This is the prelude to a novel (or maybe a series of novels) I’ve tentatively titled “the Grand Fantasy”. Yes, that title will change as the novel evolves, though I have aspirations of it being a grand fantasy.
Darkmere was a place worthy of its name. The waters of the cold, shadowy lake seemed to be always still, no matter what the weather or season. Even now, amid a northern spring in which the winds blew and blustered, the black waters only lapped against the stone-strewn shores. No birds flew overhead, few insects chirped, and the reeds growing on the bank were stunted, sorry things. Deep grey clouds loomed low above, and the air was thick with the threat of rain.
To the broken southern shores of Darkmere, a long wooden boat came, powered by no sail or oar. Three figures hunched down in the boat, wrapped tight in their heavy woollens, their eyes fixed on the gloom ahead. The boat slid a few feet onto the shore, and the three alighted. As they came onto dry land, the rain began to fall. The three stolidly marched across the stones to the edge of a dim wood, where they stood under the eaves.
A fourth figure emerged from the depths of the wood; a tall presence clothed in a full-body robe of cerise, its face concealed by a silvery, featureless mask. Only its eyes were visible: two fiery red circles that cut through everything they turned to stare at. The very trees seemed to sway out of the way of the figure as it strode toward the others, and the air became stiller than before. One of the three, the shortest of them, stepped forward and gingerly handed a small parcel to the robed one.
With a gesture, the tall one shed the silken cloth that covered the parcel, revealing a lyre. It was an instrument of sublime craftsmanship: ebony wood inlaid with fine gold and platinum, the strings drawn from the guts of an animal that had never breathed the air of this world. It shimmered with a cold and unholy blue light, and the other three recoiled from it. The robed figure plucked at a string and a deep, resonating sound came forth, echoing through the trees. One of the other three gasped his last breath and fell lifeless to the leafy ground. The other two cowered in fear.
‘Sesaanu,’ the robed one whispered. ‘The music of death.’
‘Master, please!’ whispered one of the surviving two. ‘Play it no more. It has done enough.’
‘Oh, it’s work isn’t done yet,’ the robed one said, his voice a raspy growl. He bade the two to stand and face him. ‘You have done well, finding this on the battlefield. A reward you expect, and a reward you so shall have. You asked for service to the Thukaana and she has agreed to that service.’
The other two both made joyful sounds, and one clapped his hands. ‘We pledge our lives to the Thukaana.’
‘She expects as much. Follow.’
The two walked in the robed one’s wake through the umber of the woods, where no sounds penetrated, not even the comforting noise of a footfall. Neither of the two cared for the lightless and soundless forest, as their minds were enraptured by the promise of service to the one of the world’s mightiest sorcerers. Their dead comrade was also forgotten. Through the dark trees they went, revelling in the thoughts that power would be at their fingertips, great kingdoms and empires theirs for the taking. It was for these promises that they had betrayed everything and everyone they knew. The lands of the North lay barren and devastated now, destroyed by the ghastly power of both sorcery and the Sesaanu of the Lyre. Man, mountainfolk, the fay, the dewkin of the Great Cullulel, all annihilated or driven into sorry exile far away.
The Kingdom of Girsadea, the Potentate of Sarpentia, the Fay-realms of Pybbadi, the Northern Conglomerate…all gone, bones and weapons of war mouldering on dead fields. Man and non-man, all dead together, victims of a valiant war they lost through treachery and guile.
The three who had delivered the lyre had betrayed their peoples to their doom, for in the right hands, the lyre had the power to destroy civilisations, its baleful music, the Sesaanu, an irresistible force of death. And it had been in the right hands. The three had found the lyre in the crypt of the kings of Girsadea and given it up to Spihalata, the war chieftain. With the lyre in her capable hands, she had turned the tides of battle, and won it for the invaders. But she too was betrayed, by the very three who had given her this instrument of death. At her moment of triumph, the war chieftain was slain by the three, stabbed in the back as she gloated over her successes.
For the three had gotten an offer they could not refuse. Hand me the lyre, had said the Thukaana, kin and arch-rival to Spihalata, and I will make you sorcerers akin to the gods themselves. You will know limitless power and you will have dominion over every living thing that scurries and crawls in this world; man, fay or dewkin.
And now one of their treacherous number was dead, slain by the same baneful sound that had devastated thousands of their kin and kith. Ah, but that was one less that would have to share the tantalising bounty that awaited them, and both thought dark things about the other as they followed the robed one through the benighted forest.
The robed one brought them to a clearing in the forest, lit by a circle of sputtering cressets. A stone circle inlaid with strange designs and sigils lie in the centre and on this the robed one went. He beckoned to the two to join him on the circle and soon through the agency of some arcana, they were somewhere else.
They appeared in the courtyard of some vast castle, the late afternoon sun illuminating the snowy peaks of the high mountains which hemmed in this part of the world. A moist and cool wind blew down from those mountains, slapping the faces of the two like cold rain in the morning. The two forgot themselves momentarily and drank in the glorious vista, while the robed one waited patiently to one side. Finally, they remembered who they were with, and followed the robed one toward a large oaken door in the side of the castle. ‘Master,’ ventured one, ‘what is this place?’
‘The ancient retreat of the Ikananyar,’ the robed one answered.
‘But they were our kings,’ said one. ‘I didn’t know they had such a retreat.’
‘That was by design. If they were ever mortally imperilled, they could retreat here and hide from the ills of the world.’ The two heard a chuckle under that mask. ‘Some diseases are inescapable, as they found. We have their last queen here, awaiting our stroke.’
‘Queen Sosophra! She lives?’
‘For the time being. She fled here with her retinue, thinking to wait out our conquest of the world. Her cowardice will soon be rewarded. You humans reckon her to be a mighty sorceress, but she is not so grand. It was no large matter to trap her in her own bolthole. Sorceress, indeed!’ He let out a cackling chuckle, at which the betrayers shivered. ‘Come, and ask no more questions. Your work is nearly done.’
The robed one threw open the door, and led the two through huge dusty and dilapidated halls and chambers, down steep and narrow stairs, along lofty corridors lined with broken statues and faded paintings. All ancient, all forgotten with the passage of remorseless time. Finally, they came to some kind of central room, vast and circular with a roof dozens of feet above. Two living people and many dead were in that chamber, and the two betrayers paused at the threshold, alarmed by the stink of fear and death which permeated all.
Both of the two were women from appearances, one as tall and regal as the robed one, the other shorter and shackled to a metal pole in the middle of the huge room. The two betrayers straight away recognised their sovereign, the Queen Sosophra Ikananyar of Girsadea, but rather than the upstanding and proud woman they remembered, what was before them was a broken husk, her hair dishevelled, her limbs bare and lined with a myriad of cuts and scars, her eyes almost swollen shut from violence.
‘See here,’ said the robed one. ‘The end result of your handiwork. Thanks to your timely actions, the Queen’s realm lies sundered and her life hangs by a thread. It has ended for her. Ah, the Thukaana awaits us. Come, to the centre.’
The Thukaana was like the robed one in most ways, though she possessed the slender figure of a woman. She too was masked, but her eyes were green and not red. Her robe likewise was green, voluminous and flowing, and in one hand she wielded an evil-appearing knout, and the other held a long staff surmounted by a brass skull. She radiated an aura of awesome power, and the two betrayers stood silent, fearful of the dark magic that lay heavy in the chamber.
The Thukaana and the robed one exchanged words in a sibilant tongue the two betrayers did not understand. Finally, the Thukaana placed the knout on the floor and took the lyre from the robed one. ‘I believe you have done well,’ she told the two. ‘My sister lies dead at your adroit hands, and for that, I am grateful. I promised you would serve me, and serve me you shall.’ She slammed the heel of the staff into the floor, and the two betrayers now understood the awful fate in store for them. For certain they would serve her, but as lifeless drones. Undead! They set up a pitiful wailing but to no avail. With her staff, the Thukaana robbed their life essences and the two fell dead to the floor. At her gesture, two other corpses rose from the edge of the chamber where they had lain, and padded across to the twitching bodies of the betrayers. Seizing them by the ankles, they dragged the betrayers back to the charnel pile whence they had come.
‘A fitting reward,’ the robed one commented.
‘They only one their kind deserves,’ the Thukaana said. ‘Now we have the lyre, we can complete our conquest.’ She flourished the dire instrument before the manacled queen. ‘Do you see this?’
Queen Sosophra raised her bruised face and met the gaze of the Thukaana. ‘I see it,’ she whispered. ‘That thing of death you have brought to our world.’ Through the wreckage of her once-beautiful face, she smiled. ‘You have failed, alfen. The peoples of the North will survive your war. In time, the Ikananyar will rise again and our dominion will be renewed. You may kill me with that foul thing, but I am only a woman.’ She coughed and spoke louder. ‘This is the malediction I place upon you, so Onnate witness me. Your seed will fail, your people will falter, you will become scrawny things fit only to crawl in the rafters of the basest cribhouse, eking out the poorest of existences. You will be spurned things, hunted by all, and welcomed by none, and as Onnate hears my cry, you will be adepts of magic no more!’
There was a rumble like distant thunder, and the staff fell from the Thukaana’s now limp hands. Both the robed ones stood like ones mortified, staring through their masks at this beaten woman, ostensibly defeated and the last of her line.
‘You dare!’ the Thukaana hissed, finding her voice. ‘Who are you to curse us, human?’ She made to strum the lyre but it too fell from her grasp, clattering loudly on the floor. The Thukaana shrieked and fled from the chamber, the robed one following soon after.
So, Queen Sosophra Ikananyar of Girsadea died, and her kingdom which had stood proud and adamant for centuries, died with her. Her servants, who had hid themselves in parts of the castle unknown to the alfen invaders, came forth meekly and retrieved their monarch’s body, setting a torch to the undead and purifying the chamber in the name of the god Onnate.
The body of Queen Sosophra Ikananyar was carefully embalmed and placed in the crypt amongst her kin and forebears, and with her, was buried the lyre, her servants not knowing the importance of the baleful instrument, but glad to remove it from living sight as it made them ill-at-ease.
The servants left no written or vocal account of their deed, and the terrifying invasion, the devastations of the peoples of the North, and the memory of the dreadful lyre passed into legend and myth. And so a tale begins…