Eller drank another glass of fine summer wine. It was his fifth to be exact and the flavor had not changed since his first draught. The blood red liquid still had the strong fruity flavor as it did ten minutes ago. That much was strange for the famed Myrrn wine, grown from the city along the Long Sea, Myro. Their grapes and vineyards seemed never to run out of season and they grew the greatest of wines in all the South. Its divine quality was that it would change flavors every glass. It was the kind of grapes they used, some say infused with magic, that would disrupt the flavor. Eller drained the ornate glass of red, his lips ripe like the grapes themselves, gleaming in the torchlight, thinking only that he was too drunk to sense the difference in taste.
The Hall of Shhae roared with commotion and celebration, the chill stone floor buzzing as if a thousand bees swarmed underfoot. Long wooden tables cloaked in white palls ran down the massive hall, laden with food. Silver platters of fish, meat, and vegetables consumed the surface, along with giant glasses of wine from the groves of near and far. Shivering braziers puffed out heat in great breathes like dragons, glimmering ruby embers floating off in the air trailed by tails of curling black smoke. Eller sat alone, at the back of the farthest table to the left, the hard stonewall his only company.
His nose in another goblet of Myrrn wine, he watched with malevolent pale green eyes his father at the head of the center table. The center table was where the nobles and great lords from all across Hhad, Erediath and even Qethos sat, gorging themselves on the garish dishes that rested before their greedy faces. Swallowing the liquid without even tasting the flavor, Eller wiped the deep red sheen off his lips, smearing it across his pale flesh that rank of alcohol. He always smelled of intense alcohol. It clung to him like a baby does to its mother.
He pushed away the goblet until it tipped over and rolled on its side, spinning and spinning with a hallow ring and finally stopped, a drip of wine staining the frayed white pall. Eller sat back, leaning on the stone behind him, his ribbed spine rubbing against the rock through his clean velvet doublet, shimmering with blue light laced with bands of silver and a dull grey lace along the chest. At the breast a small iron serpent pin pierced the fabric, the same sigil embroidered onto his rough navy cloak that tumbled like water to the floor in a ruffled heap.
Sucking at his wine-stained lips, he heard a voice from across the table, “Could it be…oh dear, yes…yes it is. What has happened to you Eller? What has happened? It has been very long indeed…”
Eller looked up sleepily, his eyes droopy. – I’m a drunk. I’m a selfish little drunk who cares only about himself. – I’m the King’s son but he doesn’t give a shit about me. I’m a prince without a little pathetic crown. “I’ve acquired… habits.” Eller simply stated. Now I hope he leaves me to my wine. How I do like it, even if I can’t taste it. In fact, I rather like it better that way.
Instead, the speaker sat down, garbed in satin robes of purple with gilded lace screaming at the seams from his pudgy waist. He was a portly man, hanging with flesh and a plump pink face with pointy ears and muddy eyes. His robes seemed as though they were oversized and ruffled in great folds like hills of satin. He was a bald with smooth pale skin and muddled cheeks and many chins.
Oh great… Eller cursed as he felt the table creak with the man’s weight. “Why is it that you care of me so?” He asked, vexed.
“Do you not remember me?” Asked the man, his chins dancing. “Does the name Oppilus Mattip mean anything to you? Have you heard it before?”
Yes it does. “I have never heard such a queer name in all my life.” Said Eller. “Never in these parts.”
“I’m no fool.” Said Oppilus. “I’m your uncle, Lord of Spices from the city of Myro. You will do well to remember me, Eller. I know things you might want to hear.”
“Still,” sighed Eller. “These names… I haven’t the clue… Though I must say, your wine is very pleasant.” Myro… why would he have come so far… Maybe upon the wishes of my father? My mother even? No, they would not want him here. They say he eats everything before the king has had his share. They say he is a pig. They say he is a wicked and Machiavellian man, but those are all words. What shall he do to prove what has come to my ears correct?
“I did not come to play games,” growled Oppilus. “I will not sit here and be played for a fool by one such as yourself. I will return shortly and we will speak. I will not forget.”
“But I might,” said Eller as he sipped another goblet of wine. Oppilus grumbled something and rose from the table, his wide figure waddling away, the loose robes shifting like the current. Eller scratched his wild black hair, brushing it away from his face. He didn’t like having long hair, or having it long enough so that it passed his eyes. Though his father wouldn’t let him cut it, however much he pleaded. Like most other things his father declined his request, saying, “The serpents have long bore their hair long, we shall not be the ones to change that.” Bugger that. The hall glowed with torchlight as the banners draped down the walls like dresses, reinstating that Eller was in his father’s throne room.
“Damn relatives.” Eller whispered as he strode through the tables, a goblet in his hand, his heavy cloak dragging behind. He was in search of more wine, for he had run out and his lips had gone dry and greedy for the sweet flavor to dab his flesh again. His large eyes scanned the hall, curving through the tables like a snake, no a serpent. His heeled virgin leather boots clopped against the stone like hooves, clicking in steady rhythm. The thuds ceased as he veered away to an elegant vile of deep red liquid, a ring of purple glistening against the translucent glass.
A hand snatched the vile before he did, his eyes darting after it like a canine chasing after a bone. The wine trickled out like a stream, smooth and glassy, pouring into a short glass of banded gold encrusted with emeralds and rubies. The man sipped at his filled cup, his face shimmering off the gilded glass. “That is fine wine.” Praised the man after setting the glass down and looking up at Eller.
“It is for that reason I was searching for it.” Said Eller grittily, smirking. The man stood before Eller at the same height, a slight bulkier build to him with more muscle rippling under his fine silken jade robes stitched with glistering golden leaves along the right shoulder. His skin was a shade darker, an olive whilst Eller was a pale like all his ancestors before him. The man’s breast glinted with a ruby brooch, wrought in the shape of phoenix. He held out his hand, cuffed with gilded fabric.
Eller met it and they sat at the wooden table, the vile of Myrrn wine between them, still as glass. Filling his own cup, Eller asked, “What brings one such as yourself this far north? Surely it is not because of our victory.”
“In part.” Said the man slyly. His voice was like mist. “But there are other reasons why I am here as well. Though yes, one can say I came in celebration for this victory of your fathers. Another might say I used this invitation to do more than just drink a fine glass of Myrnn red.”
“You are a man full of riddles, Illyr.” Said Eller. “You are lucky I can understand them.”
“Yes you are, cousin.” Said Illyr. “For I now bring you what you requested of me when last we met. When might you say that was?”
“The pyre of Lord Liess, how could you forget?” Said Eller, his lips curving.
“It was not that I forgot,” said Illyr. “I simply did not remember, that was all. But yes, I recall the actions of that day. An interesting day I would surmise, in the least. Though I must not deluge the mind with such frivolous tales of old. For now I speak of the recent, the present.”
“What tales have reached your ears now?” Asked Eller. “What news have you stumbled across, being your apprised self?”
Illyr leaned closer. “The Isles of Lieth have declared war on Qethos.”
Eller seemed shocked. “They were allies of Qethos! What could have swayed their mind?”
“I do not know for sure yet, but I have heard rumors whispered across
the seas.” Said Illyr quietly. “Low murmurs the likes of which the entire South have not heard. This is very secret news I bring you, Eller, best not make it public. Qethos itself does not even know that such has happened. Norr is the only city, and I tell you this day what few men will find out before the break of day.”
“What whispers have your heard?” Asked Eller, bemused. “Are the ships still set to leave?”
Illyr shook his head. “I cannot be sure of whispers and rumors. But all I can be sure is that Lieth is no ally of Qethos anymore. They have joined with the dragon lords.”
“What about the ships?” hissed Eller. “Will they sail? Are we still to leave? The plan must survive.”
Illyr nodded. “It will, Eller, do not fret. The plan will continue on as it was wrought. Though it will be far more dangerous than we thought, but yes, the ships are still set to leave on the morrow, when the moon passes.”
Eller gulped. “Nobody in all the south knows of this yet. I am one of the first.”
“It shall not be like that for much longer,” insisted Illyr. “Soon the word will spread. Soon it will spread like mist. All of The South shall soon know, and so too will many more. I must report back to Shaalad with conformation. But first I must attain such. I’ll ask you one again, for the tides have changed, will you continue? Will you step aboard the Grey Wind?”
Eller glanced back at his father, his cheeks greased with fat as he picked at the steely grey scales of a fish. You leave me no other choice. Eller thought to himself with spite…. But what if I die? “I shall see you on the morrow when we set sail for Lieth.”
The night dragged on slowly after their meeting, time trudging through thick amber oil. Eller had retired back to his usual seat in the Hall of Shhae, at the far left corner, his back against the biting stone wall, a banner rippling above him, alit with dark red torchlight from scones along the walls, bolstered with iron. He drained his wine glass, setting it down in a hallow thud as the table quivered. Beads of purple-red dotted the white pall like red stars, burning with blood and flame. Eller’s glass was heavily stained as he pushed the barren thing away, tinted with streaks of velvety red and purple lacing together like the sky on a long summer’s night.
He leaned on his fist sleepily as he watched his father, King Elliae speak to the hall, his hard voice booming roughly. Eller flushed the voices out of his head, focusing on what lie ahead. He would be leaving the place he had grown up in. A place he had called home. Lieth was now his home, or soon it would be. Though that is not what troubled Eller so greatly. It was the voyage to Lieth. It was when he got there. The balance has been turned on its head and the risks had risen like the tide. Nothing was safe anymore. Not even Illyr.
He wished he could trust him, but the world has grown much to treacherous and the beast inside every man is awakening, due to the war. The only thing he agreed with his father was on war. He used to tell him, “War brings out the beasts in men, Eller.” But along with agreement, came disagreement what King Elliae said next to him. “It is up to the serpents to silence the beasts, for none are stronger than the great serpent of the sea.” Eller knew the serpent would be devoured, just like all the other beasts in the great sea of spears.
Eller was unbuttoning his velvet doublet when Oppilus Matip arrived before him, his fleshy body consuming his vision. The man from Myro sat down across from Eller like he did some hours before, his satin robes ruffled like hills. His beady eyes were intense as they stared at Eller, then looked at the emptied glass on the table.
“Drinking are we?” he asked. “Is it nice? I would hope so since its Myrrn.”
“Superb,” said Eller coolly. “But, you know, it seems the flavor has abandoned me. A pity really, I was greatly enjoying it.”
“Would you like me to fetch you another glass?” Asked Oppilus, reaching for the clear vile, eyes tilted.
“At once,” replied Eller, waving his hand. “If it please you.”
Oppilus swiped the glass aside, his voice in a suddenly harsher tone. “What do you take me for, a slave?” he snarled. “Oppilus Matip did not come to fetch anyone a glass of wine.”
“I quiet liked that glass,” said Eller as it rolled away. “Something different about that one.”
“Well you won’t be alive much longer to have another glass of your beloved wine if you don’t stop your blabbering.” Hissed Oppilus, leaning forward.
“Is that a threat?” asked Eller calmly.
“No, it’s a fact,” stated Oppilus plainly. “And it’s not by my hands that it will be done.”
Eller’s face darkened. Even drunk Eller could sense something was wrong. “What is happening, Oppilus?”
“The king is to be assassinated,” he said, his face hard as stone. The words hung in the air like dust, whirling about, drifting through Eller’s ears.
Eller leaned back again. This saves me the fell deed, he thought. For long he had played with the idea of killing his father.
“It is to happen soon,” cautioned Oppilus. “I am one of the only ones that know, and you should do well to listen.” The Lord of Spices whispered into Eller’s ear, “They’re coming for the entire House.”
Eller leaned back and tilted his head. They’re coming for me?
“They’ve come to whip out to last Serpents of O`eas,” said Oppilus. “By the end of this night, your father, mother, uncles, grandparents, aunts, everybody in your family will be dead. Except for us.”
“Then it is best we leave at once.” Said Eller, nervous anxiety tearing at his heart.
“Follow me, then, and stay close,” said Oppilus, rising from the table and sweeping off down the hall. Eller left behind his wine, and clicked after the Lord of Spices, the hall eerily quite. His heavy blue cloak dragged along the stone floor as he walked, and his visions flickered from the alcohol. The great braziers blazed like the sun in the corners of the room, blinding momentarily. Rushing away from the hall, Eller glanced back over his shoulder to see a ghostly black figure behind his father’s seat, and a gleaming silver blade spike out of his stomach, glistening with bright crimson blood. The king had fallen, his father. And so it began.
A shriek of terror pierced his ears as he passed underneath a low arch and down a narrow staircase, alit with flickering fingers of murky flame. The cries echoed in the tight staircase descending into the bowels of the Seastone Keep, where a fetor stench clung to the air with tenacious clutches of iron and steel. Deep and deep into the keep the staircase led them, leading them away from the cries, away from the assassins, and into darkness.
The cool murky tunnel burrowed deep into the stone, the stairs broken and crumbled as they wended away into shadow. Patches of torchlight dripped down the walls, pooling on the stairs in fluttering red images. The heat brushed against Eller’s moist face like a hand of fire, its writhing fingers caressing his skin like a mother’s would to their children. Farther down, the smells of moss and decay and death and mold and salt grew, silent as the night.
Heavy, hurried footsteps raced after them, following their trail down the stairs and into the dungeons and prison cells. Eller had never been down here before, but had known of the tunnels before. The Master of the Citadel had once informed him that there were fifteen miles of intricate tunnel systems winding all through the earth under the keep and more so the city itself. Most emptied out to the sea, but some, the most hidden and secret led to the docks and to the back of the keep. Some even led down to the Layer of Oessi, the King of the Serpents of old, he had been told.
Salt swam through the cool, thin air as they raced deeper until the tunnel opened to a wide and vast underground hall. Giant pillars dark with algae were carved out of the rock in the shape hulking sea serpents, their thin forked tongues arcing out of their jagged jaws like stone ribbons. The bleak stone floor was cloaked in a slick green, where under the veil dulled grey-green scales shimmed in the grey light of dawn. To the left, the hall opened to the sea, guarded with columns of carven stone. The frothy fingers of water crashed viciously against the stark rock pillars, the seething mist falling off like rain into the hall.
Eller had heard of this place, buried deep within the keep, as a burial ground. He never had believed the stories until his eyes saw the bones and skin. Giant, curving rib-like bones, white as milk, rested at the back of the hall, cloaked in shadow. The bones were veiled under a thin, cracking film of grey-green skin where the long, bending white swords lay in a clustered mound, rank with vile blood and the sea. The legends were true, Eller marveled. The serpents were real!
Visir rocked on his side, shaking madly. The stone floor was moist with poison and dark with blood. His cheek rested on the stone, with poison seeping into his body. His hands were not bound, but the rings of red from before still burned like they were still there, with a vengeance. His body felt hallow, stripped of all feeling and emotion. All that he felt was the cold hard ground, and a burning sensation in his chest, stumbling around his heart.
He did not feel the torment of the Serpent’s Stomach. He did not feel the pain so many died from. Whether it was from the hands of the poison or it was done ultimately by their own hands, but the pain is what killed them. The pain brought upon by the deadly poison that lined the entire cell. It was dark, the cell, and small with long iron bars and a thick rock interior. There were no waves that crashed through and no heat, only cold, icy emptiness. Visir staggered slightly on the ground as he felt another rush of poison flash like
lightning, but the pain diminished and he felt nothing.
“It is better to feel pain than nothing it all.” Artsain had said to him when they had exited the Divide. He felt nothing, and saw nothing, only darkness where the void of black stretched on forever, where a white splotch looked at him, its pale face ghostly, like a birch tree. The white swirled, shifting and turning until it vanished and he felt a sharp lance of pain in his heart. The brutal suddenness awakened him in a flash of white and he rigidly rolled over, the poison eating at his body with tenacious talons like vultures to a carcass.
Arstain was crouched in the corner, his sooty face streaked with cracked blades of blood, oozing with fingers of dark green poison. His body was gaunt and frail, almost emaciated with the shadowy black robes hanging off his skeletal figure like curling mist. Visir glanced away rom the dark figure, not knowing how long they had been trapped in this fowl place. How long did it take for the poison to sink in and kill you? He thought morbidly. The Serpent King said it was long and torturous; his words had done the cell no justice.
Visir’s ears pierced in shock as he discerned the clopping of boots outside the cell. He tried to scream for help, for mercy, but his voice did not come forth, only undecipherable scratches. Dragging himself closer to the rusted bars, the sounds grew louder and louder as the figures grew closer and closer. Visir beat his lifeless hand against the iron bars like a mallet would a drum, the metallic thrum ringing through the dim and murky underground. A bead of water dripped from the low roof, dark with lichen, like a tear, crashing into a small pool with a plop as the figures were cast under the dim flutters of drowsy flame.
He tried his hardest to speak, but nothing more than a rasp seethed out of his dried and cracked lips. His throat burned as if bristled with thousands of steel spears, but still he tried. His croaks rewarded one of the figures to stop before the cell and peer inward. He was a fair man, with a velvet coat and long ebony black hair with a pale face.
“We cannot linger.” Hissed another, a dark shape in the shadows. “They are soon upon us. These men are of no concern to ours. Let them rot. It is better them than us.”
The man tried a vain attempt at opening the iron gates. “We can’t. I remember them. Yes… yes… from earlier in the Hall of Serpents--”
“They’re coming!” Interrupted the man in shadow. “We don’t have anytime to talk. We need to leave, and leave those things behind if you must. Let them go.”
The man in the velvet cursed and raced away into the dim shadows of the tunnels ahead, leaving Visir and Arstain behind to rot like corpses. Visir slumped down, his body curled in a contorted slouch. They were dead. It was over…
“How did you know of these tunnels?” Asked Eller as they descended farther through the tight murk. The deeper and farther they went the smell grew stronger and the murk grew thicker. The walls gradually grew moist and slick with more than water. Water constantly dripped from the low ceiling and a fetor stench of decay and dry blood and mud hug in the thick air like mist. The stairs leveled out and the tunnel widened as Eller brushed his hand against cool wall, following the shivering orange glow of Oppilus’s torch.
The Lord of Spices navigated carefully through the tunnels, a dreary grey
hood flung over his head, and his face glistened with shivering beads of anxious sweat. “Long ago on one of my first visits to the citadel of O`ea I wandered through the libraries and archives of the city. It is not an impressive story, but it is true, if you still care to listen to it.”
“I never said I didn’t.” Said Eller. The bloody fool.
“Yes, well, I was wandering through the vast halls and corridors of the library and I stumbled across a book with a scarlet leather binding, I remember. It caught my eye enough to make me pull it out of its resting bed and I brushed away the dust. It was a history book of the city and of the citadel itself, as well as the ancestry and the Seastone Keep.”
“Was I in the book?” Asked Eller. He always was fond of hearing what others thought of him. He liked to see his appearance in the other eyes of the world. Not that he gave a damn over their opinion; he just liked to jest about it to himself. He found it quiet funny… it need be said.
“I’m afraid it was written before you were born.” Said Oppilus. “In the times of the true Serpent Kings when the legends were real and they transformed before the entire city.” Eller thought of the bones, the giant milky white bones stacked under the scaled skin.
“So the stories were true.” Said Eller. “The Serpent Lords really ruled this city once?”
“They are only legends, Eller,” said Oppilus. “And old legends at that.”
Bugger that! They were true! I saw the bones! I saw the scales! “I
suppose.” Eller replied.
“And in the book, there was a map.” Said Oppilus. “There were many maps, if I remember correctly, but this one was different. It was shoved like a letter in an envelop into inside front cover, rather crudely I must say. It was drawn with some sort of charcoal on a ratty, aged page of flimsy parchment that looked about to rip at the slightest to tugs. Smeared, but still discernable, were lines and maps of a forgotten tunnel system under the city and the Seastone Keep, where the Serpent Kings dwelled at times and also an escape system if there was to be a siege on the city.”
“And the tunnels were forgotten?” Asked Eller.
“It could be said.” Replied Oppilus. “And so kept that map and to this day I have it in possession.”
Eller could hear the sea up ahead, as the tunnel tightened. The waves roared and crashed with a seething spray and was swallowed up again in a massive gulp of water to crash down again upon the rocks. Oppilus stifled the torch and threw it aside, the wood clattering against the stone like a hallow log, dull and deep. The two passed quickly out of the tunnels and out into the morning mists as they crawled along the wood docks. The grey dawn was bleak and dreary to behold, the sun struggling to burn through the heavy grey veil like a lamp under a shade.
The sea churned as the mists curled across the white-capped surface, the grey-blue water dull and crisp as he sprayed white spears of froth through the air when they thrust into rocks or the docks. The winds were strong this morning, and the salty breathes of whistling wind opened Eller’s nose in a brisk cleansing.
The docks were vast, like a wooden city on the sea. The beams of wood plunged deep into the rocky depths of the shore and the rickety planks moaned as the water rose and fell underfoot. The mist hid its vastness, but the winds were beginning to push the moisture away. As the mists drifted away, the banners and flags of the House of the Serpent writhed and flapped wildly, with sigils distorted in the fierce gusts. The docks were eerily quiet that morning and the regular fishers and captains walked in search of bait or preparing for a voyage out to the Endless Sea.
It was still early for imports to dock into the city, but soon the ships were leave shore in destinations near and far carrying loads of goods in trade of importing goods. The most common trade was between Qethos and sometimes Eliann, exchanging their seastone and sandsilk for fine Qetheen silk and the leathers of Eliann, from which they skin from wild boars or other animals in the Flats or the Hills of Lieth. O`ea was a city known for their naval trade supplies and their vast collection of ships and vessels of ocean craft.
Eller was taught at a young age the trading cities O`ea dealt with. He had had to name them and write them in the O`eanivv. He recognized a trading galley from Qethos up ahead, presumably carrying silk, docked with its anchor submerged under rock. Eller could tell it was Qetheen not only by its banners, but by its design. The Qeen, the ships of the Qetheen, were built of a type of wood found only on the many Isles of Qethos. It mostly grows on Aethos, but also on Valann as well, growing along the feet of the mountains. The quein tree they are called in the Qeeth, and their bark is a pale grey like stone and the leaves are a deep purple, almost black. Eller had never seen a quein, but had seen sketches in books that he had read. He was an avid reader.
Oppilus led him through the docks, toward a great ship with the banners of Myros flapping in the wind. Suddenly, in a great billow of wind, there was a screaming whistle that sliced the air next to Eller’s ear and drove into Oppilus’s back, the wooden arrow quivering. The Lord of Spices uttered a grunt and a moan, biting his tongue and dropped to his knees in a thud. Eller flashed his face back where the arrow had been shot then bolted, leaving Oppilus’s writhing body behind, the wooden planks drinking the blood fiercely.
Eller raced across the wooden docks, the sea roaring around him and the mist curling around his face. The ocean expanded out to his left as he ran, meeting the horizon smoothly as the silky streaks of pale blue rose as the sky, a thin mantle of misty cloud thrown over the sky in cracked plates. Still the sun was hidden behind the grey veil, its intense white light sifting down through the shelves of mist and cloud and shedding a grey glare across the world.
Eller dashed down a wooden platform before a mid-sized Lietheen galley with the mast down and the ladders up, ready for his entry. The serpent’s son climbed the ladder up to the ship, and grasped a leathery hand on the railing, heaving him over.
“You made it,” said Illyr. “Welcome aboard the Grey Wind.”
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