The morning brought cooler weather. A light frost covered the grounds. The sun, which had risen shortly after the first of the men, shone with but little warmth. The horses, invigorated by the chill in the air, stomped and whickered while the men readied for their advance to the palace.
With great pomp, the army gathered together for Hamm's orders. He and his assistants, Yuri and Shurik, along with a few additional arms, would meet with Lilith while the others remained just outside the palace grounds.
Hamm was unconcerned with the men's behavior. He believed their wild ways would help to build an overall fear in the people of the land. It would work to his benefit, for where there was sufficient fear, he could meet his goals with limited effort.
Upon reaching the palace, a number of palace guards met Hamm's forward contingent. Both groups remained at attention, carefully eying one another.
Hamm, Yuri, and Shurik, followed by ten more vicious looking men, dismounted. When they approached the palace doors, Bernard met them. As he bowed to the Chiranians in greeting, Hamm pushed the doorman. Bernard lost his balance and slammed up hard against the wall. Before he could steady himself, the commander demanded to see Lilith without delay.
"Excuse me, sir. Who shall I say is calling?" The doorman tried to stand his ground, but the Chiranians would had to have been blind not to see him shake with fear, or deaf not to have heard the quiver in his voice.
"Just get Lilith. She's expecting us."
"Who is 'us'?" Marshall asked as he entered the palace foyer in response to the commotion. He had a commanding presence. His dress was easy, his strength obvious, and his confidence in the face of potential danger, unwavering. He approached.
Lilith's dog, Pompom, followed behind, yipping at his feet.
"Who's 'us?'" Hamm repeated. "Who're you?" He sneered.
Marshall took in the full measure of Hamm and his men. "Let's get a few things straight here. This," he said with a wave of his hand, "is the palace of the first family of the Select, and I, not that I owe you any explanation, am Oathtaker to Lilith, the ranking member of the first family. So again I ask, who are you?"
Pompom stood between the two men. Her high-pitched barking grated on their ears. Yip yip yip! Yip yip yip! With each yelp, the miniature canine drew closer to Hamm. When she reached him, she grabbed a portion of his pant leg in her needle sharp teeth.
Hamm smirked at the Oathtaker, paused for a moment, then tilted his head toward Yuri.
On cue, the man squatted down. Pompom tried to back away, but was not quick enough. The Chiranian grasped the animal with both hands, and—twisssssted—its neck. Then he dropped Pompom to the floor.
Behind Marshall stood several members of the palace guard. As he reached for his blade, they all drew swords. Like a dance carefully choreographed, Hamm and his men likewise reached for their weapons.
In that moment, Lilith came into view at the top of one of the stairways flanking the foyer. "Well, well, look who's here," she purred.
"You know these men?" Marshall asked, his question clearly directed to her, though his eyes never strayed from the Chiranians.
"Why, I believe I do," she said. She turned her attention to Hamm as she slowly made her way down the stairs. With each step, the skirts of her red silk dress flowed lazily, like the waters of a late summer stream. She looked the group over and scowled. "What took so long? And where is Zarek?"
"Zarek!" Hamm exclaimed. "Zarek couldn't be bothered with the likes of such a mission."
"Is that right?" Lilith was surprised to discover she'd been looking forward to seeing the Chiranian leader. With ceremony, she made it to the bottom of the stairs and approached the men.
When she neared, Marshall held his arm out to hold her back.
She scowled. It was then she noticed Pompom on the floor. "What's this?" she asked, pointing.
"That," her Oathtaker said, "is the work of that man." He gestured toward Yuri.
Lilith pursed her lips. She was angry at the state in which she found her pet—not because she felt anything for the animal, but because it belonged to her. Once again, she stepped forward and once again, Marshall restrained her. She pushed his arm away.
"Lilith," he cautioned.
She glared at him. "If you can't be trusted to keep the likes of this filth from harming a small animal, how can I expect that you could keep him from harming me?"
He closed his eyes for a moment. He'd been at the end of Lilith's complaints many times. Still, he'd taken an oath. He couldn't merely walk away. "Lilith, I—"
"Enough!" she interrupted, glaring. "You know, Marshall, I've been giving it a lot of thought. And you know what I think?" She held his gaze. "Do you?"
He stood, mute.
"I think that I shall release you." She tilted her head back. "Yes," she continued, "that's exactly it. I hereby release you."
His mouth gaped open. He stared at her. An Oathtaker was deeply shamed if his charge released him. Yet in that moment, his countenance reflected an incredible release.
"Have you nothing to say?"
There was no arguing with her. He swallowed hard. "Shall I leave the grounds immediately?"
"Very well then." He bowed and turned to go.
Lilith turned her attention to Yuri. "So this is your doing?"
"Damn thing wouldn't shut up."
"Well . . . you're right, she wouldn't stop yipping. Still," Lilith paused, "you all should know something." She reached toward him, her hand in a fist. She twisted it back and forth in the air. As she did, the man choked, sputtered, and gasped for air.
Hamm stepped toward her.
"You'd best not," she cautioned, "unless of course, you want to be next."
He stepped back.
Yuri's face turned red. His eyes bulged. He sweated, as though in a great heat. His clothing smoked. He pulled at his cloak, grasping and clawing, trying to loosen it, to free his airways, to stop the burning.
"That's enough," Hamm said.
Lilith glared at him. "I'll say when it's 'enough,'" she snapped.
Yuri fell to the floor. He writhed and shook. His eyes pleaded with her.
"Well, well, look at that!" she exclaimed, pointing at him.
For a moment, everyone stared at her. Even Marshall, who'd stopped at the head of the stairs turned back to watch. Then they all looked at Yuri. Moments later, his body stilled.
Hamm's eyes glared. "You've killed him!"
"Quite right." She paused, then smiled. "And that, I should think, is 'enough' as you say."
He reached for his sword.
***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) and from Barnes and Noble for your Nook.
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