Here is the first chapter from Whispers of a Storm, in its entirety:-
The two men watched him from the concealment of the alley’s shadows, motionless amidst a dark night’s backdrop of rubbish and broken fencing. The man, their prey, leant against the dark doorway of Mason’s Inn and retched heavily, the alcohol he had consumed at the bar that day apparently keen to find its own way home. Their target was tall and broad-shouldered, a local stonemason of some note in the city of Karick, and his skin as black as the dark night sky. The heavy cloak he wore shrouded his true frame in a vain attempt to ward away the fierce chill in the early summer night air.
Wiping the spittle from his bearded mouth, the stonemason pushed himself leadenly away from the inn’s porch and almost fell out into the street beyond. Fortunately for him, the dry cobbles underfoot steadied his feet and gently nudged him on his way as he stumbled across the quiet street towards the cluttered alley that cut through a row of dark, silent houses, which would save him at least an hour’s worth of swaying and stumbling home. Groaning and trying to focus on his footing, he began weaving his way down the treacherous alley, commonly known by the locals as Cutpurse Way. Mumbling away to the night, he stumbled over an unseen object and began cursing as he passed blindly by the two shadows, who watched him patiently from their hiding place and shared swift hand signals.
Both of the men knew what to do. The stonemason’s name was Khadazin Sahr; he owned a popular workshop in Marble Plaza no more than four streets away and had made a name for himself some years back by saving the life of a well-respected merchant called Savinn Kassaar. The merchant, Savinn Kassaar, had been checking up on his business interests in the south of the city when three men had overpowered his bodyguards and chased after him with knives drawn. Armed only with his masonry hammer, Khadazin had put down two of the assailants and chased away the third before a passing militia patrol had come to his aid. Savinn Kassaar had handsomely rewarded the stonemason for his help and had used his connections and persuasion within the city to buy the workshop for him in the prosperous plaza that the stonemason now called home.
For a week now the two men had watched the stonemason’s movements and traced his familiar journey from his workshop early in the afternoon, to the Mason’s Inn and then back home again via Cutpurse Way, late at night. Their strict orders had come through to them with the warning not to underestimate his strength. Taking heed of this reputation the two would-be assailants moved cautiously after their target, aware that another two of their companions lay in wait further down the alleyway. Their strength would have to come from their numbers.
Oblivious to the two figures creeping after him through the darkness, the tall stonemason stumbled on his way. Unaware of the danger, he lost himself deep within the muddle of events that had haunted him so badly over the past few weeks… He had been so full of pride a month ago when he had received an official looking letter at his workshop from a well-dressed messenger. He had turned the letter over and hesitated, his hand shaking as he noticed the red waxed seal bearing the mark of an eagle in flight, clutching one half of a straight, broken sword in each talon. It was the crest of the noble High Duke Stromn of Karick, voice of the Valian Council and presiding ruler of the Four Vales. Nervously he had broken the wax seal and torn open the letter. His hazel eyes had widened in amazement as he saw the message in beautiful, elegant handwriting. It was from the high duke’s chancellor Relan Valus. Slowly, he read aloud the message, frowning. Somewhere in amongst the lyrical words which only served to confuse him, he comprehended that, out of all of the masonry samples submitted recently to the chancellor’s office, it was his workmanship that had been chosen to carry out some maintenance repairs about the gardens of the high duke’s keep. Wiping his brow, the stonemason read the letter again and again, and it wasn’t until the following morning that the words had finally sunk in. Full of pride, he had paid a local scribe to acknowledge his receipt of the letter and of his joy at having being selected. Allowing the scribe to choose the humble and flattering tone of the letter, he said that he would start work without fail at the required time, four days later. Khadazin left the scribe with a spring in his giant step and cancelled any other jobs that he had been booked to do later that day.
His work had begun four days later as directed and was progressing nicely without any setbacks, other than the distraction of the splendour and majesty of the high duke’s keep. He had even received a congratulatory note from Savinn Kassaar, which left the mason wondering how the merchant knew about his great stroke of good fortune.
On the third day, however, the hottest of the early summer so far, Khadazin had fallen asleep in a secluded corner of the gardens whilst having his lunch. Some hours later he was woken by the sound of voices on the other side of the hedgerows behind him. It was already early evening, the shadows of the blossom trees shading the grounds beginning to lengthen and reach out to cool the garden’s beautiful flowerbeds and marble pathways. The stonemason remained where he was, not wanting to be caught sleeping on the job. If he was discovered, he would have been flogged for his stupidity and laziness. The shame of his incompetence would have left any esteem he held around the city in tatters. But as he listened to the voices close by, fear stirred in his rapidly cramping body; what was he overhearing?
“No, I can assure you, the high duke suspects nothing,” an anxious voice replied in defence to a previously unheard question.
I should not, by the storms, be listening to this! Khadazin had panicked silently.
“He had better not, my friend. We have worked undetected for many years now. Our plans must not fail before we have ever truly begun. Our brother has already managed to distract the Seventh and the fool has obligingly agreed to send his daughter here to attend the Valian Council on his behalf.” Even in hushed tones, the speaker’s abrasive voice was edged with warning and, despite the fear building inside him, the stonemason couldn’t help but strain to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“If our brother’s report is well founded, she will leave within the fortnight,” the second speaker had continued. “This will be our first chance to seize the puppeteer’s strings and the girl must be taken long before she and her entourage arrive.”
Seventh? A girl? Khadazin was trying to piece together the information and make some sense of it.
“And you, I trust, can arrange this?” the first speaker had enquired, unconvinced.
“Of course! We still have a hunting party at our disposal, do we not? We will have our brother suggest that the girl’s party travel a less worn road, where she can easily be taken without drawing the attention of any Valian patrols. Once she is ours, we will be able to influence matters on the northern borders a lot more easily than we can at the moment, will we not?”
There had followed a long, still, heart-rending silence that left the stonemason fearing he had been discovered. He was slowly beginning to move his position to help ease the cramp biting into the muscles of his lower back, when the first speaker started again, tension laced in his words.
“This had better be opportunism and not recklessness that leads us to this course of action. After all, we have many better-placed pieces on our board and we would not wish to risk our queen at such an early stage of the game.”
What is going on here? Khadazin had screamed silently, terror eating away at his thoughts. He screwed his eyes shut, hoping it would help to block their voices out of his mind.
“True,” the other man had mused thoughtfully. “But if we take his daughter now, we can keep her at our disposal until we see fit to use her. We may not get this chance again for a very long time, my friend.”
“Hmm…Yes, you are right. We must act swiftly if we are to catch the girl on her journey here.”
One of the speakers rose and slowly smoothed down his crumpled clothing. Subconsciously, Khadazin had tried to sink lower into the flattened grass beneath him, to avoid being spotted.
“I will contact you in the normal way. Return to your duties brother and think no more on this matter for the time being. Soon all will be as our lord would wish it. I shall talk to him on the stars this very night and set the pendulum in motion.”
“Wait, when will I hear from you?” the first voice had demanded of the now retreating speaker.
“You will.” Had come his cold, assured reply and then all was silent.
For some time the other man had remained, his thoughts trapped deep within the turmoil of his own treachery. Then, with startling abruptness, his footsteps could be heard retreating hurriedly away into the distance, leaving the shadows behind to lengthen out ominously across the silent gardens.
The stonemason had remained flattened into the soft lawn, his heart racing as it beat on the drums of panic in his ears and drowned out the oppressive silence of the gardens beyond his hiding place. His mind had tumbled with a multitude of questions that whispered back at him with a myriad of different answers. Whoever this girl was she was in great danger and her father must have been someone of great importance for these men to go to such lengths to capture her! And what was that about the Valian Council (the annual meeting that took place in the city between the rulers and politicians that governed the Four Vales)? It sounded as if the girl’s father had been coerced into sending her to attend the council in his stead, so that she might be used as some kind of bargaining tool. And who were the two men? Were they from some secret organisation working in the shadows of the high duke’s household, planning dark mischief and strife? They had referred to each other as brother and hinted at other members of this brotherhood! Who were they? And what were their goals? Khadazin had no answer to his maelstrom of questions and above his rising panic, the only things to be heard in the gardens that evening had been the loud thump of his terrified heart and the distant calls of the birds, as they sang their farewells to the glorious day.
Breathing deeply, the stonemason had sat up, sweat drenching his body and running in rivulets down his furrowed brow. Shaking, and bemoaning his sudden change of fortune, he pounded his fists on the grass and, drawing his knees up to his chest, he buried his head in his hands.
He had stayed hidden for at least another hour before pulling himself up from the dampened grass; leaving his large frame imprinted in the well-tended lawn beneath him. By this time the last feeble rays of the sun had slowly begun to dry the fear from his clothing and, eager to be away from the keep, he had gathered up his tools and hurried from the gardens as innocuously as his fear would allow him. He was hurrying across one of the many courtyards of the old keep, and nearing the guarded gatehouse, when a voice from behind had called him to a stop. A man was striding purposefully towards him, his elegant velvet blue robes dancing over the cobbled courtyard. The nobleman’s harsh features narrowed critically as he studied the tall man subconsciously cowering before him.
“What are you doing here alone at this unsanctioned hour, peasant?” the nobleman had demanded angrily. His neatly groomed greying eyebrows had arched up with irritation over piercing green eyes that were flanked with lines, creased by middle age. It was one of the speakers from the garden and Khadazin had been unable to keep the fear from stealing into his eyes.
“I asked you a question! Are you ill? What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh, forgive me my lord. Your sudden appearance startled me, that is all,” the stonemason had blurted out, trembling.
It was Relan Valus, of all blessed men. The very man whose office had hired him to come to the keep in the first place! The same man who not an hour before had been meeting in secret in the high duke’s gardens, plotting foul deeds with an unknown accomplice. Until that day Khadazin had not been able to put a sure voice to the face of the man who was always at the high duke’s side, when he attended matters of state and public events. The events unfolding before the stonemason were becoming more terrible by the minute. He needed time to think, but, as the chancellor stood before him, growing increasingly more impatient, time was the one thing he did not have.
“I was on my way home from my duties here at the keep this day, my lord,” he had managed.
“Who are you, man?” the chancellor had asked, his irritation rising.
“Why, I am the mason, Khadazin, my lord. It was you who commissioned me to work here at the high duke’s keep,” he had answered, noticing the terror that crept briefly into the chancellor’s eyes.
“Oh yes, I recall now, of course I do,” Relan Valus had spluttered indignantly. “Well perhaps I shall check on your progress tomorrow. For now, be on your way and do not expect to receive pay for your extra work.”
The stonemason had backed timidly away, bowing his forgiveness. “Oh no, my lord, I do not and would not consider it.”
Turning, Khadazin had hurried away, the chancellor’s baleful eyes following his every faltering footstep.
That night Khadazin had locked himself away with a bottle of Valian Dark. His fear had chased after every heartbeat, his breath catching at every noise from the world outside. Would the chancellor seek to silence him? Surely he now knew that his meeting had been compromised?
The mason did not sleep well that night and had struggled through the early hours, deciding whether or not to return to the keep that morning and continue his work. After tussling with his fear and his conscience, he had finally decided that to not return to the keep would have sent a clear message to the chancellor that he had, indeed overheard his meeting and would have probably signed his own death warrant.
So Khadazin had returned to the keep and the gardens he so desperately wanted to avoid. He had spent the next three days hurrying a week’s worth of work and had not seen anyone except the four gardeners who tended to the grounds in the morning and were always gone by midday. Once he had finished his work, he had wandered about the courtyards looking for the chancellor’s office, in a hurry to receive his payment and be off. Confused, he stopped a passing chambermaid. The pretty, dark-haired lass was carrying a basket full of linen and after jumping at his sudden, foreign appearance, she had kindly directed him to the chancellor’s office. Fortunately for the stonemason a bespectacled old man had slowly opened the door. The aide acknowledged his completion of the maintenance work and announced that payment would follow within the week, once they had inspected and were satisfied with his workmanship. If they were not, he would not get paid for his work. Khadazin had thanked the man and hurried home, via Mason’s Inn.
As the week slipped away slowly into the next he had begun to worry over what he should do. The chancellor could not be certain if he had been in the gardens during their secret meeting. If he had been sure, the stonemason knew he would no longer be alive. Should he tell someone? He didn’t possess many close friends, if any at all. Those who knew him well tended to be his customers and they could often tell the stonemason’s mood by the thunder in his face, or the acid on his tongue. He was not sure he could trust anyone at the keep, other than the high duke himself and he, a mere mason, would have never been granted such an audience. And what should he say to him if he was granted audience? What was he to do? As the pressure over his dilemma increased and another week slipped by without payment from the keep, he had turned to seeking all of his answers in the bottom of a wine glass and, as of yet, had found nothing there that had pleased him…
Further down the dark alleyway Khadazin stumbled again, snapping his thoughts from the past and dragging himself back to the present. His surroundings spun about him as his inebriated vision swung in and out of focus. Blindly he reached out a huge hand and gripped a fence post for balance as he fought to keep down the remaining contents of his stomach.
“You are not in control anymore,” he slurred to himself, nearly falling through the rickety fencing. Somehow he caught sight of the two faceless figures, as they moved from the shadows to block his intended path home. For the first time now he became vividly aware of how silent the city night-life was and a chill bit into the nape of his neck, warning him of the threat these cloaked figures represented.
Breathing raggedly he shot a furtive glance back the way he had come and, to his horror, he could see two more hooded figures, stalking him through the rubbish. His mind spun in tandem with his swirling vision as he held on to the post and struggled to steady the alley dancing seductively around him.
“Not here for my purse then?” he complained, looking about for something to defend himself with, anything…
The two assailants approaching to his left suddenly came charging towards him, knives glinting faintly in the pitiful moonlight. Grunting, Khadazin let go of the post he was vainly trying to free from the ground and threw himself recklessly to meet them; his senses sharpening slightly from the anger building up within him. Blind to, or accepting of the danger he faced, he met their rush head on.
Somehow he managed to sidestep a knife thrust and, grasping the offered arm, he pulled the attacker off balance and hurled him into the fencing. The man collapsed in a broken tangle of boards and splinters and somewhere a dog began to bark in irritation. As the stonemason recovered from the first attack, he felt the burning of a knife wound that tore through his robes and slid painfully across his ribs. Fortunately for him the pain was dulled by the alcohol rampant within his body and, growling, he smashed one elbow into the depths of the attacker’s dark cowl, connecting with bone and breaking a nose with the impact. As the attacker reeled back, Khadazin dealt a huge blow to the man’s stomach and then brought both hands down on the back of his neck as he doubled over. Footsteps dragged his attentions away from the man as he dropped without a sound. Both of the other assailants were close enough now to charge at him and, as he met them, a cudgel slammed into the side of his head, the impact exploding in his ears and sending him reeling. A second blow to the stonemason’s left shoulder put him onto his knees and, as they leapt upon him, he lashed out desperately, connecting with one of their chins in the thrashing melee. The other attacker bore him to the ground and they rolled about, flailing madly. The attacker’s breath rasped in his face, a vile concoction of garlic and rotting teeth and pain shot through Khadazin’s injured side, as the man somehow managed to bring his weapon to bear amidst the tangle of robes and thrashing limbs. Snarling gutturally, the stonemason closed his huge hands about the assassin’s neck and pulled him onto a head-butt. Oblivious to the pain in his building frenzy, Khadazin flipped the man to one side and scrambled up drunkenly to meet him. Jilting his stance, the stonemason caught the man’s wrist and, as he twisted it violently, wrenched the cudgel deftly from the man’s grasp with his free hand. Movement from his left also announced the return of the third ruffian, a knife raised to strike. With one desperate motion, Khadazin smashed the cudgel into the face of the man he held and inadvertently parried the thrusting assassin’s blade as he pulled his weapon away from the man’s bloodied and pulped face. Letting go of his captive, the stonemason allowed him to crumple to the floor and turned to face the new threat. Again the man slashed the knife at his face, forcing the mason to back away and stumble over a body behind him.
“Well the odds seem to be with me now, brother,” he grinned, his teeth flashing mockingly in the moonlight.
The barking dog had now found a partner and together they snapped their disapproval at the commotion coming from within the alleyway. Somewhere off into the night, a woman also screeched her anger at the disruptions from an upstairs window. As Khadazin spoke, the man at his feet groaned weakly and without taking his eyes off his opponent, he stamped down on the man’s neck, silencing him immediately with a sickening snap. This did not bring the reckless attack that the stonemason had hoped for however; as the last assassin stood back guardedly, the blade he held poised menacingly before him.
Hurry up! Khadazin groaned inwardly as he fought down the pain beginning to seep through the veil of his intoxication. His side burned painfully and his left shoulder was going numb. The blow on the side of his head throbbed terribly and was probably swelling up like a second face by now. His vision blurred slightly as the man suddenly attacked, feinting right and then leaping towards him across his fallen comrade. Again the stonemason met his attacker boldly, purposefully taking a vicious wound to his left forearm as he blocked the strike and hammered a furious blow to the man’s midriff. An explosion of air burst from the attacker’s lips as he curled over and, hurling down his weapon, the stonemason moved behind him. Wrapping one huge arm about the struggling man’s neck he crushed the life from his windpipe.
Dropping the limp body to the ground he stepped back and clamped one hand over the wound in his side. Blood flowed freely through his shaking fingers. His heart pounded furiously with the adrenalin and nervous anger at large within him as he swayed dizzily, the night coming quickly in and out of focus. Dumbly he surveyed the alleyway. None of the attackers moved and the night was deathly silent once again.
So, the chancellor had indeed known that he had been overheard and had become paranoid that the stonemason would unmask his traitorous little scheme. Oh he wanted to! But a mere commoner such as he would have no friends at the high duke’s court and with no hard evidence he would probably be thrown into the city dungeons for hurling about such ludicrous accusations.
Another wave of pain shot through his body and he collapsed to his knees, biting at his lower lip to try and divert the agony.
“Lady, give me strength,” he growled through clenched teeth, staring pleadingly up at the stars glinting in the impenetrable black night sky. Fumbling for the fallen cudgel, he forced himself onto his feet and began stumbling his way down the alleyway. Eventually the end of the alley spat him out into the adjoining street beyond and he swayed there for a moment, breathing in deeply, glad to be free from the suffocation of his supposed death trap.
Then a new terror overcame him. Once the chancellor heard of this failure, he would send more assassins. Khadazin knew he could not hide in the city forever; he would need to get out and away before it was too late. But the chancellor would be expecting him to flee! What now? He would need help to escape the city, but the only person he trusted enough to help him was the one person he did not want to drag down into this mess. No, it was best if he kept his only real friend out of it for now, and he had already taken decisive actions, should something happen to him, anyhow! And what about the girl? If what he had overheard in the high duke’s gardens were true, then the girl and her entourage would have left for the city a couple of days ago. If only he had found the courage to report what he had heard, he may have been able to help the girl. If only he had not fallen asleep. If only this, if only that! It was too late for regret now, and far too late for him to start attributing self-blame. The past was already lost to the stonemason, stolen away by the heat of a summer’s day. If he was going to survive this, he would have to look to the future and for now, look after his own affairs. He needed to find a militia patrol and get them to help him across to the west side of the city, so that his wounds could be tended at the militia hospital. Once there, he could plan his next move. If the esteemed Chancellor Valus wanted his silence, then he was going to have to work that little bit harder for it from now on.
Steeling himself, he stared away down the empty street to his right and spied the faint tongues of flame licking at the night sky from the torches of a familiar militia patrol heading down Scoundrel’s Lane, away from him. Wincing in pain, he forced out a weak smile and, clinging onto the lifeline of hope that the patrol offered him, he hurried after them as fast as his injured body would allow.
Moments after his passing, a shadow stirred in the darkness of a doorway. Unbeknown to the stonemason, his problems went with him.
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