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Stone by Linda Mooney (1)

Chapter 1

Treachery

 

 

            The message was terse. We have been found out. Come quickly.

Signaling for three of his soldiers to accompany him, Garenth hurried into the temple, passing the guards who saluted him and his entourage with barely a second glance. He didn’t have much time before his troops were to leave the city, but Hanashep’s note had been urgent, begging him to come see her before he departed.

Dread filled him as they marched through the vast halls. Their footsteps echoed eerily in the dimly-lit passageways. When they reached the inner chamber, they stopped, and Garenth motioned for them to remain where they were. “I will not be long.” He glanced at each of them to make sure they understood the command. Satisfied, he opened the large ornate door and went inside.

            The room was empty.

            He hesitated, wondering if he should call out her name. Without warning, the heavy wooden door slammed open, and several armed guards came swarming in. Garenth’s three men were escorted inside and shoved toward their leader. Another half-dozen men rushed into the room, surrounding them before anyone had the chance to bolt for freedom. Garenth watched warily as he and his handful of comrades were huddled into a small knot within the ring of spears. No one moved. No one dared take a wrong step or utter a word—not so long as cold metal was aimed at their throats.

            “Drop your weapons,” he was ordered. Realizing he had no choice, Garenth pulled his knife and sword and threw them on the floor.

Heavy footfalls echoed outside in the hallway. He recognized the pounding tread before the man swept into the room.

Serasin was a tall, thin man. He had a deceptively youthful appearance, but the truth challenged that belief. It was said he was closer to a century of years, and there were many elderly men who would swear to the fact that the vizier looked the same back when they were young.

A wide smile cracked the vizier’s face in two. His bald head and nearly skeletal facial features were ghastly to behold.            

“Ah, Garenth. I have long awaited this moment.”

“For what reason?” Although he knew well why the man was out to get him, he also knew they were equal in importance to the liege.

“Aside from the fact that you have been bedding one of my concubines?”

“I haven’t bedded her. She is a friend. Nothing else.”

The vizier scratched his cheek and snickered. “And you expect me to believe that?” The man waved a dismissive hand. “Regardless, that is not why I am putting you under arrest.”

Garenth gave him a curious stare. Serasin had been trying for months to usurp his authority. To bring him down in the eyes of the pharaoh. Judging by the vizier’s attitude, it appeared the man may have concocted a scheme to finally achieve that goal. Taking a deep breath, he gazed defiantly at the man. “You have nothing to charge against me.”

“I don’t? You do know that fornicating with one of my consorts is grounds enough to have you arrested.”

“And I tell you we weren’t lovers.”

Serasin gave him a wide smile. A toothy, sickening grin that set Garenth’s own teeth on edge. “I also have proof that you and your men were planning to overthrow the pharaoh.”

“Lies! You have no proof!” Garenth struggled against the hands that held him. “You’ve concocted lies! All lies! I have pledged my life to his holiness!”

“I have all the proof I need,” Serasin countered. “I have the word of your little whore. She confessed to your numerous liaisons, and to your conspiracy against his holiness, which you so lavishly explained in detail to her during one of your illicit meetings.”

With that simple threat, Garenth knew the man had tortured Hanashep until she was forced to make a confession. A confession that was totally bogus, but one that the vizier would take to their ruler as proof of Garenth’s duplicity.

Serasin didn’t want Garenth stripped of his rank in the pharaoh’s army. He wanted him dead and permanently out of the way.

A stream of biting cold flooded his bloodstream. The man’s tone spoke of an evil Garenth could not imagine. “Where is she? What have you done to her?”

“She is no longer your concern.”

That could only mean she was dead. He’d expected as much, but hearing the vizier’s confirmation was still a hard blow to the gut.

Garenth fought to remain standing, fists clenched at his sides, as his leather armor was stripped away. “You will not win, Serasin. Somehow, someway, the gods will punish you for your deception. If not now, then in the afterlife.”

The man harrumphed. “You disappoint me, Commander. I had expected you to promise my demise at your own hands.”

Garenth managed a similar smile to match the vizier’s. “Come now, Serasin. A trained military officer does not divulge his battle plans to the enemy. But you have my word, you will be punished.”

            Without warning, he lunged for the man. His actions took his captors off guard, enabling him the precious split-second he needed to get his hands around the vizier’s throat. He was about to snap the man’s neck when he was struck violently across the back of his head. Garenth dropped to his knees, stunned, as blood trickled warmly down the back of his neck.

            “Give up, Commander. You will never succeed.” The vizier’s voice was hoarse, but it was strong enough to convey the man’s condescension.

Garenth peered up at him through slitted eyes. “This may detain me for a bit,” he told the man, teeth gritted to keep from snarling his anger, “But it will not keep me from trying again. And again, and again, for however long it may take me to finally bring you down, Serasin.”

The vizier templed his fingers below his chin as he stared back. It was clear the man was delighted to see the soldier who had been seeking to topple him from his austere position for the past three years. Delighted now to have the man in his grasp, knowing he would never be free again to continue pursuing him.

“It seems that as long as you have been hunting me down, Garenth, I have been equally diligent to get you to myself.” The man cocked his head and grinned again. “But not for the same outcome.”

He gave a little wave of one bejeweled hand. Garenth’s fellow guards were dragged away, leaving him and the vizier alone except for two other magistrates standing just behind the robed figure, and the two guards waiting to usher him out of the room.

            “Any final words, Commander, before you are brought before his holiness and condemned to death?”

            “Only what I said before. This isn’t over, Serasin, and it won’t be until I get my revenge.”

            The next instant, the world exploded in agony and darkness when the pommel of a sword came down on top of his head.