The King's Hand
“You’ve been awfully quiet tonight, Lukas.”
“Am I supposed to be chatty when I walk through the woods with a stranger?” Zane replied irritably.
“Hm. I suppose not,” Koris answered.
“There you go again, saying hm like that. You’re really strange, you know that?”
“Yes, you are. You’re always spaced out, talking in monotone and staring at nothing. You don’t show emotion, or show anything about yourself for that matter. You could be anyone. Heck, I can’t tell if you’re eighteen or thirty-eight.”
Koris was unresponsive, mulling over Zane’s opinions. When he said finally said something, it was simply, “I’m twenty-six.”
Twenty-six? “Why, you’re only four years older than I am! How have you become the King’s Hand at your age?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if you even are the bloody Hand. You’ve done nothing to prove you are except to say so, and to be incredibly enigmatic. How do I know....” Zane’s words -- and his heart -- abruptly stopped, as he briefly saw a whirl of black in front of him and, a millisecond later, a sword was held to his throat. “What the hell?” he exclaimed. “You almost took my head off!”
“Wouldn’t be the first time, either,” Koris said coolly. He snapped his sword-arm down to his side, and vanished. Zane looked quickly around, frightened, but saw nothing, and two seconds later something tripped him, and he fell flat on the ground. Panting, he sat up, only to find the tip of a tiny dagger pressed to his throat.
“For Yarah’s sake, man!” Zane gasped. “I didn’t even see you!”
“If you were my target,” Koris said, “you would be dead now...twice over.” Then he grabbed Zane by the shoulders and jerked him to his feet, only to press him against a tree with a hand over his mouth and another strong arm around his neck, poised to kill. “Thrice over.”
Zane nodded vigorously. “Eh inderstamd,” he said through the hand over his mouth.
Koris released him. “Do not question my legitimacy again,” he said coldly, turning and walking through the woods.
They continued on in silence until they reached the top of a very steep hill, below which they could see the camp, which in contrast to the Citymen’s camp seemed to be very active. Koris pulled a length of rope off of his belt, tying it around a large rock. Slowly, silently, very, very carefully, he made his way down, holding onto the rope like it was the rail of a staircase. When he was about halfway down the hill, he gestured for Zane to follow him. He did, except he didn’t hold onto the rope. He crept cautiously down the hillside, one foot slowly in front of the other. On his tenth step, he slipped.
Zane went hurtling forward down the hill, biting down hard on his tongue to keep from letting out a shriek and giving away their position. Koris seized him by one of his flailing arms as he fell past him, and pulled him up. “Idiot,” he whispered sharply through his mask. Zane nodded, eyes still widened, and grabbed the rope with both hands. His mouth was full of blood from his tongue, which he forced himself to swallow, to his own disgust. When they reached the bottom of the hill, Koris motioned for Zane to wait, and moved into the camp, dark and silent as a phantom of the night.
Zane waited for only a minute or two before deciding to go in after him. He asked me along, there’s no point in me waiting here like a useless log. He snuck through the tents, spotting a few scattered human soldiers and several Flarares, talking casually in a language he didn’t understand and laughing low, guttural laughs. The flame-sprites, Zane noticed, were ugly. They had raw red skin, yellowed, fanglike teeth, and little pointed ears that stuck straight out the sides of their heads. They were elemental spirits, distantly related to the stars, but they were about as far removed from the angelic-looking stars as one could get.
He moved closer to the tent in the center of the camp, the commanders’ tent. Two silhouettes were already inside the tent, and a third was walking towards the entrance. As the shape passed by the fire outside the tent, the yellowish light revealed a sour-looking female face -- Lagos Liridam.
Once she entered the tent, Zane cautiously took another step towards the center...then two...three...four.... And then he felt a hand grabbing him by the collar of his coat, jerking him backwards. He landed hard on his back, knocking the breath out of his lungs. “Well, well, well!” laughed a rough voice.
“What have we here?” mocked a second voice. Two enemy human soldiers, one male and one female, leaned over him. “Looks like we’ve caught ourselves a spy, Threist,” said the woman.
“Looks that way, Ryn.”
“’S he armed?”
The male soldier yanked Zane’s knife off his belt. “Not anymore, he isn’t.”
“Whaddaya think we should do wi’ him?”
“Think we should turn him in to the commanders?”
They glanced at each other, grinning wickedly. “Nah.” The woman, Ryn, pulled out her knife. “I say we deal wi’ him ourselves. Whaddaya say, Threist?”
“Excellent idea, Ryn.” Threist spun Zane’s knife around in his hand, preparing to use it. Taunting him.
“Why not just give me to the commanders?” Zane said through clenched teeth.
“Oh, we will,” said Threist, “and trust me, you won’t like it.”
“Have you burnt up, the old Lord will,” added Ryn, “burnt to a right crisp. He doesn’t like spies.”
“But guess what? We don’t like spies either.” Threist dropped the knife, choosing instead to slam his fists into his prisoner’s face. Ryn followed suit, laughing harshly. Zane tried to fight back, but it was two against one, and there was no one he could call for help. If he cried out, the enemy army would be alerted, and he would only die sooner. “Hold him down, Ryn,” said Threist, retrieving his knife. “Let’s get him ready to meet the commander, shall we? Oh, you’re going to regret you ever snuck in here, yah dirty little spy.”
Then, a shadow appeared in a swirl of black behind the laughing soldiers. Soundlessly, without warning, Ryn’s head snapped to one side and she collapsed on the ground. Threist had just enough time to appear shocked, before the blade of a sword cleaved through his back. He collapsed to the ground beside his fellow soldier.
Koris stepped out from the shadows, a bloodied sword in his hand. “Idiot,” he hissed. “Half-wit, cretin, moron, imbecile!”
Zane grunted, forcing himself to his feet. “That’s a bit much.” He looked down at the stiff, cold bodies of the soldiers that had beaten him. “I know I said it already, but this time I mean it; I will never again question that you are the King’s Hand.”
Koris gazed at the bodies, kicking one gently with his boot. “If there’s one thing, one singular thing about this messed-up world that I can’t stand,” he said, with a quiet, intense tone, “it’s the bastards who enjoy seeing others in pain.”
Zane was surprised by his intensity. It was the first time he had ever shown any feeling at all, and the first time that Zane began to suspect that there was more to Koris than he had originally assumed. “Thank you,” he said. “If not for you I’d likely be dead.”
“Now is not the time to thank me. Now is the time for us to leave, before more like them arrive.”
They left by the same hilltop they had come by. Once Zane had cleared his head from his near-death encounter, he could see the consequence of the affair. The next day, two bodies would be discovered in the enemy’s camp, one with a broken neck, and one with a severed spine. Rumors of the King’s Hand would quickly begin to fly. Awareness and vigilance would increase, and that would put Koris’ chances of success in serious jeopardy. They reached the top of the hill, and stopped. “You are a fool,” Koris said. “A dunce, an ignoramus, a buffoon....” He rattled off insults for the next two minutes straight, all the while keeping his trademark emotionless voice. “...and furthermore,” he finally finished, “you have no idea how to simply do what you’re told!”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” Zane replied, holding up his hands. “I’m an idiot, I can’t follow an order, et cetera. But I’d very much like to know -- why did you even ask me along, if you planned to just abandon me at the bottom of a hill?”
“Irrelevant,” Koris grumbled, walking off back towards the camp. The camp was silent when they arrived back. Every soldier had by now returned to his or her bunks, ready, if need be, to fight again tomorrow. The King’s Hand walked away, without any goodbye to Zane, going to give a report to his superior.
Zane felt embarrassed. He felt that he deserved every insult that Koris had hurled at him -- idiot, fool, imbecile, et al. Of course, he couldn’t entirely blame himself, he reasoned, after all he had been invited along. It wasn’t as if he had insisted on coming, in fact, he had practically been dragged along! Regardless, he had been the one to make a mess of everything. He thought about going to apologize to the masked man, but decided against it. He decided instead to simply go on to sleep.
For yet another night, he fell into the same dream. This time, he was standing on a vast, empty battlefield -- empty of anything living, that is. The space was littered with bodies, the grass of the field watered in blood. Each night, the demonic choir of voices grew louder, louder, louder.
Blood and death...fire and pain.
You are a curse!
The hands that hold...that love....
She will die, and there’s nothing that you can do.
Each night, their words grew more taunting. What do you hope to accomplish?, they sneered.
You are worthless! You are nothing!
You are irredeemable!
And, like every night, he awoke gasping, if not screaming, forehead dripping sweat. When he met with Orion that morning, he could tell his friend was concerned about him. He looked like a wreck, with dark circles under his eyes, and for good reason -- he was staying up continuously later because he’d become afraid to sleep. “Are you alright, my friend?”
Zane bit his lip. “I...I can’t talk about it,” he said shaking his head.
Orion stepped closer, placing one hand on the side of Zane’s head and the other in the center of his chest. “You don’t have to say anything,” he said. “Just let me see.” He was silent for a moment, taking in the flood of tumultuous emotions and scary images. A horrified expression rose to his face. “Oh, Zane,” he said softly, taking his hands down. “And you have been seeing these things all your life?”
Zane nodded. “Since I was a child.”
Orion shook his head, shocked. “No wonder that you went mad,” he said.
“They follow me around. Everything....” He swallowed hard. “Everything I see in these dreams comes true. Carsamir’s death, the war, you, even Koris! I...I don’t want this one to be true, Orion.”
“I’m sure it will not be.”
“I’ve lost everything, Orion. I can’t lose her. I can’t. It would kill me.”
“The future is not set, Zane. Just because something has been predicted does not mean it must happen.”
“Then how do I stop it?”
Orion shrugged helplessly. “There, I can help you not.” Before he could continue, his eyes fixed to something behind Zane. “Seems somebody wants to see you.”
It was Koris. “Lukas,” he said, “I demand an apology for your actions last night.”
“Why should I apologize?” Zane said. He knew he probably owed the man an apology, but nevertheless his response was defensive.
“Are you denying that you were responsible for getting in the way of my plans?”
“Well, no, but you were the one who wanted me there!”
“I overestimated you, Lukas. I presumed your skill to be greater than it was.”
Zane looked offended. “I have plenty of skill!” he retorted.
“Not where it counted. You have absolutely no expertise in stealth, or in anything, it would seem, except for direct battlefield combat.”
There was only one thing Zane could think of to say. It was a gamble, there could be no predicting what the answer would be, but...but.... He said it.
“Teach me, then.”