T C Southwell writes fantasy and science-fiction books, e-books, and novels. Discover epic fantasy series by a South African author.
“We need more Summoners, Sire.”
King Argonan frowned at his senior advisor, the fluttering lamps in his book-lined study casting leaping shadows across his pinched features. His high brow bore the lines of many frowns, brought on by the time of strife in which he ruled. Kergal met his monarch's despairing grey gaze unflinching, secure in the validity of his words. Needing more Summoners was one thing, however, finding them was another, and the king knew it. Every kingdom needed Summoners in times of war, and the two kings who laid siege to Argonan's domain had six in their ranks. Enough to turn the tide of battle in their favour and chase Argonan's forces into the heart of his kingdom, where his fortress and final bastion had come under threat after two years of conflict.
Argonan shook his head and sighed. He had only four in his employ, and two of those were not powerful. One could only summon a grimwolf, a fearsome beast, but not much use against an army. The other summoned a direbird, a nasty creature, but again, just a mortal beast. His two best Summoners could call shadow beasts from the Dark Realms, yet even those were not so powerful.
The king rubbed his eyes. “Where would we find more Summoners? Are you suggesting we raid the wild lands to the east?”
“No, Sire. A rumour has reached me of another Summoner right here in your kingdom, who has remained hidden.”
Argonan scowled. “Why would anyone hide a Summoner at a time of war? Bring the traitor to me, and I'll have him hanged.”
Kergal's brows rose. “You can't hang a... Oh, I see, you mean the traitor who hides him.”
“Of course I mean the traitor who hides him! Sometimes you act like a buffoon, Kergal.”
“The way you said it was con -”
“Just find him!” Argonan roared.
Argonan rubbed his brow as Kergal left, fatigue and worry weighing heavily upon him. At times his bungling senior advisor could be trying, but Kergal made some good suggestions and had a knack for hearing rumours. Probably because of his exceptionally large ears, Argonan mused. The portly, balding advisor had been in his service for five years, and before that had been nothing more than a lowly scribe to a noble family. Argonan pondered the possibility of finding another Summoner again. If he was powerful, he could turn the tide of the war and save the kingdom. Four of his enemies' Summoners were powerful, and against such odds he had little hope of winning. That was why they had banded together, he thought bitterly, in their greed for more land and serfs to serve them.
With five Summoners, even if this new one was not so terribly powerful, he would at least stand a better chance, although he hated the need for them. The world would be a better place without Summoners. They knew their worth, and demanded riches and luxury in return for their services. If he denied them and lost them to his enemies, the kingdom's doom was assured. Good Summoners had the power to summon a shadow beast from the Realms of Darkness, but only if they were in danger. The ability was involuntary, and he wondered if they wished they were ordinary folk. Perhaps not. A Summoner could not be killed, but they became tools that kings and emperors used. Then again, no one could force a Summoner to serve them.
Argonan stared at the banner on the far wall, whose rearing black stallion crest was the symbol of his house. His family had a Summoner in its history, able to summon a shadow stallion, and from thence stemmed the emblem of which his family was so proud. Even though King Naron had been a spoilt despot who had enjoyed torturing women. Why would anyone hide a Summoner? The question plagued him. The goddess Rayvar had gifted the weak with protection when she had created this world, and none dared to harm them. Summoners were always frail and often times sickly, born with a thumbnail-sized red mark on their nape. He considered the four in his service. Jessid had a club foot and a weak chest, Drall was deaf and had a cleft palate, and they were the weaker Summoners. The more powerful pair was Ergin, blind and dumb, while Travar was a hunchback with a twisted, withered leg.
How could anyone hide a Summoner? Any child born with a defect was one. It made no sense. Perhaps the rumour was false. If so, his kingdom was surely doomed. Even Ergin's shadow snake and Travar's shifting dragon could not stand against the enemy's dark swarm, firebird and Hellhound. A powerful Summoner would be impossible to hide. Their frailty marked them, so this hidden Summoner had to be weak, and would do him little good. Argonan clasped his temples to try to ease the pounding in them. To find a hidden Summoner whose defect was too slight to be noticed, the searchers would have to inspect everyone's nape. That could take months, and he did not even have weeks to spare.
“I have found the Summoner, Sire.”
Argonan looked up from the papers in front of him as hope filled his heart. Only two weeks had passed since he had sent his senior advisor on his quest, and Kergal stood before his desk, looking smug.
“That was quick. How did you do it?”
“I followed the rumours, Sire. The story said that this hidden Summoner was the daughter of a noble family, yet none have a crippled child. Still, I tracked her down. The midwife who attended her birth saw the mark, and, although the family paid her well to keep it a secret, she told her daughter, who -”
“A girl?” Argonan interrupted. “Where is she?”
“I have sent soldiers to fetch her, Sire. She will be here within a few days.”
“Who is her father?”
“Lord Oshram.” Kergal raised a hand when Argonan's brows drew together. “Sire, I beg you not to punish him. His daughter is just eighteen years old, and you cannot blame him for hiding her ability. Her mother died birthing her. She's all he has.”
“How did he keep it a secret? Did he hide her in his dungeon?”
“No, Sire. By all accounts, the girl has no outward frailties.”
“Then what is wrong with her?”
Kergal shrugged. “I do not know, Sire.”
“She must be weak.” Argonan sighed and rubbed his brow. “What does she summon?”
“No one knows.”
Argonan raised his brows. “How can she never have summoned her guardian? Surely she has been in danger at some stage in her life?”
“Yes, indeed. Once bandits attacked her carriage and stole her, but Lord Oshram ransomed her back, unharmed.”
“And nothing came to her aid?”
“How odd. Still, another Summoner will help. Keep searching for more.”
Kergal's brows rose. “Where, Sire? Surely we have all those in your kingdom now.”
“There may be some in the deep country. Search the woodlands. Perhaps one has been born recently.”
“Yes, Sire.” Kergal bowed and left Argonan to ponder the slight hope this new Summoner offered. If she had no outward sign of weakness, she could not be powerful, yet it was said that the more powerful the shadow beast summoned was, the slower it was to come to the Summoner's aid. Still, the lack of a frailty was an equally strong indicator that her creature was a lesser beast. He looked down at the documents with a sigh. The only way to find out was to place the girl in danger and see what came to her aid. That was a dangerous undertaking, however, since her guardian would kill whatever threatened her. No one tested Summoners, for it was rare that their beast had not come to their aid at some stage in their childhood.
Argonan decided to leave it up to fate. They would find out when she was sent into the midst of battle. Once amid the soldiers, her guardian would perceive her danger and appear. His army fought daily on its slow retreat to his fortress, and the time would soon be upon them when the soldiers would fight from the walls. He hoped this new Summoner would tip the balance in his favour before that happened, and his enemies would give up rather than face her guardian. So much hung in the balance.
King Argonan eyed Lord Oshram, one of his more senior and respected nobles, quelling his desire to berate the man for his treachery. The tall, beefy man glared down a narrow nose, his nostrils flared and his pale blue eyes filled with defiance and anger. Dark blond hair framed his handsome visage, and his rich garb of blue velvet and ermine almost compared to Argonan's gold-embroidered grey satin and sable. Argonan sighed and shook his head in token censure, indicating a cushioned gilt chair with a wave of his hand.
“Sit, My Lord. I am eager to make the acquaintance of your daughter, Lady...?”
“Merynne, Sire.” Oshram sat on the chair, clearly ill at ease.
“A lovely name. When will I meet her?”
“I beg you, My King, do not do this.”
Argonan sat behind his desk and laced his fingers as he leant on it. “Do I really have a choice? We face defeat.”
Oshram looked away. “I fear for my daughter, Sire.”
“No harm will come to her, rest assured. A Summoner has never died in the service of his king.”
“You do not understand. Her weakness is her heart. When we saw that she was a Summoner we were confused, for she is perfect in every way. I summoned a healer to discover what was wrong with her, and he told me her heart is so weak she barely clings to life. One shock will kill her.”
“Then we will not give her any shocks. How did she survive her time with the brigands who stole her?”
Oshram pulled a face. “They did not frighten her so very much. They dwell on my land, and are known locally as the Merry Men. They tend to jest and jape while they rob people, and most are not alarmed. Merynne was sixteen at the time, and knew who they were when they stopped her coach. She said she has not laughed so much before or since then.”
“I see. A happy problem, to have such a jolly band of marauders on your land.”
Oshram snorted. “Indeed. But sending her into the midst of a battle will surely frighten her to death, Sire.”
“I understand your concern. Does she know she's a Summoner?”
“Yes, I explained it to her a long time ago, in the hope that it would allay her fears so she would never be afraid.”
“Then there is no problem.” Argonan sat back. “She will not be afraid.”
Oshram leant forward. “But there is a problem, Sire. We know not what she summons. Her frailty is dire, therefore she will summon something terrible from the Shadow Realms.”
“Which is exactly what we need, My Lord. Only such a beast can save us now.”
“What if it is something so terrible that it kills everyone?”
“At worst, it may slay some of my army, but that is an acceptable risk. If we lose this war, we face death or slavery.”
“We do not know what kind of monsters dwell in the Shadow Realms, Sire.”
Argonan waved it away. “I am decided. I require Lady Merynne's aid, and you cannot deny your king. She must summon her guardian.”
“Sire, I beg you -”
“Enough.” Argonan stood up. “I will meet your daughter now.”
Lady Merynne waited in Argonan's drawing room, where she sat on a brocaded window seat, gazing out at the manicured gardens around the castle. The fortress, located just outside the premier city of Avaron, had not seen war for many centuries, and its defences had given way to pretty gardens that the Queen used for tea parties and picnics with her friends. That would change if King Dairmond and Ellerad drew any closer to Avaron, however.
The girl rose at the King's entry and sank down in a deep curtsey, wobbling a little as she rose. Oshram went to her side and offered her his arm, which she clung to, casting him a soft smile. Argonan studied her, noting the faint blue tinge in her lips and the dark rings under her pale eyes. She possessed an air of fragility that made her resemble one of the delicate china dolls his wife collected. This girl, he sensed, would not live out her full allotment of years, and would never bear children.
“My daughter, Lady Merynne, Sire,” Oshram introduced her.
Argonan took the frail hand she extended and bent over it, noting its chill. The girl's thin blonde hair was swept up in a simple coil, exposing her slender neck, and her fashionable pink gown revealed bony shoulders. Her eyes appeared too large for her face, and a little protuberant, and when she smiled her teeth were too big as well. No wonder, considering how tiny she was, he mused. She barely reached his armpit. Her waist was so narrow he could have clasped it easily.
“I am delighted to meet you, Lady Merynne,” he said.
“Nice to meet you too, My Lord.” Oshram leant closer to whisper in her ear, and she blushed. “I beg your pardon, Sire.”
Argonan smiled. “May I see your mark?”
Merynne looked puzzled, and Oshram took hold of her shoulders and turned her so Argonan could see the wine stain birthmark on her nape. Argonan nodded. There was no doubt in his mind that this girl held the key to saving his kingdom. One so frail had to be a powerful Summoner. His attention was diverted as Merynne looked up at her father with wistful eyes.
“Can we go home now, Papa?”
“Not quite just yet, my sweet. Soon, though.”
“I miss Lerry.”
“I know. You'll see her again soon.”
Argonan raised a brow. “Lerry?”
“Her pony. I gave it to her for her birthday, just a week ago.”
“Ah.” Argonan took hold of Oshram's arm and drew him aside. “You neglected to mention that your daughter is simple, My Lord.”
“Why would you need to know that? Is it not enough that she is so frail? Must you compound my humiliation?”
Argonan was a little taken aback by the vehemence of Oshram's tone, and shook his head. “No, indeed.”
“When her mother died, Merynne was still in her belly. The midwife cut her out, but said she might never be able to learn much.”
“A sad tale, My Lord.”
“To which you will add a tragic ending.”
Argonan shook his head. “She will come to no harm.”
“Perhaps not her, but -”
“Oshram, you will cease to argue with me. Tomorrow she will join my other Summoners on the battlefront. Once the war is won, you may take her home to ride her pony to her heart's content.”
Oshram gazed at his daughter. “So you are convinced she will save us.”
“I am. She will be a heroine.”
King Argonan rode his black destrier at the head of his honour guard, Oshram beside him. In the van, Lady Merynne languished in a well-sprung gilt coach, her every whim catered to by the serving girls who accompanied her. Argonan did not wish to alarm the girl in the least before her time came. She might not survive the encounter, he reflected, but her sacrifice would save his kingdom. If she died in the battle, she would be the first Summoner to do so, but it would not be the result of any wound. Oshram's fear was well founded. The girl seemed likely to drop dead at any moment.
They were two days ride from Avaron now, and when they crested the hill the battlefield would come into view. Dawn had broken not an hour before, when they had set off from their last rest camp. A herald had brought Argonan disturbing news from the front that morning. The army was in full retreat, its numbers so reduced that it was little more than a rout with some valiant rearguard action. If the speed of the retreat was as the messenger had recounted, they would reach it soon. Wounded soldiers straggled past them in search of safety, some in wagons, others on injured mounts.
Argonan drew rein as his stallion crested the hill, drawing in a sharp breath at the sight that awaited him in the next valley. Thousands of men battled there, some locked in swordplay, others cut through the melee on war steeds, while archers rained arrows down on them in a deadly steel-tipped storm. War engines, drawn up behind his lines, hurled their lethal cargo of burning rocks at the enemy, and theirs sent fiery missiles into his men.
It had been a few weeks since he had come to the battlefront, and the reduction of his forces shocked him. His Summoners were all deployed, seated on placid steeds while their guardians wreaked havoc around them. Jessid's dire bird swooped down to rend the enemy soldiers who came near him with razor claws and beak. Drall's grim wolf brought down more, while Ergin's shadow snake and Travar's shifting dragon slew hundreds with their slithering coils and fiery breath.
The enemy's dark swarm also slew hundreds with its buzzing mass of tiny flying beasts whose venom killed instantly. The firebird crushed its victims with burning wings, and the hellhound's savage bays killed all those around it. Argonan wondered how they had fought this war for two years when so many men died in every battle. That explained why all three kingdoms had been stripped of their men, and women and boys worked in the fields now. A battle such as this would only rage for two or three hours, however, then both sides would retreat to heal their wounded and prepare for the next one.
Eager to see his new Summoner in action, Argonan turned and signalled to his men. A quartet made their way to the gilt coach to fetch the girl, one leading the calm grey horse that would bear her. Oshram watched with dread in his eyes as his daughter was coaxed from the carriage and lifted aboard the horse. She smiled, apparently enjoying the excitement and her new mount. She patted its neck as the soldiers led her past them towards the battle. Oshram raised his hand in farewell, and she waved back, giggling.
“She will be all right,” Argonan assured him.
Oshram shot him a dark glance. “I pray you are right, Sire.”
“She will summon a shadow beast that will put an end to all this, once and for all.”
Oshram gazed at the tiny girl who approached the battle, her mount dwarfing her. The soldiers led it at a trot now, and she clung to the pommel, glancing back with wide eyes.
“Do not be afraid, my sweet,” he whispered.
All Summoners wore white so they stood out in the smoke and dust of battle, and her pale gown fluttered in the breeze. She reached the first ranks of men, who stepped aside to let her through. They smiled up at her, glad to see another Summoner on their side. Some even raised their spears and cheered. Merynne waved and laughed. Oshram's hand tightened on his reins as if he fought the urge to go after her, and Argonan leant over to clasp his shoulder.
“Courage, My Lord. She is the answer to our prayers.”
Oshram bowed his head, his lips moving silently, as if Argonan had reminded him of the need for prayer. The king looked around at the elderly priest he had brought with him on this trip, to tell him about the beast Merynne summoned. The chubby man sat on a sturdy sorrel pony, his gaunt features pinched with worry. Argonan had dismissed his concerns at the fact that no one knew what manner of guardian Merynne would summon. Whatever it was, it would win the war, he was certain.
Merynne passed through the centre of his army and approached the front lines, still waving at the troops around her. Argonan wondered just how simple she was, to be unafraid even now. A little fear would serve her well, he mused, for she seemed in danger of falling off with the enthusiasm with which she waved. She passed into the battleground, where men fought and died with screams and the clash of arms. The soldiers who led her mount drew their swords to ward off attacks, and a group of enemy soldiers headed towards her. They hoped to slay her before her guardian appeared, Argonan knew, and wondered when it would come. The greater beasts sometimes took a while to arrive. The embattled men closed in around her, and she finally stopped waving.
Argonan became aware of a soft sigh passing over the land, as if something massive woke. A faint singing carried on the breeze, sweet and serene, as if the world itself sang a song of sorrow. He glanced around, puzzled, and Oshram looked startled.
Argonan turned to the priest. “What is that?”
He shook his head. “I know not, Sire.”
The knot of struggling men closed in around Merynne, and her horse shied. The girl slid from its back and vanished into the mob. Oshram gave a strangled cry, and the ground erupted with fire. It rose all around them in vast, searing streamers, and Argonan's war stallion reared, fighting to flee. Oshram also battled to control his plunging steed, and the king's honour guard cringed and cried out in terror. The ground burnt. The fire that streamed from it drew together in the sky, burning away the clouds. Argonan gazed up at it with wide eyes, his mouth open in stupefaction. A creature formed in the air as fire rushed together to create massive wings that spanned the horizon, its eyes burning white-hot. The singing increased in volume, rising and falling in a tuneless melody. The beauty of it stunned the King, as did the vast power of the beast Merynne had summoned.
Argonan glanced back at the priest, who sat on the ground, his pony fled. “What is it?” he shouted.
The man's mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, then he croaked, “Jra'vendar!”
“Jra'vendar! The Burning One! She has summoned the Heart of The World!”
Argonan experienced the singular sensation of his heart sinking into his boots and running through them onto the fiery ground. No one could summon the World's Heart. Yet perhaps a fragile girl with a broken heart could. No one knew the full extent of the most powerful Summoner, and he knew at that moment that he had met her just a few days before. A tiny girl with wistful eyes and a simple mind. A child born with one foot in the grave, who would unleash upon the world the goddess' retribution for harming the weak.
Fire poured from the burning earth in endless rivers, scorching the air, which seared his lungs. Dust rose in dancing whirlwinds to darken the sky with smouldering clouds. The men around Merynne perished with piercing screams as lances of flame shot through them, and dust eddied around her. She sat on a patch of moist green grass, gazing up at the monstrous shadow beast that crouched over her, its vast, fiery legs straddling her, its blazing head swooping down. The armies died as if they were chaff blown by a storm. Soldiers fell with shrieks and screams as flames consumed them.
Argonan stared at the beast, riveted. Its gargantuan wings swept the air and earth alike, killing all they touched. Its fiery breath razed the ground around it, and all that lived, died. Only the Summoners survived, their beasts protecting them. Jessid's dire bird enfolded him in its wings, Drall's grim wolf kept him in its shadow. Ergin's shadow snake coiled itself around him, as did Travar's shifting dragon, turning to ice to ward off the heat. They, Argonan thought bitterly as the fire swept towards him, were the only ones who would outlive this battle.
Dull booms behind him made him look around as the forest there burst into flames, the trees becoming torches. Fire poured from the ground in a spreading swathe, consuming all in its path. A distant village turned into a collection of fiery charnel houses, and on the horizon, a peaceful snow-capped peak belched lava and smoke. This was not a localised phenomenon, he realised. When the World's Heart was summoned, everything died. Nothing would survive but the Summoners. He wondered why he still lived, and turned to face the shadow beast once more. Oshram screamed as a lance of fire impaled him, shooting up through his horse to consume them in moments, mere ash before they hit the ground.
Ash rose into the air in swirling clouds, blocking out the sun, and a fiery rain fell. Millions of tiny flames twinkled all over the ground, save for the green patch where Merynne sat. She gazed at him, tears running down her cheeks. The fire rushed in on Argonan, and he screamed as it consumed him.
The fire died. Travar stepped out of his shifting dragon's coils and stared at the new Summoner. Black, scorched earth stretched away in every direction, to the horizon and beyond. Dark clouds of ash drifted down, filling hollows and crevasses with a soft, silken grey streams. Any water had boiled away during the firestorm. The World's Heart hovered over her still, a burning creature beyond description, its fiery wings sweeping the air with slow strokes. It turned a sleek head on a slender neck to gaze at him with white-hot eyes, then dived into the ground, vanishing with a gout of fire. Its Summoner was safe, its duty fulfilled. All that remained was grey silence.
The girl covered her face and wept.
Copyright © 2011 T C Southwell