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|A few anomalies (perhaps) are cleared up in this chapter, because I took the time to edit it slightly. Reread it before you point out discrepancies in my later chapters. :)||
Sarista Aranim paced back and forth before the dais, his brow creased in thought as he flipped a knife from one hand to the other. He seemed unaware of what he was doing. Although his mind was definitely somewhere else, he caught the blade deftly by the hilt every time. He was not a young man — his hair was grey and his face wrinkled — but the quick dexterity with which he handled the knife gave the lie to his appearance.
Stalking impatiently like a hungry wolf, Sarista's eyes were hard, black and fathomless; the easy agility of his steps seemed incongruous, considering his short, thickset build that was more suited to a blacksmith than a warrior. A thick, grey-streaked beard covered the lower half of his face and his silvery hair was cut short. No one would have called him handsome, even without the multitude of scars that criss-crossed his face and body. Of course, his less than good-natured temperament didn’t help much. Although it billowed impressively, the black gown he wore did nothing to improve his appearance.
More than a dozen women, Sarista's infamous harem, sat or lay about the chamber, seemingly reclining at their ease; but their eyes twitched nervously from one place to another and their smiles were strained. They were dressed in gauzy silk dresses of all different colours and their faces had been carefully made up with powders and paints. They held their tongues and avoided his gaze carefully; he had ordered whippings for stares that were too bold.
The room was richly decorated, with a high ceiling that was really a dome of coloured glass, beautifully wrought, through which the light shone in complex patterns. Tapestries hung on the walls, depicting mythical creatures and abstract art. Cushions and rugs in bright colours were scattered about the polished wooden floor; there were no chairs except for a carved wooden throne that stood on the dais. One side of the chamber was screened from the open air by nothing but a thin sheet of glass, divided into four tall doors that could be slid open, giving access to the wide balcony outside. One of the doors was open, and a cool breeze stirred the tapestries.
Always a man to get angry at the slightest provocation, and sometimes at no provocation at all, Sarista grimaced and flung the knife down with a curse, embedding the blade halfway to the hilt in the wooden floor. The loud thunk made everyone else jump; a pretty young girl playing a harp yelped and struck a wrong note.
Sarista glared at her. Striking another wrong note, the girl began to shake, face white and lips trembling. Her nerveless fingers dropped from the strings and she shrank back from him, shaking her head wordlessly, pleadingly.
“Play something,” he ordered abruptly, turning away.
“My — my lord?” she whimpered. The whimpers broke into sobs as she realised what she had done.
In mid-stride, Sarista stopped.
The atmosphere of the room altered, became sharp and tense; silence fell except for the girl’s terrified weeping.
“You dare speak to me? Do you question my actions?” Sarista’s voice was calm and composed, but any fool could tell how angry he was just from the way his hands clenched into fists.
“No! No my lord! Never!” The girl shrieked hysterically, bowing until her forehead touched the floor. Her whole body shook with fear.
She almost screamed when someone rapped softly at the door.
Sarista scowled. He found women more attractive when they were terrified of him. And he needed something to vent his frustration on.
“Beat her. Beat her until she cannot stand, and then beat her some more,” Sarista commanded. His order would be carried out, probably by one of the other women in the room. Competition for his favour was a merciless business.
“Come in,” he added pleasantly.
A plump, fair woman who was lying near to the door got to her knees and shuffled over to open it. Sarista was prickly about his height and would not tolerate people standing in his presence.
The woman slid the door open and bowed, once to the man kneeling in the doorway with his face to the floor and twice to Sarista. Then she crawled away into a corner and lay down again.
“Rise,” Sarista said.
Obediently, the man lifted his face off the floorboards and straightened his back, although he remained kneeling. Even on his knees, the man was almost as tall as Sarista.
“Speak,” Sarista commanded.
“As my lord directs,” replied the man, “The warrior is alive. According to the physicians, he will remain so with the proper care. He will be sent whenever my lord desires him. My lord is merciful to let his servant speak.”
“Take this reply to the physicians: I will see the man now, here, without any delay. Go.” Sarista bent down and wrenched the dagger out of the floor, the servant already forgotten. The man bowed three times, unseen, backed out of the doorway and carefully pulled the door shut.
White-faced, the young woman was plucking at her harp again, a faint thread of a tune sounding above a cacophony of clashing chords produced by her stumbling, violently trembling fingers. She was quite pretty, actually, but Sarista was irritated, his nerves frayed, and her tuneless strumming was intensely annoying.
Striding over to her, he picked up the gilded harp in one fist. His knuckles whitened as he crushed it to splinters. Throwing the broken instrument away, Sarista backhanded the woman across the face. She had no breath to cry out with, but her moans were strangely comforting.
“Leave,” Sarista spat at the women. He found no pleasure in looking at them today.
The women rose to their knees and bowed three times in unison before making their way to the door and shuffling out. Shaking, the terrified girl fell more than once, but Sarista was no longer paying attention to her.
Sliding open one of the glass doors, Sarista stepped out onto the balcony and walked over to the railing. He leaned against it and looked down.
The huge arena was spread out beneath him like a white disc at the foot of the mountain, the towering stands far below the balcony on which he stood and the city sprawling away from the arena walls, covering the valley-floor in every direction. Starting sweat on Sarista’s face almost instantly, the sun beat down from the sky like a hammer.
Beyond the distant city walls stretched the great desert, Lirshon — the city was built on its very borders. Cyarus' great domes and spires made him smile arrogantly as though he himself had built it; the long-abandoned capital had stood there for thousands of years, beyond the memory of any still living. Sarista’s forefathers had reclaimed the city, rebuilding and remaking it; the enterprise had taken centuries. And now it belonged to Sarista, every stone, every jewel, every soul.
However, the smile left Sarista’s face almost as soon as it had appeared. Today had been the annual ceremony of worship to Isis-Anyn, the Goddess of War, the supreme goddess of Cyarus; Sarista touched his forefinger to his forehead and then to his lips in the way of the Servants of Isis-Anyn.
Every year, an elite group of worshippers called Bondservants were trained for this event. Those who had survived the fighting in years past joined the new recruits, strengthening the group further every year. They were taught to kill with their bare hands, drained of all emotion and prepared to fight for the glory of Isis-Anyn. While they studied, strange, vicious beasts were bred by mages hired by Sarista from distant countries where such arts were known — the combining of different species and the creation of entirely new ones was considered an evil thing in the north, Sarista’s homeland, not that he cared.
It was customary each year for one or two dedicated Servants to give themselves to the beasts as the ultimate act of worship; by not resisting, they gave up their honour and dedicated it to Isis-Anyn — a deed that required great strength of belief. When Sarista had seen the man appear in the arena, he had supposed that the man was a Servant, honouring the tradition of sacrifice.
One of Sarista's trusted servants, a man with keen hearing, had heard the man’s reply to the Bondservant’s ritual statement and passed it on to his master.
“Sret damn your bloody consecrated area. And need I tell you exactly where your whore of a goddess can stick her k'shakkor hand?” The trembling servant had muttered the words under his breath, startling Sarista out of a pleasant daydream as he waited for the fighting to begin.
The correct reply was, “I am dedicated. My honour is lost for Her glory,” as the Servant touched his brow and his mouth. Obviously, this man was unaware of that. After the initial shock, Sarista had settled down to enjoy the fighting; he had not expected the man to last for more than five minutes, and then —
Staring in disbelief at the lizard’s corpse, Sarista had examined the man more closely. After that, he had grown angrier by the second — the man was not qualified, and his effortless destruction of Sarista’s creatures put the other dancers in a bad light — but also, however hard it was to admit it, Sarista was impressed.
The man had gone down fighting, as well as taking three of the dancers down with him; three of the elite, those warriors that were the most deadly Bondservants trained since the founding of the tradition. Even while the man was on his knees, he had severely injured another Bondservant, as well as handing out bruises and broken bones to several of the others.
Seeing as the man wasn’t a Servant, Sarista had ordered the Bondservants to stop their frenzied attacks. Sarista had expected him to be dead, but it seemed that the man was very strong; any other would have died long ago.
Sarista made an annoyed sound between his teeth. Misao Oriko and her friends had come as ambassadors from the forest, bringing the man with them. They had come to discuss terms regarding custody of the criminal werewolves in Cyarus; the Werehome – their name for the Forbidden Forest – preferred to dispense justice to its subjects personally.
They had brought the man with them, naming him a criminal who had waylaid them on their way to Cyarus and requiring a prison to keep him in. Perhaps he was intended as a gift; Isis knew the werewolves seemed incapable of restraining the man. After seeing the man fight, though, Sarista had grown suspicious. Why go to all the effort of capturing such a powerful fighter simply as a gift when the Werehome abounded in silver, a resource werewolves had no use for? And Sarista knew she had not just brought the man to lower the reputation of his Bondservants, although she had nothing but contempt for them.
No, she had some other purpose for the man, but Sarista had no idea what it could be. He did not allow this to worry him unduly; was he not the commander of ten thousand trained men and a trusted bodyguard, every one of whom would give his life for Sarista? Instead, the king of Cyarus waited and watched.
But his conference with the werewoman had vexed him more than he would allow the ambassadors to see. Just being in their half-human presence had made him angry, and their high-handed manner had made him furious. There had been words, insults, threats on both sides, but none so much as Sarista's. Within minutes, their conference had lost all remnants of diplomacy, the two male ambassadors had left in a rage and Sarista's cursed bad temper had led him to boast of the werewolf criminals he'd taken, the punishments he'd executed. At some point, he'd realized how quiet the werewoman was and how white her face had gone; he'd hit a nerve, and she left with a composure of iron, blood welling on her bottom lip where she'd bitten right through it.
He soon regretted his outburst, not wanting to begin an outright war with the Werehome, but Oriko could not be found to hear his apologies.
Waking from his deep thought, Sarista turned.
“Enter,” he ordered, his unnaturally sharp sense of hearing detecting motion outside his door.
The door slid open and four men shuffled in on their knees, bearing a stretcher between them. Their faces were awed and reverent; Sarista wasn’t about to tell them that he had not used magic arts to see that they were kneeling in the passageway.
Setting the stretcher down, the men bowed awkwardly, three times each, and crawled backwards out of the open door, the last one closing it behind him with an almost palpable air of relief.
Smiling grimly, Sarista walked up to the pallet and looked down at its occupant. His eyes widened in shock.
The man was covered with blood, from head to foot, his chest bare but his ragged trousers clinging to his body, soaked through. His face was torn and bleeding, scratch marks gouged down one side and a huge swelling on the other where the grappler had hit him. He was a mass of welts and bruises, and blood-soaked bandages were wound around his chest and head in addition to a sling on his right arm. He looked like a dead man, but his eyes were open.
Of course, Sarista had seen the man in the arena from a distance, but up close, with those blue, blue eyes staring at him, through him…
Pulling his eyes away, Sarista contemplated the floor.
“What is your name?” he asked, and he was unprepared for the harshness of his tone.
Despite his injuries, the man spoke clearly, even if his voice was strained and hoarse from exhaustion.
Sarista took hold of himself and looked down at the man again, refusing to flinch.
“Why did you fight… Jude?”
The man ran his tongue over his cracked, dry lips.
“If I had not, I would — be dead,” he gasped as a spasm of pain wracked him.
“The only reason you are not dead is because I halted them,” Sarista pointed out.
“Would you have halted them… if I had not fought?” Jude replied, a faint suggestion of a smile on his lips.
Sarista stared. Smiling? The man was smiling, when he was at Sarista’s mercy and on the verge of death? Perhaps the blow to the head had addled his brains.
“Do you know how you came here?” he inquired casually, examining his fingernails.
“Misao Oriko brought you. The woman with the white hair,” Sarista added at Jude’s uncomprehending look. “I am still not sure as to why she brought you.”
“You don’t even – know why I was captured?”
“No. She's got some purpose for you, though, and I'd love to know what it is.” Sarista wondered why he was being so open with this man.
Jude rested in silence for a moment, and then took a ragged breath and spoke again.
“What will you do with me?” he asked, his face blank.
“You will become my Bondservant,” Sarista said, “Your fighting abilities are beyond belief. For that I shall spare your life.”
For after all, the king mused to himself, perhaps this is a gift worth having.
“Bondservant? What is that?” Jude whispered.
“The three warriors that you defeated were Bondservants,” Sarista explained, and briefly explained the ceremony, wetting his lips with the tip of his tongue from time to time. Jude's eyes narrowed.
“'Were’?” Jude asked, anger in his tone even though he spoke with great difficulty. “None of them were dead.”
“They were defeated,” Sarista said, “Isis-Anyn weeds out the weak and…”
Jude’s left hand shot out and caught Sarista by the throat.
“You killed them?” he asked, and if his tone had been cold, now it was ice.
Choking, Sarista struggled in Jude’s grasp — but he could not escape; the man held him as a hawk holds a mouse in its talons.
“Have you…” Jude’s eyes stared into Sarista’s, the furious blue glazing over with pain; his wounds were too deep, too recent. The man’s grip relaxed and he fell back onto the pallet, his eyes rolling up into his head as consciousness deserted him.
Sarista stumbled back, clutching at his throat. Spinning, he stared at his reflection in the glass door. A wide band of dark, bruised flesh ringed his neck like a collar, the impression of Jude’s fingers pressed deep into the skin.
Cursing colourfully, Sarista stumbled over to the door and dragged it open.
“Fetch me the healer!” he choked at the man who stood guard outside in the passage. It took Sarista a minute to remember that the guard was deaf; all Aranim family slaves were deaf to prevent eavesdropping. A particularly violent curse preceded a ringing slap to the man’s head, upon which the guard noticed him and fell to his knees. Sarista made an impatient gesture and the man raised his eyes so that he could read Sarista’s lips.
“Fetch me the healer!” Sarista glared so balefully at the guard that the man forgot about not standing; he leapt to his feet and ran down the passage as though the hounds of hell were at his heels. Luckily for him, he was a short man, another characteristic of Sarista’s slaves; the guard would only be beaten, not executed.
Staggering back into his rooms, Sarista collapsed onto one of the thick, brightly coloured rugs near the door. His head was spinning and black spots danced all over his vision, while his breath still came in laboured gasps.
Presently, the door slid open again — without a knock — and Misao slipped into the room. She was calmly tying back her hair as though she had all the time in the world, long white hair that brushed the ground.
“Oriko!” Sarista gasped. He went suddenly cold.
Misao looked at Jude, senseless on his stretcher, and then at Sarista. He had regained his breath, but the ugly mark around his neck had swollen up. A faint blue tinge was rapidly receding from Sarista’s white face, his eyes black and staring like twin stones of jet set in marble.
“You came back...” Sarista rasped, astonished. Then his hands went to his throat and he groaned. “You can work the were-power, can't you? Use it.”
Oriko's deft hands paused from their work, and then she let her hair fall loose again.
“Do you think I came to heal you, fool?” she asked venomously, dropping the leather tie to the floor. Her orange eyes gleamed, shot through with a strange light. “You? The man who makes himself out to be a Greyling, a leader, but slaughters our people like a butcher? The Werehome will burn and be forgotten before that comes to pass.”
Sarista struggled to his knees and put out a hand to support himself against the wall. He turned his gaze on the werewoman, and fury burned deep in his eyes.
“I am the king of Cyarus. Here, you will obey me,” he whispered.
“The Werehome obeys no man, king or peasant, whether his arse graces a throne or a pigsty floor,” hissed Misao. “I had two tasks, traitor. The first I have completed.” She glanced at Jude. “Though it seems your filthy Bondservants have undone my work.”
“Treachery! I demand to know who…!” Sarista began.
Misao interrupted him. “I believe you are aware of the second. You are a threat to the Werehome. Therefore, you must be disposed of.”
The king of Cyarus heaved himself to his feet.
“Who gave you your orders?” he barked.
Misao smiled, and suddenly her chilling otherness became blatantly obvious. No one, at that moment, could have mistaken her for a true human being. “It matters not. Prepare yourself.”
Sarista laughed at her openly.
“Before you die, bitch, I will crush your secrets out of your very bones.” The light fell strangely across his face, and for a split second it seemed as though his eyes shone yellow…<p> The hair on the back of his neck rose first — and kept on rising, growing longer and longer until it joined the hair on his head that became thicker and longer by the second. His body seemed to shrivel in on itself, his skin moulding itself over a different frame. In an eye-watering sort of slip, a snout sprouted from his face and his skull flattened and stretched. Tearing with his teeth, Sarista ripped away the black robe that strained over a body that it did not fit.<p> Sarista unsheathed his claws and snarled furiously as he took a step towards Misao. Suddenly, she was changing too — her body shrank and then grew again, but into a different form; pure white fur rippled over her skin and she ripped her dress apart with her claws, kicking at it until it fell in tatters. The transformation was painful, although Misao had long since become used to it; the agony of sharp teeth sprouting from her gums was nothing more than a minor annoyance.<p> Misao and Sarista were no more. In their places, two stiff-legged wolves circled each other, one with snow-white fur, the other as black as midnight with a grey-streaked muzzle. Orange eyes glowing, the white wolf showed her teeth in the way of wolves, and the tense, controlled energy of her movements betrayed her strength.<p> Misao was still very much in control of her mind, as was Sarista, and the wolves had a frightening intelligence in their eyes as each waited for an opening in the other’s defences. <p> Gathering herself, Misao lowered her head, swaying like a snake about to strike. She crouched down close to the floor, a soft rumbling in her throat, and began her battle-song. It was an eerie sound, a combination of a cat’s hair-raising scream and a wolf’s howl; echoing off the walls of the chamber, it rang from every direction at once.<p> Merging and harmonizing with her haunting cry, Sarista’s howl rose; the combined melodies clashed sharply, making the very air resonate. <p> All at once, the song ceased, leaving echoes in the air; and the two creatures hurled themselves at one another, silent as death. <p> Raking his claws across Misao’s face, Sarista sprang back — but not quickly enough. Misao lashed out after him with a paw and left several deep gashes in his side. Both of them bleeding, the wolves began their circling again. <p> Then Misao flung herself at her opponent, her claws cutting the air towards his shoulders. He dodged to the side as she landed powerfully, her muscles rippling under her skin, and she bolted after him immediately, tearing at his exposed flanks. Sarista began to play with her, ducking just underneath her claws and putting her off balance, allowing her teeth to graze past his muzzle and then, when he could have killed her, simply knocking her to the floor; a lethal, sadistic game, this. <p> She quickly took advantage of his mocking tactics. Slithering on her belly, she tried to get a grip on his hind legs, but he pulled them out of reach just before she could. Then, as she had expected, he turned to her and raked his claws down her face, thinking that she would not be able to respond in time. Through the red blood that dripped into her eyes, Misao saw his pupils widen in surprise as she leapt up, cutting deep wounds in his shoulders, and embraced him, tearing at his face with her teeth.<p> They broke apart, both of them bleeding heavily and feeling the pain. This time, it was Sarista who broke the tense pacing. Darting in quickly, he tried to get a grip on Misao’s throat, his jaws gaping wide and his head twisted sideways. She let him get within an inch of her throat, a death grip, and then ducked her head expertly and came up underneath his chin with a skull-cracking head butt. Her teeth fastened on his throat and she began a muffled growling as she hung on like grim death. <p> Sarista went crazy.<p> His front paws clawed at her face and body, leaving deep, crimson furrows; he brought up his hind legs and kicked at her stomach with his claws, tearing her flesh to shreds. Nothing worked; Misao would not let go.<p> A noisy gurgling came from Sarista’s jaws, which hung open in a desperate attempt to get air into his lungs. Misao bit deeper. <p> And then she could taste blood in her mouth, the warm lifeblood that pumped out of both their bodies and made bright red puddles on the floor. She held on until the end, not letting go before Sarista’s body went limp in her jaws. The dead weight dragging at her pulled her down; she could see her own blood leaking away and mingling with Sarista’s. <p> Crawling painfully across the bloodstained floor, the white wolf dragged herself to the stretcher that lay near the door. Her orange eyes were half-shut, but she forced them open enough to turn her head and look at the man for whose wounds she was responsible.<p> Her body stretched, changed, remoulded, and a woman lay beside the stretcher, blood dripping onto the pallet, her own blood. She laid her hand on his forehead and let her eyelids drift shut.<p><p> In the deep blackness, Jude was swearing repeatedly.<p> <i>Sret, Sret, Sret…</i><p> Even here, floating in nothingness, he could feel the pain. But here, he could scream forever and no one would hear. Forever…<p> He tried to curl in on himself, to hide, and a soundless howl ripped from his throat as the agony returned in pounding, grating waves. And he couldn’t fight back. How can you fight against something that you can’t see or touch in an endless sea of emptiness? <p><p> Misao felt something warm and wet slide over her fingers, and she knew that Jude was weeping. <p> Soft light shone between her fingers and touched her face, turning her cold skin a mocking, rosy colour, as though she were in the bloom of health. Spreading over his body, the light sank into Jude’s wounds and sealed them smoothly, although Misao’s powers were too weak to completely remove all the scars. His broken arm straightened almost imperceptibly as the light settled into his limbs. Although he was still covered with blood and sweat, Jude’s wounds were completely healed; all that remained was a multitude of ragged white marks that covered him from head to foot. <p><p> It was like a cool shower, like rain pouring down on his head and running down his body. The pain melted as though the cold water had drawn it out and washed it away. Empty space became blinding light and the darkness receded reluctantly, folding itself up into a corner of his mind as he opened his eyes. <p> Feeling something warm on his forehead, Jude lifted his hand. The movement was difficult, but not impossible — Jude knew what healing felt like and he wondered what man, doctor or otherwise, would take it upon himself to heal a rogue Bondservant. <p> His fingers touched hot, clammy skin; it was a hand, the hand of his healer, because healing required contact. He pushed it away gently.<p> Slowly, Jude managed to sit up, surprised at the amount of dried blood that caked his skin; he knew that he’d been hurt badly, but how badly he had not realised until this moment.<p> Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of white hair trailing on the ground. Although his body protested, he lurched awkwardly to his feet and staggered back from the bloody pallet, ready to fight, his whole body stiff with overuse and every muscle aching.<p> The woman was sprawled beside the stretcher and her eyes were slightly open; Jude could see that she was fatally wounded. Not even healing could take her back from the brink of death now, but Jude had no skill in the art of healing anyway.<p> Thankfully, Jude’s body was beginning to respond properly; he no longer felt as though he was about to collapse. He walked over to her carefully and knelt nearby her. But not too close.<p> “I…” the woman gasped, and then spoke again, her tone wry and amused between rasping breaths.<p> “I am about — to die, and you still — fear me?” she asked finally. <p> “I do not fear you,” Jude replied, “But that is not to say that I trust you. What is your <i>ri</i>- name, and why did you capture me?”<p> “My name is – Misao ri'Sarenga... Oriko. As to why…”<p> “Yes?”<p> “I cannot tell you. Not… even you. Especially not – you…”<p> Jude looked down at her, expressionless. <p> “I am… sorry.”<p> “What do you know of a man named Circ?” he asked. Somewhere deep in her eyes, the orange light flickered.<p> “Nothing,” she lied.<p> He looked deep into her glazed eyes, and her bloodstained mouth twisted, with amusement or pain, or both, he couldn’t tell. <p> For the first time since Lokau, Jude began to feel the undercurrents of something he couldn’t fathom, some great scheme he knew nothing of. And Circ was at the heart of it. Suddenly, there in that beautiful, bloody chamber, he felt cold. <p> Misao was watching him, the remnants of her consciousness abandoning her before his eyes. Wisps of white hair lay across her face like pale scars.<p> “Is there nothing you can offer me?” Jude asked the dying werewolf. “Nothing at all?”<p> Her orange eyes were misted over now.<p> “There is… something.”<p> “What?”<p> “Death is my – witness. Seek the man… the man who would – rule this world. There are… two. Two… you must… remember —”<p> The gaps in her speech were becoming longer and more frequent. Blood trickled slowly from her mouth. Jude knew that she didn’t have much time left.<p> “Forgiveness is granted,” he said, placing his clenched fist over his heart, “The debt is paid.”<p> “Paid,” she whispered, her eyes slipping shut once more. It seemed that a load fell off her shoulders right then; she sighed with the last of her breath and smiled in relief. A cold, frozen, eternal smile. <p> Jude felt the thread sever, the slender cord that holds all living things to life. That gaping yet infinitesimal break made him feel sick. The damage was irreparable, and he felt the fragile connection snap every time someone died in his presence. There was a fleeting sensation of coldness, an insistent, ethereal touch upon his soul. <p><p> He got up slowly and bowed his head.<p><p> <i>“Misao-sister,” he whispered, “Go in peace. The debt is paid.”</i><p>
|Jude Ch. 10||Jude Ch. 3|
|Jude Ch. 1||Jude Ch. 5|
|Jude Ch. 2||Jude Ch. 6|