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The Dark Isles Chronicle Book 1: Arthur
Chapters 1 and 2
The Dark Isles Chronicle is a series of dark fantasy books containing graphic violence and strong language.
© Copyright L.K. Alan. All rights reserved.
The horsemen thundered through a rich land of green valleys and ancient forests bathed in silvery moonlight. They raced toward another evening of slaughter and cruel death. One killer amongst them stared into the night sky, feeling the pulsing heartbeat of his steed, Amicus, beneath him. He struggled to recall his existence before the clan, but those days were as much a mystery as the star-studded void above.
The Raven clan had filled his every waking moment and nightmare for as long as he could remember—a never-ending torment he’d learned to endure. The clan pillaged, the clan raped, and the clan fed on the weak and avoided the strong. If it wanted gold, the clan took it. If it needed women and children, the clan enslaved them. They destroyed lives and property which they deemed worthless. This was their way. And as the empire’s grasp loosened, their attacks grew ever bolder.
The band drew to a stop at the prearranged signal of a raised hand, then dismounted and removed the sacking from their saddlebags. They wrapped their mounts’ hooves before continuing on the last leg of their journey in near silence, nothing more than ghosts upon the plain.
Arthur glanced along the line of riders and glimpsed the form of Drest at the far end. As always, he sat astride Duthas, a shaggy-haired brute of a stallion with a swirling red fire-brand on its flank. The creature’s wicked temperament, alien even to its own kind, rivalled its master’s. The older men whispered that their leader had once been a noble of a far northern tribe, cast out for necromancy. Arthur’s best guess was that the carrion halls of the nether had spewed him forth, such was his malevolent presence. He feared Drest like the others. None would dare challenge him.
The settlement emerged against the inky backdrop. By the outline of the roundhouses within, Arthur guessed it was one of many farming villages scattered throughout the province. Behind the dwellings loomed a large wood, and he wondered if any of the unfortunate inhabitants would live long enough to flee into its depths. Those who could not run faced enslavement or worse.
They closed upon their prey and halted, the warm breath of their mounts misting into the cool air. Arthur waited for the signal, knowing the crushing attack would follow the same pattern as their previous exploits.
The mimicked sound of a nightjar trilled from Drest, prompting torches to spark to life amongst the riders. A dog’s urgent barking rang out from the settlement. No matter, it was too late for the villagers to organise a credible defence.
Trotting along the muddy lanes between the homes of the slumbering inhabitants, the warriors positioned themselves near the entrance of each modest house. As well practised in this tactic as his comrades, Arthur tightened his grip on his sword and waited. The dog’s yelping reached a hysterical pitch before being silenced. Still, the villagers continued to sleep through the last peaceful moments of their lives.
The silent attack started with the torchbearers tossing their faggots onto the heather-woven thatch of every home. Flames spread across the rooftops, baked as dry as kindling during the summer months, releasing the scent of burning flora. Moments later, the first audible signs of alarm emerged from within the dwellings.
To Arthur’s left, a naked old man staggered from the nearest hut and gazed around in stunned confusion. The young warrior unsheathed his blade and nudged Amicus toward the oblivious elder, whose rib-lined back betrayed his lack of value. It would be a kindness to kill this one and spare him the sight of his loved one’s desecration.
Arthur emerged from the shadows behind his target, ready to strike the farmer in the skull. He’d ended many lives this way. With a flick of his wrist, he would cleave him, revealing the strange white matter that resided in all men’s heads. Job done.
The elderly man froze in terror upon seeing the bandits move between his neighbours’ homes while hurling fiery death about them. Arthur raised the blade above his target’s hairless pate, then chopped down with force. But his hand stilled, the sword’s edge only a finger’s breadth from the man’s skull, for a vision had overwhelmed him: a child clutched at its mother’s golden hair while flames surrounded them. The waking dream was so vivid that he saw her sad blue eyes glistening with unshed tears. The red-cheeked baby’s screams echoed through his being. Time slowed, as did the roaring conflagration about to engulf the helpless pair.
Confused, Arthur shook his head and glanced around him to see if any of his clansmen had witnessed his moment of shameful weakness. Although he’d been lucky to escape notice, a short distance away loomed Festus, a dark-haired thug from Epirus. The former legionary had grasped a stocky woman by the arm while he stabbed a balding man through the throat. Unlike Arthur, he enjoyed his work and was too engrossed in the act to see his comrade’s hesitation. Grateful for the reprieve, Arthur returned his attention to the old man, who’d turned to notice the stalking figure of death behind him.
Their eyes met. Flames, mixed with strange defiance, danced within the red-rimmed whites of the man’s gaze. Despite his exposed fragility, the farmer radiated pure hatred. Unnerved, Arthur nudged Amicus forward a step, then raised his sword once more, willing himself to deliver the fatal blow, yet it refused to come. The impasse stretched for an eternity until his wrist quivered with the effort of restraint.
To Arthur’s further dismay, his intended victim did not go, but remained motionless, his jaw thrust forward in contempt. He shook his head again to clear the fog, but the image of the mother and child was seared into his mind. His focus shifted to his reflection within his prey’s eyes. A young man with an unkempt beard and piercing blue eyes looked back. His formerly broken and crudely-set nose provided a lasting reminder of the childhood he tried to forget. Fear sat upon the coward’s face.
No longer able to keep the blade aloft, Arthur’s arm dropped, doubt gnawing at his confidence. Frustration turned to impotent rage, and he roared a battle cry to make the elderly man flee.
‘Go—run!’ he growled, his tone halfway to a scream.
The man did not move.
‘Run, damn you!’ he shouted again.
Nothing. Instead, the farmer fell to his knees and raised his head to the sky. ‘Hear me, divine lady!’ he called through toothless gums. ‘Hear me, mighty queen of vengeance!’ He pointed a gnarled finger at Arthur. ‘Punish this creature! Let me rest knowing we have justice!’ He spat at Arthur’s feet.
Flames bathed the once quiet village in waves of shimmering blue and orange. The dancing colours transfixed Arthur. Such was the power of the dread spell that he did not notice the old man’s gaze shift to his left until it was too late.
A shuddering blow, then sudden agony speared Arthur’s side. Alarm screeched through his senses. The force had pinned his torso in place, forcing him to turn his head toward the source of the devastating attack. A woman—no, a girl had driven a pitchfork into his side. She stepped back, as if in disbelief of her own action, then yanked the fork out. A torrent of paralysing pain coursed through Arthur’s tortured body.
At the edge of his awareness, he experienced the dim sensation of falling, then, blessedly, the pain receded, as did any semblance of strength. Before sweet oblivion took him, he watched the girl thrust the pitchfork into Amicus’s belly. Arthur tried to raise a hand to help his friend, but he couldn’t move. He cried out for the animal he’d raised from a foal, the only being in his life he remembered showing him love.
Arthur flew upward as the world below burned. He felt no fear, only exhilaration. Up, and still up, faster and faster, until an azure horizon bloomed before him. He surged through dark clouds, marvelling at their wisp-like substance as the heavens embraced him.
The horizon’s mighty curved line stretched above a vast globe surmounted by endless night. He had to the incredible speeds buffeting his body. To his surprise, he could move his neck and view the moon, daughter of Aeon, looming above him, a thousand times more brilliant than he’d ever seen her.
The blue band shrank to a tiny strip of light as he ascended into the dark heavens. Below, the world was a great orb covered by wondrous swathes of brown, green, and white. His ascent slowed, allowing him to look ahead as the brightest star emerged from the void and moved inexorably toward him.
The heavenly body swelled and took form. At first, Arthur could not discern the gathering shape, but it soon resolved into the unmistakable figure of a woman. The glow surrounding her transformed itself into a billowing white dress that accentuated her feminine contours. What had begun as a blank oval above her shoulders took on the most beautiful countenance, lovely beyond description, yet foreboding. Her alabaster skin was flawless, but unlike a statue, life radiated from her presence. She had a blind wrapped around her head, covering eyes that Arthur longed to gaze upon. But he knew if he did so, it would drive him mad.
She approached with a corona of fire illuminating the blackness of the starry abyss surrounding her. Arthur’s will dissolved before such perfection.
‘Am I dead?’ he asked, though his lips did not move.
You have not yet lived, child. The reply came from within him.
The lady frowned in disapproval, filling his soul with misery. You, unwanted by the universe, lowest of all—you will serve me now.
The command filled him with both hope and dread.
‘Can I ever be forgiven?’ he asked.
His answer came in the form of icy pain flooding his lungs. Arthur gasped and tore at his neck, unable to breathe the airless night invading his body.
The boy turned the spit roast, his skin scoured red from the constant heat. He looked around from his squatting position beside the fire and noticed the fat cook still slept off the wine he’d been consuming all afternoon. Although he risked a flogging, the child ripped strips of meat from the carcass, then wolfed down the hot scraps with relish, ignoring his burnt fingers. This was the way he’d survived longer than the other children—a shadow of a life, always out of sight and mind. Such was the lot of a slave. To share was to starve, and to be weak was a death sentence, so he grew strong instead.
Choking, Arthur woke to a red dawn. Merciless waves of agony surged up and down his body, while his stomach churned with writhing serpents. He forced his eyes open, only to be greeted by a vision of smoke and ruin. A tortuous throbbing in his fingertips demanded his attention, so he looked down and found them blackened above a smoking ember. With a cry, he pulled them aside.
Around him lay the wretched bodies of settlers, burned beyond recognition, with only patches of raw, red flesh clinging to their bloated carcasses. His clansmen had hewn others where they stood, their blood running in thick rivulets through the dirt. He saw no sign of the old man or the girl. Whether they’d escaped, he knew not. This place was a tomb.
Arthur drifted through a waking dream until the smoking ruins greeted him again. When he shifted his legs, pain flared in them with a ferocity that left him as breathless as a fish out of water. Fearing that hostile survivors might hear his laboured groans, he bit his arm, then inspected the mess of mangled flesh and leather that had been his torso. He stifled a whimper as he lifted himself into a crawling position and dragged himself forward. But after several minutes of shuffling through the scattered wreckage, he’d moved only a dozen feet.
The morning breeze blew through the settlement’s remains, bringing with it the sickly stench of burning flesh. Arthur retched up a mixture of blood and mucus. The evil smell triggered his most primal urge to flee, and he staggered upright while cupping the wound in his side with his right hand. It took every ounce of strength he’d earned from years of struggle. His vision swam.
Following a terrifying moment when he thought he would pass out, the view of his surroundings firmed. What had been a dark shadow earlier was now a visible tree line to the south. Although the wood offered respite from the surrounding charnel house and the attention of survivors, it also put him beyond the aid of any returning clansmen. He could stay and risk torture or find shelter elsewhere. If he lost consciousness, the beasts of the wild would feast upon his helpless flesh.
His parched throat made him delay the decision. Arthur staggered into the heart of the slaughtered village, where he found Amicus’s corpse lying across the opening of the main well. When the girl had injured him, the horse must have charged into the deadly trap in sheer panic. Blood dripped from the stallion’s flanks into the shaft. Resolved to die rather than drink here, he wiped his brimming eyes with a trembling hand, blackened by soot. All he could hear was Amicus’s life essence hitting the water below. No voices called, and no birdsong permeated the air, as if nature abhorred the evil afflicted upon this place.
He endured many a grim spectacle as he picked his way over shattered beams and twisted filth. At the edge of the village facing the wood, he resolved that anything would be better than to stay with vengeful ghosts, so continued toward the gloom of the thicket. The stench of butchery lessened, and he took in a great lungful of fresh air, but this small mercy was short-lived because his thirst had become a torment greater than the pain. He searched in the hollows for moisture, but the undergrowth slowed his movements and drained his exhausted reserves, leaving him utterly spent.
Arthur rested against the trunk of a huge oak and closed his eyes. A breeze stirred the leaves above him. How he longed to collapse there, listening to that soft sound, waiting for the inevitable, but something within him refused to give in to the embrace of oblivion.
The sun peeped through the canopy and touched his face. He sobbed, not knowing if he could endure much more, but the compulsion to live forced him to search for water again, so he rummaged through the fallen foliage beside the oak, uncovering a small pool at its base. A shudder of elation swept through him. With desperate speed, he plunged his head into its stagnant surface and drank deeply, before spewing back the rancid liquid. Arthur reached in and felt a slimy, bony texture. He lifted the grisly thing from the depths and choked with disgust at the skull of the rotting rodent.
Dismayed, he threw the carcass away and drank another mouthful, forcing himself to retain the vile stuff. Regardless of its putrid nature, the water ran down his throat like the finest wine, returning a small measure of strength to his battered body.
After one final swig, he pressed on, but soon lost track of his direction, confused by blood loss and the impenetrable wall of foliage. The world became a green blur. His mind wandered into a semi-conscious state while he battled the lulling beauty of this ancient place. Light danced through the patchwork of dark hollows surrounding him in a hypnotic display, and then coalesced into a woman in white ahead. He followed her, wondering if his mother had come to take him from a hated life.
She led the way, her pace quickening until she drew further and further ahead. He called out, but she did not turn. Then she vanished, and with her leaving, so his hope faded. He dropped to his knees. The last thing Arthur remembered was the green wall parting, and the light of the world returning once more.