Warlord Rien Tholten strode through the Great Hall, Othol Ekes’j’s dossier under his arm, an entourage of six soldiers at his back. He indicated the soldiers should accompany him into the room. He stepped into the Council chamber and noted all the others were already seated around the large circular table. They were softly conversing and did not notice Rien right away. Othol seemed preoccupied, a frown on his face, tapping the tabletop with a finger. When he looked up, his gaze caught Rien’s. He rose.
“You took your sweet time, Warlord,” Othol growled.
Rien did not reply as he strode to the open chair between Sjona and Yvar’h. He set the dossier on the table and looked around the room.
Othol shifted. “Is that your investigation into Malida?”
“You shall see,” Rien said.
“What is the meaning of these soldiers in our private sanctum?” Serren Osjon demanded.
“I will explain in a minute,” Rien replied and looked at Othol. “Sit down, my lord.”
Othol scowled. “What is all this, Warlord? I’m running out of patience–“
“Sit. Down. Or I’ll have you forced into your seat,” Rien told him coldly. “Do I make myself clear?”
Othol’s scowl became positively fierce as he dropped into his chair.
Rien looked around the room once more. “I was given the order to investigate a member of our council, so I did. This member has colluded with another member of the Council to usurp the rightful Crown. This member has broken the sacred trust of marriage and has fornicated with another member of the Council, all the while conspiring to take over the Crown. This member is a pedophile, bedding young girls to slake his monstrous and indecent tastes.” He looked directly at a pale Othol whose skin gleamed with sweat. “You, Othol Ekes’j, married Queen Malida and took her name. Then, two weeks later, seduced and bedded Sjona Ekes’j, conspiring with the Queen’s younger sister to remove Malida from her rightful reign, placing Sjona in her stead when your dire deed was done. While you were assuring Sjona–“
“This is an insult!” Othol roared, rising to his feet.
Rien motioned to two soldiers, who hurried around the table to manhandle him until he was kneeling, a cloth stuffed into his mouth.
“While your were assuring Sjona that you loved her, you made your way to the most disreputable brothels and bedded girls as young as six years of age. You paid huge amounts to have the girls kidnapped from their rightful homes and kept as your slaves. Those brothel owners have been charged and arrested and have confessed. I have their sworn testimonials in your dossier. Your servants, whom I paid to spy on you, have testified that you promised Sjona the crown, if she would marry you. Your intent, I have no doubt, was to take the Crown yourself.” He turned to Sjona. “You are under arrest, Sjona Ekes’j, for conspiring against your rightful Queen.”
She gasped and fainted. A waiting soldier caught her as she fell from her chair.
Rien turned back to the remaining Council. He motioned to a soldier who stood by the door. The soldier nodded and opened the door, stepping back.
Seven young people of different races stepped into the room.
“What is this, Warlord?” Kol demanded.
Rien said nothing until the door was closed.
“These, gentlemen, are the Sentinels,” Rien said. “Show them.”
The young people removed their gloves, revealing their left hands which were not flesh and blood, but some metallic substance. Lights flicked on and off in the metal. One of them, a young woman with dusky skin and close-cropped hair stepped forward, extending her hand, palm out. A light began to pulse from her hand and the ponderous round table rose a few feet into the air. The Counselors stood so fast, their chairs tumbled behind them. The girl lowered her hand and the table returned to its place on the floor.
“Goddess preserve us!” Serren Osjon muttered and got shakily to his knees. “Forgive us our doubts!”
The girl frowned. “We are not Gods. Do not worship us. Rise.”
Berin helped Osjon to rise.
Rien nodded. “Remove Othol and Malida and place them in separate cells in the donjon until I can see to them.”
Othol fought as he was manhandled out of the room, screaming through the cloth in his mouth.
A second soldier carried Sjona out.
Rien motioned for the door to be shut.
“How is Malida?” Tehn asked.
“She is recovering,” Rien replied. “Sit, all of you.”
“We’ll stand,” one of the Sentinels told Rien.
The Sentinels stood in a semi circle near the door.
Rien sighed. “Malida has abdicated the throne. She wishes you to rule, Yvar’h. You are the oldest male. Sjona is too weak to rule, even if she had not fallen for Othol’s schemes.”
“Agreed,” Tehn replied and frowned.
Yvar’h looked at Rien. “You rightly should rule, Rien.”
Rien shook his head. “The enemy comes. I’ll be too busy organizing our defenses.”
The Counselors gazed at one another.
“It’s all true,” Berin murmured. “Goddess protect us!”
Kol looked at the Sentinels. “When will they arrive?”
One of the Sentinels, a young man with almond shaped eyes, stepped forward. “It will be a matter of no more than twelve weeks, Sir. We have little time to organize our defenses.”
Osjon wiped a shaking hand over his eyes. “This is terrifying! How can seven Sentinels fight an entire people?”
“Have faith, Serren,” Rien murmured. “I have to believe we can overcome.”
Osjon nodded shakily but did not look at him.
Tehn shifted in his seat. “What do we do about Othol?”
Rien grimaced. “He’ll be executed. He actively plotted against Malida. He’s a traitor.”
Yvar’h shook his head, a look of pure disgust on his handsome features. “And kidnapped children for his perverse urges.”
Kol nodded. “We’ll have to compensate the victims’ families. They deserve nothing more than to have him killed for his actions.”
“Agreed,” Rien said. He looked at Yvar’h. “We’ll have your investiture ceremony right away. There is too much to do.”
The Council rose as one.
“Do we tell the populace?” Serren Berin asked in a tremulous voice.
“To what end?” Rien replied. “It will only confuse and frighten them. We must prepare and that is all we can do.”
Berin nodded. “You are right, of course.” He sighed. “Goddess preserve us!”
Othol paced the cell floor.
How had things gone so terribly wrong so fast? He had been careful, hadn’t he? Sjona had said nothing. Had she? She was a poor actress, so he did not doubt she had remained true to him. He wiped his face with an icy hand. The Sentinels were true! What else was true? He needed to leave this cell. He needed to contact the aliens and make sure his family, his clan, survived. If he was careful enough, this all could go his way. A slow smile curved his mouth. He must go to the aliens and warn them about the Sentinels. That information would surely assure his clan’s survival. Perhaps the aliens would agree to install him as King. Surely, if he gave the Sentinels away, the aliens would be agreeable and grateful.
He glanced peevishly at the iron cell door. He needed to get out and soon. He had no doubt he would be executed and post haste.
He heard a key inserted to the lock and the door swung open with a squeal.
“Father?” Othol asked, his heart giving a lurch.
Etir Ethael did not brook fools well. He was a tall and powerful man, a mountain of a man who topped over six and a half feet. He strode to where Othol stood and backhanded him brutally.
Othol cried out and fell to the floor. He brought a shaking hand to his mouth. The hand came away wet with blood.
Lord Ethael motioned to his younger son, Thelon, who closed the cell door. He ran his disgusted eyes over Othol’s prone form.
“Get up, boy,” Lord Ethael growled.
Othol scrambled to do his bidding.
“Not a word, Othol,” Lord Ethael spat. “You have failed and spectacularly. You had it all, but you wanted more, didn’t you?”
“All I want–:”
“Silence!” Lord Ethael roared. He visibly controlled himself and sighed. “We are going to get you out of here before your execution and you’ll return to Kuin-on-the-H’aj under a pseudonym. You will live your life there in anonymity. Do we have an understanding?”
Othol shook his head. “Father, surely–“
Lord Ethael backhanded him again, his meaty hand connecting to Othol’s cheek with a dull thud. “Do I make myself clear?”
Othol spat. “Yes, sir.”
“We will come for you within three days,” his father told him. “Pay attention and be ready.”
Lord Ethael snorted and shook his head. He motioned to Thelon. “Let’s go.”
Othol stared at the closed door long after it had been locked. He let go the breath he had been holding and squared his shoulders. He would approach the aliens and he would succeed. Then, when he was King, his father would see he was a worthwhile son and heir. He would not disappear into anonymity and history. He would approach the aliens and give them the identity of the Sentinels. His father would learn to appreciate him, if it was the last thing he did.
Warlord Rien Tholten made his way carefully down the donjon stairs. He came to the dank donjon and saluted the Donjon Master, a middle-aged soldier as big as a barge and sharp as a tack.
The Donjon Master returned his salute. “How may I be of service, Warlord?”
“I’m here for Othol Ethael.”
“This way, sir.”
The Donjon Master led him down the left-hand walkway. Rien counted twelve cells in all. He knew there were at least ten such walkways in the vast donjon. They came to the last cell and the Donjon Master unlocked it, pushing the door open. The door groaned. Rien stepped into an empty room.
“Where is Othol Ethael?” he demanded.
“He was there last night, sir,” the Donjon Master assured him. “I brought his food myself.”
Rien sighed and rubbed his forehead. The beginning of a headache was thrumming behind his eyes.
“Bring me your relief for last night,” Rien demanded.
“Right away, sir,” the Donjon Master said and hurried away.
Rien sighed and shook his head. They would have to find him now and that would take resources. He rubbed his forehead again. He would send assassins and that would be that. Othol would head to Kuin-on-the-H’aj under a pseudonym. He would stake his title on that. He would make sure assassins would be in the city on the river when Othol Ethael arrived. The city would be crawling with assassins and he would not live very long after arriving there.
The Donjon Master ran into the cell, panting from his exertions. “We found six guards and my relief dead in a cell, Sir!”
Rien nodded. “Is Sjona Ekes’j still here?”
“Yes, sir. I checked on her myself.”
Rien nodded again. “Very good. Upgrade your defenses, Donjon Master. If this happens again, you’ll be out of a job.”
The man paled but saluted. “Understood, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
Rien stalked from the dank donjon and up the steep, narrow stairs. He had to tell King Yvar’h about Othol’s escape and he had to warn Malida and the Sentinels. There was no knowing what Othol was going to do. Knowing him, Rien had no doubt the man would sell them out to the aliens for his own benefit. He grimaced. They should not have revealed the Sentinel’s identity to Othol. The man was unscrupulous and greedy. Rien would make sure an assassin’s knife gutted the man before he could cause lasting damage.
Sjona would be shipped off to a nunnery in the TamLaie Mountains, where she would live the rest of her life. Her whereabouts would remain a secret, known only to him and Malida and the Sentinels. Not even King Yvar’h or his two brothers, Tehn and Kol, would know her whereabouts. That way she would not be used against the family. Rien would oversee her removal himself.