CHAPTER 1
Irrefutable Charges
Cursing, the two brainless hulks dragged me from the tavern.
“Don’t ever come back!” the innkeeper, Tamil, shouted from
its dark, inner depths.
His high-pitched, annoying, nasal voice failed to succumb to
the noises of the early morning traffic and the thump of my
own boots dragging across the cobbles. Not even the heavy,
labored breathing of the hulks drowned out his obnoxious
tirade, even when the doors closed behind us.
You think I’ll ever want to? I half-thought. My brainwaves
malfunctioned, shorted out, and created a vacuous state of
euphoria combined with an impressive hangover. I saw little
save blinding early morning sunlight. The strong ale and
mead I drank the night before churned in my belly, and my
head ached like a log recently split by an axe. The nasty
sickness in my gut quite effectively incapacitated my
instinctive urge to fight back.
With the ease they might toss a bag of garbage, Tamil’s
bouncers flung me headlong from the tavern’s front porch
and into the street. I rolled three times, skinning my arms,
chest and nose before fetching up against the rear wheel of a
passing wagon.
The wheel’s spokes smacked the back of my head in quick
succession at the same time the driver’s curse spilled into my
ears. He spat, and his nasty tobacco, along with his spittle,
struck my shoulder. “Get oudda way, bleeding wanker.”
The wagon passed on. Without its questionable support, I
fell flat into something cold and wet. Opening my eyes didn’t
help much. I witnessed little save whirling stars and flashing
lights. The pain from my injuries hadn’t yet bypassed the
liquor. As I’d passed out cold in the tavern’s corner amid the
half-gnawed bones, nasty straw and the tavern hound’s shit
sometime around midnight, I knew the alcohol’s grip on me
would pass shortly.
Not much past dawn, I guessed, half-rising, peering about. I
squinted into the piercing rays, and shut my eyes against the
awful glare. The stars still spun, and my head with them, but
the flashing colors had wandered away. Things improved,
such as they were. I sat up carefully, stiffly, running my tongue
over my teeth. All accounted for and wearing their usual fuzzy
sweaters. Did I sleep with my jaws open? My mouth tasted as
though Tamil’s fat tabby used it for a litter box. I sighed, and
thought, that’s scarcely new.
I ran my hands down my shirt, wiping them dry of the piss
wetting them. I wiped my fingers and streaked the cold,
aromatic urine of some delightful creature down my shirt,
then hesitated.
I glanced down. My shirt wasn’t there. I gazed down at my
own bare and dirty chest, pronounced ribcage, and the new
streaks of malodorous piss and filth my fingers traced
downward.
Dammit. Who stole my shirt?
I cast about, half-thinking to find it there in the horse or cow
or camel piss I sat in, but no go. No shirt. Who in the name of
hell would steal my only shirt? I know I wore it when I passed
out, er, fell asleep. Maybe Tamil’s bum stole it. He forever eyed
me with envy and a sort of covetous greed. Butmy shirt?
Please!
I tossed my stringy black hair from my eyes with my
dripping and reeking right hand. I peered about, bleary-eyed,
before glancing downward. At least I wore my britches. Safe,
at least, from too many outraged stares and scornful sniffs.
Encompassed in frayed brown homespun stained with too
much drink and not enough food, at least some parts of me
remained decently covered. I still owned my boots, though
they prayed for a resoling. Had I tried, I could count my every
rib.
Dirty, my pale skin exactly matched the color of a fish’s
belly. My chest appeared almost piebald, white with patches
of black grime. I sighed, my head spinning like a wicked imp.
I seriously needed a bath and a tan, in that order. Wishing
heartily for the bath, I leaned on my right hand, my left rising
to assist my equilibrium onto a new path of self-discovery.
As I floundered, trying to rise with little balance and zero
ability, I fell backward on my ass on the cobbles. My already
stained breeches soaked up some critter’s pit stop with rapid
enjoyment. My nose wrinkled, offended, as the early morning
sun suddenly vanished. I grimaced. Oh, great. Whoever stole
my shirt now stole the sun. My morning started out just
dandy: tossed from my comfortable bed with no shirt and
now no sunshinegods help us all.
I squinted, trying to see past the crap in my eyes. I swiped
half-heartedly at my blood seeping into the right one with my
balancing left hand. The urine’s salt stung something chronic,
but my gesture helped. In a manner of speaking, that was. My
sight stilled blurred, but if I looked downward, I saw grey
cobbles, red stains and my boots. Feet, must stand on. Get them
flat, get them under you and stand, you alcoholic nimrod. Hop
it.
Attempting to rise, I turned first my shoulder, then my neck,
and froze. A very peculiar object stood on the brown cobbles,
slightly in front and to my right. Large, dark, black, and
hauntingly familiar. Wait, give me a second, I know what that
is.
A black hoof.
Glossy, immaculate, attached to a black pastern. Hooves
travelled in pairs. Where one found one, one might find two. I
slewed around, my damp black hair falling across my eyes.
Aha! Just where I expected it, another black hoof stood on the
cobbles to my left.
Craning my neck, I lifted my face, my reeking hair obligingly
sliding from my questionable vision. I blinked rapidly, swiped
my hand across my eyes again. This time, I cleared some haze
and blood from my eyes. Yet, the great, abominable shape
remained indistinct. Backlit by the sun, it peered down at me,
surrounded by a bright halo of light. Long hair framed a dark
face with hooded, shadowed eyes. Like a great shaggy demon
from the depths of hell, it stared at me as though plotting how
best to steal my soul. A blast from the past spoke up, its voice
deep and humorous
“Hello, Van.”
I wilted, flopping like a wet sack onto my back as though I
no longer had a backbone. My useless hands fell limp to my
hips and I shut my eyes. My spine’s qualifications never
entered the equation, but that was beside the point. I thought
not to hear that deep voice ever again. I ran from it, hid from
it; I survived in the shadows and rejoiced in its absence.
However, despite my best efforts, that melodic yet quirky
lilt haunted my restless sleep over the last two years. No night
but passed with that same voice overriding the alcohol in my
blood. It never asked anything save the same question, over
and over . . . .
“Are you ready?”
Never, I tried to answer.
Yet, my blood leaped forward and saluted. Yes. Yes, I am.
Are you effing kidding me? How in the name of all the gods
did he find me here, in the kingdom’s arsehole? I know I
covered my tracks, for who in the name of hell would search
for me in the city’s nastiest pisspot? Surely all my dues have
been paid? I wanted to scream.
I shut my eyes, but he shifted his feet slightly and permitted
the sun’s entire light to blaze in all its glory into my face. I
winced at its piercing agony, the spears lancing my eyes and
my head, my belly roiling in protest. I scrubbed my hands over
my face, feeling the growth of at least three days on my jaws.
“Still trying to drown your sorrows, I see.”
I lowered my hands enough to squint up. “Can’t,” I replied
around my thick tongue. “Little bleeders know how to swim.”
“Imagine that.”
Though I tried not to slur my words, I knew they sounded
as though I newly woke from a heavy binge. “What’re you
doing here? Please don’t say you’re just in the neighborhood.
I know better.”
“Get him up.”
Hooves clopped on brick cobbles behind me, striking
sparks in my sensitive hearing. Strong hands lifted me, raising
my once inert body, standing me, within reason, on my feet.
Had their hands not kept me upright, I’d no doubt collapse
back into the dirt and piss. Which was worse? Lying in the
gutter or facing one’s best and oldest friend?
I shook off their hands and, had I a shirt, might’ve
straightened it. As it was, I squared my shoulders and flung
my hair from my face. Dignity scattered to the four winds, I
could at least appear as though I faced him on even ground.
Sticking my thumbs in my belt, I drew a deep, steadying
breath and locked eyes with him.
“How’d you find me?”
Malik’an’lakna’ra, Lord Captain Commander of the King’s
Weksan’Atan Forces, folded his arms across his massive
chest. A tiny smile rose to his deep eyes and no further. “I’ve
kept tabs on you.”
Sobriety took a firm hold on my runaway wits at last. I’ll
need every damn one of them right now, I thought, while
summoning the shards of my dignity. Though I stank of shit,
piss and last night’s sorrow, I straightened my spine. Dirty,
bleeding, I summoned all my willpower to remain upright and
sober. I am of the Einion’nalad Clan. My blood is as good, as
pure, as any here. I wear the black scars on my cheeks, the
marks of the Clan. I am worthy.
At least, once, not so long ago, I was.
I glanced up into my once-upon-a-time friend’s face and set
my hands on my hips. “I ask again: what do you want?”
Malik’s lip curled. “His Majesty commands you.”
“I don’t work for him anymore.”
“You’re an officer in his Atan.”
“Oh, right. His Majesty’s Secret Police. But if it’s a secret,
why does everyone know about it?”
“Blabbermouths.”
“I never said a word.”
“Never said you did.” Malik tried for a smile but failed. His
stern façade wasn’t conducive for humor or smiling. Too
military, too disciplined, for the common proclivities of life.
“You’re an Atan. You’d know better.”
“I’m retired, remember?”
“Once an Atan, always an Atan.”
“Don’t quote scripture to me, bro,” I snapped.
His heavy brow lifted. “Bro, is it? So you remember your old
ties, after all.”
From his polished black hooves to the top of his head, Malik
stood taller than an average man by several hands. A Centaur
of the highest order, Malik descended from the Old Blood, the
Malana’akana. From his hips up, Malik appeared fully human.
Broad chest, flat belly, his biceps bulged under their arm
bands of beaten silver. The black headband across his brow
not only held back his wealth of shoulder-length black hair,
but the multi-rayed star badge on the silk proclaimed his high
rank in His Majesty’s service. Battle harness crisscrossed his
huge chest, as his sword hung in its leather sheath across his
back and dangled over his equine withers. Silver steel cuffs
protected his wrists from his bowstring; his quiver of
bristling arrows hung from his belt over his massive horse
shoulders. The hilt of a slim dagger hung in its sheath in his
harness, ready to hand. As black as his hooves, his stallion’s
jet coat gleamed under the new sun’s rays; his thick black tail
swept across his hocks, voicing the annoyance his expression
carefully hid.
A collar of beaten gold around his bull-neck proclaimed him
royal. As a Malana’akana, Malik claimed kinship with the gods
themselves. Still, he bent his great knee, bowed his royal head,
to the human King. As did most everyone else in Bryn’Cairdha.
Except me.
I sighed in my turn. “Tell your boys to back off.”
Malik tossed his head. Instantly, the Centaurs under Malik’s
command retreated, abandoned me, and stalked into line
with their brothers. There, behind Malik in classic military
formation, they stood at parade rest. Arms behind their backs,
eyes blank and facing forward, their front hooves stood
shoulder width apart. Swords hung at precise angles, leather
harness polished to a sheen, long hair under their brow-bands
curled onto their bared human shoulders. Military discipline
at its finest. I tried to forget how I once stood as they did.
Beyond them, Malik’s troop of cavalry disrupted the new
morning’s commerce by standing silent in the street, thereby
forcing wagons, carriages, foot and horse traffic, mule-
skinners, traders, and the local whores and vagabonds to
move around their silent horses. The King’s banner floated on
the early summer breeze, tickling its silk and set it to dancing
like a Faery-child. Heads swiveled in my direction. Horse,
mule and ox traffic slowed as the onlookers gaped. The King’s
own royal Atani forces arrested a common drunk. I didn’t
need to hear their whispers: He must have murdered someone.
Surely he’ll hang. Let’s attend the execution, wot? I’ll bring the
ale, you bring your sister.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“I need you,” Malik replied simply. “You were, and always
will be, the best.
“Please,” I said, my tone bitter. “No one’s missed me for two
years. Why am I so popular now?”
“Princess Iyumi has been kidnapped.”
“Good riddance.”
Malik sighed, his dark face darkening further in annoyance.
However, his military bearing, calm façade and unflappable
nature kept his tone and expression even. “She’s the High
Priestess and our future Queen.”
I snorted, crossing my arms over my bare, mottled chest.
“You don’t like her any more than I do. She’s insufferable.”
“Whether I like her or not doesn’t make a difference. I’m
putting together a team to fetch her back, and I want you on
it.”
I stared at him, stunned and uncomprehending. “Are you
daft? No!”
Malik had the gall to smile comfortingly…yes, comfortingly
down at me. “Here’s your opportunity to find redemption.”
“What makes you think I’m searching for…that, what did
you call it? Redemption?”
His eyes wandered the street, the piss and shit-laden
cobblestones toward the less-than busy activity of the folk
who lived in this section of town. A few low-class merchants
worked here, yes, men who sought to cheat more than they
hoped to sell. Out of work mercenaries wandered in search of
any master, the honest as well as the desperate. Thieves
watched the unsuspecting from shadowed doorways. Those
few women about at this hour were the whores whose johns
left their one-room hovels last night.
His deep brown eyes roved over the sign behind me, the
emblem of the white rear-end of a laughing horse. The Horse’s
Ass. A tavern so seedy even the whores and cutthroats found
little to attract them there.
“You like living in the gutter?” Malik asked.
“It’s home, be it ever so humble.”
“His Majesty has commanded you restored to your former
rank and all its privileges. Reluctantly, however. He doesn’t
like you much.”
“Tell him I respectfully ask him to kiss my arse.”
“Dammit, Van, I need you.”
“No, you don’t.” I crossed my thin arms over my scrawny,
filthy chest. “Order Cian to this detail.”
Malik lifted his broad shoulders and glared down his
hooked nose. “I did. He and ten others of your Clan are ready
and waiting for you to lead them. My team consists of a wing
of Griffins, a troop of Minotaurs, three units of cavalry and an
untold number of creeping spies.”
I shook my head, grinning faintly. “You really don’t need
me.
“I do, indeed.”
Malik’s fist clenched as he half-raised it, his expression
tight. “You’re the best of them, Van. No other Shifter has your
precise detail. None have your nerve, your wit, nor your
cunning. You take on what others fear to. Unless you’re part
of it, my mission will fail utterly.”
“Nice speech.” I hooked my thumbs in my belt again. “Pity
you bet on the wrong Shifter.”
Malik’s fist dropped to his side and opened. He relaxed. Not
a welcome sign, in my book. His expression shut down, frozen
into that hard as granite Malik face. “You’ll make me force
you?”
“You don’t have to force anything on anyone.” I shrugged.
“It’s your choice, brother. Make it and go. And leave me be.”
A thinning of his lips created something akin to a smile at
the same time his eyes hardened. Malik’s hard-bitten Atani
face wasn’t designed for emotions like humor. A shiver of
dread wriggled like a grave-worm down my spine. I’d seen
that look before his powerful hooves knocked a man’s head
clean from his shoulders. My hand tried to creep to my neck,
but I quashed its cowardice with firm resolve.
“No can do,” Malik replied, feigned sorrow shadowing his
tone. “I’m under orders to take you back.”
I loved the guy, yet I always hated that aspect of his
personality. Malik adored mockery, and sarcasm was an art
he practiced often. He never failed to poke sardonic humor at
those beneath his royal nose. The egotistical, self-centered
bastard that he was.
“You’ll come with me either of your own free will or in
chains,” Malik promised, his hands resting on his horse
shoulders, akimbo. “Either way, you come with me. Your
choice, of course, my dear Van.”
“Spare me.”
Laughing, I reverted to my favorite form, the falcon.
Leaping into the morning sunlight, I soared upward, its
welcoming rays lingering on my feathers. Rising on the light
breeze, I caught a thermal and rose yet higher within an
instant. Far below, Malik stood amid his soldiers, gaping
upward like a landed fish. “Catch me now, meathead,” I called.
Below me, Malik and his cronies fell away quickly. I pushed
my wings into working hard, seeking the sun. Climbing high
and fast, I left the stench of the street, the Ass, and the piss I
fell into far behind. I always loved flying. When I flew, I
imagined the world far away, where I was no one and nothing.
I had no past and no future. There was no present, no cares,
no sensations save the whisper of the wind beneath my wings,
the cool breeze tickling my beak.
In my falcon body, I rose high, swift, my wings taking me
away from the grief, from Malik, his patrol, and his crisis. I saw
them with my keen raptor vision, far below, shading their
eyes to see me better. Ah, Malik, my brother, you forgot who I
am. You called me the best. And so I am. Go away and leave me
alone.
I reckon I forgot who he was.
Just then, twin manacles of dark pewter fastened upon my
wing joints. Like malicious tentacles, they bit deep and no
amount of fighting on my part would or could shake them
loose. Damn you, Malik. You can kill me with these bloody
things.
Only one magic in the known, and unknown, world
prevented a Shifter from changing forms: those dark pewter
manacles. The power of the Old Ones, the magic the Centaurs,
the Minotaurs, the Griffins, the Faeries all called their own,
rested within them. No one knew exactly how they worked,
not even the scholars. Save for those gifted few.
The dark manacles’ secrets, the inhibitors of any and all
magic held a dire, dark spell woven into the fabric of magic
and stilled it completely. A Shifter’s magic permitted the
change from one’s own form into any shape within the known
universe. Yet, the pewter’s power rendered a Shifter
incapable of utilizing his gods-given powers.
The Minotaur’s magics hushed when chained with those
strange objects. The Griffins learned to fear it, and the
Centaurs hated the very sight of that dark gleam. Only the
Faeries laughed at its ancient magic, but they laughed at
everything. Even humans with the awesome powers at their
disposal were rendered as helpless as infants when the
manacles were employed.
Obviously, Malik learned, or was taught, the secrets of the
dark metal. And he never told me, the cad.
Frozen, my wings refused to work properly. My helpless
flapping prevented a death drop to the very hard ground
below me, but the remaining airborne option departed
swiftly. I beat hard, desperate, my body spiraling rapidly out
of control. My raptor’s sharp vision caught glimpses of the
town beneath spinning like a top, and forced one simple
conclusion from me.
I’m in trouble.
Dizzy, last night’s mead threatening to reverse itself with a
vengeance, the world spun around and around and around.
I’m gonna die. My Lady Goddess, as you love me, let me hurl on
Malik’s impeccable shoulder before you take me to your bosom.
My swift wings failed to save my life, therefore I must rely
on others if I wished to breathe a while longer. However, that
prospect sucked rocks. Down, down, I spiraled, my small body
rotating as it dropped. The ground below rose faster than I
liked, and I’d hit terra extremely firma within moments.
Without help, I’d smash into little bits of feather and falcon on
the dirty brown cobbles. Though I wished myself dead many
times over the last couple years, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to
meet my Maker just yet.
Malik, if you want me alive, you’d better do something.
I always suspected a sadistic streak ran down his spine, the
kind that enjoyed watching a worm wriggle in the mud at his
feet. An even-tempered beast under normal circumstances, I
supposed I pushed his good nature to its limits. He wanted me
to think I’d die, just so he could save me, and preen under my
gratitude. While I wanted to spit on his polished hooves, I
wished he’d rush in to save me, post-haste.
Uh, Malik? Hello? Anytime now.
Malicious, Malik waited until the very last instant to catch
me within the folds of his power. Like a cold blanket, his magic
seized me in its grip. I felt my body slow its rapid descent,
seconds too late. I’d hit the ground hard, but I’d survive.
I fell with a wretched, ignominious thud to the cobblestones
at his feet, losing precious feathers and waking a headache
that rivaled my best hangover. Dazed, I gasped for breath, my
beak wide, my form locked into that of my falcon. I breathed
in piss and coughed out mead. Choking, gasping, I floundered,
unable to get my talons under me so I might yet stand.
The sun vanished again as Malik bent down. He picked me
up.
Not by my small body, the falcon that could fit nicely into
his sword-calloused palm. Hell, no. Malik had a vicious side to
his calm and affable nature. He plucked me up by my feet and
held me before his eyes as though evaluating his next meal.
Viewing the world, dangling toes up and beak down from
the hand of a Centaur gave me much needed perspective, I’ll
admit. The Horse’s Ass wasn’t the home I thought it was. I
liked The Signal Seller, an inn across town kept by a woman
who loved books and often quoted chapter and verse. She also
adored cats. If I turned myself into a long-haired, striped
tabby, she’d allow me into her lap and would read to me.
Maybe I’ll saunter on down to the Signal and be her cat for the
next year or ten.
A scroll appeared in Malik’s left hand. “Vanyar ap Llewellyn
ap Hydarr,” he announced in a deep rolling tone. I swear the
vagrants in the streets halted long enough to listen to his
captivating voice. “I’ve a list of charges against you.”
I sighed and the world steadied a bit. At least my stomach
calmed. “Tut,” I commented. “Your desperation is showing.
Terribly unsuitable for one of your calling, you know.”
The manacles on my wings didn’t allow for furling them
across my back. Forced, however hateful this action was, I
spread them wide. Much easier on the wings, less so on my
raptor’s immediate dignity.
“His Royal Majesty has charged this miscreant with public
drunkenness and intoxication,” Malik intoned, pretending to
read from his scroll.
“Um,” I answered, slow, careful. “It’s legal, and expected, on
this side of town.”
“– lewd and lascivious behavior –”
“She said she was eighteen.”
indecent exposure –”
“Uh, from where I sit you’d be accused of the same. Your
whatsis hangs as large as –”
“Part of my culture. What’s your excuse?”
“Someone stole my shirt.”
“Are you sticking to that pathetic story?”
“I don’t have a chance, do I?”
“A snowball’s in hell. Maybe. If you’re lucky.”
“Gods forbid–”
“Conduct unbecoming an officer and an Atan.” Malik’s
voice rose.
“I left the Atan years ago. That doesn’t qualify.”
“–disrespect to His Royal Majesty–”
“I’ve disrespected him for years, too, however that’s mostly
private. How’d you know about it, anyway?”
“I know everything.”
My eyes chanced upon his glassy, shined and polished, hind
hooves. “We’re friends, aren’t we, Malik?”
My question halted his feigned gaze on his magic-inspired
scroll. He frowned, half-turning toward me, his brows
lowered. I interrupted his train of thought, yet he’d forgive
me. This time. “Yes, Van.”
“Friends can ask one another personal questions, isn’t that
true?”
“Of course, my dear chap.”
“Inquiring minds must know.”
He sighed, his hand raising me up to eye level. “Is there a
question in your future?”
I jerked my beak toward his rear. “How do you polish your
back ones? I know you hate servants and such noble
pleasantries.”
“Can we stay on topic, please?”
“I ask,” I went on slowly, “because I suspect it’d be very
difficult for one of your, er, stature, to polish your own hooves.
Do you, like, bend under?”
“His Majesty also charges–”
“If you’re that bendable, dear boy, please suck your own–”
He shook me vigorously. The ale and mead I drank last
night threatened an immediate and chronic upheaval. “Don’t,”
I choked. “I’m gonna hurl.”
Malik extended his arm, and me, well away from his
military and pristine self. “Knock yourself out.”
I managed not to barf, but my belly roiled alarmingly. “Quit
shaking me, will you?”
He did so again, just out of sheer cussedness. My belly
heaved, but I managed to lock my throat in the nick of time.
“This is a side of you I’ve never encountered before,” I gasped,
viewing the Horse’s Ass and its customers from an odd
vantage point. Tamil’s poxy face looked just like the painted
Ass, from its’ rear-view appearance. How extraordinary.
“His Majesty also charges you with high treason and
murder.”
“Fine,” I replied, willing my revolted belly into submission.
The world spun for a few more awkward moments, then
quieted. I met his dark eyes and grim expression with jovial
mockery.
“Take me to jail,” I said, shrugging my feathers. “I need a
vacation, anyway. I can sleep, eat three squares a day, no
worries.”
Malik lifted me higher, his deep eyes on level with mine. His
aristocratic lips smiled in a way that sent a shiver down my
falcon spine.
“Oh, no, Van,” he replied, waving me gently back and forth.
“No cushy cell for you. A high treason sentence, for an ex-Atan,
means you go straight to Braigh’Mhar.”
A sudden, icy chill ruffled my every feather. Gods, no.
The royal courts sent the worst of the worse to Braigh’Mhar
upon their conviction. Raithin Mawrn terrorists, murderers,
rapists, robbers, killers, soldiers convicted of treasonall save
the petty crimes of theft or burglary, prostitution or debt
eventually found their way to the frozen north. The locals, and
cursing inmates, named it the hell beneath hell.
Bound on all sides by glaciers and bald mountains, any who
escaped Braigh’Mhar died from exposure within moments of
leaving its high, protected walls. None might survive but
within the comparative safety of the prison’s protections.
Native, six-limbed trolls guarded the twenty-five rod high
icebound prison walls. Mindless, trolls ate anything that
moved, or didn’t move. That menu included road kill, the
occasional rat and freedom-seeking prisoners. To date, no
fool bypassed their alert senses, nor their voracious appetites,
to escape into the sweet freedom the mountains offered.
Long accustomed to this brutal landscape, the trolls
inherited inches thick layers of fat beneath their tough,
reptilian hides. A diet of high fat and protein, fed raw and
bloody by the prison officials, prevented the deepest cold
from killing their species in infancy. Their natural protection
and constant hunger kept them alert, cautious, and prowling
for inmate-meat. The monsters efficient night vision and
breath of flame caught many unsuspecting escapees before
the brutal cold could. Only by remaining inside might one
escape certain death from either the blasting cold or the trolls.
Braigh’Mhar effectively shut the world out, and its enemies in.
The mountains also hungered for blood.
Had a fortunate inmate succeeded where others failed,
ducking the alert guards and starving trolls, and survived the
perilous trek into the sharp-toothed mountains, he’d face a
worst death than what he’d fled from. Ice, starvation and a
lengthy, agonized death awaited him with open legs. Running
to her for comfort, he’d perish under her lethal, icy kiss.
Blinded by white, his blood turning to ice in his veins, his body
slowly froze as he believed he lay warm and safe under layers
of warm quilts. The bald, ice-enslaved rocky peaks held more
traps than a willing whore. Men tried. Men died.
Those prisoners who opted to remain within the prison
walls found savage means of survival. Savvy jailbirds created
gangs for protection, and killed off the weakest prisoners.
Wars between gangs flared often, and kept the prison’s
funeral services (the trolls) busy. Prison guards left the
inmates to their own devices, unless they rioted. If that
occurred, the wardens simply turned the hungry trolls loose
to run amongst the rebelling prisoners and shut the heavy
steel doors behind them.
Criminals not immediately executed were sentenced to
Braigh’Mhar either for a later death sentence or for a life
inside its heinous walls. No parole was offered or expected. If
the gangs didn’t gut you, insanity surely would.
“I can’t go there.” My tongue felt numb.
“The manacles you wear now will accompany you,” Malik
went on, implacable. “Your hands will be bound behind you,
twenty-four seven. There’s no chance you’ll change your form
into that of a mouse and wriggle free, or escape. There you
will remain till the end of your, er, single, tortured week.”
My tongue all but refused to work. “You wouldn’t.”
Malik half-smiled with a shrug, indolent. “I don’t pass
sentence. His Majesty will.”
“I gave His Majesty many years of loyal and dedicated
service,” I said, my voice wild.
Malik frowned at his scroll. “Oh, there it is. I almost
overlooked it. Absent without leave. Almost two years to the
day. Wow. What a coincidence.”
“I had to run, dammit.”
“Oh, yes.” Malik smiled thinly. “From your Atani brothers.”
My soul cringed. “I didn’t mean for it to happen,” I
whispered. “I–”
“Your own arrogance and callous stupidity caused many
Atani deaths. No punishment is good enough.”
“Then execute me. Cut my head off.”
Malik drew me close to his face, eye to eye, his expression
wide, cunning and cruel. “Oh, Van,” he replied softly. “That’s
much too easy for one such as you.”
“Gods–”
“You deserve nothing less than incarceration for what little
remains of your life.”
“Send me anywhere but Braigh’Mhar. Please.”
“Why? You sent ninety-nine point nine percent of the
Braigh’Mhar inmates there yourself? Right?”
I raised a scoff. “Ninety five point eight, bro,” I snapped, my
voice hoarse. “You did your share.”
He shook me again. My feathers rattled from stem to stern.
“I never committed treason.”
“Nor did I–”
“You did. Disobeying a direct command from the King or his
first-in-command…that would be me…is treason at its highest
level.”
“What order did I disobey?” I demanded.
Malik bared his teeth in a pseudo smile. “I ordered you to
see me in my quarters after Dalziel, to explain what happened.
Instead, you bolted like a rabbit.”
“I had to, dammit!” I shouted, my wings wide. “They were
going to kill me.”
“Of course they wanted you dead. You got their brothers
blown to kingdom come.”
“I sent them in to save lives, rescue hostages. My intel was
sound, they were hot to go in. I didn’t know…there was only
one, I was told, only one…you weren’t there. Nor was His
Majesty. I did what I had to do.”
“You broke protocol,” Malik sneered. “And it cost the lives
of your unit. You live though they died.”
I groaned, shutting my eyes. “I’d trade places with them all
in a heartbeat, given the chance. But that matters as much as
a flea in a sandstorm. Don’t it?”
“You’re pathetic, Van.”
“And then some. How long?”
Oh, the boys are wagering you survive anywhere from two
days to a month,” Malik remarked agreeably, his smile bright
and more predatory than a shark’s. “Among the general
population.”
“I demand a single cell. And protection.”
Malik’s face fell. “Oh, gee, sorry. This just bites rocks, bro.
Treasonous ex-Atani aren’t allowed special privileges. Treat
them like the criminals they are, the King says.”
“Shit.”
“How’s by those souvenirs? A piece of your hide will fund
an inmate’s bad habits for a month.”
I groaned.
“Those bad boys’ll take weeks to kill you.” Malik’s soft voice
held more malice than a bared sword. “Choose that, or–”
“Or?” I hated myself for it, but I leaped toward the
temptation he offered. “Or what?”
“Reclaim your place and your soul by joining with me,” he
said. “Help me bring the princess home.”
Bitterness rose like the bad mead in my belly. “Oh, sure,” I
tried to scoff. “Trade one sentence of death for the other. You
know damn well what’ll happen to me.”
Malik’s brows drew down as though he pondered the
implications. “Oh. All your brothers who remember Dalziel.”
“Bastard,” I hissed. “You know they’ll kill me.”
“You’ll be under my protection.”
“No offense, Malik. But that’s as effective as a linen cloth
against a sword’s strike.”
His dark eyes met mine. “Take it or leave it.”
“Malik, where’d that cruel streak spring from? I’ve never
seen it’s like before.”
“Choose, or I’ll choose for you.”
I sighed, swinging from his fingers like a bat at roost. I
wrapped my wings about me as best I could, stilling my
shivers. “If I’m to die, better I die at the hatred of my own kind
than the torments of my enemies. I was yours before. I am
yours after. I’m still yours, for whatever life remains to me.”
“Now that’s what I like to hear. Positive and encouraging.
You’re a true Atan, Vanyar. Perhaps you’ll redeem your honor
on this mission.”
“Honor is a walk on slippery river rocks,” I replied, my tone
as cold as I could make it. “Too treacherous for words.”
Casually, he flicked his fist. His motion tossed me up to land,
talons-first, on his bare shoulder. His manacles vanished,
leaving me free to fly, change forms or do as I pleased. Instead,
I furled my sore wings, a tiny falcon perched beside his face,
gripping his skin with my sharp talons without cutting him.
“You’re a bastard, Malik.”
His deep-set eye met mine the instant he quirked his upper
lip. “And then some.”
Striking a gallop, with me stuck to his shoulder with wings
half-spread for balance, Malik’s hooves sparked lights from
the cobbles. Behind his flowing tail galloped his Centaur unit,
two by two, the sound of their hooves like thunder in the
almost silent streets. What few folk roamed at this early hour
scuttled hastily out of his path, their curses swallowed.
Wagons drawn by horses, mules and a few laden oxen
trundled aside, their drivers yanking on long reins. Attendant
mercs on rearing horses spurred their mounts out of the way,
gloved hands kept well-away from sword hilts.
I glanced behind. The mounted cavalry parted in twain and
flanked the galloping Centaurs, the King’s banner snapping in
the wind. Behind it flew the Atani flag: the grinning Death’s
Head skull. Charging across the quarter’s wide industrious
center, Malik plowed through matrons and shopkeepers alike.
Shouted curses hadn’t time to fill his ears as his hard hooves
forced peasants, workers, thieves, whores, or convenient
aristocrats aside or risk being trampled by an annoyed
Centaur commander and his Atans.
His wild hair cloaked me, enveloping me like a burial
shroud. I didn’t try to toss it aside, nor did Malik, though the
comparison gave me the heebie-jeebies. Had I the guts, I’d
force Malik to send me to Braigh’Mhar, find peace within a
sort-of honorable death. Like the coward I was, I sat on his
shoulder as he took me into a future I didn’t want. I longed to
fly free, flee, as I ran away before. But my past would ever
follow like a hungry pup, always there, never satisfied.
Face your enemies.
Sure, I thought. Easier said than done.