A Drop of Nightshade [PREVIEW]

Lyam, a minor nobleman from a formerly prestigious family, is called before his king. He is promised that all this prestige shall be returned if he carries out a simple task for him.
He is introduced to Lady Ana, a mysterious young woman whose duties call her to the neighbouring, allied kingdom of Fikara. Lyam is tasked with taking her there and bringing her back.
But there is a much darker motive to Lady Ana's visit to Fikara; one that Lyam will be drawn in to.
Will he throw aside all that he desires, or will he play a part in Lady Ana's plot?

The full book is available through Amazon.

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1. 1 - Proposition (Lyam)

1
PROPOSITION
(LYAM)

Year 456 of the Second Age – The Dominion War

Lyon, Capital of the Human Kingdom of Pondris

The great oak doors were shut fast, and guarded by two swordsmen dressed in surcoats of gold and blue. It was hard to miss them, shining fullhelms on their heads, capturing the light that entered the reception hall through stained glass windows, twice the height of a man, and three times as wide. Natural, unstained light entered only through a small slit in the wall; it was this light that landed on their surcoats.

The black silhouette that stood triumphantly on their chests resembled a knight astride his horse, rearing up. The first knights in the kingdom had been its founders, and one of them had been named king. The others had died after that, one at a time until only the king was left.

Rumours said the king had killed them off. The history books seemed to agree.

That had been almost three hundred years ago; the king beyond the doors was a different man entirely. He had been a knight before his coronation too, and so had his brothers, yet none of them had been killed off in all of his ten years on the throne. One of them, Prince Fabian the Fool, had fallen in battle against the Northlings, but there had been no foul play involved there. The Northlings had simply overpowered him. No foul play at all. None…

Lyam shook his head, chasing away the notion that the prince’s death was suspicious in any way. People died in battle, even princes. Especially the foolish ones. He glanced around the hall from his position on the wooden bench, eyes lingering on each window as he looked upon it. One displayed five knights standing in a green field, one of them holding the kingdom’s banner. A sixth knight knelt on the ground, presenting a crown to the knight at the front. The next window showed the front knight crowned, standing in front of a castle. There were four knights with him; the one who had knelt was missing. In each window another knight had disappeared, until the final one where the crowned knight, the king, stood before a crypt, a lone tear on his cheek.

If the first king had truly killed off his fellow knights,’ Lyam wondered, ‘why would he cry at their grave?

The oak doors opened, the hinges straining and creaking. A thin beam of light entered the reception hall, the blues and reds from the windows wiped away and replaced with the bright yellow of the unfiltered sunlight in the throne room. From this light stepped a man, dressed from neck to toes in a sky-blue robe of samite, clasped at the neck by a small knight crafted in silver. His hair fell about his shoulders tidily, the dark brown waves framing a slender, clean-shaven and friendly face. The man’s green eyes smiled at Lyam as he said, ‘the king will see you now.’ He turned back to the throne room and announced, in a clear, crisp voice, ‘Lyam Highriver, Esquire, of the Riverland of Pondris.’

The Riverland, he had read, was once one of three Riverlands in the east of the kingdom, and had been known as the Riverland of Highriver. There had been disputes over those lands with the neighbouring Kingdom of Fikara since its founding; when they went to war with them between the years 189 and 207 of the Second Age, however, they had lost two of the three Riverlands, and the Highriver family had been stripped of its lands so they could be given to more powerful Lords. Ever since, Highriver had been a meaningless name, a cruel reminder of a glory long lost. Lyam didn’t even like to think of it; they were still nobles, and that’s what mattered. At least, until the fates turned in their favour. ‘Maybe that’s what I’m here for,’ he dared to think.

The blue-robed herald led him into the throne room, which stretched ahead of him for what seemed like a mile. A line of tall columns stood to either side of the central path, built of light stone like the rest of the room. The path he was taking, as well as the dais on which the throne sat, was the only stone that appeared different; he walked on faded red ground, the flagstones placed together so tightly that the lines between them were almost invisible, making it appear a single, colossal slab of rock that had fallen in place. The throne sat upon the same stone, raised upon five steps. These stones appeared less faded, more vivid, and Lyam found his eyes refusing to move away. Despite this, he could see a number of courtiers from the corner of his eye, many of them making to leave. Some lingered, until they were ushered away by more swordsmen like those at the door.

Knights,’ he reminded himself. ‘Those who guard the king are knights.

He reached the dais sooner than he thought, and almost bumped into the herald. Above him, seated in the throne, was King Willam II, known as King Willam the Worthy. Lyam knelt before the throne and bowed his head. ‘Your Grace.’

‘Stand,’ Willam commanded, his voice authoritative yet gentle; Lyam did as he was bid. The king glanced around the throne room for a moment, and Lyam followed his eyes. Even the knights had left, leaving the room empty but for the king, the herald and himself. Turning to the herald, the King said, ‘leave us.’

The herald bowed and departed, walking back the way he had come and disappearing through the door. It closed behind him with a heavy thud.

‘Lyam Highriver?’ the king asked. Lyam nodded. ‘I thought so, but I always feel the need to check. There was this time when my herald gave some poor peasant the name of a disgraced knight.’ He smiled. ‘I’d asked him here to explain himself, but a peasant arrived asking to see me. The herald just assumed he was the knight. Fortunately all became clear before the execution. Gods, but that would have been hard to explain.’ Lyam felt it appropriate to laugh, and the king seemed pleased he did. ‘A man of humour. People like you are in short supply these days; the war drains men of their laughter.’

Lyam smiled. ‘Thank you, Your Grace.’

The king sobered suddenly, the smile vanishing. ‘I did not call you here to discuss your sense of humour, Ser Highriver.’ Lyam knew better than to correct the king, though he was not a knight. ‘Your family once held power in the Riverlands, did it not?’

‘Yes, Your Grace. We were…’ He hesitated. The king surely knew the history of the Highrivers; he had started speaking now, so he continued. ‘We were the Lords of the Riverland of Pondris, back when it was the Riverland of Highriver.’ A silence hung in the air, and Lyam worried he had said too much. Eventually the silence was broken.

‘I know only too well the injustice your family suffered,’ the king said. ‘For two hundred years you have been nothing compared to the lords who lost their own Riverlands. The families Silvertear and Greenbank lost their lands and were compensated with those of your family.’ He shook his head. ‘I apologise for my ancestor…those were difficult times, and choices had to be made. A shame he made the wrong one.’ Willam got to his feet and descended three steps; Lyam bowed his head. ‘Throw aside your humility for the moment, Ser Highriver. There is no one but me to see it.’ Lyam lifted his head and managed a smile. ‘I could return those lands to you.’

Lyam’s eyes widened of their own accord. ‘He would return the Riverland to my family?’ Words would not form, yet his mouth opened anyway; a weakness befell him, and he dropped to his knees. The shock of hitting the ground threw words from his lips. ‘Your Grace, thank you, thank you. I will do whatever it takes. I swear it, I swear it. The gods hear me, I swear it. You are a kind king, Your Grace. So kind. Thank you, thank you.’

‘Get up, Ser, before you make a fool of yourself,’ the king laughed. He had descended the final two steps, and was now bending to lift him up. Once Lyam was back on his feet the king’s face took on a serious disposition. ‘To earn back your family’s title as Lords of the Riverland of Highriver, I have an important task for you.’ He whistled, and footsteps sounded from behind the dais. A moment later and a slender woman glided forth.

‘Your Grace,’ she said, bowing. Blonde hair dropped before her, pointing to the floor; when she stood her blue eyes settled on Lyam, unblinking. There was no warmth in her gaze, though it sparkled like the night sky, almost enchantingly. The dress she wore was dark green and made of velvet, marking her a woman of some wealth, and was cut low at the front. Beneath was a thin silk gown or tunic of a lighter green.

‘Ser Highriver,’ said the king, ‘this is Lady Ana, a courtier here in Lyon. Her family once had titles in the Riverlands taken from us by Fikara, but now they have no more power than you do.’

If she is a Lady,’ Lyam thought, ‘then she has more power than every member of my family combined.’ Out loud, however, he said, ‘a pleasure to meet you, my lady.’

The king climbed the steps back to his throne and took a seat. ‘If you want your lands back, Ser Highriver, you must escort the Lady Ana to Aguiregur in Fikara, and bring her back once she is done there. Upon your return I will return part of the Riverland to you and your family, and promise to return the rest over time. Should you desire it, the Lady Ana will become your wife.’

‘May I ask what duty calls the Lady to Aguiregur, Your Grace?’ Lyam asked, bowing his head. The matter of marriage did not interest him at all, not even to a woman as lovely in appearance as Lady Ana…even if she was more powerful than him.

The king smiled. ‘You may ask, but only the Lady Ana may answer.’ Both looked to her, and she shook her head. ‘And it seems she is not willing to. What say you to this task, Ser Highriver?’

Lyam wanted to ask the king to return all of the lands back to his family. He wanted to ask for a true knighthood, rather than the misplaced title the king was giving him. Above all, he wanted to know why the Lady needed to go to Aguiregur. But demanding more was out of the question; he was lucky to be getting offered this much. The words that fell from his lips were, ‘I shall do as you ask, Your Grace. Thank you, Your Grace.’

The king nodded. ‘Very good, Ser. This discussion is over.’ He turned to the Lady Ana. ‘I wish you luck.’ She bowed her head to him.

‘Thank you, Your Grace.’ Her eyes shifted to Lyam, and her brow creased. ‘Let’s go, Ser.’

Lyam swallowed, bowed to the king, and made to leave the throne room. The Lady Ana followed close by, silent as the grave. Only the king’s promise made it bearable, but he disliked it anyhow. It was a long ride back to his home, where he now needed to make preparations for the even longer ride to Aguiregur; if this woman deigned not to talk to him, the journey was sure to be most unpleasant.

Although, he considered, if she did speak the words could easily cut him. Maybe silence would be preferable, after all.

They left the throne room and passed through the reception hall, receiving only the slightest glance from the knights at the door.

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