A snippet – Prequel Novella
This is a snippet subject to change and revision but for all of you out there who are interested in a free snippet here you go!
Chapter: Unwanted Advances
The Great Hall of Argos was bustling with activity. Hundreds of people all milling about, separated out into their little packs arranged by geographic, social, or economic patterns.
Akantha had grown up in this hall, so spotting who was who had become second nature to her by now. There were the local free warrior bands hoping to curry favor with her family, some from as far away as Lyconesia. There were the usual local figures, those families whose interests were so directly tied to the state of the Great Hall and its occupants that their entire livelihood depended on being present at events like these, so they could offer some appropriately self-serving praise at the opportune moment. There was even the clan of grain farmers from the western edge of her mother’s Hold, who had recently found favor with one of Uncle Nykator’s lieutenants. Men only knows what bargain they had struck, since none of Nykator’s men were the most honorable of people.
She had to work hard to keep from reflexively spitting at the thought of Uncle Hypatios Nykator’s hand-picked group of cronies. She had never seen such a pompous group of self-important peacocks assembled in one place. And not only that, she had never found herself in such close proximity to their stink!
Still, Uncle Nykator was for all his faults, a competent Protector. No, if she was being honest with herself, Hypatios Nykator was a nearly legendary figure in Argos. He hadn’t lost a single campaign during his time as an independent Warlord, he had unified the Tegean Host for the first time in a century, and his tenure as the Protector of Argos had been the most productive period in its history. His feats in personal combat were also unparalleled. Again, if she was being honest with herself, he was quite the catch for her mother.
Of course, he was still just a Protector for Akantha’s mother, Polymnia Sapphira Zosime. And house Zosime had produced Argos’ Hold Mistresses for several generations. Protectors come and go, but Hold Mistresses endure. Since the dawn of Men, it had been thus, and it was the only way her people had ever known.
Akantha was seated on a plain stool one step below the dais from her mother’s High Chair, as was appropriate for the First Daughter of a Hold Mistress. The High Chairs were beautiful, truly wonders to behold, having taken an entire family of craftsmen fifty years to complete. The dark red wood was the hardest in the world, and if fashioned into a proper weapon, was capable of shattering even the hardest of stone. So naturally, it had taken awhile to work all of the intricate inlays and characters into the frames of the magnificent pieces.
Akantha’s stool, on the other hand, was plain. Four legs under a plain round section of tree trunk, with cross-braces for extra support. There was no polish, no cushion and no back upon which to lean while sitting. No intricate patterns engraved in the body of it, and even the wood used to construct it was common, good for little but fueling the fire to stave off a particularly cold winter.
And there was the message. A Hold Mistress is a ruler, a leader of humanity whose wisdom and foresight were all that stood between life and death in this harsh world. As such, she is deserving of splendid appointments, and the deepest of reverence. Without her, the world as they knew it would shatter, and the ravenous beasts of the wild (and even darker monsters) would descend upon their people and devour them whole.
A First Daughter, on the other hand, is a common thing. All families strive to produce strong daughters. There is nothing special about a woman who has yet to accomplish anything significant in her life. Even the bearing of young warriors is an honor befitting proper station in her society. But to be a young woman, even the First Daughter of a prominent Hold Mistress, was to be a common and uninteresting thing.
‘No,’ Akantha thought to herself, ‘that’s not true. A First Daughter inspires all kinds of interest: the unwanted kind.” She flicked her eyes over to the left side of the High Chair dais opposite her position, and had to once again repress the urge to spit.
Assembled there was the latest cadre of Uncle Nykator’s top men, each of them prancing about like ungelded stallions during rutting season, which is what they thought this was. Figuratively, at least.
First there was Kallistos, the strutting, preening little rooster who believed himself to be the absolute pinnacle of manhood; and he expected to be treated as such by any woman he deemed fit to grace with his magnificent presence. She failed to stifle a laugh as her eyes ran up and down his overly stylized armor, resplendent with polished metals and brightly colored feathers, skins and furs. He was attractive, that much was without question, and his skill with words was truly without peer among the ranks of Argos’ men. But the man’s narcissism was unbearable, even for the length of a single conversation.
Second was Kapaneus, whose presence sent a slight chill down Akantha’s spine. If there was a true successor to Uncle Nykator among his men, it was Kapaneus. He was ruthless, blunt and unyielding. In other words, he was the perfect warrior. His ego was overly large, but who could argue with his accomplishments? Uncle Nykator had all but spoon-fed him each and every step of his career, so it should come as no surprise to find them so strikingly similar. Still, his regard for women was not much better than a wild animal’s, and he was therefore unfit to serve as Protector, in Akantha’s estimation.
The third man to usually stand at Uncle’s side, Nikomedes, was strangely absent. Nikomedes was not quite the warrior as Kapaneus, neither was he the prancing, silver-tongued serpent like Kallistos. Nikomedes, for all his abilities as a warrior (and they were significant) was never able to truly shine in the presence of these other men. True, it might have been due to the fact that Nikomedes had never been the most cunning of men, in fact that was one of the biggest reasons Akantha had not accepted his advances. But he was an honorable man. He was the only man among Uncle’s close circle who had even the barest shred of respect for tradition and honor. The other members of Uncle Nykator’s group merely used such concepts to advance their own agendas, a prime example being this entire charade of ‘presenting’ these men as viable candidates to the Hold Mistresses First Daughter, Akantha, who was the only daughter old enough to become a Hold Mistress in her own right.
Akantha had already spurned each of these suitors in turn, but Uncle had insisted upon this farce of a presentation, citing some ancient custom whereby a reigning Protector of a Citadel could initiate such a proceeding in the interest of providing the daughters of the Hold Mistress with ‘first pick’ of recently honored warriors.
She had never heard of such an arcane law ever being invoked, but such things had become more commonplace in recent years, coinciding with the presence of yet another man in Uncle Nykator’s inner circle.
Her eyes narrowed as they fell upon what she believed to be one of the roots, if not the only root cause of this entire farce. The stiff, wizened form of Nazoraios, who was older than any man deserved to be, was never far from Nykator’s side. It was especially fitting that at the very moment Akantha’s eyes had found him, he was whispering something into her Uncle’s ear. While seeing Kapaneus could make her shiver, seeing Nazoraios made her blood boil.
A man had one purpose, and one purpose only: to protect those for whom he was responsible. As such, no man worth his weight in Stone Rhino hide would wish to see old age claim his life when he could spend it on the battlefield protecting those who rely upon him. Nazoraios was far older than any man she had ever seen, and was probably unfit to serve on the field of war. His mere existence should have been enough to offend every person present.
But his wisdom was beyond question. Not only was he the most literate man in Argos when it came to matters of lore and tradition, but it was whispered that he had the Third Eye; an ability to see into the future and predict events. This was widely held to be at least part of the reason for Hypatios Nykator’s successes, but none dared speak such thoughts within earshot of any of her Uncle’s men.
Akantha heard a familiar giggle to her right, from the bottom of the steps which led up to the dais. She casually glanced over and saw a round, freckled face with curly red hair framing her plain features. It was the familiar face of her favored lady in waiting, Olgaya, who had been Akantha’s closest friend since childhood. Akantha had always treasured their bond, and she only hoped that Olgaya felt the same.
Olgaya had clearly caught Akantha appraising the men surrounding Uncle Nykator, and had chosen to make light of the situation. Akantha scolded her with her eyes, but secretly she knew that she needed her best friend’s levity in moments exactly like these. The life of a First Daughter to the Hold Mistress was stressful, and Akantha often had difficulty controlling her emotions at times when she needed to present a calm, considered manner. Olgaya had always helped her maintain a kind of balance, and she had come to rely upon her in difficult times.
Next to Olgaya was Persus, the bodyguard who had been assigned to her since she was a child. He was a large man, soft-spoken but strong. He was a good soldier, and another person Akantha had come to rely upon during her young life for advice and guidance, especially when it came to the affairs of men. He was not quite a father figure, more like an uncle – one that she actually liked. He never strayed from her side, and she rarely saw him out of his Stone Rhino armor. It was people like these that made the rigors of her life more bearable.
Her thoughts of friendship were rudely interrupted by her Uncle’s booming voice.
“Argosians! I believe it is time to conduct the business of the day,” Nykator declared in his imperious tone.
The milling groups seemed to flow like water down a hill toward the main dais where Akantha, her mother, and Nykator’s troupe were assembled.
After a short pause, Uncle Nykator continued. “We are assembled here from the distant corners of the Hold to celebrate the recent victories of our bravest warriors.” He paused momentarily to gesture toward his ‘finest’ men, who all looked sufficiently pleased with themselves. “On the morn of our victory two weeks ago, a festival erupted in the streets of the Citadel that will conclude tomorrow night with the announcement of the Land Bride, Lady Adonia Akantha Zosime’s choice for her Protector!”
A round of applause erupted from within the assembled host of Argos’ leading citizens.
Akantha could barely contain her reaction. She could feel her face turning red at this latest bit of heavy-handedness by her Uncle, trying to back her into a corner by pressuring her into compliance with his wishes. She took a deep breath and tried her best to regain composure before all eyes fell upon her.
But Nykator had apparently rehearsed this, as he promptly continued after the appropriate period of applause. “We have assembled the very finest suitors from the length and breadth of the Hold in an effort to assist our dearest First Daughter in her choice. Never has there been a finer assortment of capable warriors than those you see before you. Except, of course, the last time I was free to take up the role of Protector,” Hyopatios Nykator added with a smug smirk.
The sycophantic chuckles at this poorly-conceived joke were too much for Akantha to bear. She stood abruptly, making a display of looking for someone but not finding them. “I beg your pardon Uncle, but I have not seen Nikomedes here. If, as you say, this collection is the finest warriors in the land, then I must ask where he is. Were I to have agreed to the timing of such an important announcement, I most certainly would have insisted on the presence of every noteworthy warrior from Argos.”
The buzz died down almost instantly as everyone recognized the challenge for what it was, which was almost enough to unnerve Akantha, but she was determined not to back down.
Nykator’s head turned slowly to Akantha, and even though he still wore a false smile, his eyes narrowed and he locked gazes with her. “Why, Lady Adonia, I had thought that since you were so interested in young Nikomedes, that you would have perhaps heard that he left last month on a quest of Acclaim, in an effort to win your hand through a gesture of action.”
Akantha’s throat tightened. She had not heard anything of the sort, since obviously she had not held any real measure of interest in Nikomedes until this particular moment, when his absence could be used to at the very least delay events. Nevertheless, she refused to allow this hiccup to slow her.
“A quest of Acclaim? Now that, at the very least, would be worthy of consideration. Remind me, Uncle; what is his quarry? If he believes it would be sufficient to win my favor, it must be a truly remarkable quest,” Akantha said in her most formal tone, trying hard to keep overt defiance out of her voice.
Nykator’s eyes remained narrowed for a second, then he seemed to realize something and his expression changed slightly. “Dearest daughter-mine, like so many others who have pursued you in the past, Nikomedes felt you were as cold as mountain ice toward his advances. So, he set out to retrieve the sword of King Lykurgos, lost these past three centuries. It is said,” he continued, raising his voice and gesturing toward the assembled crowd in deliberate fashion, “that the fires of the mountain gave birth to the Dark Swords of Power, and since there is only one such blade unaccounted for, he has made it his life’s goal to retrieve it in the hopes that the fires of the mountain might yet live on in the blade. He hopes it might thaw your frozen heart.” Nykator smirked triumphantly.
‘A Dark Sword of Power?’ Akantha thought, momentarily taken aback. It had been many decades since the discovery of the last such blade, and the chance to become Sword Bearer to a Protector who could boast possession of such a potent artifact would indeed pique her interest. It wouldn’t be enough on its own, but it would most certainly be enough to tip the balance if other things were close to equal. ‘Nikomedes might be cleverer than I thought,’ Akantha mused silently.
“The sword of King Lykurgos,” she said slowly, trying desperately to find a way to parlay this into an advantage. “And you say he left last month? That is hardly enough time for him to complete such an epic task. The discovery of the last Dark Sword of Power was reputed to have taken fifteen years from the day those noble warriors set out to reclaim it.”
“Are you saying you would save yourself for Nikomedes for fifteen years, Adonia?” Nykator interrupted. “That would hardly do for the First Daughter of Argos, or her people.” His sneer was so thinly veiled that Akantha felt her face flushing yet again. She made to snap a reply but was cut off unexpectedly.
“You are correct, Hypatios,” came the smooth voice of Akantha’s mother, Polymnia Sapphira Zosime. Akantha could hardly believe her ears; her own mother was siding with Uncle Nykator at a time like this! She turned to her Hold Mistress, feeling steam coming out of her ears, but her mother continued steadily.
“It would not do for the First Daughter of Argos, Land Bride of Messene and scion of House Zosime to leave her twentieth year without having accepted a Sword from a worthy Protector.” Polymnia’s face was perfectly composed, as though she were reading a report on annual grain production from the outlying provinces, rather than discussing the fate of her eldest daughter.
Akantha could not believe what she was hearing. Was she no more than a piece of meat to be bartered away in a timely fashion, lest she should spoil at market? She had always believed her mother understood her reasons for resisting earlier advances by warriors like these, but now she wasn’t sure.
Polymnia continued calmly, “My Protector, Hypatios Nykator, has indeed assembled a fine crop of warriors from whom you may choose to become your first Protector. It is time you assume your rightful place among the Hold Mistresses of these lands, that our people may benefit from your wisdom and abilities.”
Akantha seethed at this betrayal. “My mother must understand that I cannot in good conscience make a selection when one of the finest warriors in the land is unavailable,” she said through gritted teeth.
Her mother simply smiled and gave a slow tilt of her head as she made to reply, but she was cut off by Nykator. “It is unfortunate that Nikomedes is not here, but he made his choice,” Nykator said dismissively. “All warriors know the risks associated with an expedition into our harsh wilderness, and he knew it was possible that this would happen while he quests. You bring dishonor on yourself by hiding behind his absence, daughter-mine!” Nykator roared this last rebuke.
Akantha was in a rage by now, and completely unable to control her emotions. Her voice became like a serpent’s as she hissed, “I’m sorry to have disgraced my family in such a manner. Please accept my apology, as well as my promise to not bring further shame with my presence in the Great Hall!”
With that, she turned and stomped out of the hall, followed only by Olgaya and Persus.
The Deposed King