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SJORIA: Book One|"The Silence Before The Song"|Scroll Down to Begin...

Chapter Eight: The Last Song of the Trees


F
ear does not rest. Hatred does not sleep.
It was a moonless midnight as a stranger galloped upon horseback to the West Gate of the White City. The guards stationed there had been alerted to her arrival. The gates had been left open in preparation for her coming, for her business was urgent and could not afford delay. Still, the Captain could not help but wonder what the nature of that business was, for there was a cold feeling leapt upon his hear the moment he spotted her form speeding up the path. Both horse and rider were dressed from head to toe in a black garb, hooded, so that the face of both beast and woman were totally obscured. He hailed her to a stop ere she reached the gate.
“Ho there!” he cried, raising his spear.
She pulled the reigns of her great steed, and the Captain could have sworn he heard the thing hiss. Now that he could get a better look at her, he noted that the only part of her left exposed was the left shoulder, upon which some sort of black mark appeared to have been painted on. He did not get a good look at it, for she pulled her cloak over it and leaned forward to fetch something from her satchel. She wordlessly drew out and presented a silver seal, which he recognized as the token of the King’s Favour.
In spite of the sinking feeling in his gut, the Captain was compelled to allow her passage. “Very well,” he said with a nod. He no sooner lowered his spear than the rider spurred her steed onward, leaving him and his fellows wondering.
“Did you hear the hoof beats of her horse?” asked one of the guards.
The Captain’s lips were pressed in a line, still looking off after the stranger. “No,” he said. He looked at his companion. “Why?”
The other guard looked a bit pale in the face. “That’s because there weren’t any, Captain.”

The stranger sped like a shadow through the darkened streets of New Münshir. Her destination was the Palace, and she seemed to know the fastest way to get there. Her passage was indeed all but soundless and did not much disturb the residents of the city. It was merely coincidence that children would wake crying in fright or the man of the house awake from the dead of sleep with a chill gripping his heart. Merely a coincidence, truly.
The soldiers guarding the way to the Palace had been quietly relieved of duty that night--perhaps under the impression others would replace them as usual. Yet, there were none to greet or hinder the stranger when she came to the Palace at last. She did not make for the doors. Instead, she led her steed around under the flying buttresses towards the royal gardens. Under the black shadows of what by morning would be pleasant shade trees, the forms of beast and rider all but vanished. There, she waited. He would come soon. He would be a brazen fool if he did not.
The royal gardens were vast, with symmetrical labyrinthian paths through shrubbery, flowering plants, and fruit trees. There were places of rest and recourse at regular stations throughout. It was a place of retreat, solitude, and recreation for the royal families. Any one of those stations would have been easily hidden from the public eye, yet he had insisted to meet here, nearer the palace at the great white marbled patio where stood statues of kings and queens of the past. In the still of night, the only sound was the burbling of fountains accenting the grounds. Not even a breeze stirred otherwise.
It would be almost an hour before he came. A tall man, dressed like a servant attending the grounds but creeping like a thing that did not belong, slunk into the courtyard from the Palace stair. She did not yet reveal herself. He went right out into the centre of the patio with a stride that expressed confidence, even impudence for one of his station. Perhaps he thought himself clever. Well, it certainly was not clever to have kept her waiting. To his credit, he suppressed a yelp of surprise when her beast nuzzled his shoulder. But he still leapt right out of his skin. Trying to regain some form of composure, the man swept the sweat from his brow and said softly, “Well?”
“Death,” her voice, or many voices, whispered.
The colour drained from his face and he stood as still as the stone statues, their only witnesses. “I beg your pardon?” he asked after a moment.
“Death to the Dracoens. Death to the forest,” she said, her voices seeming to echo all around him. “That is what you promised.”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Of course. It shall be done. We are already preparing the soldiers.”
“You are weak,” she whispered. “The Snake Queen hears all. She knows your frailty.”
The man looked insulted, and straightened his shoulders a little. “I'm certain I do not know what you mean.”
“The Dracoens were warned to flee. In three days time. It must not be. None must escape Her wrath. They must die. All of them.”
“Ah, yes,” said the man, “That was an unfortunate oversight.”
“Oversight?” the stranger’s voices repeated harshly. “Death shall come. It is Her will. But if it comes not to the Dracoens, it will seek another. Your life, and those of your people, are in the balance just as well. If even one Dracoen is missed, the Snake Queen shall require a life for a life. One of your own shall be taken instead.”
“How could they possibly escape? The three days warning was merely to make things a little more sporting for the men. It would not be nearly enough for the Dracoens to prepare a migration. There are

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