Key to the Kingdom

by Dawn Elliot

Tallow smoke hung low in the small room, hazing the air. The Lich King Jarek leaned on the edge of the map table, ignoring the smoke and the uneasy shifting of his generals. Jarek no longer breathed, nor cared about the feelings of the living. They would do as he wished and that was what mattered.

“There.” He pointed, black painted nail sharpened to a deadly point and dipped in venom. “Our victory. There.”

Jarek’s black fingernail traced a path from the guardian Ice-Binder Mountains, through a narrow pass, into the Pavin Weald—and on into the heart of accursed Aldis. There was a long, shallow valley running towards the heart of the kingdom. The trees of the Weald were thinest there, and the mountains dipped low.

Aldis was a fertile and gentle land, of gentle, weak people. The winters were soft there, the farmlands generous with their bounty, the forests full of hardwoods and rare herbs. The west opened onto the sea, giving Aldis access to lands beyond the waters, a strength they refused to exploit. The soft and foolish citizens of that kingdom did not deserve the riches they possessed, yet they continued to defy the strength and uncanny power of the Kingdom of Kern.

They had warred with Aldis before, throwing the strength of ancient sorcery against the weak powers of the arcane arts. Jarek scowled at the memories. He had lost more than one army in battle with the kingdom of the Blue Rose. At first, young and foolish, he had been certain pure might would overcome their enemy. Now, older and wiser, Jarek knew that guile was also a strategy of war. With a new queen on the throne of Aldis, treachery and deception might win him what brute force could not.

“My lord…,” Jarek’s favored general—the only one who dared to question him—spoke up uncertainly. The long valley had been tried before, and their enemy guarded that weakness well. Jarek could see the thoughts pass in her mind, and smiled. Here was one who could be nurtured, a general who could be trained in guile and, properly managed, taught loyalty.

“Indeed. Obvious, is it not? Oft tried and oft failed.” Jarek’s burning red gaze shifted to the silent guest at the other end of the map table. The stranger stood, throwing back his hood to reveal the dark, elegant looks of the Western seafarers. A long scar traveled across his face, the mark of a traitor. He also wore a nose ring signifying his membership in the pilot’s guild. Hatred burned in his black eyes and shadowed his face.

The generals stirred, faces lit with sudden excitement. The sea passages to Aldis were protected by nature in the form of deadly shoals and treacherous currents; only trained pilots knew the secrets of passage. And here, for the first time in the history of landlocked Kern, a pilot stood in the council chambers of the last of the Sorcerer Kings.

“And here is our key to the kingdom,” Jarek said softly with a dry chuckle.