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The kingdom of Angst is in danger from the outer kingdoms. The only one standing between the people and the invaders from the Dark Regions is a woman who has lost her history, but who follows her own sense of justice. Around her swirls mysteries that, when resolved, will change her perception of life forever, and lead to the a revolution of the world in ways her people may not be ready to accept.
1. Avenging Angel
I am unjust, but I can strive for justice. My life's unkind, but I can vote for kindness. I, the unloving, say life should be lovely. I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness. ~ Vachel Lindsay ~
There are many who claim that the war began with the storm, but the reality was that the storm followed on the heels of the screams of the innocent caught up in the merciless slaughter.
Indeed, the stars twinkled intensely down upon the breathtaking vista of the plain of Lani on that late-summer night. A cool wind flowed across the tall, yellowing grass fronds, carrying the scent of jasmine and ripe alfalfa grass through the air. The trees along the banks of the Lani River swayed in a midnight dance. Their branches mingled in the wind, entwining, stroking, and trembling as though delighted to meet each other. The willows dipped and bowed as the old oak groaned with exertion, while the creek water gurgled below them. The sky, clear and dark as the abyss, twinkled with a million stars, adding a soft, muted light to the moon's small quarter hanging tauntingly over the horizon.
An owl, its eyes wide and yellow in the leaves of the giant oak tree, cocked its head and then suddenly swooped toward an unsuspecting mouse rustling through the grass below. The great gray wings set several leaves drifting toward the gurgling water. Some of the leaves drowned, while others became buoyant and floated across the surface like miniature boats, jumping and swirling on eddies of water. The water itself raced along, scraping against the pebbles and stones in its way, slowly wearing away the larger stones. The fluid water, so weak as it flowed around and past the boulders in its path, over time would win the battle as it ground the boulders into miniscule pieces of sand.
The gentle night breeze was slowly gaining strength, pulling first one leaf, and then another, from the trees nestled along the Lani. The trees instinctively huddled together, each aware of the low, menacing clouds approaching from the North. A blast of cold wind struck and every creature, great and small, headed toward the wall of ancient trees, seeking shelter, not wanting to be caught out alone on the vast plain during a storm.
Amidst the trees, a small fire guttered in the wind, failing slowly as the wind rushed in upon it. Sitting silently next to it, a lone traveler raised her head and listened to the strange sounds of the night. She sensed the anxiety in the wind and, pulling her cloak closer to her, bowed her head over her crossed arms, her back snug against the tree she leaned against. As her fire gusted out, the unnatural noises racing through the trees caused her to lift her head and listen, wondering what could possibly be afoot on such a night.
Racing through the stormy night, with branches lashing at their arms and faces as they fled, a small group of riders pushed their horses to their limits. Iron shod hooves ripped into the soft, rich humus, tossing clods up into the air as they passed at breakneck speed through the midst of the forest. The labored breathing of the horses was painful to hear, as though at any moment their lungs would burst. The lead beast, whose rider set the pace of the rest, flung off spittle from his nostrils and mouth, his endurance disappearing with each breath.
“Faster, faster!” whispered his rider, his dark face pressed close to his horse’s neck as he clung uncertainly to its back. He gritted his teeth each time his beast took an arching leap. He grasped his side, feeling the sickening seeping of his life through his fingers. Not far enough. Not ready to give up yet. I have to get back… His mind throbbed with urgency. There would be no hope for anyone unless they made it back to the King….
Somewhere ahead in the trees, he spied a muted light. He slowed his horse, raising his hand to the rest of his small squad. The horses gratefully slowed, their heads drooping with exhaustion. The man signaled to one of his scouts and the young man dropped from his horse silently. Within moments, the tow-headed boy was invisible in the gloom, racing with ghostlike stealth toward the light. The leader slid to the ground, trying to bite back the yelp of pain that shot out from between his gritted teeth. Immediately, one of his men was at his side, helping him to sit down on the thick mat of twigs and leaves that littered the ground.
“Crap, you should have told me you were wounded, Commander Hays!” the medic whispered angrily. He tugged his medical bag free from the horse he had been riding and began dumping out the contents. He pulled out several rolls of medicated bandages and forced his Commander to tolerate his shirt being lifted to expose the gaping wound. The medic hissed through his teeth at the sight of the wound and shook his head in frustration as he gruffly attacked the wound, cleaning it. Commander Hays bit his tongue, squelching the desire to scream.
“Quickly,” he gasped as the medic cleansed the wound. “Atsurai will be back shortly.”
“Sir, this wound needs stitches….”
“Dammit, we don’t have time for this! Just bandage it!” Hays snapped under his breath. The medic shook his head and began wrapping bandages around the Commander’s ribs to try and staunch the flow of blood.
A shadow appeared from the trees, causing every man to pull his sword partway from its sheath. Atsurai called out quietly, and, as they all relaxed a bit, came straight to Hays.
“There’s a small village just up ahead. Everyone appears to be asleep; there isn’t a single sign of disturbance. There is a well-stocked corral, obviously a messenger station. We can refresh our horses and grab water before pushing on to Angst.” Atsurai ran his fingers through his sweaty blonde hair, his eyes darting furtively about, watching the shadows around them as he gave his report.
Hays nodded and pulled his tunic back into place before re-buckling his light armor.
“Let’s go in quietly, and be off as quickly as possible. There’s no way to know how much of a lead we have on them, but if we don’t get back to Angst and warn the King, all will be lost.”
They each lead their horses quietly through the trees, breathing lightly, listening with every fiber of their already traumatized minds. Their horses smelled water and food. They quickened their paces as they neared the small messenger station near the outskirt of town, nearly dragging the men with them in their desire to quench their thirst. This dust of the road muffled some of their steps, but the jingling of the weapons and tack was still very noticeable above the roaring wind. The horses shoved their way to the water troughs as their riders began stripping off their saddles and bridles. One man opened the gate to the corral as his companions took turns drinking alongside the horses, too worn out to do more than slack their thirst.
Hays peered around groggily, at times gazing about at the small oil lamps that lit the narrow dirt street that passed by the corral and passed between the small cottages of the village. He frowned in confusion, wondering why there wasn’t a single guard about to come and ask who they were, or what they were doing. The horses in the corral avoided his men as they tried to catch them, keeping to the far end of the corral, frightened by their presence. He stared at their skittish behavior, trying to understand the messages that were seeping slowly into his mind, a mind that was no longer sharp, but fuzzy from blood loss. He swayed on his feet, trying to think: where was everyone? Abruptly, he heard a cry from the direction of the stable. He turned to find his men backing slowly away from the open stable doors. He staggered through the corral gate and stared into the dimly lit interior. His blood turned cold.
A single lamp sat on the floor of the stable. Its inadequate light, small as it was, was enough to show dozens of feet dangling over it. Hays raised his eyes and saw face after swollen face: men, women, children… they had each been hung by rough rope from the rafters of the stable. There were enough bodies to account for the majority of the township.
“What, Driscol?” Hays closed his eyes, unable to look any longer on the faces of agony above their heads.
“Commander….” Driscol’s voice was small and frightened, standing with his hand on the foot of the body closest to him. “Their bodies are still warm.”
Hays eyes sprang open.
“Everyone out! Out now!”
As they raced out into the darkness, Hays knew it was too late.
Fifty or more of their pursuers poured out of the cottages nearby and from the small building that had been the messenger station. Their shouts reverberated along the narrow street as Hays’ men scattered, trying to find a way back into the dark walls of the forest, vainly hoping that if they reached the trees, they would have a better chance to lose them in the dark. Hays felt the weight of guilt slam into him as one of his lieutenants died next to the water trough, his life cut short with a small scream as a sword ran through his side. This is my fault! I should have realized…
Hays raced toward the horses that were now screaming and roughly stumbling over his men and each other in an attempt to get away from the awful noises. The horses’ eyes were rolling and they were attempting to climb over each other’s backs in desperation. Hays struggled to grasp the mane of a horse that milled around at the edge of the mass of heaving bodies, in danger of a sharp, heavy hoof descending onto his head. Hands grasped him from behind, an elbow jarred into his wounded side, and he stumbled backward, swinging wildly. He was beaten and shoved as he swung about, his fists flailing at whatever human he could make contact with. He reached for his sword, but it was knocked roughly from his hand. A blow struck stunningly across the back of his head and the world tilted around him. His wound throbbed and he screamed when someone punched him in the ribs again, sending him crashing to his knees at last.
The raucous sound of fighting finally died down, and Hays felt several rough hands dragging him across the dirt of the corral. He heard shouting and dizzily looked up in time to see the medic slowly crawling through the dust as one of the Red soldiers stalked him. Hays choked on his shout as the barbarian raised his sword and speared the already mortally injured man through the back. Hays shut his eyes. The vision of the medic’s hands flailing the air just before his face dropped into the dirt and mire was seared into Hays’ mind.
Whispers raced through his mind, It’s my turn next. Terror raced through him and he vainly sought to free himself. The faces around him were dulling, wavering, and he knew the loss of blood had weakened him too much. He grew listless again within their grasp, waiting for the inevitable. A short prayer fluttered through his waning thoughts, Take care of my King.
The wind rose to tempest strength, howling through the trees surrounding the traveler. After staring at the dying embers of the fire for several moments, she stood up, her cloak swirling about her. The wails had not ceased, and they were indeed human. Others would have decided to not get involved, but she’d never quite found the hardness to ignore cries for help. She frowned sharply at the thought as she gauged which direction the sound was carrying from. She pressed her hand solidly to the hilt of her sword and turned toward the noise, which was coming from the south of her position. She strode off into the darkness, her stride carrying her swiftly down a path the world would someday call her “destiny”.
The sound of her boots walking through the tangle of the forest floor was hidden in the raging noise of the approaching storm, but she could hear the screams, screams that echoed in her ears and in her memories. She heard the crashing and shouting ahead of her and quickened her step.
“Tamner, you fool! Go get her, Bemen! Don’t let her get away!”
Sobbing, the young girl’s fingers scrabbled in the bark of the tree she had fallen against. Her body hurt in more places than she had thought possible. She pushed at the red tendrils that flew into her face, once so beautifully curled, but now matted with twigs and dirt. Her bare feet were cut and bruised, causing tears to form in her eyes as she began running again, trying to get away from them. Those men…those…monsters…
She didn’t even know who they were.
This trip had been so very important. Her father was to be named a Royal Councilor by the King of Angstel, Lord Corwin. The King’s own Guard, a contingent of some twenty men led by Commander Hays’, the King’s own personal guardsman, had come to escort them to the capital.
Only three days ago, she had been safe in her family home.
It was hard, leaving behind their lovely chateau. It was such a delicate and beautiful place, graced by the decorating talents of her long dead mother. Madison’s favorite place to spend time was in the stone walled rose garden. It was here that her mother had spent many hours gardening and relaxing, according to her father. Madison would sit every day on the gilded swing her father had brought from Nicely. As she slowly let her mind drift among the haze of flower petals and scents of roses, she always felt as though her mother were there with her, holding her in the low backed swing.
She had been spending her last few moments in that very garden when Commander Hays’ and his men had arrived to escort them. She had heard the rumble of their horses’ hooves from quite a ways off. Madison had sighed heavily and caressed the seat of the swig gently.
“Momma, we’re leaving now. We’re going to be gone for a long time, but we will come back, someday. Please…please watch over me and stay with me.”
Madison had gently closed the garden gate and locked it. She hung the key on its hook, and then turned to watch the soldiers as their horses stopped in front of the house. Her father was very handsome in his dark burgundy suit, the white frilled collar floating in the gentle morning breeze. His graying temples gave his appearance a touch of aged dignity. He was smiling at the man in the lead of the group as they approached through the early morning grayness.
“Commander Hays! As always, punctual as ever! Our baggage and wagon are all prepared, and we are ready to set out at your command.”
The man who had dismounted was covered in a finely woven silver chain mail across his torso, a white linen shirt underneath. His head and face were shielded by a broad helm. He withdrew the helm and she could finally see the warm, brown face beneath. His hair was light brown, with sun streaks running through it, and his face was handsome beneath the well-groomed beard and moustache. He carried himself like a soldier, and he was well built. His arms bulged with muscles as he extended his hand to shake her father’s.
“It is good to see you too, Lord Analstesh. It’s been many years since we last rode into battle together. I was honored when His Majesty requested that I be the one to come and escort you to court.”
His smile had been gentle and generous. Madison had liked the Commander instantly. She had walked careful across the lawn to her father’s side, aware that she was a vision as she walked toward them, the sunshine bringing out the brightest highlights in her auburn hair. She had met the Commander’s kind eyes and she contemplated flirting with him on their journey.
“Commander Hays, I don’t think you had time yesterday to meet my daughter, Madison.”
He bowed to her slightly as she stopped before him. His eyes, though gentle, contained quiet steel behind them as he bent to kiss her hand, and she decided maybe he would not be the best one to flirt with. She murmured a pleasant hello and moved to take her father’s arm. She lowered her lashes delicately, watching the other soldiers alight, helping to arrange the last of their items on the wagons. There were many good-looking boys among them, and she felt a flush of anticipation for the upcoming trip.
Not that she was a terrible wanton, but Madison was a young lady, and it was expected that she flirt and trade repartee with young men. Her girlfriends were extremely jealous of this journey she was taking, to be part of her father’s entourage going to join the staff at the castle of Angstel. It was altogether frightening and exciting at the same time. Making many new friends would be the best way to acclimate herself to the change, and having several young men willing to escort her to castle functions and dinners would go a long way to making life easier.
So they had set out on their journey, Madison settled within the heavily padded and elegant carriage with her father, Commander Hays leading the entire troupe, while the rest of the men scattered at intervals along the winding caravan of wagons and horses. The weather was still warm, but it had been cooler in the mornings lately. There was still a haze of dew across many of the still gray-lit fields as they began their journey.
Madison made friends with several of the young soldiers. Occasionally, she would glance backward, looking for a recognizable monument, something that would tell her that she was not that far from home, but soon, all that she knew had disappeared. It filled her heart with distress, but she smiled at her father’s gently raised brows as she sat back into the cushion of the seat.
And then, as the sun had begun its slow descent toward the horizon on the third day, they had been attacked.
A sickening sensation seized her as she pelted forward. Suddenly, the ground gave way before her. She tumbled headlong and slid down a small embankment. The nauseous feeling increased as she felt her ankle twist, sending numbness up through her calf.
“No!” she screamed, tears of frustration streaking her cheeks.
“Over here!” she heard the big one say. She bit her lip, trying to pull herself up to hide in the black shadow of a tree. She prayed the storm would be enough to hide her rough breathing. Don’t look over here, don’t look over here!
The light from a lantern speared through the trees and she blinked as it was shoved through the branches immediately above her. She stared up, blinking and saw that a large, broad face was staring down at her, his beady black eyes glittering with glee as they met her shocked expression.
“Boo!” he said in a thick voice.
She screamed and tried to get to her feet, only to find her ankle crumpling beneath her. She scrambled, trying to crawl away, but he leapt down the bank and grabbed her ankle, pulling her to him.
“Oh, no you don’t! It’s my turn!”
As he ripped her already ruined skirts up to her waist, horror filled her. Her mouth opened and her soul shrieked into the savage wind as her body was invaded and pummeled. His rough hands hurt her and she felt tears flowing from her eyes. Soon, however, numbness took over completely. Her vacant eyes stared blankly into the dark shadows, her mind lost somewhere between moments.
The tall, silent traveler stared sadly down at the abandoned girl, who lay unconscious among the leaves and underbrush. She bent and pressed her hand to the girl’s throat, and then sighed as she felt the feeble thread of life trembling beneath her fingers. Her touch brought a reaction from the still form, and the red haired girl’s eyes sprang open. She began screaming again, struggling to get away from the dark figure that squatted silently next to her.
“Shhhh…they’re gone.” The cloaked figure sat quietly, waiting for her to calm. “Shhhh…let me help you, little one.”
The girl stilled, listening to the soft female voice, and she fell forward, desperately clutching at the woman, dry sobs falling from her swollen lips.
“Shhh…it’s over. Quiet, now. Quiet.” A slender hand stroked the back of her head as angry eyes stared off into the forest. Small embers blazed in the traveler’s eyes as she carefully helped the girl to her feet and then, bearing most of the smaller female’s weight on her shoulder and hip, took the abused girl to a safe house to hide. As they traveled the small distance to the village, the traveler’s thoughts grew blacker and darker minute by minute.
The windstorm continued on through the night, and on its way across the landscape, it found another fire to torture. However, as this one was built to the lee of a large boulder, it was protected and continued to provide warmth.
Surrounding this fire were several filthy, raucous men. It was getting close to morning now, but having only finished their night’s work, they were preparing a small meal before hiding out for the day. A small hare lay over the fire, its flesh curling and spitting in the flames. The large, grotesque oaf with a broad, flattish nose and three chins beneath his scraggly, grease-bound beard leaned forward and yanked a leg from the carcass. He sent juices and blood splattering over his companions. They at first cursed, and then laughed, as he was forced to drop the leg onto the ground because of its heat. He swore vehemently as he picked it up more gingerly, and then dusted it off as best he could before eating it. His small eyes were glittering as he tore through the small piece of meat he clenched between his thick fingers.
His companion to his left, a thin, narrow faced man, with long, stringy blonde hair, grumbled at the lack of food.
" 'Tis hardly enough to feed a babe, much less the four of us. Go easy on it, Bemen."
Bemen snuffled a reply through his piece of rabbit, a loud, ugly sound.
“I can’t wait to get back to civilization and get some real food for a change!” He slid the leg bone between his teeth, stripping it of flesh and cartilage. “Tisn’t enough to make up for the energy exhausted tonight.” His face split into a leer, bringing matching expressions to most of his companions’ faces.
"Tomorrow we'll have better fair, what with what she gave us for the job, aye?" said the scarred man by name of Chenil across from him. He jingled his purse, letting all hear the heavy weight of his coins.
“No doubt, no doubt!” Bemen spoke through his bites of food, spittle splattering from between his gnawing teeth. “I am already drooling for one of Ray’s delicious all beef sandwiches….”
“Naw, I look forward to better fair than that,” said Chenil. “I’m thinking a lovely leg of mutton, a mixture of green vegetables, and baby potatoes, with a decent glass of red wine. ”
“Oh, aren’t we hoity toity? What a dandy! The bugger enjoyed his work as much as the rest of us.” Bemen grinned at Chenil, who shrugged his shoulders in surrender.
"Aye, I agree, what a bonus! She sure was a comely wench, now, wasn't she?" Chenil added with a smile. He wiped his mouth fastidiously with his napkin. “I’m only glad I was the first one to have her. I couldn’t have enjoyed myself after the mess you clods made.” He wrinkled his nose with disgust while the others hooted and jokingly threatened him.
"To the Lady and her gratitude!" They took heavy swallows of the bitter brew that filled their travel cups.
"Of course, it would have been much easier if you hadn’t let the little slat escape in the first place, Tamner," came the stern voice of their fourth companion. He was a dark man with brooding looks and his eyes were full of anger as he looked at the blonde Tamner, the youngest of the group, who was nervously listening to the other two. "That was a stupid mistake that could have wrecked everything. The Lady said to make sure she was dead."
"Don’t worry, Deno. Tamner should have just told us he didn’t want her. Bemen finished her for sure, though. She won’t come back to haunt us. Bemen is better than that," Chenil commented.
Tamner concentrated on snatching his share of the hare from the fire, unable to look his comrades in the eye.
“He better have,” Deno said darkly. “’Cause if he didn’t, I’ll slit both of your bellies open.” He flicked his knife into the dirt, glaring angrily at Tamner across the fire.
"You boys had great sport tonight, didn’t you?" A soft voice stirred from the woods beyond them.
The men whirled about, seeking the source of the voice. The darkness beyond the reach of their fire hid the source of the voice from their sight. Deno began sliding his dagger from his belt as he nervously eyed the shadows.
"Who's there?" shouted Bemen, drawing his dagger from his belt and laboriously pulling his great bulk to his knees. “It’s not right accostin’ us like that. Come out where we ‘ken see ya.” Before he could rise to his feet, a long bladed throwing knife sprouted from his chest. A surprised look crossed his face as he looked down at the blossoming dark red flower that spread across his check, just before he toppled face first into the fire. His hair caught fire in a blaze of blue and yellow as his companions scrambled away from him. All watched the woods surrounding them carefully, watching toward the direction from which the blade had flown.
Tamner lay flat behind his saddle, pressing his scrawny form firmly to the ground. To his left, Deno was struggling to get his sword from beneath his blankets. Chenil sat with his back to a tree off to the right. He too was using his saddle for protection, bracing in an upright position before him, scrunching his body behind it. Tamner watched in horror as a pale hand ending in a dark sleeve crept around the tree. Before he could cry warning, there was an audible snap! as Chenil's neck was wrenched to the side. He crumpled like a child's doll next to the tree, his face looking up at the treetops with a strangely peaceful expression.
Turning, Tamner spied Deno slipping into the woods, his sword clenched in his hand. Tamner listened carefully for a few minutes. As the wind stilled momentarily, he heard the clash of swords and heavy breathing. There was a loud shrieking of metal, and for a brief second, a flash of sparks in the brush across from him. The battle sounds continued for several minutes. He heard Deno suddenly cursing and then he shouted something incoherent at his attacker. The angry clashing of the swords quickened and then, abruptly, the night was pierced by a scream of pain, followed by a crashing sound in the bushes, as though something heavy had fallen.
Tamner sat staring into the darkness, breathing the acrid stench of burnt flesh, praying he would see Deno walk back out of the darkness. He froze as he felt cold steel touch the nape of his neck.
"Turn around," the soft voice said so coldly that he instantly began trembling and goose bumps formed along his forearms. Slowly, he turned until he was staring up at the dark hooded figure. The shadow loomed over him, studying him. Tamner flinched the cold steel of a sword was drawn along his cheek.
"What has been done with the rest of the men who were with the girl?" said the low voice.
"I…I…I'm not sure. We were hired to capture her father and hand him over to our employer. That is all I know!" He cried out and cringed as the sword pressed deeper into the flesh of his face, slicing the skin stingingly.
"Then he is alive?"
"As far as I know, yes."
“Where did they take him?”
“I don’t know. We met the Lady hours ago, handed him over, and got our payment! They were on horseback along this very road four hours ago!” His voice rushed out faster as he felt the sword press deeper into his face.
“Where were they headed?”
“I don’t know! Deno, the dark one you just killed, was the one who contracted with the Lady. He was the one who hired us!” Panic was heavy in his voice and he closed his eyes.
The shadowy figure cursed solidly, looking toward the woods where Deno lay. Tamner opened his eyes and saw a flicker of firelight on a delicate profile for only a brief instant before the face turned back toward him, hidden again in the hood that billowed in the wind.
"Please!" Tamner cried, feeling the sword dropping to his chest, "I didn't do anything to her. I didn’t want to play with her, so pretended she was dead. But she got up too soon and Bemen was the one who finished her! I didn’t want to hurt her or kill her! Please, I didn't do anything to her!" He sat with his eyes closed, waiting for the fatal slash he expected.
The sword lifted and he opened his eyes to stare up at the black expanse beneath the hood. He saw the executioner hesitate and began to hope he might escape this night intact.
"I believe you," the voice said.
The shadow raised a hand and pulled back the hood, revealing a serious female face staring down at him out of intense dark eyes. The firelight flickered within her pupils as she considered him.
“You…you’re a woman!” He sighed in relief.
“Yes. And although you did let her go….”
He heard the steel in her voice and his eyes widened in terror as she shifted the blade in her hand.
"But that does not make you a hero. You did not stop them. Maybe next time you’ll rethink the crowd you hang around with." Her voice carried a heavy rage in it as she spoke.
Just as he opened his mouth to protest, Tamner felt a searing pain across his groin. He rolled into a ball, screaming in agony as he desperately tried to staunch the flow of blood. The woman strode away into the darkness beyond, Tamner’s screams the only sound in the now still night.
She stopped at the edge of the woods and stared back at him. She closed her eyes for a brief second, and spoke quietly.
“At least you’ll live, you bastard.”
Many miles away, Hays felt his stomach twisting with bile as he was punched and kicked. He raised his head and stared about at his bizarre viewpoint of his world. He lay with his face pressed to the cobblestones of a courtyard and before him were several pairs of boots. He felt a sharp boot strike his thigh and he groaned as he rolled over onto his back to look up at a young boy, perhaps no more than fourteen years of age, wearing a savage expression of glee. Hays let out another groan of pain as he pulled himself back over onto his stomach and managed to push himself to his knees. He saw the boy pull his foot back again and Hays steeled himself for the kick that came to his ribs. He coughed out a gasp, but kept to his knees, his mind racing.
“Careful, Mishka. The tiger is awake. Be wary.”
A hand of ice raced down Hays back at the sound of the voice. He turned his head to the side and stared up at a tall man standing lazily against the wall of the courtyard. His hair was ablaze in the lamplight that fell from the few torches lighting the area. The first grayish light of dawn was spreading through the sky and Hays realized that he had been out for many hours. Focusing his strength, he pressed his weight into his heel, slowly rising to his feet. He turned, his arm wrapped about his broken midriff, trying to focus through a swollen eye.
The boy ignored his elder, this time coming to stare into Hays bruised face, his eyes filled with brazen ego.
“Ahh, he’s so beaten, he can’t fight back anymore. Besides, the more of a pulp we make of him, the better a message we can send to our enemy.”
“Now, now…that won’t do, Mishka. We need him.”
The tall one moved away from the wall and sidled forward languidly. There was something about his stance that reminded Hays of a dangerous wild cat, sizing up his prey. Gray eyes were measuring Hays as he ran long, slender fingers through his witches’ brew of red curls. He stopped a few feet off, watching amusedly as Mishka punched Hays again, ignoring his senior’s warning. As Hays stood swaying on his feet, gasping, he knew that the person he really needed to fear was standing there, quietly watching his whelp puppy play with its catch.
“Hold him up. I want to play with him some more!” Mishka waved forward the men behind Hays. They grabbed his arms, holding him up between them.
“Mishka, why do you have to be so headstrong?” The man sighed in exasperation. “You’re being a very bad boy.”
I have to get back to the King…I have to tell him our mission failed. He felt agony for the new councilor’s young daughter, who had been so earnest and sweet, an innocent child really, now certainly crushed and broken somewhere near here. She had been his responsibility along with her father. God give me strength, I have to get away from here!
Hays pulled struggled to dredge up the last vestiges of his strength. He dropped within the arms of his captors, as though fainting from exhaustion. Their hands slipped from him and he threw himself into a roll, knocking the soldier to his right flat. His hand scrambled for the man’s sword. When his hand grasped the hilt, he moved with almost inhuman speed to his feet, adrenaline overriding the pain in his side. He dispatched the soldier beneath him with a swift slash to the man’s jugular, and then grabbed the nearest hostage: the boy Mishka.
Hays fingers grasped the boy’s soft throat, pressing deeply alongside Mishka’s larynx. He laid his sword against his jaw line and the adolescent let out a squeal of fear, but did not attempt to flee. Hays kept his eyes on the people before him. The red haired man watched him from behind slit eyes, still maintaining his casual stance. Hays spared a glimpse for the profile of the boy within his grasp. Beads of sweat were forming on his lip and the teenager trembled with fear. He was gasping like a fish around Hays’ grip on his throat. His lips moved and eventually a sound emerged.
“For gods’ sake,” the boy was whispering, “Help me! Help me!”
His companion crossed his arms in front of his chest and scowled at Mishka.
“Gods have no pity for the stupid, child. Besides, you should be able to rescue yourself by now, child. What’s wrong with you?”
“I can’t...I can’t...” the boy’s voice was harsh and squeaked as Hays tightened his grip. Hays slid the sword edge along his jaw, drawing a red weal of blood. The boy cried out and began sobbing. The stench of urine rose around them. Hays’ nose wrinkled with disgust.
“Maybe I’ve overestimated the lot of you, if you have nothing better than boys with you.” Hays threw as much scorn into his voice as he could muster. “Now, clear your men out and let me get to a horse. The boy will go with me and if you do not follow me, I will make sure he is returned to you unscathed.”
The man smirked at him and he shook his head.
“What makes you think this child…this rebellious, obnoxious, pitiful piece of trash means anything to me?”
Hays felt the boy stiffen from the blow of the harsh words; he even seemed to tear up in response to the man’s words.
“But I cannot allow it to seem that you defeated me, so therefore, I will not let you go with that piece of dog filth. So you will go nowhere. You will let him go. The other choice is extremely painful, to say the least.” He looked at his fingernails, brushed them lightly against the sleeve of his shirt, and then admired the sheen he had created on them. “You have three seconds to free him.”
Hays felt a rush of anger toward this arrogant person. He did not flinch as the smooth voice boomed in the gathering light.
Hays tightened his fingers around the boy’s throat, causing Mishka to gasp wildly.
The boy was becoming pale as it became harder to draw breath, but he turned wide, wild eyes toward Hays and attempted a weak snarl.
“You’ll get yours now,” he said softly.
Slowly the man’s hand rose toward Hays. Hays’ eyes widened in surprise. Silver light played across the man’s fingers, like liquid moonlight. Terror shuddered up Hays’ spine and he threw the boy from him, toward the man and into the line of fire. Hays made a dash for a nearby house. His legs struck the ground heavily and time slowed so that he could hear his heart beating one agonized throb at a time. He had almost reached the doorway of the house when a pain unlike anything he had ever felt before struck him in the back. He screamed as an inferno extended into his legs and arms. It was as though a million small tendrils of fire were coursing along every nerve ending. Dammit, a sorcerer! How did a sorcerer get into Angstel? His mind callously observed the situation as pain overwhelmed him.
He slammed into the wall next to the door with shattering speed and fell to the ground, paralyzed. The pain vanished and he lay with his sweat pooling on the cool stone porch. He lay with his neck twisted, his mind still filtering the information before his wide, staring eyes. The red head walked toward him with a smug expression on his face. With a swift move, he caught Hays by the hair at the base of his skull and pressed his face close.
“Now….now you will understand what real pain is.” His smile melted into laughter as Hays shuddered violently in terror.
By the time dawn was coloring the sky, it was too late to stop the enemy who was advancing across the once sovereign lands of Angstel.
|The Stars Fell From Heaven: Prologue||Legacy of Power Chapter Two|
|Legacy of Power Chapter Three|