Kah’len stood at the prow of the ship and gazed out into the dark land ahead. North Torahn. He was home. Draemin City, its capital, burned in the distance. He wondered if it was from the civil war that the city burned, or if Tjish.un was invading. This far away, they could see the emerald green sails of Tjish.unen ships, but they were too few and could easily be trading ships. Kah’len turned from the sight and made his way to where the captain stood near the stern of the ship.
The captain had a spyglass trained on the burning city. He lowered the spyglass as Kah’len strode up to him.
“Where do you want me to anchor, Warlord?”
Kah’len gazed into the Captain’s cold glance. He was not a pleasant or a friendly man, this captain. “There is a natural harbor further south. The underground river empties into the sea there. We could invade the city via the underground river.”
The captain seemed surprised. “That is a brilliant idea, Warlord.” He turned to the helmsman. “Due south!”
Kah’len sent signals to the other ships via flags. He would take a portion of the soldiers on boats and row up the Draemin River to the city. The rest of the ships would dock at Draemin Harbor and invade from there. The main force of the 500 ship fleet would dock at Draemin Harbor while Kah’len took fifty ships with him to the natural harbor. Each ship carried 200 soldiers, so his invading force would equal 10,000. The ships sailed a safe distance from the rocky shoreline. They saw where the river emptied into the sea within a couple of hours of sailing. The ships dropped anchor and lowered their four boats to the water. Soldiers scaled down the rope ladders to the boats. Kah’len, dressed in full leather armor with a broadsword at his back and a sword at his hip, turned to climb down to the boats when he felt the prick of a sword at his neck.
“Your assistance won’t be necessary, Warlord,” the Captain said behind him. “You are hereby arrested by order of the Oligarch.”
Kah’len turned slowly. “On what charge?”
The Captain sneered. “Indecency.”
Kah’len smiled mirthlessly. He knew the soldiers would become hopelessly lost in the underground city without his assistance.
The Captain narrowed his eyes. “What are you laughing at?”
“You’ll find out,” Kah’len replied easily.
When the captain turned to give an order, Kah’len unsheathed his broadsword and grabbed him by the neck. The soldiers around him stopped.
“I need Prince Lahn Obeli and Serren Domio Obeli brought up here now,” Kah’len ordered.
No one moved. Kah’len brought the sword to the Captain’s neck and cut him.
“Do it!” the Captain ordered.
Two soldiers hurried into the ship and returned shortly with Lahn and Domio.
“What is happening?” Domio demanded.
“I’ve been betrayed,” Kah’len stated. “We’ll take a boat. Won’t we, Captain?”
The captain said nothing.
Kah’len cut him again.
“Yes, damn it!”
Kah’len watched as they lowered the last boat to the water. He watched as Lahn and Domio climbed down the rope ladder to the boat. Kah’len backed up to the side of the ship, the Captain still going willingly. When Kah’len’s hip hit the railing of the ship, he sliced the Captain’s neck. The man crumpled to the deck and Kah’len was over the side of the ship and down the ladder before anyone could reach him. They began to row towards the river.
“Let them go!” Kah’len heard. “We’ll capture the city first.”
“Row!” Kah’len told the other two. “We must make it to the underground city. I know my way around it, but these others won’t. They’ll get lost in there and die of starvation. Come!”
While the soldiers continued to fill the boats, they rowed with all their might away from the mouth of the river. Around them, the sides of the river rose and quiet descended. Tall wild grasses filled the land.
“How far, Warlord?” Domio asked.
“Miles, Father. We’re better off walking. Come, let’s head to land.”
They abandoned the boat and climbed up the bank of the river.
“We won’t make it there before the boats,” Lahn said.
“No,” Kah’len agreed. “But I know a secret way into the city. The soldiers will get lost in the underground city. We needn’t worry about them.”
They jogged at an easy pace for a few miles before they had to slow down for Domio and Lahn. Kah’len was used to jogging and he was impatient to continue, but recognized the other two were not as hardy as he. They continued to walk swiftly along the riverbank. This close to the city, the bank rose high over the river. Thick, tall grass grew all along the bank, so they would not be easily seen from the river itself. Kah’len led them inland to the seaward road that was used by trade caravans. The road was empty. They hurried down the road towards the city.
“The city will have closed its gates,” Domio stated breathlessly. “How are we going to get in?”
“Leave that to me,” Kah’len said.
It took them the better part of the morning to reach the city wall. Kah’len was glad to see it was intact. There was a way in through the wall somewhere inside the King’s Reserve, which was a large park that surrounded the city. The park was thick with trees and bushes. They entered the Reserve and made their way along the wall until they came to a part of the wall thick with bushes.
“We have to find the door behind the tall bushes,” Kah’len said. “We have to leave the bushes intact or else the door will be revealed. Come.”
He pressed himself to the wall and slid between the mossy wall and the bushes. The bushes scraped and cut into his face and neck. Eventually, he came to the hidden door. He grasped the iron handle and pushed. The door groaned and gave way. They stepped into darkness.
He looked back at Domio and Lahn. “The way is long and narrow. Don’t be afraid. We’ll come to the underground city soon enough.”
Domio closed the door behind them and they made their way down absolute darkness. Eventually, strange glowing creatures began to appear. They crawled along the ceiling and walls.
“What are those?” Lahn asked in a hushed voice.
“Bioluminescent worms,” Kah’len replied. “They’re harmless. They feed on the moss and slime that grows on the walls and ceiling.”
The sheer numbers of worms created a weak light they could walk by and made the way less disconcerting. Kah’len had been through this paths many times during war exercises. The passageway was still and oppressive with dampness. It reeked of mold, damp, and ancient earth. They walked for a long time, proceeding slowly in the near darkness. Kah’len lost all sense of time as he pushed himself to continue. Finally, he saw the dim end of the passageway ahead of him. There was an iron door and it had rusted hinges and a rusted handle. Kah’len tried the handle. It creaked and gave a shrill scream as he slowly pushed it down. He pushed with all his might at the door and, with a deep rusted groan, it opened and swung outward.
He looked at Domio and Lahn behind him. “Keep quiet and follow closely. We don’t know where the Oligarch’s troops are.”
He stepped out into the underground city. The roar of the river drowned out all noise, which would make it harder to hear footfalls. The underground city was not completely dark. The grating along the streets to allow the rain to seep through allowed for a modicum of light to filter down. The underground city had once been Draemin City, centuries past, before it was burned to the ground and built upon. The cobblestone underfoot was black from the fires and slick from the river’s mist. Ancient buildings lined the street that once had meander along the river. There were burned stone benches along the river. The charred remains of a tree stood like a sentinel near the river’s edge. Nothing and no one moved in the dimness.
Kah’len kept close to the walls, ready to enter the skeletal remains of some building if they saw soldiers. But the river meandered for miles under the city and the Oligarch’s men could be anywhere by now. As quickly as he dared while still keeping his eye peeled for trouble, he led his two charges into a building that had a burnt sign half-hanging from its roof. Inside the building, there was rubble and fallen beams. Kah’len led them slowly deeper into the building until they came to a stairwell.
He turned. “Step where I step and no other place. The stairwell is weak in some places. I will step where it is stronger and not likely to crumble beneath our feet.”
“That does not reassure me,” Lahn grumbled.
“Just follow me.”
Kah’len turned and careful stepped on the second step. The stairwell groaned but held steady. Up he went, stepping carefully, Lahn close behind him. At the top of the stairs was a door. Kah’len stopped and reached between a gap in the wall. He found the key in its rusty nail a few inches within the gap. He slowly and carefully removed it and unlocked the door. Making only a creak, it swung inward. On the other side was an alleyway, but they had to haul themselves up and over the half-wall there to crawl out onto the alley. Kah’len was much larger than last time he had been here, so it took him some effort to squeeze through the space. He knelt by the entranceway and pulled first Lahn and then Domio through. He then reached into the space and closed the door.
They stood slowly. The alleyway emptied into the boulevard across from the open-air market. The street was quiet, despite it being high noon. The reek of smoke clung to the air. In the distance, Kah’len heard the telltale sounds of fighting. He pressed a finger to his mouth and proceeded down the alleyway to the street. He poked his head out and saw soldiers with the royal livery fighting with civilians. He gazed past the fighting and saw that Draemin Castle stood untouched on its hillock. He then gazed towards the wharves. At this distance, it was hard to see what was going on over there.
“We have to find out what is happening,” he told the other two. “Let’s go.”
They proceeded down the boulevard away from the fighting and towards the wharves. They saw no one in the streets, and Kah’len wondered if the citizenry had abandoned Draemin City altogether.
“It’s the Warlord!” someone called.
Kah’len stiffened and turned north. He saw several people peering at him through a tavern window. He motioned for Domio and Lahn to follow him and they entered the tavern.
“Warlord!” a tall, bald man said with relief. “Have you come to save us?”
“I will, once you tell me what is going on,” Kah’len replied.
“The clans are leaderless,” one man said. “The King has some supporters, but they are few. The clans are fighting for ascendency.”
“I am here now,” Kah’len assured them. “What clan is winning?”
“The Tehnas, sir,” a young woman said. “Bhne Tehna heads them and they have control over the city. Well, mostly.”
“What about Prince Deirohn?” Kah’len asked.
The young woman looked helpless at the bald man.
The bald man grimaced. “He killed the Prince, Warlord, and the Prei-Serren, your uncle. He drove the Ys’teis clan away and took possession of their property.”
“So, he is not my friend any longer,” Kah’len stated grimly. “Where is he?”
The young woman shifted. “Rumor has it he is at his family’s villa.”
“How many soldiers still remain here?” Kah’len asked her.
“The King took most of the soldiers and is fighting at the border. The mercenaries here have no leader. There are thousands of them. Men from Mekh and Deyiansh. From Ynha and even the Kelepen, who came looking for gold. If you can unite them, you will be able to defeat Bhne Tehna.”
“Where are they?” he asked the bald man.
The man led him to the door and out into the street. He pointed to the castle. “They are camped there, Sir.”
“Then I need three bahil and I will build myself an army,” Kah’len said.
There were cheers behind them, from the tavern.
The bald man thumped Kah’len on the back. “Then come to the stables, Warlord.” GHT:d.cancelEv