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By Hans-Jrg Knabel

Early draft of Ethorn VI, king of Argaan.
Thundering roars tore through the night.
Innos preserve us, Murdra thought, a chill running down her spine. The kings men didnt seem to share her apprehension. On the contrary the roars only seemed to fuel their thirst. Raising their cups, they called for a toast to the kings bravery and hunting prowess. Murdra grabbed a pitcher and poured more mead into the cups on the kitchen counter.
Afraid? Grom asked with a deep, rumbling voice. He was the huntmaster, appointed by the king.
Murdra shook her head, but her hands were shaking.
Dont be, he said with a smirk. The cage is forged from prime Nordmar steel, and the beast is bound fast. I tied the knots myself and sealed them with lead. He flexed the muscles of his bare arm, showing off his bulging biceps.
Hes a strong one, all right, Murdra thought, staring at the huntmasters rippling muscles. An noble. Grom was wearing gloves of finest calf leather, richly embroidered and set with deep blue sapphires. Murdra had never seen a hunter with gloves like these before.
The one watching over the kings trophy is none other than myself, Grom continued, and no beast ever escaped from my custody, no matter how big or strong. He put his hand on the head of the servant girl sitting near Murdra and tousled her shoulder-length brown hair.
Is that not so, Karella?
The servant girl nodded and took a bite from an apple that she'd just filched from Murdras basket. She was about fifteen years of age, maybe sixteen, a cheeky and unruly girl. Murdra grabbed the apple and tossed it into the waste basket. The servant girl gave her an angry look and sullenly blew a stray strand of hair out of her face. Grom said nothing, but his face darkened.

It was strange. In Murdras eyes, the servant girl didnt fit the kings retinue. Each and every one of the Setarrifans was noble and stately, even the lowest stable boy. Only the servant girl was grubby. She wore plain, dark leather pants and a simple waistcoat. The dagger at her side seemed valuable enough, but the hilt was dirty; dirty like her hands. Her forearms were criss-crossed with bloody scratches from the brambles in Murdras garden, where she had happily decimated the blackberries. Murdra had caught her red-handed and dragged her into the kitchen by the ears, firmly planting her on a stool, where she could keep an eye on her. But none of the kings retainers seemed to mind the servant girls dirty hands and unruly behavior. Somewhat surprisingly, they treated her with courtesy and even respect. Murdra just couldnt comprehend it. For a few heartbeats she braved the dirty look that the hunt master shot her, before backing down. Reluctantly, she picked a fresh apple from the basket and offered it to the unruly girl.
Here, she grumbled. This ones a lot juicier.
The servant girl grinned impishly as she took it. Grom relaxed visibly.

Another roar tore through the night.
Feeding time, said Grom, emptying his cup with a single gulp. Better not let him wait. Its dangerous if he becomes too hungry. He put the cup down on the table and turned away from Murdra. She gazed at his back, watching him cross the tap room with a determined step, past the dining warriors and out of the door, heading for the cage near the stables.
Grom had barely vanished in the darkness when the kings daughter stepped into the kitchen. She was about two years older than the servant girl and more beautiful than any woman Murdra had ever seen. Her dress was embroidered with gold, her features clear and fair.
Where has Grom gone to? she asked.
Courtyard, the servant girl answered, not bothering to turn around. She took another bite from the apple.
What for?
What do you think? Hes feeding the beast, the servant girl replied, her mouth full.
One day, shes gonna go too far, that girl, Murdra thought. But she wasnt going to wait for the girl to receive her comeuppance. Murdra put down the pitcher, wiped her hands on her apron and asked: What can I do fer yer?
Your Highness, the kings daughter said, glaring imperiously at Murdra. What can I do for you, your Highness? is the proper way to address the future queen of Argaan. Youll remember that, if you know whats good for you.
Murdra nodded diligently and curtseyed awkwardly. What can I do fer yer, yer ighness?
Thats better, the princess said. She looked around Murdras kitchen and wrinkled her nose. I want a tour of the establishment. You will show me around. She stepped back into the tap room and, with an impatient gesture, ushered Murdra out of the kitchen.
Murdra hastily grabbed a torch and made for the door. The servant girl jumped from the stool, but Murdra growled: Yer stayin ere! The kings daughter laughed.
You may accompany us, Karella, she said, with amusement. You have my permission.

An angry roar cut through the night again. Murdra though it sounded even more savage than before. This way, she said with a shaky voice, guiding the princess and her servant girl through the tap room, past the carousing warriors. Belgor was standing by king Ethorn VI, jug in hand, topping up the king's cup each time he took a draft. He was clearly uncomfortable. Murdra could see it in his eyes. Cant do nothin about that, she thought, opening the door to the wine cellar. She felt uneasy too with the constant roaring and the high lords in her tavern.
Murdra stepped into the wine cellar, poking her torch into the gloom. We store our wine and mead here.
I can see that, the princess replied, casting a bored look over the barrels gracing the cellar wall. The servant girl shoved the apple core into her mouth, stem and all.

This house smells, the princess said. To the courtyard, if you please.
Murdra hurried to the double doors and pushed. An unsettling quiet pervaded through the impenetrable darkness outside. The drunk bawling, muted by the thick walls, was all that could be heard. Not even the oxen in the stables made any noise. Murdra felt goose bumps on her skin. She shivered, although the night air was mild.

Plate armor of the swordsmen from Setarrif.
What are you waiting for? the princess urged. Murdra stepped out into the courtyard. She didnt want the high lady to think she was faint-hearted. Something blue was glinting in the torchlight. Whats that? the servant girl asked, darting out of the cellar. Murdra followed her.
A glove, the servant girl said. Murdra could see it now. It was lying in the middle of the courtyard, the sapphires now ablaze in the light of her torch. Seeing a dark shadow on the ground, Murdra shuddered. Blood! A knot in her stomach, she took another step forwards and stopped. A splintered bone was jutting out of the glove's sleeve. The kings daughter gasped. Is that ?
Groms hand, the servant girl whispered. She spat out the apple stem and drew her dagger. The high lady started to scream. Even in the warm glow of the torch, she was as pale as a shroud. Her lips were shaking. A deep growl rumbled behind Murdras back.
She turned around.

Two glowing eyes appeared in the darkness near the wine cellar, then a huge head slid into the torchlight. Drool dripped from the shadow beasts maw; drool and blood. Murdras heart skipped a beat. Back, she yelped, her voice breaking. With a yell, the servant girl lunged forwards.
For Setarrif!
Murdra reacted in a flash, grabbing the girl by her arm, and yanked her back. Stumbling against the princess, Karella lost her footing, and the two girls landed in a heap. Now Murdra was standing alone, between the girls and the beast. Looking up at its monstrous head, she wondered why on earth she had intervened rather than running for her life.
The shadow beast looked down, studying her with its evil grin.
Dont move! Belgor shouted. The shadow beasts head jerked around. Belgor was running for the dunghill and grabbed the pitchfork, wildly flailing the torch in his other hand. The shadow beast leapt, landing between Murdra and the double doors. Its gaze was firmly locked on Belgor. Murdra could make out the taut muscles under its thick hide.
Belgor ran at the beast.
The shadow beast lowered its head. Belgor yelled. The pitchfork bounced off its horn, and the shadow beast pounced, goring Belgor and sending him flying into the air. Crashing down against the roof of the shed, Belgor's unconscious form tumbled to the ground. Murdra could see him lying inert, his leg twisted beneath him. Then the courtyard was full of torches, men and swords. Someone shoved her hard, and Murdra fell.

One of the kings men charged the shadow beast head on, his sword raised for the strike. The monstrous head came up, plunging its teeth into the mans leg. The swordsman screamed as the beast wrenched him up, shaking its head to and fro. The leg gave, and the shrieking warrior crashed into the next two of his comrades who were running forwards, weapons raised.
A fourth swordsman, seizing his chance, plunged his sword into the beasts flank with both hands, but the monster turned with blinding speed and smashed its horn into his chest. The air hissed out of his lungs, and Murdra heard the sound of his snapping ribs. He flew back head-over-heels, landing in a crumpled heap.
Then the king stormed through the door, in his gilded armor, a heavy mace in hand. The shadow beast charged, horn crashing against steel. Its jaws snapped shut, but the king deftly dodged aside, the rage in his eyes matching the shadowbeasts own fury. An arrow hissed past, narrowly missing the shadow beasts head. The beast advanced on the king, forcing him back. A second arrow shot through the darkness, piercing the beasts eye. The king saw his chance as the beast bellowed in pain, he swiftly moved to its blind side, smashing his mace against its massive skull. Once, twice, again and again, until, spinning on his heels, the king landed a final mighty blow. The shadow beast stumbled. The kings men swarmed forward, piercing its flesh until it reared up, issued a final chilling roar and collapsed.

Ethorn turned away from the dead beast and strode towards Murdra, reaching for her hand. You and your husband you saved my daughters.
Daughters? Murdra mumbled, still dazed from what she had witnessed. She looked at Karella, who was already up on her feet.
My gratitude is yours.
Murdra wiped her hands on her apron and took the kings hand. The the usband, she stammered, as Ethorn helped her up. The king sorrowfully looked in the sheds direction.
My personal healers will look after him, he said. Only the very best earn my gold.

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