's on fire!"

Stavin and Karvik both rolled out of bed and armored up, then grabbed their weapons. Karvik had inherited his father's sword, but Stavin was armed with his own Dragon's Tongue.

"Behind me, Stave!" Karvik commanded, and Stavin obeyed. They were both well aware that a fire at a royal inn meant an attack against a royal guest.

Varik and six guardsmen met them in the hall. "The fire is in the front," he reported, "so I have our men clearing a path out the back."

"Good thought Var," Karvik noted, "but Stavin is going out the side. Be ready for an attack at the back of the inn."

"Yes, Sir," Varik replied, then turned away.

"How are we going out the side?" Stavin asked as he looked up at Karvik.

Karvik grinned at his prince and nodded toward the weapon in his hands. "Feel like doing a little carpentry, Stave?" His grin got Stavin laughing, and a moment later the inn had acquired a new side door.

Stavin led the way and dropped to a crouch in a shadow as soon as his feet touched the ground. Karvik was only a heart-beat behind him. Once they were both ready, Karvik led the way toward the back of the inn.

Varik and all thirty-two of the guardsmen were in a standing battle against a large number of men. Stavin immediately started forward, but Karvik held him back. "No, Stave. They don't need us."

A blinding flash of light sent five guardsmen flying, and Stavin growled, "Yes they do," as he started forward at a dead run toward the spot the magebolt had come from. Another magebolt met him as soon as he broke cover, but if the attackers thought he would be vulnerable to a surprise attack, they were sorely disappointed.

Stavin hit the mage first, taking his head off with a sweep that ended in the chest of another man. His bottom blade arched up to gut a third man, then Karvik killed the fourth with a sword-stroke that nearly beheaded him.

Stavin and Karvik turned toward the main fight, but the attackers had fled as soon as the mage fell. Karvik shouted, "Lieutenant Kel'Horval, report!"

Varik walked over with his sword still in his hand. "Sir, we were attacked as soon as we came out of the inn. I'd guess there were about fifty of them, but they weren't warriors."

Stavin looked at Varik's sword and asked, "How many, Var?"

Varik's mouth twisted into a sour grimace. "Just two, Stave. I'm never going to earn a star."

Stavin shared an amused grin with Karvik. Because of the Kel'Kavin traditions, the Evandian Royal Guard had added stars and stripes to their uniforms. Varik only wore one red stripe and four white on his left shoulder to supplement the lieutenant's insignia on his breast.

"That's ten kills, Var. One more and you get your second red stripe," Karvik pointed out as he slapped Varik's shoulder.

Varik shook his head sadly. "Six expeditions and not even two red stripes," he said with a groan.

Stavin and Karvik both laughed and headed toward where the rest of the Royal Guardsmen had gathered. Karvik looked at his men and said, "Report."

Sergeant Zel'Fordan snapped to attention and said, "Two wounded, no dead, Sir. Nineteen enemy dead and five wounded."

"Add four more to your count of enemy dead, Sergeant. Who is wounded?"

"Private Zel'Freedan took a sword-stroke to his forearm that broke through his mail, and Private Kel'Chamlin got his head dented by a mace, but it doesn't seem too bad."

"Very well," Karvik replied. "Take our wounded to the side while we question the attackers." Karvik turned toward where his men were holding swords ready around five recumbent figures.

The men were dirty, unkempt, and wearing patched-together armor that didn't cover any of them adequately. Karvik's piercing glare lingered on each of them for a moment before settling on the man in the middle. "What did you think to accomplish by attacking Prince Stavin?" he asked.

"T'were Master Cardik's idea, Lord. He said we could get ten-thousand gold crowns ransom fer him."

Karvik shook his head. "Haven't you heard that Prince Stavin is immune to magic?"

"We has. Everyone has. But Master Cardik said he's been blessed by Lebawan and could get past his armor."

Karvik turned toward his prince as Stavin growled in anger. "The priests of Lebawan again."

Stavin looked past Karvik and his golden eyes seemed to glow with anger as he growled, "Lady Sahren is my patron, and She is more than a match for the upstart Lebawan."

All of the men on the ground looked shocked and more than a little frightened by Stavin's comment. The one in the middle spoke in a nearly inaudible whisper as he said, "Lord Lebawan is above all the Gods."

Stavin struck downward with his Dragon's Tongue, piercing the man's heart with a lightning-quick thrust. "No, he isn't," was all he said as the man gasped out his dying breath. Stavin looked at the others, but a shout from behind him made him turn and come to the ready again as the Royal Guardsmen around him braced for another attack.

"Stand where you are and drop your weapons by order of the City Guard!" No one moved. "You heard me!" the man shouted again. "Drop your weapons now!"

Karvik looked the man in the eye as he said, "The Evandian Royal Guards do not drop their weapons for anyone."

The four-man team of City Guardsmen paused for a moment, then came forward cautiously. "You're the Evandians? Why did you set fire to the inn?" the leader asked.

Karvik tilted his head to the side and said, "We didn't." He pointed toward where the mage and others were laying. "They did."

The guardsman walked over and examined the bodies, then stood and backed away. "You've killed the Priests of Lebawan."

"Not for the first time," Stavin commented as he stepped forward. "Lebawan's priests have attacked me before. They seem to think they can take me and use me to claim Evandia for the Cutter and his followers. So far the only things they've claimed are graves. None of them can defeat the protections of my armor."

The leader of the guardsmen stepped towards Stavin with his sword drawn and demanded, "Who are you to dare--?"

Karvik cut him off. "You are addressing His Royal Highness, Dragon Blessed Senior Warmaster Prince Stavin Markan Karvan Do'Kalin Ne'Aniston Zel'Andral of Evandia. You will show him the proper respect, or you'll face me to atone for your insult."

The guards were saved from having to answer by the arrival of the innkeeper and a dozen others. "Prince Stavin! Oh, thank the Gods Above you're safe. You are safe, aren't you? I've already sent for a Healer."

The innkeeper's eyes fell on the City Guardsmen and his demeanor changed. "There you are!" he shouted as his arms rose. "You were supposed to be on watch to protect Prince Stavin and see to it that nothing happened. Look at my inn! It's burned half to the ground. Someone cancelled the anti-fire spells!" The guardsman tried to answer, but the innkeeper had already turned back to Stavin.

"Your Highness, please forgive us. There has been some unrest of late and--"

"It was the priests of Lebawan, again," Stavin interrupted.

"The Cutter's Priests? Why would they burn the inn?"

"Because they want Evandia and think taking me will get it for them."

The innkeeper looked at Stavin with wide eyes, then glared at the guardsmen. "Lady Mayor Zel'Tessel will hear of this. She doesn't follow the Cutter any more than I do. Those four will pay for this with their lives even if they have convinced some of you fools to follow their teachings."

"They already have," Karvik said with a slight smile. "The Evandian Royal Guards do not take kindly to being attacked."

"But, the mage--"

"Wasn't very powerful," Stavin said. "Probably just a Journeyman masquerading as a Master."

More people were swarming around the inn and suddenly the flames vanished. Everyone fell silent in the darkness until a few moments later when torches were lit. People started talking again, discussing the events of the morning, but were silenced again moments later. A woman's voice shouting commands heralded the arrival of the mayor.

"Prince Stavin! Prince Stavin, are you here?" she shouted, and Stavin moved to where he could see her and be seen. "Prince Stavin, thank the Gods Above you're safe! I heard a call for a Healer and feared the worst."

Stavin bowed his head slightly. "Yes, Lady Mayor, I'm fine. Several of my Guardsmen were injured, however, and need assistance."

The mayor bowed deeply to Stavin, then turned on her guardsmen. "I want whoever is responsible for this caught and brought before me. You don't go off-duty until they are in chains."

All four of the guardsmen bowed, then the leader said, "Lady Mayor, it was Lord Corin-"

"Lord Corin!" the mayor shouted. "Since when is a Del'Horse accorded the title of lord?!" she all but screamed.

"Lady Mayor, he was the High Priest of--"

"He is a deluded fool!" the mayor snapped, then paused and asked, "What do you mean 'was' High Priest?"

The guardsman looked past her toward Stavin. "The Evandians murdered him."

The mayor looked over her shoulder at Stavin and shook her head. "No. Anyone attacking Prince Stavin is committing suicide. That's been a well-known truism for several years now. Only someone foolish enough to follow Lebawan's teachings would be fool enough to think otherwise."

"Lady Mayor!" the guardsman began, but she cut him off.

"Silence!" the mayor shouted. "Corin Del'Horse was a failure at everything he ever tried to do. Now he's turned to religion and he's proven himself a failure there as well. Take the bodies to his shanty temple. You and any of his other followers who care to do an honest day's work can bury him." The mayor dismissed him with a backhanded gesture normally reserved for the most menial of servants.

Stavin had watched the exchange, and now stepped forward. "Lady Mayor, we will be leaving for Aniston as soon as my men can be safely moved."

A panicked expression crossed the mayor's face as she said, "Prince Stavin, please don't let this incident--"

Stavin held up his hand to stop her. "Mayor Zel'Tessel, this incident could have cost some of my men their lives. I intend to return, but you have some house-cleaning to do. I will not stay where Lebawan's followers flourish." With that he turned away, leaving the mayor sputtering behind him.

Stavin joined Karvik where their men were being tended. "How bad?"

"They should be fit to travel once the Healer is done. He's just a Journeyman, but he seems to know what he's doing."

"Damn Lebawan and all of his followers to Eshokanal's Hell," Stavin cursed. "We're not staying. As soon as we can we're going to Aniston. I told the mayor that we'll be back, but I'm not committed to it. If Lebawan's followers are flourishing here, then I want to avoid them."

Karvik bowed his head slightly. "As you wish, and I agree completely. I don't feel good about how quickly this attack happened. This was arranged well in advance of our arrival."

Stavin glared around them and said, "Agreed," in an intense tone. "At first light we buy a wagon and go. We'll take the wounded to Aniston this morning."

Karvik nodded and signaled Varik to his side. "Lieutenant Kel'Horval, have our men prepare to leave. One team at a time, Var. I want the other two teams on watch."

Varik snapped to attention and said, "Yes, Sir," then turned and started giving the men their orders.

The innkeeper had crept closer and said, "Prince Stavin, please--"

Karvik rounded on the man with his sword half-drawn. "Stay back, you fool!"

The innkeeper took two involuntary steps back, but stopped and again pleaded, "Prince Stavin, please don't--"

"No," Stavin snapped as he turned toward the man. "We are leaving as soon as we can arrange a way to transport our wounded men. Our return will depend on how well your mayor and council clean out the vermin that have infested this city."

The innkeeper backed away with a pained expression on his face. He kept backing all the way to the mayor's side. They had a brief discussion, then the mayor turned and stomped away while the innkeeper turned back toward his smoldering inn.

It was less than a span later that Varik and his men led all of the horses around behind the inn. "We've cleared out everything from the inn, Sir, and are ready to move on your command."

"Well done, Var," Stavin said as he stepped forward. "Give me Tru." He held out his hand and Varik handed over Tru's reins. Stavin gentled her nerves by stroking her nose and speaking softly to her.

"It's all right, Tru. We're getting away from the smoke right away. There's no fire for you to worry about." Tru tossed her head when Stavin checked her tack, but that was all the protest she made.

Stavin mounted and all of the guardsmen who could joined him. Each of the wounded was being carried on a stretcher by four of their comrades. They walked in a single file, and the mounted men rode on either side of them with swords drawn, forming a wall of flesh and steel between their friends and the rest of the world.

Stavin led them up the main road to a different inn and sent Sergeant Zel'Fordan and his team inside. The wounded were carefully laid out on the porch.

"We all eat out here. One team at a time eats, then takes the watch. Kar, once you've eaten, find us a wainwright. I don't care if you have to wake him up. Here." Stavin tossed his personal pouch to Karvik. "You know what we need. Take your whole team with you." He paused to look at the porch. "We'll rearrange the teams later."

Karvik nodded as he tucked the pouch away. "I'd feel better if you were inside rather than exposed out here, Stave."

Stavin shook his head as he looked around. "I won't be trapped again, Kar. Our men can protect me out here just as well as in there. Varik will see to it that nothing happens to me. Go get us a good wagon."

* * *

Karvik took Stavin's purse and the ten men of his team and headed up the road once they had finished eating. He'd noticed a communal stable with a number of new and old wagons beside it on their ride into the city.

It took kicking the door repeatedly to get an answer. "Gods Below take your miserable souls!" a man's voice shouted as the bolt shot back with a loud "Clack!" The door whipped open to reveal a man in a nightshirt with a large hammer in one hand and a candle-lamp in the other. "What in the name of--"

"Be silent!" Karvik snapped.

"Who are you to--?"

"I am Major Karvik Kel'Carin of the Evandian Royal Guard. Be silent or be silenced." All ten of his men glared at the suddenly speechless man. "Are you the wainwright?"

"I-I am, Lord," the man stammered as he looked at the warriors in front of him.

"We are in need of a good cargo wagon and a team to pull it."

The wainwright was blinking rapidly as he gathered his wits. "How large a wagon are you in need of, Lord?"

"Something about ten cubits long, and wide enough to hold two litters," Karvik answered, "but light enough to only need two mules."

The wainwright looked at the Royal Guardsmen, then back into Karvik's eyes. "For a wagon and mules such as you describe, twenty gold crowns."

Karvik's eyes narrowed. "Don't try my patience. We've already killed twenty-three men this night."

"You've killed--?" the wainwright asked, suddenly looking truly frightened.

"The wagon," Karvik snapped. "I'll give you fifteen gold, and not a spark more."

The wainwright bowed his acceptance and gestured toward the stable. It was under two spans later that he led a brace of mules pulling a ten by five-cubit wagon to Karvik's side. "Fifteen gold, you said?"

Karvik counted the gold out into the wainwright's waiting hand. "As agreed," he said, then climbed aboard to drive the wagon himself.

Stavin and the rest of their men were waiting outside the inn. "Looks good. Load our men carefully." The guardsmen obeyed immediately and the litters were slid into the wagon, along with all of the wounded men's gear.

Karvik said, "Tie their horses to the back," as Stavin and the rest mounted their horses.

Varik and his team took the lead. At the edge of the city they were met by the mayor. "Prince Stavin, please don't go," she begged.

"Lady Mayor, I haven't decided if I will return or just continue on from Aniston. In either case, I think it would be wise for you to take a close look at the followers of Lebawan. This attack was obviously arranged well in advance of our arrival, and could have had a much worse ending. If I had been injured or killed, Reynadia would now be at war with Evandia, and probably Coravia as well."

The mayor and the people behind her bowed deeply as Stavin passed, but Stavin thought it was probably just to hide their expressions. He'd twisted the knife in the mayor's guts pretty hard.

 

Chapter 3

Once they were clear of the city, Stavin drifted back to ride beside the wagon. "Lady Sahrana said it was twelve spans by carriage to Aniston."

"Yes, but her carriage probably travels faster than this wagon, even if I wasn't keeping it slow to avoid jolting our wounded."

"True" Stavin agreed as he looked around. The east was just beginning to brighten.

It took closer to eighteen spans to reach the low stone wall that bordered the city of Aniston. "Gods Above, would you look at that?" Stavin said in a hushed tone.

"I'm looking, but I'm not sure I'm believing," Karvik answered.

Before them was a large, bowl-shaped valley. A city was centered in it, and it was large enough that it could have easily held thirty thousand souls. The valley itself was about one hundred and twenty-five dragons across, nearly as large as Kel'Kavin. The floor of the valley sloped gently toward the center where a lake reflected the sky. On the shore of the lake stood a series of manor houses and temples.

The armed party had been seen and it wasn't long before more than a hundred armed men raced out to confront them with swords bared for action.

"That's far enough!" a middle-aged man shouted. "Whatever you thought to find here, you'll find only steel instead."

Stavin felt like laughing. He dismounted and handed his reins to a guardsman, then walked forward as he removed his helmet. "I am Dragon Blessed Senior Warmaster Prince Stavin Markan Karvan Do'Kalin Ne'Aniston Zel'Andral, Minister of Trade from Evandia. Lady Sahrana invited me to come visit my ancestral home town."

The leader stumbled to a stop and stared at Stavin in disbelief for a moment, then stepped forward--only to stop dead in his tracks when every member of Stavin's royal guard drew their swords. He seemed confused for a moment, then followed Stavin's gaze to the sword he still held in his hand. His hand opened to let the sword fall to the road.

"Prince Stavin," the leader said as he again stepped forward, "I am Lovan Davar Kel'Aniston, Captain of the Aniston Guard. Welcome home, Cousin." He bowed deeply as the men behind him sheathed their swords and went to one knee.

Stavin smiled as he stepped forward and said, "I'm pleased to meet you, Cousin," then extended his hand.

Lovan looked confused for an instant, then clasped forearms with Stavin. He glanced behind Stavin to the guardsmen and asked, "Can you get them to sheath their swords?"

Stavin glanced back. "Lieutenant Kel'Horval?" he asked without elaboration.

Varik took the unspoken order and snapped, "At ease, men." All thirty of the mounted guardsmen obeyed, sheathing their swords.

"Thank you, Prince Stavin. Lady Sahrana told us that you would be visiting, Your Highness, but we didn't expect you so soon."

Stavin nodded and motioned toward the city. "We had planned on coming out after our business in Zel'Kassel was completed, but we ran into a little trouble early this morning." He went on to describe the attack and subsequent events as they walked. "Our wounded men are in the wagon."

Captain Kel'Aniston looked to the side and snapped, "Corporal Elandar, fetch Healer Morval and meet us at the estate." One of the men bowed slightly, then took off at a dead run. "Morval is an Adept Healer-mage, Prince Stavin. He should be able to get your men back on their feet in no time."

Stavin bowed his head and said, "Thank you, Cousin."

The walk to the Zel'Aniston Estate took them through the entire city. At some time in the past the city had been laid out in a series of concentric circles. Five main roads led straight through from the edge of the city to the center circle like spokes on a wagon wheel, and shorter roads connected the outer circles to each other.

The identity of the visitors had spread with a speed that only the juiciest gossip could attain, and people could be seen running to line the road.

Varik chuckled, "Here we go again, Stave," loud enough for Stavin and Captain Lovan to hear. The captain turned to glare at Varik, but Stavin only grinned.

"Lieutenant Kel'Horval is my brother-in-law." Turning toward Varik, he said, "Best behavior, Var, or I'll tell your sister."

Varik bowed in the saddle and said, "Yes, Dragon Blessed Senior Warmaster Prince Stavin Markan Karvan Do'Kalin Ne'Aniston Zel'Andral."

Stavin shook his head in mock-despair. "Your men aren't going to appreciate being on night-guard for the rest of this trip."

The men around Varik glared at him until he said, "My deepest and most sincere apologies, Prince Stavin."

"Accepted," Stavin replied as he faced forward again. "Varik is the second in command of my guardsmen. Major Karvik Kel'Carin is driving the wagon."

The captain looked over his shoulder again. "You have your most senior man driving the supply wagon, Prince Stavin?"

"His choice. The only things in that wagon are our wounded men and their gear. We purchased it for that purpose this morning on our way out of Zel'Kassel."

As soon as they reached the crowd the people of Aniston welcomed their famous relation. Conversation became impossible as shouts, screams, and cheers echoed off the buildings. Stavin waved to both sides of the road as the Aniston Guardsmen formed a protective line of men two-deep on each side of them.

Varik ordered his men forward, but Stavin held up his hand to stop them. He shouted, "Let them see me!" with his mouth just a hand-span from Varik's ear. "No one would dare try anything against me here."

Varik frowned but finally nodded and fell back with his men. The route they took through the city led all the way down to the lake and around the other side. The estate of Sahrana Zel'Aniston was easy to recognize: it was the one with more than a hundred over-dressed people in front of it.

Lady Sahrana came forward directly to Stavin. "Welcome, Prince Stavin," she shouted as the cheers continued. "Where are your wounded men?"

"In the wagon," Stavin shouted back.

Lady Sahrana turned and pointed at a man in healer's robes, then at the wagon. He and six others hurried forward and climbed into the wagon. One of them spoke to Karvik and the wagon turned toward the gate as Aniston Guardsmen cleared a path.

Lady Sahrana raised both arms above her head with her hands splayed and the crowd quieted to some extent. "People of Aniston," she shouted, "behave yourselves!" There was some laughter at her choice of words, but the crowd settled down.

"As you've noticed, Prince Stavin of Evandia has graced us with his presence. Though he is distantly related to many of us, keep in mind that he is a prince of Evandia's Zel'Andral Dynasty. That means mind your manners!" The crowd laughed again as she turned toward Stavin.

"Prince Stavin, how long will you be staying with us?" she asked in a normal tone of voice, and the crowd quieted so they could hear the answer.

"I had originally planned on ten days in Zel'Kassel and two here, but the incident this morning has made me reconsider. If you'll have us, I would prefer to just stay here for the whole time."

There was a spontaneous cheer from those who were close enough to hear his answer, and the news spread through the crowd quickly. Lady Sahrana bowed slightly and said, "You and your men are welcome here as long as you wish to stay, Prince Stavin, and I would be pleased to be your hostess. The estate can easily accommodate all of you."

Stavin bowed his acceptance and Lady Sahrana led him through the gate. The Zel'Aniston estate, like many that had survived from imperial times, had once been the whole town.

"Aniston was founded in the twentieth year of Emperor Yantel Zel'Ordal," Lady Sahrana said as they walked. "Our ancestor Anis Kel'Halin was a hero of Lux, and was granted this entire valley for his service to the emperor. The truth of the matter is lost to time, but the legend says he saved the emperor's daughter from an Ocellen. The emperor elevated him to Chosen status and this became Anis's Town, and he was allowed to change his name to Zel'Aniston. Though we have a good sampling of other families, Zel'Anistons, Kel'Anistons, Fel'Anistons, Bel'Anistons, and Del'Anistons make up more than half of the population."

"If I remember right, that makes Aniston more than twenty-two hundred years old," Stavin said as he looked around.

"Twenty-two hundred seventy-three on the last anniversary," Lady Sahrana confirmed with a smile. "We predate Zel'Kassel by about sixteen hundred years."

Stavin said, "Gods Above," in an awestruck whisper as he looked around.

"Indeed, Prince Stavin, and it is the Gods Above who we worship here. I'm sure you noticed the layout of the city: Five sectors and main roads named to honor the Gods Above." She paused as Stavin considered her statement.

When Stavin looked at her, she continued. "While Reynadia officially recognizes the worship of both Lady Sahren and Lord Lebawan, we of Aniston only worship the Elder Gods Above." She shrugged and smiled slightly. "With an occasional nod to Lady Sahren. Lebawan's followers are banned. It seems that one of the Cutter's priests tried to condemn the only daughter of one of my ancestors and claim Aniston for Lebawan and his followers. The girl had a wine-stain birthmark on her face. Lord Alvar Zel'Aniston beheaded the priest and all of his followers with his own hand and tossed their dismembered bodies into the dung heap behind our stables. He made it a law that the same thing should happen to any of Lebawan's followers who try and set up here."

Stavin was nodding with a smirk on his face. "I like it. Short, sweet, and direct."

"It's only been enforced once in the six hundred and some years since then. Once word made it back to Rey that we meant it, they gave up on us. The Priests of the Cutter like condemning others, not being condemned themselves."

Stavin nodded. "Lebawan's priests have been a thorn in my foot for several years. They seem to think they can take Evandia for Lebawan by taking me. Last night was just the latest in a long string of attacks."

Lady Sahrana looked sideways at him. "After what happened in Coravia, I'm surprised they haven't given up. Exactly what happened last night, Prince Stavin?" she asked. "I was informed that you had been attacked, but not who did it."

Stavin shook his head. "Some fool of a priest named Del'Horse--"

"That arrogant ass!" Lady Sahrana snarled. "Sovana has to do something about him now."

Stavin laughed, startling her. "Yes, bury him. He thought his mage could overcome the dragon-magic of my armor. If a Black Adept of Eshokanal--" Stavin's voice failed as the light around them intensified to a blinding intensity.

"Let the Light of Arandar the Bright shield you from evil," Lady Sahrana intoned, "and let the love of the Gods Above fill your soul." Lady Sahrana turned toward Stavin as the light faded. "Never speak the name of any of the Gods Below, young man, and especially not that one," she scolded.

Stavin was still gulping in fear as he said, "That's never happened before," in a husky voice that trembled like his shaking hands.

Lady Sahrana seemed to loom over Stavin. "We actively worship the Gods Above here, Prince Stavin. We do not name the Gods Below. However, for Arandar's Light to have reacted to you like that, there has to have been something more."

Varik and his team came running up to Stavin's side and Varik demanded, "What was that!?"

"It's all right, Var. You'd think by now I'd have learned to watch my mouth." Stavin turned and bowed deeply to Lady Sahrana. "My apologies, Lady Sahrana. My encounter with the priests of the Evilest One is not common knowledge."

"I have not heard of it, and I've made quite a study of you. Given the reaction you just provoked, I think a visit to Arandar's Temple and His high priest might be in order." She fixed Stavin with a look that reminded him of Grandma Elissa's glare when he'd been misbehaving in the nursery.

Stavin bowed deeply and said, "Yes, Lady Sahrana."

Lady Sahrana regained her composure with a visible effort. "My apologies, Prince Stavin. Please tell me of your encounter with the Evilest One's priests."

Stavin thought for a moment, then began. "During my second expedition, we stopped in a small village called Ormund. We had no idea that a priest of the Evilest One had taken over the town and made himself the mayor. All we knew was that the people were quiet and depressed. Late our second night I was on guard and felt a massive wave of fatigue wash over me. I was able to shake it off and continue on patrol, but in a few moments, I realized that the other three night guards were down. Then I saw four men in black robes." He paused and wet his lips before continuing. "I listened in and when they said they were going to kill us all, I attacked."

Stavin was calmer now and shrugged one shoulder. "The leader hit me with several mage-bolts, but all they did was slow me down a little. When they were all dead, and I made sure by stabbing all four through the heart and beheading them, I went and woke everyone up. The only thing that worked was splashing water in their faces." He grinned up at her. "Everyone was pretty upset with me until they found out why."

Lady Sahrana smiled as she said, "I imagine they were. Please continue."

"We found four amulets with the evilest one's glyph on them. They were so old and powerful that even wrapped in leather and buried in a cask of salt, they were still able to feed off me and the mule."

Stavin shook his head sadly. "In Pahlovad, Adept Sharindis used Arandar's Light to cleanse the amulets," Stavin paused and whispered the rest, "and then demanded I kill her as payment. She had cast a spell for eternal life upon herself. She was over two hundred years old, and couldn't die even though time had ravaged her body." He took another long shuddering breath as he studied the floor.

"At the end of the season I had the amulets melted and remade into amulets for my family."

Lady Sahrana was silent for a few moments before saying, "You must be a truly extraordinary young man, Prince Stavin, above and beyond everything else I've heard about you. That you survived at all is amazing. The Elder Gods can swat aside the magic of a dragon without any effort. That you suffered such contact and weren't taken over is almost beyond belief."

Stavin nodded. "I had a lot of nightmares during that time. Dreams of conquest. Dreams of a new empire. Dreams of sacrificing to them. It was horrible, and I spent half of each day in a daze of exhaustion. My mule and I also lost a lot of weight," he said with a grin, "but we recovered once the amulets were neutralized."

Lady Sahrana had been nodding slowly as Stavin spoke. "You truly are an extraordinary young man, Prince Stavin. What you just described is why Arandar reacted to you as He did. The Evilest One touched you and left some taint on your soul."

Stavin was quiet for a moment, then his gaze fell to the floor again as he whispered, "I was afraid of that."

Lady Sahrana chuckled, startling him into looking up at her again. "If you weren't afraid of it, it would have consumed you. If, for even one instant, you had welcomed the images in your dreams, you would have been lost, dragon-scale armor and all." She looked him in the eye again. "If you had been taken by Him, what do you think would have happened when you took up the Sword of Zel'Hallan?"

Stavin was looking at the floor once again as he whispered, "I never would have let it go."

Lady Sahrana's smile turned tender as she put a finger under his chin so she could look Stavin in the eye. "I have read your own account of the events leading up to the last time you took up the Sword of Zel'Hallan and received those golden eyes. That you were able and willing to send the sword away is no less remarkable than resisting the Evilest One."

A butler led Karvik into the room. He gave Stavin a critical look and asked, "Are you all right, Prince Stavin?"

"Yes, Kar, I'm fine. I just said the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place."

"Imagine that," Karvik commented sourly.

Lady Sahrana glared at Karvik and snapped, "You should remember your place."

Stavin grinned as he stepped between them. "Lady Sahrana, this is Major Karvik Kel'Carin. He's been putting up with me and my antics since our last year in the academy. Most of the stories about me are about him as well. He missed earning his first star on our first expedition by just three kills. He was also at my side, supporting me as much as he could, while I carried those amulets."

Lady Sahrana's eyes had widened as Stavin spoke, and she addressed Karvik in a much more controlled tone when she said, "So you're the one."

"Lady?" Karvik asked as his head tilted to the side.

"Alric to his Delvan. Landar to his Beldak. In every story of our historical heroes, the true ones at least, there has been someone at his back. One true friend who is always there for him. I had wondered who Prince Stavin's second was."

"He saved my life more than once, including the first fight we were in."

"And you saved mine just as many times," Karvik replied with a grin.

"We can discuss this later, and please rest assured that we will," Lady Sahrana said as the two friends grinned. "For now, let me get you settled. I didn't see any servants, so I'll have Aran tend to you." She motioned to the butler who had escorted Karvik.

Stavin nodded to Aran and then turned to Lady Sahrana and bowed. "I thank you for your hospitality, Lady Sahrana. Major Kel'Carin will be posting his men on guard eleven at a time, and I beg your indulgence in this matter." He grimaced slightly. "King Kalin delivered those orders personally, and I can't countermand them."

Lady Sahrana actually chuckled. "I understand, Prince Stavin. I've had royal guests before."

Stavin bowed again, then follow Aran out of the room and up several flights of stairs. On the manor house's third floor Aran led him to a door guarded by two Aniston guardsmen, and four servants.

Once they had entered the room, Aran turned and bowed to Stavin again. "Prince Stavin, please allow me to introduce my staff. Valet Alan, Valet Orden, apprentice Valet Maldar, and apprentice Valet Dorvan, all of one branch or another of house Fel'Aniston."

Stavin bowed his head slightly. "I really don't have that much for you to do," he said as he looked at them. "My traveling wardrobe consists of just three shirts and pants that I have been mixing and matching."

Stavin looked at Karvik and said, "Major Kel'Carin, take one of the apprentices to retrieve my saddle bags and lead the guards back up here." Karvik bowed and tapped Dorvan on the shoulder as he left.

Stavin smiled and said, "Butler Aran, I didn't mention it to Lady Sahrana, but my men are going to need quarters for the duration of our stay, and I would like to know the status of my wounded men. Will you see to that for me?"

Aran bowed deeply and said, "At once, Prince Stavin," then left.

Stavin turned to the valets and said, "I guess the first order of business is going to be a bath. Lady Sahrana didn't say anything, but she only came near me once after we came inside."

The two valets exchanged a glance, then Orden said, "As you wish, Prince Stavin. Mal, draw a bath. It is my understanding that Prince Stavin prefers very hot baths." He glanced at Stavin and received a nod of approval. Maldar didn't need any further instructions and left immediately.

Valet Alan had stepped forward and said, "Let us help you with your armor, Prince Stavin."

Stavin nodded and stood with his arms slightly raised. Valet Orden joined in and the two of them quickly stripped him to the skin. Orden paused at one point and caressed one of Stavin's thigh-guards. He flushed with embarrassment when he saw Stavin watching him, but Stavin just smiled.

"Don't be embarrassed, Valet Orden. I've had people beg me for the honor of touching this armor."

Valet Orden bowed deeply before replying. "It is indeed an honor, Prince Stavin. This is truly an honor. Your forgiveness," he murmured as he wiped his eyes. "I never thought to be granted such an honor in my lifetime."

Stavin smiled at the valet's reaction. "I've never denied anyone who asked, though in truth few have. My valet back in Twin Bridges is just glad he doesn't have to clean it." Both Alan and Orden looked at him curiously, so he explained. "Nothing will stick to it, not even pine sap." He picked up his arm guard. "That's why my honors are painted on this. The paint won't stick either. About the only thing that needs to be cleaned is the under padding, but a quick rinse in hot water usually does the trick." Apprentice Maldar opened the door to the bathing room just then, and Stavin headed toward him. Both valets followed close on his heels. Stavin sighed, but didn't try to keep the men from doing their jobs as the valets bathed him.

 

Chapter 4

Stavin was clean and the valets were discussing which hair style would be most flattering when Karvik returned with Dorvan.

Stavin asked, "Which team did you bring?"

"Mine," Karvik answered. "That Healer Adept is good. Everyone is completely fit for duty."

"Good. Dorvan, Maldar, tend to Major Kel'Carin's bath and hair while Orden and Alan finished mine."

All four of the valets looked at Stavin, then Alan said, "As you command, Prince Stavin."

Karvik gave Stavin and arch look, then allowed the servants to help him out of his armor. Stavin grinned as he listened, then led Orden and Alan out into the main suite. Aran met them there.

"We were just about to trim Prince Stavin's hair," Orden said as he bowed to his master.

"I will see to that. You see to his boots and Alan, you see to his wardrobe." Both men bowed and turned to follow his instructions. Turning back toward Stavin, Aran bowed. "Quarters have been arranged for your escort, Prince Stavin. If you will sit here," he said as he placed his hands on the back of a chair, "I will see to your hair. It doesn't look like you need more than a quick trim, Your Highness."

Stavin nodded as he sat. "Prince Farkal's butler gave me a touch-up before we left Lux." Aran considered that for a moment, then began trimming Stavin's hair. "Who do you normally serve, Aran?" Stavin asked.

"I was Lord Alankarah's butler until he died two winters ago. Since then Lady Sahrana has had me training butlers and valets for her grandsons. Alan and Orden are ready to be promoted to butler, but Mal and Dor have another year or so before they will be ready to be promoted to full valet." Aran had been trimming as he spoke and now he moved around Stavin one more time, inspecting him carefully. "Yes, I think that will do."

Stavin was already dressed by the time Karvik emerged from the bathing room. Stavin looked at him and asked, "Did you bring your clothes up?" Karvik nodded yes, so Stavin continued. "Dress uniform for you then. I got the impression that Lady Sahrana has something planned for us." Stavin looked at Aran and grinned as he asked, "I'm right, aren't I?"

Aran bowed and replied, "Lady Sahrana indicated that she might be inviting a few members of Clan Zel'Aniston to come visit tonight, Prince Stavin."

Ten spans later Stavin was being led through a receiving line that held every member of Clan Zel'Aniston who resided close enough to attend. Fully two hundred and thirty men, women, and children were there, and it was fortunate that the weather was warm. The estate garden was completely filled with people, and the walls were lined with servants.

The first person Lady Sahrana introduced Stavin to was her heir. "Prince Stavin, please allow me to introduce my son, Arandar." A man of about fifty bowed.

Stavin bowed in return. "Lord Arandar, I am pleased to meet you."

Lord Arandar smiled as he said, "I am honored to meet you, Prince Stavin. Please allow me to introduce my daughter and heir, Mariniva."

A tall woman with an ageless face stepped forward and bowed. She looked like a younger version of Lady Sahrana, with flaming auburn hair and bright green eyes.

"Prince Stavin," she said as she looked down into his eyes, "it is--Arandar be blessed." She paused and stepped back as her hand came up to her mouth. She seemed to be fighting down some reaction, then spoke again. "Forgive me, Prince Stavin. I've heard about your eyes, of course, but actually seeing them is quite a shock."

Stavin smiled and bowed his head slightly. "I understand, Lady Mariniva. It took nearly a year before I stopped being surprised when I looked in a mirror."

Turning to look at Lady Sahrana, Stavin asked, "Do you name all of your children for the Gods Above?"

Lady Sahrana laughed. "Only the first born, Prince Stavin. That's confusing enough, but it's been our family tradition for almost as long as the family has existed. Given our family's fertility we'd run out of names very quickly."

Stavin smiled and bowed his head slightly, then turned back to Lady Mariniva. "Please forgive the interruption, Lady Mariniva. My adopted big sister, Marina, and my mother, Marinis, share your name in slightly different forms."

"Indeed," her father said. "If you wouldn't mind, I'm curious about who you were named after, if I'm not being too rude by asking."

Stavin considered his answer carefully. "I am the third warrior in the Kel'Aniston line to bear the name Stavin. Warleader First Stavin Kaldar Kel'Aniston gave his life during the sixth year after the revolt in Farindia. Colonel Stavin Dashan Kel'Aniston commanded a battalion of Farindian Royal Guards after the Empire fell." Stavin paused to give Lady Sahrana a lopsided grin. "I don't know if it's true, but the legend is that he was named for a place, not a person. The Broken Stave Inn, or Stave Inn, was supposedly where his parents met. He was their thirteenth child."

Lady Sahrana tittered while both Lord Arandar and Lady Mariniva laughed loudly. Lady Mariniva was smiling broadly at her grandmother as she asked, "Sounds like our family doesn't it, Nana?"

"Indeed," Lady Sahrana agreed with a laugh.

Stavin spent the evening meeting Clan Zel'Aniston. He found them to be courteously curious for the most part. There were a few members of the family who got a little aggressive, but Lady Sahrana slapped those individuals down quite thoroughly.

The night passed quickly, and soon the mid night bells were ringing. Lady Sahrana noticed that Stavin was drooping a little and called an end to the festivities.

"Family, friends, and the rest of you scoundrels," she said loudly, "thank you all for joining us in honoring Prince Stavin's visit. Now go to bed!"

There was scattered laughter throughout the garden as the revelers began to disperse. Lady Sahrana turned to Stavin and bowed slightly. "Prince Stavin, I bid you a good night as well. I'm planning a late morning meal, so sleep as long as you wish."

Stavin bowed a little more deeply. "On behalf of all my people, I thank you for your hospitality. Pleasant dreams." With that he turned away and headed toward his rooms. Karvik was, as always, at his side.

"Gods Above, I'm glad that's over," Karvik muttered.

Stavin grunted his agreement. "Nothing like being rousted out of bed before first light and then being kept up past mid night. I was falling asleep standing up toward the end."

"I noticed," Karvik replied through a yawn. "So did Lady Sahrana. I think that's why she sent us to bed."

When they made it up to the suite they found Varik and his team on watch along with Karvik's team. "Major Kel'Carin, we relieve you," Varik said when he saw Karvik.

"We stand relieved," Karvik replied with a sigh. He patted Stavin's shoulder and said, "G'night, Stave. I'm going to the barracks tonight."

Stavin said, "G'night, Kar," and went into the suite.

Aran met him just inside the door. "Let me help you, Prince Stavin." Stavin nodded through another yawn and let Aran help him out of his clothes. The bed was already turned down and Stavin climbed into it with a sigh. The last thing he saw as sleep embraced him was Varik settling into a chair that he had placed in front of the door.

Stavin drifted up out of a deep sleep and a dream of Shari to find Sergeant Zel'Fordan in the chair across the door. "Good morning. How late is it?"

Sergeant Zel'Fordan chuckled. "Halfway to mid day, Prince Stavin."

"Oh, Gods Above." Stavin rolled out of bed and went to the necessary. When he returned, he found Aran and his four assistants waiting.

"What shall we lay out for you Prince Stavin?" Aran asked with a bow.

"The blue shirt and black pants. I think Lady Sahrana is taking me to the temples this morning. Is there anything else I should wear?"

Aran thought for a moment, then examined Stavin's wardrobe. "No, Prince Stavin, that is probably the best choice. Do you carry any amulets?"

"No. I honor Lady Sahren. As far as I know, there aren't any amulets associated with her worship. Is it important?"

Aran let a quick smile cross his face. "No, Prince Stavin. The only importance would be to wear them openly if you did. The Gods Above don't deny the worship of the lesser gods. They just demand that you follow your conscience."

Stavin nodded and started to get dressed. All five of the servants helped, and it only took a few moments before he was ready to go to the morning meal. As Stavin walked toward the door he heard Aran command, "See to the room and Prince Stavin's wardrobe," then he followed Stavin out of the suite.

Sergeant Zel'Fordan and his men formed up around Stavin as he went down the stairs. Stavin followed Aran's directions to an elegant dining room and found Lady Sahrana and her immediate family still at the table. Everyone rose to their feet and bowed as Stavin entered. Stavin stopped and returned the bow deeply before joining them, taking the seat at Lady Sahrana's right hand.

"Did you sleep well, Prince Stavin?" she asked.

Stavin smiled and bowed his head. "Very well, thank you. That bed is as good as I have at home. It's far superior to what I've become accustomed to on this trip."

Lady Mariniva giggled. "That bed was commissioned for cousin Kira." When Stavin gave her a puzzled look, she continued. "Princess Alankira Vorisal Latana Ne'Aniston Zel'Karal of Reynadia."

Stavin's eyebrows rose as he turned to find Lady Sahrana grinning at him. "I told you I've had royal guests before, Prince Stavin. Kira is my little brother Dahlgren's daughter."

Stavin smiled broadly as he bowed his head. "So Clan Zel'Aniston is as well connected here as we are at home. I'll have to discuss it with her when we go to Rey."

Stavin turned toward Aran and said, "I'd like two eggs scrambled, crisp bacon, and fried tubers with onions, please."

Aran bowed and backed away as he said, "At once, Prince Stavin."

Turning back to Lady Sahrana, Stavin bowed his head slightly. "He's very good at his job."

Lady Sahrana bowed her head in acknowledgment of the compliment. "Aran served my late husband for forty years, Prince Stavin. When Alankarah died I tried to pension him out, but Aran very politely but firmly refused. His wife was one of our maids and had died a few years before Alankarah, and he had no one else to turn to. His parents had been servants here as well, and he only had a few distant cousins outside the estate. He now trains our valets and butlers, and only serves the most exalted of our guest."

Lord Arandar caught Stavin's attention. "You can tell the difference between the valets Aran teaches and those taught by others. There is a waiting list to become Aran's apprentice. He only takes on four at a time, adding two when he passes two on to full Butler status."

"And those butlers are highly prized, Prince Stavin," Lady Mariniva said. "A butler trained by Aran Fel'Aniston can fetch as much as a hundred gold crowns."

Stavin held up his hand to stop her. "I'm sorry, but it sounded like you just said you could buy a servant."

Lord Arandar chuckled. "Not buy, Prince Stavin: bribe." He paused and shook his head. "I don't know about Evandia, but here servants are paid and have a choice about who they serve. The payment is usually placed on account with the Gold Merchants to earn interest. Over a forty-year career that sum can triple, letting them retire in comfort."

"Unless, of course, they don't wish to retire," Aran said as he returned with Stavin's morning meal. He placed the plate in front of Stavin and asked, "Would you like tea or kava, Prince Stavin?"

"Kava, please."

As Aran turned away, Lady Mariniva tilted her head to the side and said, "You treat servants far more courteously than even we do, Prince Stavin."

Stavin nodded, then said, "Thank you, Aran," as the butler set a cup of kava on the table. Stavin looked at Lady Mariniva and said, "It's because of my upbringing." He went on to tell the story of how he became the master of the Kel'Carin family, and the difficulties he'd had with it.

"...The idea of telling Sahrena to do something rather than asking her was so foreign to me that I just couldn't do it."

"Kel'Carin?" Lady Sahrana asked. "The major's family?"

"Yes, Lady Sahrana," Stavin confirmed. "Another of the reasons I couldn't just order them around: He was my best friend. It's also why I gave everything back when the council restored Barvil's honor."

Stavin had been eating as he spoke, and Lady Sahrana noticed his empty plate. "Would you care for anything else, Prince Stavin?"

Stavin shook his head. "No, thank you, Lady Sahrana. You have an excellent cook."

Lady Sahrana nodded. "Then I would like to take you to the temples. I'm still disturbed by the reaction to you speaking that unfortunate name." Stavin stood and bowed as Lady Sahrana and her heirs joined him. Lady Sahrana led the way and Stavin spoke to Sergeant Zel'Fordan as he joined them.

"We are going to the temples of the Gods Above. Have everyone who's awake join us."

The sergeant bowed, then pointed at one of his men. That man immediately left while the rest of the team formed up around Stavin's party. They had barely reached the path to the gate before Karvik and his team joined them.

"Good morning, Prince Stavin. Did you sleep well?"

Stavin chuckled. "Like a log, Kar. We're going to the temples and I thought you'd want to join us."

"Absolutely," Karvik agreed. "I thought about waking Var, but he's only been asleep for a few spans."

Stavin nodded. "We'll have to arrange something for his team later. Zahri will never forgive him if he doesn't go to the temples."

Stavin saw the curious looks they were receiving from their hosts and explained. "Varik is my brother-in-law, Shari's is little brother, but he married Karvik's little sister, Zahrinis, so he's Karvik's brother-in-law as well. Zahri has made a study of the Old Gods, Above and Below, as well as the younger gods like Lady Sahren. Varik is going to have to tell her all about the temples. It's a good thing he's a decent artist. He'll have to make detailed sketches of all five temples inside and out."

Lady Sahrana looked at her son and asked, "Don't you have a friend who was studying something like that?"

Lord Arandar nodded slowly. "Yes, Dahnav Zel'Tammal. The last I heard of him, he was teaching at the Royal Reynadian University in Rey." Turning to Stavin, he bowed his head. "I'll provide a letter of introduction, Prince Stavin. Dahn can be difficult about discussing his passion with anyone who isn't one of his peers or students."

The walk to the first temple was fairly short. It was the closest temple to the Zel'Aniston estate. "Prince Stavin," Lady Sahrana said as soon as they reach to the temple grounds, "welcome to the temple of Arandar the Bright."

Stavin walked forward, not noticing that everyone else had fallen back until he heard Karvik say, "Uh-oh, I've seen this before."

"M-Major?" Lady Sahrana asked in a trembling voice.

"That's what he looks like when he picks up the sword of Zel'Hallan--but he's not in his armor this time."

Stavin didn't stop walking. He wasn't sure he could stop. He couldn't even look around when Karvik spoke. Something compelled him to keep going. A man in golden robes embroidered with the Sunburst glyph of Arandar the Bright ran out of the temple and stopped, frozen where he stood as Stavin brushed past.

Stavin entered the temple sanctuary and finally saw the light. Where there had been shadows, the light banished them. Where people had knelt in prayer with their faces in darkness, Stavin saw their faces illuminated and the light reflecting in their eyes.

There was no altar in this temple. At the head of the temple, below a large cut-glass window made in the image of Arandar's sunburst, the glyph of Arandar was laid out in gold inset in granite. There were gasps of surprised outrage when Stavin continued walking to the center of the glyph and went to his knees, but Stavin ignored them.

Stavin knelt and simply waited as he gazed up at the window. He was at peace with his fate, whatever it would be.

Soon he felt a presence, but didn't fear it. Its tremendous power surrounded him, but at the same time he also felt something else: something warm and comforting. From somewhere deep in his mind came the memory: I remember being a small child in the warm, powerful embrace of my father, and I knew I was safe from the world. And that I was loved.

Stavin broke down and cried as something, some ancient pain deep inside, faded. In its place was a feeling of belonging. A feeling of purpose. My entire life, everything I've gone through, all my trials and tribulations, have led up to this moment.

Stavin stood up and wiped his face with his hands, then wiped his nose on his sleeve like a child. He almost chuckled. Mom would smack me in the back of my head if she saw me do that. Then give me a hard time about forgetting a handkerchief. Turning around, he found his hosts and his guardsmen gathered behind him.

Standing slightly in front of the rest with his arms crossed in front of his breastplate, and a look of long-suffering patience on his face was Karvik Kel'Carin.

Karvik was the only one to speak as he asked, "What did you do this time?"

 

 

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Author Bio

Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.

TTB titles: Inadvertent Adventures - SF
Stories of the Confederated Star Systems

Stavin DragonBlessed series

  All that Glitters -- Book 1
  Traders and Traitors -- Book 2
  The Andarian Affair -- Book 3
  Farindian Summer -- Book 4
  The Coravian Conflict -- Book 5
  Gods Above and Below -- Book 6

Author web site.

 

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Gods Above and Below Copyright 2017. Loren K. Jones. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available 2019!
List Price: $19.95 USD

 

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