A sudden storm caught the small and ragged group of men unaware. Thunder and lightning rattled. Rain pelted. On horseback, they slogged through until their mounts resisted, then dropped camp near the edge of the forest.
Gadon, leader of the motley crew, was powerfully muscled. He wore pants and a tunic of a dull brown wool mottled with the filth of dust and food stains accumulated over many days. His nearly black hair fell past his shoulders in stringy, oily twists. His skin was light, his piercing eyes small and black. He appeared angry about everything, content with nothing, and cared for by no one.
"Bruce!" he shouted. He stood with his hands on his hips, scowling at the poor recipient of his attentions.
"Yes, sir, master Gadon, sir," came the ready reply, as out from behind the horses, a young man skittered forward. His dark eyes darted about, like flies flitting at offal. One wandered, making it difficult to ascertain the subject of his gaze. He licked his chapped lips repeatedly. Angry pustules covered his face and neck, interrupted only by a scar that ran down his left cheek from just below his eye to his chin.
Holding a bag of oats, he pulled on its ties to close it. Shaking in his nervousness, the ties instead slipped from his hand. Down went the bag. Oats now covered his already manure-slogged shoes. His hands jittered as his focus skipped to Gadon.
"Idiot!" The man stepped toward the cowering youth and delivered a blow with the back of his hand, knocking Bruce from his feet. "Isn't that right? You're an idiot."
"Yes sir, master Gadon, sir." Bruce's voice quivered. He scrambled to his feet. Rainwater dripped from his hair, and mud now accompanied the former filth of his attire, running the various stains and grunge together into a mottled frenzy of foulness.
"Call Simon for me, then get the others and finish with those horses."
As the young man scurried away, Gadon entered his tent. Inside, upon a makeshift table, sat a map of Oosa, a burning lamp, and dinner, which consisted of dried meat, cheese, stale bread, and nuts. An old stump he'd dragged in from the nearby forest, served as a stool. Breaking a nut open with his teeth, he unfolded the map, its crinkling sounds filling the air.
Odd were the circumstances behind this mission. Gadon had worked at the palace in Shimeron for some years. He'd been an officer in charge of a legion, but over time his sympathies changed. He slacked in his work and drank to excess. Eventually, his superiors demoted him. So, when seeking a scapegoat for his troubles, he fixed his resentment on the Select. He reasoned that they sought to rule the lives of all men, whereas people just wanted to do as they pleased.
One day while on duty in the palace gardens, he saw a woman, a beauty beyond compare. She had porcelain smooth skin. Her silken hair hung over her shoulders. Her lips, painted scarlet, nearly matched her blood red satin dress. Her scarves played in the breeze sending about her, the high, thick, sweet, overpowering scent of rose and lily.
The woman approached Gadon much as a snake might slither upon its dinner. Cocking her head, she looked at him from the outside corner of her eye, then ran a fingernail down his chest.
"Hmmmm," she purred. "What have we here? A big, strong soldier." Eyelashes went closed, paused, then opened again, as she graced him with the slightest of smiles.
And so began the seduction of Gadon.
Over the next months he became more involved with the woman, and less concerned about any consequences. The two met regularly in a hidden alcove in the palace gardens where they sought their delight in one another. Over time the woman gained greater and greater control over him, his desires, and his thoughts.
After some time, Gadon's ladylove recruited him to keep his eye on a certain Select. "She'll be the ruin of us all if left to her own devices," she cooed. "I need you to watch her for me. Can you do that?" She moved in closer, her lips just inches from his.
He couldn't tear his eyes from the fullness, the promise of that mouth. He could feel her, smell her, taste her with each breath she exhaled.
"That child simply must be destroyed," she whispered. "If not, Rowena will stop at nothing to bring it to power one day."
He simply nodded. He would agree to anything. The woman had bewitched him, and he cared not.
"Rowena has heard rumors that she's in danger here. She's growing ever more fearful. She plans to leave the palace tonight. I need you to follow her and to make sure that the child she carries never sees the light of day. Don't come back until you've accomplished that."
After leaving their trysting place, a gentleman overtook him. Tall and slim of build, the man had melded into the shadows. "I have something for you," he said as he grabbed Gadon's shirt, slammed him up against the courtyard wall, and then held a knife to his throat. "If you say anything, I'll kill you," he snarled.
True to form, Gadon simply nodded. Independent thought had become foreign to him.
The man sheathed his knife, then reached into a bag tied to the waistband of his black wool pants. He pulled something out, then handed the object to Gadon.
"Take this. It's a call for the grut. Only use it when you know you're very near Rowena. We don't want undue attention drawn to this mission now, do we?" He chuckled. "But whatever you do, destroy her before she bears her child. Do not fail," he added as he released Gadon with a shove, then disappeared into the night.
Immediately, Gadon recruited a group of men who'd run into difficulties with their palace duties. Once done, he and his recruits left the palace grounds. Now, months later, their search continued.
Turning his attention back to the present, he fumbled at the grut whistle in his pocket. Always so close—she was always so close—but she was never close enough.
He thought about the route he'd taken since leaving the palace. Despite traveling day and night whenever possible, practically sleeping in the saddle and eating on the run, Rowena always managed to stay one step ahead. She traveled with a single companion, her Oathtaker, Dixon. Together, the two were quick and shrewd, though recently Gadon had caught a sighting of them. His prey was heavy with child. His window of opportunity grew very short indeed.
The flap of the tent opened and Simon entered. "You called for me?"
For a time, the men studied their whereabouts, contemplating where their quarry headed, as they made plans for the morrow.
"Tomorrow, Simon. I feel it. Tomorrow we get her." Gadon held the grut whistle in his fist. "Set up the round of watches and awaken me at first light."
***Thank you for taking time with Oathtaker. I sincerely appreciate your votes and welcome your comments.***
Oathtaker is an award-winner in the 2014 Readers' Favorite International Book Award contest. A completed work, it is currently available in print form at CreateSpace at createspace.com/4767727, in print and for your Kindle on Amazon (see the link to your right) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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