Kanand Castle, Kanand River - year NW 714

Unexpected silence closed around Praalis like fog as he reached the stable yard behind the castle. He had ridden back in haste as soon as the news reached him. Expecting smiling faces and joyful chatter, he was surprised to see the place deserted.

He leapt up the stone steps from the postern to a rear corridor of the castle, the echo of his clattering boots running away to front and back. He turned a corner into a broader passage. This was the corridor he wanted. The rich marble of its long walls and arched ceiling were usually illuminated by lanterns throughout day and night, but not now. It was dark.

His smile faltered as he strode into the shadows. Perhaps someone has arranged a surprise party, he hoped. That would explain the darkness and quiet. It would be just like Silky to do that.

Silquooay was his fiancée. They were due to be married this evening. It was news of Silky’s arrival that had brought Praalis galloping back to the castle so early in the day. She had been due yesterday. However, there had been unexpected delays on her way from Akrin, her southern homeland.

After a dozen paces Praalis heard a muffled cry. It seemed to come from the other end of the corridor. Some inner sense gave him a sharp pang of alarm.

Before his peripheral vision caught any shadow of movement, his keen hearing detected a faint whistle as the razor sharp edge of a broadsword approached his neck from behind. In that instant he kicked his legs forward and let his head fall back. The silver flash of a long blade swept across his face, just a finger’s width from the end of his nose.

Time seemed to slow.

As he fell, he launched his waist up and pressed his head forward, to protect his hips and spine from impact with the stone floor. He slapped the muscles of his forearms and palms down hard, to carry the force away from his elbows and back. His rebounding hands came to his right side, snatching his sheathed sabre. With no time to draw the blade from the scabbard, he thrust it straight up at his assailant.

Praalis saw five armed men moving to encircle him; two already above him; the others still a few paces behind. The first, off-balance from missing an easy kill, drew back as the scabbard shot up at his face and toppled over his shoulder. The second attacker, who seemed to be the leader from the look of his attire, was now chopping down from the right. His broadsword struck stone with a shuddering clang as Praalis moved with the speed that constant training had given him.

Praalis brought his sabre parallel to his body, as if in prayer, and spun right shoulder over left into the legs of his first assailant. As his right foot and left knee found the floor, he thrust his sabre at the man above him. The blade, diamond coated by a long lost art, sliced through the man’s rusty chain mail as though it were cardboard.

Now on his feet and still spinning forward, as though drawn onward by his freshly blooded sword, Praalis encountered the two men who were standing behind their falling accomplice. Waiting for their chance to strike, they were stunned by the speed of Praalis’ recovery. Neither had time to react before a single sweep of the sabre put an end to their treachery.

Praalis came to a sudden stop and filled his lungs. The leader and one other were now in front of him, moving in for a concerted attack.

I recognise you,” Praalis cried accusingly, his voice shaky from anger and sudden exertion. “You serve Count Prokkanix, Grand Master of the Order of Chains. What traitor let you enter the castle?”

The leader scoffed, “We now serve Countess Sakscren, as does our Grand Master. From now on she will be the true ruler of Krar. You and your precious line will be expunged from history.” It was arrogant bluster. Praalis was the champion swordsman of his time. Now he had thwarted their ambush, they would have needed more than two swordsmen to defeat him. Both of them died before their brains had time to register Praalis’ movement.

Cries were coming from the Great Hall below. Alarm grasped Praalis like a red hot vice across his throat. The Council of Nobles, led by the grand vizier, had assembled there for the signing of a Compromise. This was to peacefully resolve their dispute with the weak and wayward prince regent and his manipulative new wife, Countess Sakscren.

When the prince regent had agreed the terms of the Compromise, Praalis had been elated; all his work and diplomacy over the past year seemed about to bear fruit. Silky and he had then planned their marriage to coincide with the start of the new era of peace and justice.

The nobles had come unarmed, leaving their personal retainers half an hour’s ride from the castle. Armed men had been banned from coming near the castle, except a small number of diplomatic staff employed for the day as messengers. Praalis had been one of those messengers, but he now realised that the meeting had been a ruse by Sakscren and Prokkanix to destroy the Council and the Constitution, and to seize absolute power. Armed assassins had been hidden nearby, no doubt with the connivance of Sakscren, and had infiltrated the castle once the nobles had all gathered there.

Praalis stormed along the corridor. He must see to the safety of his mother and fiancée. It was his duty to protect them first of all. Silky was his childhood sweetheart, his best friend’s younger sister, and the only daughter of the prince of Akrin, the most senior member of Council after the old king and the grand vizier. Admired far and wide for her youthful beauty and quick mind, she was also greatly loved by the people for her tireless work helping the disadvantaged achieve their aspirations. Sakscren hated Silquooay even more than she despised Praalis.

As he approached Silky’s suite its silence chilled him. Again time slowed for him, as it often did when he was in battle spirit, but now the slowness was a torture of apprehension. Where was the chatter and laughter of the ladies-in-waiting? Where was the cheerful voice of Blancala, his mother, fussing around her future daughter-in-law, proud that her son was to marry one so lovely? Where was Silky’s own voice, so full of life and kindness? Her voice that could charm a smile from a crying child, call a bird to perch on her hand, and make Praalis pause and smile with joy for being the most fortunate man in the world.

For all his fear of imagined horror he was not prepared for the scene he witnessed as he passed through the doorway. He found their lifeless bodies in the chamber where they had been preparing for the wedding. He would have no chance to say goodbye, to tell them again how much he loved them and how much he would miss them.

There were signs of a fight. Three ladies-in-waiting also lay slain, having tried to defend their mistresses. They had killed one assassin with their bare hands, and yet they had then been struck down from behind.

Near Blancala lay another assassin with a long needle projecting from his head. Praalis recognised the needle as one of his mother’s distinctive set.

A third assassin had a crushed throat and broken neck, inflicted by a technique that Praalis had taught Silky after she had been threatened on a previous occasion by a suspected member of the Order of Chains. But even she could not defend herself unarmed against armed men. There had been little else that any of the women could have done surrounded by men with swords and armour.

Two soldiers came to the door. Praalis recognised them as guards employed by Sakscren. They now also wore the insignia of the Order of Chains. They raised their swords as soon as they saw Praalis.

Cowards!” Praalis shouted at them. They came for him.

Praalis never let anger or despair affect the cold calculation of his swordsmanship. He leapt aside as they charged and swung his sabre through both wrists of the first assailant. As the man’s two-handed broadsword crashed to the floor, Praalis also dropped to the floor and swung his sabre through the ankles of the second assailant. He then snatched away the second man’s broadsword and ran from the room.

Tears in his eyes, he came to the grand stairway that descended to the Great Hall. He then saw murder and mayhem before him like a hideous nightmare.

Most of the Council members already lay dead. Some, including his father, were fatally wounded but still fighting on. His father had seized a sword from one of his attackers and had killed at least two. Now unarmed, he was reaching back, squeezing the throat of a man who had pierced him through the back.

Oblivious to his own safety Praalis charged down the stairs into the hall, his double-edged sabre in his right hand and the broadsword in his left. Drawing power from fury and precision from training, he cut his way through the throng, slaying or dismembering many more of Sakscren’s soldiers as he forged his way across the floor. He quickly slew his father’s assassin and cut down two others who approached. He knelt next to his father’s body, expecting the worst.

My son,” his father gasped as their hands met. “I’m finished! Escape! Save family … so one day peace … justice … restored! Take this! You are grand vizier.”

Praalis felt the cold touch of a medallion pressed into his hand as his father settled back to the floor. It was the old man’s medallion of office, forged centuries ago from pure platinum by a secret process known only to the grand viziers and handed down from generation to generation.

Praalis reached down to lift his father.

No … dear son … I’m done. You must escape with … mother … Silky. Always carry my love with you.”

At that moment Praalis felt an overwhelming need to tell his father that Silky and Blancala had been murdered, to share his grief as he had once shared all his hopes and fears as a child. Instead, he stroked his father’s brow and said slowly and soothingly, “I will keep the family safe, Father, and the grand vizier will return. Go with our love, as we will now carry your love forever.” He wanted his father to go to the dark halls of eternity with hope in his heart, and not with the grief and despair that now tortured his own soul.

Despite his pain Pelundlis smiled at his son’s soothing words. Then his eyes glazed over. Grand Vizier Pelundlis Cankrar the Just passed away from the world of light but never from the mind and heart of his son.

There’s Praalis! Kill him!” It was Sakscren’s shrill voice.

Praalis looked up to see that all the Council members were now dead. He saw Silky’s father nearby. He too had taken some of his assailants with him. Recalling how proud and supportive of the wedding the man had been, Praalis hoped that he had died believing that his daughter was safe.

A hundred of Sakscren’s soldiers were slowly advancing, their hesitation perhaps due to their knowledge of Praalis’ fighting prowess. None wanted to be first to attack and die.

With one last, sad look at his father, Praalis rose up and took his sabre in both hands ready to advance. Sakscren was mostly hidden behind her bodyguards but he could see Count Prokkanix, Sakscren’s chief adviser and, some said, lover. Prokkanix was undoubtedly the one responsible for planning the details and subterfuge necessary for this ambush and massacre.

Prokkanix called out mockingly, “Praalis, what’s it feel like to be a loser? Did you see what we did to your precious Silky? Yes, of course you did. Now it’s your turn to die: no more grand viziers, ever. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Praalis thought about how many of them he might destroy before they finally killed him. He felt that he had nothing else to live for now that Silky was gone. Then he recalled his father’s last words and he was reminded of the ancient duty of the grand viziers, ingrained into him since childhood: bring peace and justice according to the Great Plan!

Praalis called out above the murmur and laughter in the hall. His voice was hoarse with grief, yet it silenced all others.

Remember this prophesy, Sakscren! Your evil works will bring you no joy, and you will be doomed to die by the hand of your own child. All of you! Remember that a new grand vizier will come, greater than any before, to restore freedom and justice, and end tyranny!”

In one fluid movement Praalis flung his sabre into the air as he somersaulted through the main doors to the terrace outside, over the castle wall and into the trees five fathomes below. His sword flew thirty paces and impaled Prokkanix.

Sakscren screamed while her minions gaped. She ordered them to pursue the ‘rebel’ and kill him straight away lest he escape again. She had to repeat her order twice more in rising panic and slash her knife at those within her reach. At last she drew their attention away from Prokkanix and his two favourite hounds, now busy devouring his remains.

Ignoring bruises, cuts, broken ribs, and the tears that blurred his vision, Praalis cried out, “Farlooayah!”

This had been a call, rather than a name, when the horse had been a foal. Now only one animal would answer to it; the jet black stallion Pelundlis and Blancala had given Praalis when he passed his final exams to qualify as a quaestor in the grand vizier’s office. The fastest horse on record, and still one of the fastest in the realm, Farlooayah came within the minute and bore Praalis away before Sakscren’s followers could reach their own horses.

When Praalis came near the river bank he saw that his path was blocked by regiments of the Order of Chains. They were attacking the Nobles’ retainers and, greatly outnumbering them, were pushing them back to the other side of the bridge.

We can’t reach them or help them, and we can’t escape that way, Farlooayah my friend. To charge into battle now would be certain suicide. We must wait for another time to help our people. How true it is that, once evil has been tolerated to establish itself in a realm, it can not be removed by a single brave act, but must rather be cleaned out by many hard years of patient work.”

Understanding his master, Farlooayah swerved away from the river and into the woods.

Yes, my friend, we must go to the mountains, and then to the sea.”

Praalis hoped that the Nobles’ retainers would have the sense to escape. Without a Council of Nobles, the prince regent had no rivals for control of the army, and it was already clear that he would do anything, including consent to any atrocity, that Sakscren demanded. The king was indisposed by mental illness and it now occurred to Praalis that Sakscren was probably the cause of this. She was known to dabble in poisons and drugs.

It took Praalis six months to get to the coast, four hundred leagues away in the west. He could not use the river, otherwise the speediest means of escape, for that was where Sakscren’s troops concentrated their search. He travelled through the foothills of the northernmost mountains, living on whatever wild food he could find. The land was cold, barren and deserted. However, the difficulty of the terrain also inhibited his pursuers and enabled him to evade their search parties.

In a cold and empty forest by the coast he built a small outrigger sailboat and prepared to leave his homeland. On the final day he stroked Farlooayah’s mane and spoke to him as he often did; this time in final farewell.

I can’t take you with me, my friend. Go back to Akrin where you will remember your days as a foal. Find a new rider, or live free in the hills, as you wish. Remember me! I will remember you!”

He pushed his boat into the sea and boarded. Farlooayah sadly watched him from the shore.

Please go,” Praalis called imploringly to the sad horse.

Farlooayah whinnied, turned and galloped off to the south.

Farewell my dear friend!” Praalis called. Farlooayah paused, whinnied again and then continued south. After ten years with Praalis, Farlooayah understood him very well. They had been together in every kind of circumstance, from the extreme dangers of combat to pleasant country rides and picnics with Silky. He felt his master’s pain and would not do anything to make it worse, even if that meant parting forever. He would finish his days in the wild mountains of his birthplace but would always think of Praalis and the wonderful times they had shared.

At last Praalis set sail, his tears mixing with the salty spray as he watched his homeland and former life recede to a distant smudged line and then disappear beyond the horizon.

Goodbye Silky. You deserved so much more of life. I must press on without you. I must fulfil the oath of the grand vizier. As little as that now matters to the world, it is all I have left. Perhaps one day I may be worthy of your love by playing my part in the Great Plan.”

Unable to bear his sad thoughts, he drove himself to exhaustion, hauling at oars whenever sea and sail could not fully occupy him. He was careless of huge waves that flung his small craft about beyond sight of land. He believed he could never again know happiness.

Praalis searched the world for many years, seeking meaning and purpose in life. One day he found a place where the strings of destiny started to sing in harmony for him once more. For a long time that melody was too soft to be heard beyond the small things of daily life, but its power grew as it relentlessly gathered energy, waiting for the time.

[To find out what happens next, see the Diaries of Praalis Cankrar and Grand Vizier of Krar: Strings of Destiny.]