Shadows Within Dark Places

A Fantasy Book Excerpt by R.E. Joyce

Shadows Within Dark Places

When Freedom is Threatened

By R.E. Joyce

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Chapter I—The Calling

The two chastised children held the covers tight to their chins as their father continued the story.

Then the dark evil, Jadarr, ate the child in front of the townspeople, leering at them as they watched in terror. ‘The night belongs to me and your children are my supper if you do not keep them safe!’ The monster’s evil voice grated in their minds as the townspeople fled the ghastly scene.”

The father cringed at the shock in his children’s eyes. Maybe now they would listen. Darkness engulfed the kingdom, filling it with evil and strange happenings. It was no longer safe. Pained, having to scare his beloved children, he knew they needed to learn quickly the difficulties of surviving or they would never be more than children.

It was not always so. His childhood contained marvelous adventures and a life of beauty. Now Mandarla and the rest of the kingdom cringed under the grip of an evil warlord as the darkness spread across the world and into the minds of all.

Mandarla

The warm shining sun filled the square. The bustling shoppers kept all the merchants on high alert—time to strike a deal or go hungry. Their motto helped them peddle their wares, with deft words and gestures learned over their family ancestry. Mid-morning in Mandarla was a thing to behold. The marketplace pulsed with life, and the surrounding streets filled with all sorts of activities.

This morning, two of the rambunctious adventures remained out of sight. Their father’s tale the night before and their mother’s punishment kept them deep within the market stall away from the sun. Hopefully, they learned the lesson of caution in times of trouble.

On hell’s wings

The beast attacked without sound, diving down on the market square with the sun behind, making it all but impossible to detect. Selecting a morsel for its meal, a child unaware of its fate, it descended and spread its bat-like wings, blocking out the sun in the square, causing everyone to look up in horror. They stood frozen in terror.

Talons reached down for the child, as the beast finally announced its presence with an ear-splitting screech, but missed the child and fell to the ground with a thud not to move again, a knife piercing its black heart.

The cry of the child’s mother and the startled voices within the crowd gave the shadowy figure the moment necessary to disappear.

I saw him standing there defying the beast!” one shouted. “He wore silver armor like the knife that destroyed the demon.”

No, no you fool, she was a beautiful woman dressed in black and her eyes shone like the stars and made the beast miss!”

Where did she come from? I was watching the square the whole time?” another asked. “Could she be a spirit sent by God?”

Resuming a sitting position in an alley across from the commotion the observant stranger draped the filthy cloak over stooped shoulders, removing any chance of discovery. He risked detection but the child did not deserve such a death. The time to act had arrived and he would begin the calling.

With a sigh, Jadarr stood and left the center of town to gather the forces to fight this evil. The shadowy figure chuckled about the story told the night before. They made Jadarr an evil demon to teach their children, now that demon would save their lives.

Gathered

The boy’s legs screamed for rest as he pushed on through the forest to the crest of the mountain pass. Lungs sucking frantically at the mountain air begged him to stop. He crested the rise and beheld a beauty beyond expectation as the last hill ended and the mountain vale filled his eyes. He accomplished the first stage of his journey.

His speed and agility as a runner for the kingdom could not be outdone. Horse and rider lost to forest trails and river currents. The boy was one of the best and called for by the most senior court officials.

This run was different. He did not see the one giving orders but he knew to obey without question. His spine still tingled from the encounter. The darkness seemed to deepen and the voice seemed to be without body yet stronger than steel. In the end, no matter the dread, he knew of only one choice; obey.

The beautiful valley gave a spring to his step. He raced across the open field towards the cottage. There, honing a scythe, a tall man stood calmly watching his approach.

Stand and state your business,” the man’s strong, calm voice stopped his advance, befriending while commanding attention.

The boy stood still gathering his wits. Looking up at the tall stranger he spoke.

I have a message for the warrior Cahal. I can deliver it only to the warrior.” The boy held what little breath he had left and awaited the stranger’s reply.

You have reached your destination runner.” The command was evident and the stranger stood taller. The first impressions of farmer and shepherd shattered, replaced by the vision of a powerful mountain lion ready to strike. “I am Cahal.”

The boy remained silent and placed a leather scrap in the hand of the warrior.

Cahal looked and saw the ancient rune. Pointing the boy towards the cottage, he turned and entered the barn. “You will find food and drink in the cottage. Take what you need for your journey and Godspeed on your travels.”

The first calling

He had been summoned once again, as he had been many years ago. Cahal had been no older than the runner the first time. Most of his family had been brutally murdered when the dark stranger entered his life, saving him and his two sisters.

His gratitude turned to commitment at the stranger’s command. “You will take up the sword and do battle for your kingdom.” He had of course honored that commitment and had proven himself in his youth.

Upon leaving the final battlefield, the most disturbing encounter happened. Sleeping in woods on his way home, the shadowy figure once again came. It stood before him but defied definition—only the voice remained locked in his mind.

You have done well. I will name you Cahal and you will be called once more when the kingdom needs you. You will know my calling by the Rune of Eldron. Heed the summons for you will be necessary.”

Then as the voice faded, so did the Shadowed One and Crestendal, his given name, never heard the voice again.

Crestendal found a pathway in life that took him away from the center of the kingdom until he had finally reached this mountain valley and began his solitary and peaceful life as a shepherd. His two sisters had married, raised children and grandchildren, and left the world long ago. He remained seemingly locked in time on his mountain. Crestendal never questioned his path in life, at least not until this day. He had buried his youth and the Shadow’s command. Now it all came back as he walked to the back of the barn to dig up the old sword he had once used in battle.

The years had never really washed away the stain of the warrior. This he knew in his heart. He had stepped away from the world because the pain of battle remained deep within. Now the calling rang in his heart like a quickening. Long forgotten surges of power coursed through his veins and the battle cry welled up within him. The pain and the ecstasy of the battle sprang to life and, once again, he hated himself.

On his mountain, there had been no need for a name and passersby were content with shepherd. The town below used shepherd or no name at all on his infrequent visits to market. Now, as he donned surprisingly supple leather, worn so many years ago, his childhood name of Crestendal hurt. He would not take the boy once again into a battle meant to bring his parents back from death. It did not work then and would only hurt once again.

He had clothed himself with revenge through many battles to steel himself from the pain but had little success. When the stranger gave him a new name he wrapped the pain in the name to be buried in the barn, hoping to never touch its sharp blade again. Now as he strapped on the sword he once again became Cahal, warrior for the Dark Shadow.

The second message

The runner filled his sack with good stores and water, leaving before the evening stars. His lived the pathways of the world and he had two days to reach his next encounter. Downhill he chuckled; I can make it in one!

He was surprised at the encounter with Cahal. He expected an armored soldier ready for battle not a farmer with a scythe. There was no mistaking the power behind those eyes. They pierced all that stood before and cut them low. Praying this summoning was for good, he picked up his pace. The dark figure still filled his mind with obedience.

The destination, south out of the mountains, had no hazardous obstacles so he ran through the starlit night. Besides, cutting a day off the journey would become part of his growing legend. The morning mist, pierced by the rising sun, melted on the fields as he greeted the cows slowly moving towards the barn for milking.

The farmer stood stoically as the boy bowed and begged his pardon. “I am a runner from the high court of the kingdom and I seek the warrior Elexion.”

The farmer pointed to the next farm. “That is the house of Elexion, but…” He did not get to finish his statement as the boy raced around the barn once more towards his destiny.

Upon reaching the next small farm, he saw a milkmaid to question and ran up to her. As she turned, he almost stumbled. Her beauty, beyond anything he had encountered in life, brought him to a stop. Bowing and stuttering, he coughed to get his wits about him and asked: “Is this the home of Elexion the warrior?”

You are at the home of my father,” her voice sang sweetly in his ears. “But alas you are too late to meet him. He has gone from this world now three months.” The song of her voice, filled with sadness, holding him in stunned silence staring at her.

His dilemma eased as she continued. “Come child; tell me what message you have for my father.”

He fumbled with the patch of leather not knowing what to do. The shade had been insistent on delivering the message to the warriors in person.

Seeing the patch, she gasped, “He has been summoned by the Shadowed One. Hand me the rune.”

I am to deliver this to…”

Do as I command boy! I will stand for my father in battle. The family of Elexion will heed the call.” Her words transformed from song to thunder, and the boy trembled as he held out the ruin.

The second calling

She took the leather scrap and looked down on the Rune of Cannol. Now her hand trembled and even her courage seemed to waver. The destiny of her father was now hers. She would pick up his oath and give her life so others would find peace. “You will find food and water in the house. Let the cattle roam the fields before you leave and tell the next farmer you see to take over the homestead.”

She left the shocked runner captured by her melodious voice, barely noticing his hesitant bow as she leapt the fence and headed south at a run. Her name was Maeve, and her youth prepared her for this moment. Her long legs took her south and once within the forest, she traveled within her element.

The stories of war were lessons memorized and her father had taught her sword, knife, and bow to rival any of his old battle cronies. What he did not teach was her sense of the world around her. When hunting, she would tap a cougar on the head before it noticed her approach. The forest and its animals became the playground of Maeve.

She did not strap on her father’s sword. It belonged to his war. She had the three knives that served her well and she had a destination from his stories around the fireplace. Her sturdy clothing blended with her surroundings, and she set a pace she maintained throughout the day.

Settling into her travel, Maeve found time to reflect. As she thought of her father, her eyes moistened from the loss still so fresh. He told her of wonderful things while he helped her understand the importance of defending those who could not fight for themselves. Her father’s strong arms and steadfast determination filled her life and gave her bearing. Yet the stories of the strange places he had visited in the war held the deepest part of her heart.

Last winter, he became pensive and the stories changed. He started talking about warnings and the future; not the past. He told her of a land to the south she must go to. He told her she would be given a sign meant for him and she would know what to do.

Late that night she set a camp, building a fire out of habit rather than need. Settling down and watching the stars that peeked through the canopy above, she felt its presence. The young wolf, not shying from the flame, approached finding a spot next to the fire and lay down without any cautious stares in her direction.

Maeve felt no fear within herself. “Well, it seems I will have a companion on this journey.”

The wolf lifted its head off its paws at her words, seeming to listen, and then laid back down. She did not question the purpose or the life path of the wolf—only the comfort the companion gave her.

Princess of Thieves

Each great city creates wonders and beauty. They also, by their very nature, create opportunities for petty criminals and masterminds of the underworld. While most would agree Jentter was not a major criminal, she was never seen as petty. In fact, those who knew her well would never dare to cross her. She owned the city and followed her own path in life. The meeting tonight once again summoned her and broke through her calm countenance.

She quietly passed through the alleys and found her way in the darkness to the rendezvous. Only the stranger summoned her in this way and, while disturbed, she had grown accustomed to their meetings. Her five-foot-ten-inch frame, decked out in finery not normal to her occupation, moved easily through the alleys. The silk dress fit perfectly and the heels, while hard to run in, accentuated her slim firm figure. Her long hair normally rolled up in a hat or scarf, flowed down her back and gleamed in the little light that it caught. The perfume, a new touch and a five-fingered gift by one of her cohorts, hid the city’s aroma.

Maybe he would notice her tonight. Why would she think such a thought she wondered for the hundredth time. She slipped into the back of the abandoned store and looked around the room lit only by a single candle on a table in the far corner.

He remained hidden in the shadows. “Come and join me. I have a fine wine and a cheese this kingdom can be proud of.”

His voice, soft and haunting at the same time, called to her heart like no other, but the deep sadness in the undertones made the Shadowed One unapproachable. Quietly she crossed the room, sitting in the offered chair. Looking up into the shadows she thought she heard a small gasp. Maybe he does notice me?

Jadarr,” her voice trembled a bit but she pushed on. “Will you ever come out of the shadows?” There—she had asked the one burning question.

Mine is not to dance in the sunlight. That gift belongs to the beauty in you, Jentter. Mine is to make sure the sun continues to light your world.” Once again his voice took on a very soft tone, soothing her heartbreak. “Do not fret my beautiful thief, you will find a love beyond your imagining. I will promise that, here tonight, as we begin the final calling.”

Jentter gasped. He read her heart as easily as she stole an apple from a cart. Could there be a man better than the one who sat in the shadows before her? They talked through the night making plans and sharing their findings within the kingdom.

As morning broke, she found her mind wandering while she put away the evening’s costume and donned her normal garb. Jadarr’s extensive knowledge was not gathered by just one, so more like Jentter fell under his spell and aided in his quest. She once again felt the twinge of jealousy and renewed her commitment to gain the best information possible for the dark stranger who captured the heart of the princess of thieves.

It hurt and intrigued her that she could not even describe Jadarr’s height much less the color of his eyes. The mystery now included his promise that she would meet a love she had never found. “Oh, stop you fool!” she mumbled to herself and finished dressing.

The next challenge brought more mystery than the shadowy voice. Get Krendar released from prison and a sentence of death. She had heard stories of his dastardly deeds and, if they were even partly true, he did not deserve the Shadow’s attention. Why would he want such a criminal?

Checking her ‘go to court outfit’ she let the matter drop. He never led her astray and she felt deep inside that following the shadow made life’s journey worthwhile.

Anyway—this was going to be a very fun day. Bribing an official or two was one thing. Bribing the prince to release the most dangerous prisoner in the dungeon was almost beyond her talents. Yes, this should be a very fun day, indeed.

 

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