Okay, here’s the story. Let me know if you like it.
“It is a sight to behold, My Liege,” Basil said. “A trophy well worthy of you.”
“Indeed,” Lord Arak said, his eyes surveying the small village of Hyd. It was far from impressive, but at least the bridge would give him easy access to the lands beyond. Still, something kept him from giving the order to attack. What was it?
Was it the wall? No. A low earth wall like that was child’s play for his trenching machine. It would plow through it in moments, and his men would follow in its wake.
Was it the villagers? They hid behind that wall like mice scurrying away from the sun. A rusty spear or dented helm poked at the sky here and there, but they wouldn’t last long under the force of his army’s swords. Those swords were forged from the strongest iron that could be wrought, and as sharp as the wizard could make them. From what he had seen so far, they were no match for his army. It was the largest army every raised: over three hundred well-armed, well-trained, experienced soldiers. It had cost him several fortunes to amass that army, but they had paid for themselves a dozen times over as village after village fell at their hands. This village would fall, too, once he gave the order. So why didn’t he?
A bare head poked out of its hole, and the image of a wolf spider leaping upon its prey filled his mind. It was a disturbing image, one that left him unsettled and uncertain. Were there more men lurking in the shadows than he had seen? Was he leading his men into a trap?
His brow furrowed, and his tongue slowly scraped the back of his teeth. He had squashed many wolf spiders in his time, both with his foot and his army. Even if every dwelling in the village held a dozen armed men, his army would defeat them. There would be casualties, of course, but there always were, but his men would prevail in the end, and the village and its treasures would be his.
His lips tightened as a ghost finger tickled the small of his back and crept slowly up his spine? It was not the first time he had had felt that touch, and it had cost him dearly before he had learned to trust it. Now….
“My Liege,” Drake prompted, “the men are in position.”
Lord Arak nodded, but he could not bring himself to give the order. There was something….
“Bring the soothsayer,” he abruptly ordered, turning on his heel and briskly striding to his tent. As he walked, he absorbed the sharp stench of sweat mixed with the sweet taste of oil, he let the lilting clink of the muffled joints in his armor smother the soft murmur of his soldiers. They were eager to act, and his uncertainty was beginning to settle on them. He couldn’t have that: an army that wavers was an army ripe for defeat.
Why am I hesitating?
The thought drummed through his ears unanswered until the soothsayer arrived. The soothsayer had wandered into his camp not long after he had begun his campaign, and the old man’s advice had ensured several victories. What he said now….
The soothsayer’s gnarled knuckles wrapped around his crooked staff like the talons of a falcon clutching its prey. His face, pale and wrinkled and draped with stringy white hair, lay hidden in the deep shadows of his robe’s hood. Not even those keen ice-blue eyes broke through that darkness, but he knew the old man was watching him. He stopped a few feet away, bowed slightly as if he wished to claim equal status but knew better than to do so, and his voice—raspy from age but firm with wisdom—whispered from the shadowed cowl. “My Liege?”
“Cast the stones, Soothsayer,” Lord Arak ordered. “Tell me of this battle.”
“My Liege,” the soothsayer answered, bowing once more. His hand slid into his sleeve like a snake recoiling to strike, and the ghostly fingers tightened their grip around the bones between his shoulders.
An ill omen comes. The thought came unbidden to him, but once made, he knew its truth with such certainty that he sucked in a sharp breath. His shoulders shuddered as if a burden had suddenly departed, and he fixed his eyes on the old man’s hand. The soothsayer held the stones loosely in his palm as he whispered the familiar incantation. A shimmering, fog-like gray-blue aura encircled each of the seven stones as the old man clenched his fist around them. His voice grew stronger as he beseeched the gods for knowledge of the upcoming battle, and his head tilted backward until the hood of his robe fell upon his shoulders. The long, straw-like white hair fanned out, and his ice-blue eyes rolled backward until only the whites showed. His nostrils flared as he sucked in a sharp breath and exhaled it past his few remaining teeth. A moment later, he tossed the stones in the air.
Lord Arak watched the stones tumbling through the air, their colors shifting from the gray-blue to—
He sucked in an aborted breath as the ill-fated red-black stones settled on the bare ground.
The irises of the soothsayer’s eyes slowly returned as he eased his head forward, pausing oh-so-briefly to gaze upon Lord Arak before hovering over the ill-fated stones. A bony finger straightened as he pointed at one of the stones and softly said, “The stones foretell betrayal, My Liege.”
“Betrayal!” Lord Arak harshly spat at the stones. “Who?!” he snapped, the uneasy feeling congealing into something tangible, into something he could direct at someone. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword as he waited for the soothsayer to answer.
The soothsayer studied the stones for several seconds before slowly shaking his head. “They do not say, My Liege. They speak only of a betrayal on the horizon. Whether it be in this battle or the next, I cannot tell. I only know that if you do battle with this village, the betrayal will come.”
“If I do battle with it?” he repeated. “And if I don’t?”
The soothsayer’s hand gathered up the stones, their red-black glow shifting to gray-blue shimmer that squeezed out between his fingers. He tossed them lightly in the air, but when they landed, the red-black aura had returned. “The betrayal will but be forestalled,” he answered. “It will happen during the next battle or the one thereafter.”
A traitor, Lord Arak thought. Who can it be? His mind whirled. He couldn’t believe his men could betray him. They were loyal to him. They trusted him. They had followed him into battle time and again, and he had led them to victory after victory. He had rewarded them handsomely for their efforts, and they had praised him in return. They had no reason to betray him.
Who can it be?
He was still discarding one possibility after another when the soothsayer softly interrupted his thoughts. “My Liege?”
He looked sharply at the soothsayer and prompted, “Yes?”
“The betrayal is not a certainty,” the soothsayer answered. “There is a way to avoid it.”
Lord Arak’s eyes narrowed. “You know the one who will betray me?” he demanded, the first sharp tickling of the ghost’s fingers returning. “Tell me who it is!”
The soothsayer shook his head. “I cannot, My Liege,” he answered. “Knowing who will betray you will but hasten the betrayal; it will not prevent it.”
“You know the scoundrel’s name!” Lord Arak growled, moving swiftly forward to take hold of the old man’s bony shoulders, barely noticing the crunch of the stones beneath his feet. “Tell me!” he ordered, giving the old man a violent shake.
The soothsayer winced, and then rasped out his answer, “My Liege, if you insist upon continuing this ceaseless war, the betrayal will come. The only way to avoid it is to end this war today. If there are no more battles, there can be no betrayal.”
“Ha!” Lord Arak barked. “I cannot—I will not—do that!” What will my men do without war? Idleness will drive them to it, whether I send them into battle or not. Without me holding the reins—
The old man gulped, and a sigh shuddered through him. His body grew still, and his placid blue eyes looked into Lord Arak’s with such sad compassion that he released him. “I am sorry, My Liege,” the soothsayer told him, “it is the only way.”
Before Lord Arak could respond, a sudden, deep pain erupted in his chest, just below his ribcage. He reflexively stumbled backward, and his hand fell upon the haft of the dagger that had somehow punctured his armor. He looked down, and his eyes widened. My own dagger!
“Yes, My Liege,” the soothsayer sadly whispered. “I am your betrayer.”
Lord Arak dropped to his knees. “Why?” he managed to whisper.
“The stones,” the soothsayer softly said, moving closer but still staying just out of reach.
Lord Arak forced in another breath, trying desperately to fight back the blackness closing in around him. His eyes fixed on the soothsayer as he gasped, “What?”
“I cast them long ago,” the soothsayer told him as Lord Arak collapsed on his side. “They brought me to you. They told me you would wage endless war, and sorrow would follow in your wake. They told me a time would come when your destruction could be stopped, when I could stop you. That time is now.”
Lord Arak blinked for the last time, and as his eyelids slowly settled into place, the soothsayer leaned down to whisper in his ear, “You should have listened to me, My Liege. You had enough. Hyd—”
Enough? Lord Arak thought. There’s…
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