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Heir of Tanaris

A Novel of Tehovir


by Kyra Halland


Copyright 2017 Kyra Halland

All Rights Reserved


Smashwords Edition


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Cover art by Mominur Rahman

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When Davian, a badly-injured runaway slave from a corrupted magical Source, is brought to Isamina's healing Source, Isamina must find the courage to heal his damaged spirit, while Davian must defeat the evil within himself to become the great man he was meant to be and win the love he yearns for.



Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

More Tales of Fantasy, Heroism, and Romance

Acknowledgements

About the Author


Chapter 1


THE WIZARD’S SCREAMS echoed through the cavern, then died away. Davian stared down at the old man chained to the inquisition table. He was nothing more than skin and broken bones and thin, ropy muscles, covered in open wounds and blood and burns, but somehow he was still gasping for breath, still strong enough to scream, still resisting Davian’s best efforts to make him talk.

It didn’t make sense. Most prisoners brought to Source Makarsk’s cavern for questioning would have either talked or died by now.

Davian looked to the Inquisitress for instructions. She stood silently, draped from head to toe in blood-red robes that looked like flames in the flickering torchlight, her head tilted towards the trembling, sweating, bleeding old man on the stone table. Behind the red veil covering her face, Davian imagined the ice blue eyes narrowed in disapproval, the full lips frowning. Desperately, he hoped she wouldn’t take her displeasure out on him.

“Useless,” she finally said. “Finish him, slave. Be sure to remove his Source-token once he’s dead, before you dispose of the body. It might be useful.”

“Yes, my lady.” The knot of fear inside Davian eased a little. He wouldn’t be punished for failing to get any useful information out of the foreign wizard. Not yet, anyway.

The Inquisitress left the cavern. Davian set down the sharp, pointed tongs he’d been using and picked up the knife. The black stone bowl, for collecting the wizard’s blood for the Archpriest’s rites later that night, stood close to hand. He grasped the wizard’s jaw and pushed it back to expose his throat, then raised the knife.

Without warning, the old man seized Davian’s wrist with a grip so painfully strong Davian dropped the knife. With his other hand, he grabbed the front of Davian’s ragged tunic and pulled him down so that their faces nearly touched.

Davian’s gut clenched. The wizard’s hands should have been bound to the table with heavy chains. How had he gotten free? The Inquisitress would certainly punish him for this.

“You…” the wizard breathed against Davian’s face, his voice nearly gone after all his screaming. “Finally found… You can be more, better than this…”

More? Better? Davian struggled to make sense of the old man’s words. He was a slave. High-ranking, who no longer had to clean out the cesspits or fight for scraps of food left behind by the kitchen dogs, but still a slave. How could a slave ever be anything more and better than a slave?

The old man was crazy, that was all. “Be quiet.” He jerked himself free of the prisoner’s grasp.

The wizard grabbed his wrist again. “Take this,” he whispered. He held up the small wooden pendant, carved in the shape of a leaf, that hung from a chain around his neck – the pendant Davian hadn’t been able to take before; it had burned his fingers and slipped from his grasp when he tried – and folded Davian’s fingers around it.

A lightning bolt of pain shocked up Davian’s arm. Brilliant blue-green light swelled inside him, unbearably hot and bright. Along with it came a feeling Davian had never known before. His mind seemed to expand and new strength flowed through his veins. He could be something more than a slave, something better than he was now. He could be anything he wanted.

As the power continued to fill Davian, it grated against the dark imprint of Makarsk’s seal in his mind like a grindstone crushing his brain. Davian squeezed his eyes shut against the agony and clenched his teeth to keep himself from crying out. If the guards heard him and discovered he had lost control of the prisoner, he would be punished right then and there.

And then the flow of power stopped. The blue-green glow gathered in on itself until it was no more than a tiny glimmer, then buried itself deep within him. The headache ebbed away. Sweating and shaking, Davian opened his eyes and unclenched his hand from around the Source-token.

Nothing but wood dust filled his hand.

His blood turned to ice. The Inquisitress had commanded him to take the token, but now it was ruined. She was going to be angry. What was he going to tell her? There had to be something he could say that would keep him from being punished. She hadn’t seen what had happened; maybe he could tell her that the wizard had destroyed the Source-token himself. Maybe she wouldn’t notice the strange new power inside him, or the strange new feelings it had awakened.

Maybe he could turn invisible and sink into the earth.

Davian shook himself. He was taking too long. He’d better finish the job before the Inquisitress came to see what he was doing. Or before the wizard got away.

But the old man hadn’t moved. Davian picked up the knife again and gripped the underside of the wizard’s jaw, bending the old man’s head back, then stopped. For all his strength just moments ago, the wizard was now limp and unresisting. His eyes stared sightlessly upward into the shadowy heights of the cavern; his gnarled hands lay still at his sides. The harsh, broken breathing had stopped.

An uncomfortable sensation twisted inside Davian. The wizard had been strong enough to break the chains that bound him to the table, strong enough to stay alive through days of imprisonment and torture, long past the point when anyone else would have died, until the Inquisitress left them alone and he had the chance to give Davian his message and the power from his Source-token. If he was that strong, why had he allowed himself to be taken prisoner and tortured to the point of death in the first place? It was almost as though he had sacrificed himself on purpose to bring Davian that message.

But what was the use in telling a slave he could be something more?

The question gnawed at Davian’s mind as he cut the wizard’s throat and collected the blood in the bowl for the Archpriest. Now there was something better than being a slave. The Archpriest of Makarsk had a hundred or more slaves, servants, and lesser priests at his command. He dressed in fine silks and linens, slept in a giant feather bed with warm blankets and whatever partners he desired, as many of them as he desired, and ate food more delicious than any slave could dream of, as much of it as he wanted. He had power of life and death over every other person at Makarsk but two.

There was no way a slave could ever become Archpriest, though. Even to think of it was asking to be punished. But this power the wizard had given Davian had to be good for something, or else why had the wizard gone to all the trouble, even giving up his life, to give it to him? What had the wizard seen in him? Was it possible that he could become great and hold the power of life and death, pleasure and pain, freedom and slavery over others?

A sense of denial, warm like the flicker of power buried inside him. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t what the wizard had meant.

But what else was there? From the time he first arrived at Makarsk as a young boy, sold into slavery by his angry, grieving parents, Davian had learned that there were those who ruled and those who were ruled, those who were served and those who served, those who caused pain and those who received it, those who ordered some to live and others to die, and those who lived and died at their word. It was just the way things were.

A warm, wet feeling on his hand startled Davian out of his thoughts. The bowl had overflowed, spilling blood over the jagged black marks on the back of his hand. He set the bowl aside on the table, then unfastened the chains that still bound the wizard’s legs and feet.

As he worked, he avoided looking at the dead man’s face. Usually, the dead didn’t bother him; after all, they were dead and couldn’t do anything to him. But now, that same uncomfortable feeling squirmed through him whenever his eyes strayed towards the wizard’s face.

Not that it mattered. In just a moment, the wizard would be gone, fed to Makarsk, and Davian wouldn’t have to think about him any more.

He hoisted the torn, broken body from the table and slung it over his shoulders. One of the reasons he had been chosen as the Inquisitress’s assistant was that, in spite of living in slavery since the age of twelve, he had grown large and strong and was one of the few slaves capable of carrying the dead weight of a grown man. But the foreign wizard seemed to hardly weigh anything, as though something more than blood and breath had gone out of him when he died.

That disturbing feeling crawled through Davian again, and he shut his mind on further thoughts of the wizard. Bearing the corpse across his shoulders, he walked across the cavern to the darkest shadows at the back and the black pit that was the opening of Source Makarsk itself.

Several paces from the edge of the pit, he stopped. This was as close as he dared come, the furthest distance he could keep from the edge and still be able to reach to push the body into the pit. It was said that the pit was bottomless, and nightmares of falling forever and ever into darkness broke Davian’s sleep nearly every night. Careful not to lose his balance, he dropped the wizard’s body to the ground, then knelt on hands and knees and pushed the body over to the edge of the pit and then in.

He sat back and waited, counting the heartbeats that passed. He had never heard a body hit the bottom.

After fifteen heartbeats, the familiar burst of power exploded out of the pit. It washed over Davian, bathing him in a cold, oily sensation.

Slave. Makarsk’s voice filled his mind. He knew that Makarsk spoke to the Archpriest, of course, and to the Inquisitress and the Guardian, but until he started assisting the Inquisitress in her work in this cavern, he had never known that Makarsk spoke to slaves as well. No doubt his superiors already knew this, though they never asked what the Source said to him and he had no intention of telling them. It was one small thing that was his and his alone.

You have done well, slave, the Source said. The offering is acceptable, and I am filled and renewed.

Davian closed his eyes, allowing Makarsk’s approval to embrace him. He should be proud, a voice inside him said. Though only a slave, he was still a servant of Source Makarsk, the most powerful Source in the Empire of the North, the Source that backed up the Emperor’s rule with the power of the heavens and the earth.

Makarsk’s presence brushed against the flicker of power that had buried itself inside Davian. But what is this?

Hastily, Davian tried to bury the power even deeper. It was the wizard’s gift to him, the only gift he could ever remember receiving, and the thought of Makarsk taking it from him struck him with sudden grief. Though, of course, if Makarsk did decide to take it, there was nothing he could do about it.

I see that the practitioner left a trace of himself on you, Makarsk said. It is not unheard of for those who bridge the gap between life and death together to leave something of themselves on each other. The cold, oily touch probed deeper into Davian’s mind. He tried to shrink away from it, but couldn’t escape.

Faint, chilling laughter came into his mind. You think this weak, insignificant trace of power makes you special. You think you can become something other than what I have chosen you to be. Heed me well, slave. That power is nothing compared to mine. It will soon die out. Never forget, I have marked you with my seal on your soul and the symbols of my ownership on your hands. Those will never fade away. Your life and destiny belong to me and me alone.

The cold weight of Makarsk’s words smothered the last traces of the warm, enlarged feeling that the wizard’s power had awakened in Davian. Makarsk was right. He had been a fool to think he could ever be more than a slave. “Yes, Master,” he whispered, feeling colder and smaller than ever before.

“Slave.”

At the Inquisitress’s voice, the heavy shadow of Makarsk’s presence fled. Davian opened his eyes and quickly turned around to bow all the way down, touching his forehead to the cold stone floor. “My lady.”

“Did you take the wizard’s Source-token?”

“Forgive me, my lady. The wizard destroyed it before he died.” Davian stiffened against the blows that were sure to come.

But they didn’t come, at least not yet. “A pity,” she said. “I could have used it to find out which Source sent him against the Empire. Well, it’s too late now. Stand.”

Davian obeyed. She stepped closer to him, much closer, and he tensed up again. She was a small woman, the top of her head didn’t even reach his shoulders, but she didn’t need height or size to make him feel small and terrified. She reached out one red-gloved hand from within her robes and slowly dragged a fingertip across his chest. “Wash yourself, then tonight after the ritual you will attend me and the Archpriest in my chambers.”

Davian’s belly clenched in fear even as his groin tightened with anticipation. This was another reason why the Inquisitress had chosen him as her assistant; she found him comely, for a slave. There would be pleasure, far more than he felt with any of the slave women, sharp and dark and intense, sickeningly sweet like overripe, rotting fruit. But the pleasure would come at a cost of pain and humiliation that left him hating every moment of it and hating himself.

Pleasure or pain, though, if he refused the Inquisitress it would mean certain punishment, maybe even death in Makarsk’s pit. The thought of that was even worse than anything the Inquisitress and the Archpriest might do to him in the privacy of their chambers. He bowed his head. “Yes, my lady.”



* * *



LATE THAT NIGHT, Davian slumped against the wall of the dimly-lit corridor outside the Inquisitress’s chambers, then slid down to hunch on the floor. Besides putting him to the usual uses, the Archpriest and the Inquisitress had taken out on him their frustration at the unsuccessful torture of the wizard. The cold stone of the wall felt soothing against his stinging back but did nothing to ease the deeper aches of his abused body or the sick, filthy feeling that fogged his mind and made a thick lump in his gut.

He should be used to it. Sex was a large part of life at Source Makarsk, and for him the abuse had started the day his parents left him here. Slaves sought escape from the misery of their lives in each other, with or without consent; those who were higher up indulged in dominance over their inferiors and pleasure with their equals. And always, the price that Makarsk demanded for pleasure was pain and shame. Davian was nothing, a slave, with no choice but to suffer whatever his superiors decided to do to him and consider himself privileged for it.

But why should he have to live with being used and abused? The thought startled him with its heat and strength. He bled red blood just like they did; why should he suffer for their pleasure? Hadn’t the old wizard said he, Davian, could be something more, something better, than that?

But as long as he was a slave, he would never be anything else.

Then he would just have to leave Makarsk, so he wouldn’t be a slave any more.

The idea took him by surprise. He didn’t know where it had come from; he had never even dared think such a thing before. His parents had sold him to Makarsk when he was twelve; there was no other place for him, no other life. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that leaving was what he needed to do. Somehow, he would find a way to escape.

But where would he go? Not back to the fiords and his parents, and he didn’t even know what other places there were in the world, except for the few hints he had heard of the Empire’s capital city and of other lands that were enemies of the Empire.

Anyway, it was far too dangerous. In all the years he’d been at Source Makarsk – fifteen, he guessed, though it might have been more or less – the few slaves who had tried to escape had been brought back dead or nearly so and fed to Makarsk.

Darkness clouded his thoughts again, spreading outward from Makarsk’s seal deep in his mind. Fear churned in his stomach and tightened his chest. Better to accept his lot in life than to risk being thrown into Makarsk’s pit.

Footsteps padded down the corridor. Davian looked up, terrified that whoever it was would somehow know what he had been thinking. But it wasn’t a priest or other avowed servant, only a slave, carrying a tray of bones and scraps left over from a meal. These would be given to the dogs and then the slaves would get what remained. There was also a pile of broken crockery on the tray, destined for the trash pit outside the stronghold’s walls.

The trash pit… Blue-green warmth swelled in Davian’s mind, driving back the darkness as he watched the slave walk past. Now he knew what to do.


Chapter 2


KEEPING HIS FACE lowered, lest anyone guess from his expression what he meant to do, Davian stood and followed the slave down the stairs and out to the kitchen yard. Even this late at night, the torchlit yard was busy with slaves bringing out trash, preparing the next day’s meals, and washing dishes and laundry. Davian grabbed a broom from near the kitchen door and hung back in the shadows, looking busy, until a moment when no one was looking towards the trash cart.

Holding his breath, he dashed over to the cart and dove in. Burrowing under the heap of rubbish – bones gnawed and boiled clean, other scraps from the kitchens that couldn’t be used for slops or mulch, broken dishes, rags too dirty to be washed and re-used, all the garbage produced over the past day by the hundred or more people who lived at Makarsk – he curled himself up as tightly as he could to fit unnoticed in the bed of the cart. Davian was used to the foul smells of the slave quarters, but he still nearly gagged at the stench.

A scant moment later, more trash pelted down on top of the layer that covered him. Holding his nose, he breathed shallowly through his mouth, hoping that the slight motions of his chest wouldn’t be noticed. He waited for the cart to start moving, his heart thundering so loudly in his ears he was sure someone must hear it.

Finally, the cart shifted as the driver climbed up into the seat. “Open the gate,” he said, his voice muffled by the layers of trash above Davian. The driver snapped the horses’ reins; the cart lurched forward and the wheels started rumbling across the cobblestones of the yard.

At the movement, Davian was seized by a panicked urge to jump out of the cart. He was never going to make it; he’d be caught and thrown into Makarsk’s bottomless pit. Better to give up now –

The shining blue-green warmth swelled inside him again. He could do it, it seemed to say. There was something better out there for him; the old wizard had told him so, and why would he have gone through imprisonment and torture to deliver his message if it was impossible? All Davian had to do was stay hidden until the cart reached the trash pit outside the walls, overwhelm the cart driver – a wizened man much older than Davian, no match for him – then run.

After what seemed like a thousand loud, heavy heartbeats, the cart jolted to a stop. Davian heard the driver climb down, then the squeaking, grinding sound of the iron lever that would tilt the bed of the cart back and dump its load into the trash pit. From the one time he had taken the trash cart out, right before he was put into the Inquisitress’s service, Davian remembered that the pit was deep; if he went in, he might not get back out. As the bed of the cart started to tip, he grabbed onto the top edge of the box and hung on for his life while the garbage around him slid and tumbled out.

The bed, empty now except for Davian, lowered back to its normal position. Davian scrambled over the top and out of the cart – and landed on the ground right in front of the driver.

“Hey!” the driver shouted.

Davian’s mind went blank with panic. He swung his fist and struck the driver’s head a blow that jarred his arm all the way up to his shoulder. The driver dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Then Davian ran, not knowing or caring which way he was going except that it was away from Makarsk.

By the time he reached the shelter of the heavy forest surrounding the stronghold, a mile or so away, his legs and lungs were burning and he was nearly doubled over from the pain in his side. He might be strong enough to carry the body of a grown man over his shoulders, but he wasn’t used to running, or even walking, distances any longer than the halls of the stronghold. In the dark amongst the trees, he stopped, bending over with his hands on his knees, fighting to catch his breath. So far he hadn’t heard any sounds of pursuit, but that wouldn’t last. As soon as the cart driver recovered and returned to the stronghold, or as soon as Davian was sent for and found to be missing, the hunt would be on.

And it wasn’t only the guards from Makarsk he had to worry about. The order at Source Makarsk backed up the Empire’s authority with the power of the Source. By escaping from Makarsk, Davian had set himself against the Empire itself. Even if he could escape Makarsk’s guards, he would never be safe as long as he stayed in the Empire. But where else could he go?

As soon as his breathing had steadied and his heart no longer felt like it was racing out of control, he started moving again through the nighttime forest, keeping to a slow jog and doing his best to make as little noise as possible. He wasn’t very good at moving quietly; he hadn’t been in a forest since he came to Makarsk. But as he pushed onward, moving farther away from the stronghold, the musty smell of the pines and the sound of fallen needles and cones crunching beneath his feet stirred up old memories of hunting in the woods above the fiord with his father and older brothers. His father’s voice came to his mind, speaking of things Davian had forgotten years ago – how to move noiselessly, how to judge direction, what lay beyond their home in the northeastern fiords.

The Crown of the World Mountains – his father had talked about them, as had people at Source Makarsk. Lying west of the northern part of the Empire, it was a wild land of high mountains, fierce people, and rich, powerful Sources. The Empire had made many attempts to invade the Crown of the World, but the rugged landscape and barbaric warriors had defeated them every time.

If he could make it to the Crown of the World, not even the Empire’s soldiers could follow him there. He had no idea how far it was from Makarsk to the Crown of the World, and wouldn’t even be able to tell which way was west until the sun rose in the morning, and he had no food or supplies. But if he could get to the mountains, and if he could avoid being captured or killed by the mountain folk, he could hide and think about where to go next.

As he thought over this plan, Davian’s mind reeled and his feet dragged to a stop. How did he know that was the right thing to do? He had never before had to decide for himself where to go or what to do. How could anyone make such an important decision without someone else telling them what they should do? He didn’t know anything about the world outside of Makarsk. All he knew was that if he was caught, it would be much worse for him than if he had never left in the first place. He should turn back now; if he went back to Makarsk before anyone noticed he was gone, maybe he wouldn’t be punished –

No.

That warm feeling flared up again and pushed back the fog of doubt. He would never go back to that place. Even though he had no idea where he was going or what he was doing, he would make it to the Crown of the World, and then he would go on to find the great destiny that was waiting for him somewhere out there in the wide world.

Through the rest of that night, he kept moving deeper into the forest, alert for the sounds of guards and dogs coming after him. There were none; by some stroke of luck, his disappearance must have gone unnoticed all night. When dawn came, the growing light in the sky told him which way was east.

Fortunately, he found that instead of south, deeper into the Empire, or east, the opposite way from how he wanted to go, he had been heading north, towards the mountains that formed the Empire’s northern border. Once he reached the foothills, where, it seemed to him, it would be easier to travel without being found, he would turn west, towards the Crown of the World Mountains and freedom.



* * *



THE GUARDIAN OF Source Makarsk stood before the Archpriest and the Inquisitress in the small chamber that served as the pair’s private council and hearing room. The Archpriest, in pale gray robes the same color as his long, thinning hair, and the Inquisitress, draped as always from head to foot in robes and veil the color of blood, sat side by side in heavily carved chairs as though they imagined themselves king and queen of this place rather than anointed servants.

The Guardian already knew what they were going to ask of him; Makarsk had given him the orders Himself, even before the old man who drove the trash cart had staggered back into the stronghold to report the runaway. Makarsk, of course, always knew the moment when one of His imprinted slaves escaped the stronghold. Most of the time, the imprint drove them back before they got too far away, but on occasion it was necessary to send out some of the Source’s guards, and sometimes a few Imperial soldiers as well, to retrieve them. This time, though, Makarsk had called upon His own Guardian to carry out the task.

The Guardian stood silently and patiently, his black helmet cradled in one arm, waiting on the Archpriest and the Inquisitress. The three of them, the Archpriest, the Inquisitress, and the Guardian himself, were equals in Makarsk’s service, but if the Source saw fit to allow the Archpriest to think that he was the one in charge, the Guardian would not disabuse him of the notion. The Archpriest’s delusions had nothing to do with the Guardian’s service to Makarsk.

“The Source has spoken to me,” the Archpriest said. “You are to hunt down the escaped slave and bring him back. Alive – the Source was very clear about that. Though I don’t know why Makarsk should care so much about a slave as to send you out after him rather than the ordinary guards, or to want the wretch kept alive.”

The Guardian knew why; Makarsk had revealed to him the importance of this particular slave. If the Source had chosen not to share that information with the Archpriest and the Inquisitress, it was not the Guardian’s place to tell them.

“He’s a valuable and well-trained slave, and highly skilled in… many things,” the Inquisitress said. As always, heat stirred in the Guardian’s loins at the sound of her voice, like rich, sweet, smoky liquor. But Makarsk had specifically forbidden him to touch her, even to save her life. In that, as in all other things, the Guardian obeyed Makarsk.

“He’s still just a slave,” the Archpriest replied. “And he completely failed to get any useful information out of that foreign wizard.”

The Inquisitress’s slender, red-draped shoulders raised and lowered in a shrug. “True. And the fool did allow the prisoner to destroy his Source-token before I could look at it.”

“Nevertheless, Makarsk has commanded that he be returned,” the Guardian said. “His command must be obeyed.”

“Of course,” the Inquisitress and the Archpriest murmured together.

“No other guards or Imperial soldiers will be sent with you,” the Archpriest went on. “Makarsk has made it clear to me that this is a private matter to be handled only by His anointed servant and is no concern of the Empire’s.”

“I understand. I will carry out His command without fail. However, I do require a Source-token to carry with me.” It galled the Guardian to have to ask, but creating and filling Source-tokens fell into the Archpriest’s area of authority and, like the Inquisitress, was forbidden to him.

“Your sword isn’t weapon enough against one slave?” the Archpriest asked.

Usually the Guardian let the Archpriest’s pettiness roll past him. It was Makarsk he served; it was Makarsk’s approval that mattered and no one else’s. But his tolerance only went so far. He set his hand on his sword, forged from black steel smelted from ores mined from Makarsk’s cavern itself, and handed down from one Guardian to the next for centuries. “It would be more than sufficient if I intended to kill him. Subduing him and bringing him back alive requires different methods. If you expect me to carry out Makarsk’s orders without the aid of His power, I invite you to explain that decision to Him.”

The Archpriest’s mouth twisted. “Very well. One of my assistants will prepare one for you.”

The Archpriest’s refusal to do this himself was no doubt meant as an insult, but the Guardian had no intention of allowing himself to be drawn into a bickering match over it. He bowed. “Thank you. You are most gracious.”

The Archpriest gave him a brief nod, showing as little reaction to the sarcasm in the Guardian’s words as the Guardian had shown to the priest’s slight. “I will order the token prepared at once. You are to depart as soon as possible. And don’t forget, the slave is to be brought back alive.”

“Of course. Makarsk has ordered it, and I will obey.” The Guardian turned away to prepare for the hunt.


Chapter 3


FOR NINE DAYS, Davian made his way through the thickly-forested foothills of the mountains that formed the northern border of the Empire. Calling to mind the woodlore he had learned from his father, he walked through streams and across hard, rocky patches to conceal his scent and his tracks and took care to not let his clothes and hair snag on the thick, wild vegetation.

He foraged what food he could find, nuts, berries starting to wither and dry on the bushes, and mushrooms, only eating the ones he remembered his mother saying were safe. He had no intention of dying, not now, not with the great destiny that lay ahead of him. A few times, he caught fish in the streams, spearing them with sharp, broken-off branches. He had no flint and steel to start a fire with, so he ate them raw. Disgusting as it was, he’d eaten much worse during his years at Makarsk, and he was hungry enough that he didn’t care.

At night he hardly dared to stop, but when he couldn’t go another step, he would take shelter among a thick growth of brush or a tumble of rocks. His sleep was torn by dreams of being captured by a cold, dark rope of magic and dragged back to Makarsk and into the Source’s pit.

Late one afternoon, he reached the border between the Empire and the Mountains. Ahead of him, beyond a narrow, grassy strip of land without any trees, a steep ridge reared up from the ground. In the distance beyond, high, snowcapped peaks stretched on to the west. Keeping to the cover of the forest, Davian studied the way ahead. Just above the foot of the ridge in front of him, two high stone watchtowers stood a mile or so apart, one to either side of him. No doubt, mountain warriors would be patrolling the border between the towers.

Facing them, on the Empire’s side of the border, were two equally tall watchtowers. Davian didn’t see any Imperial guards patrolling on the ground, but he could see movement suggesting a number of men high up on the towers watching the thin strip of exposed land. As much as the people of the Crown of the World wanted to keep the Empire’s soldiers out, the Empire also didn’t like to let any of its subjects leave without permission.

The Empire’s armies had failed to make any headway into the Crown of the World, but maybe one man alone would have better luck. A narrow gully snaked its way down the ridge about halfway between the watchtowers; it looked like it would give him the concealment he needed to make it past the guards, especially if he went at night.

Hidden in the forest’s underbrush, Davian waited. The sun seemed to set more slowly than usual as he watched and listened for Imperial soldiers and Makarsk’s guards behind him and mountain warriors ahead. But at last, the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and the sky faded to dusk and then to night. The moon would not rise for some hours yet; Davian judged that he had enough time to make it up the gully without the moonlight giving him away.

By the light of the stars, he made his way as quietly as he could through the forest to the open, grassy strip. Keeping as low as he could, he dashed across the border to the mouth of the gully and started climbing, going by touch as much as by sight.

A few times as he climbed, voices and lantern light above him warned of guards passing nearby. He pressed himself to the ground and lay as flat and silent as he could in the shadows, hardly even daring to breathe, as the light from the lanterns swung over the gully. He strained his ears to hear the soldiers speak to each other; the language they spoke was nearly the same as that of the northern part of the Empire, but their speech was faster, with a strange tilt to the words. As far as he could make out, the soldiers didn’t say anything about seeing any intruders. Then the light and voices moved away as the men continued their patrol, and he continued on up the gully.

Finally, he reached the place where the gully dwindled away near the top of the ridge. He was sweating in the chilly night and his muscles were burning from the climb, but he scrambled out of the gully without stopping to rest. He finished scaling the ridge, then started down the other side, into the Crown of the World.



* * *



THOUGH IT WAS only mid-autumn, the mountain air was sharp and frosty with the promise of oncoming winter. Davian had lived all his life in the far north of the Empire, with its long, cold, wet winters, but he wasn’t prepared for the sudden, early chill in the mountains. Food became harder to find; most of the nuts had already been collected by animals storing food for the winter, and the berries that remained on the bushes were shriveled so hard they were nearly inedible. Few fish swam in the shallow, rocky, half-frozen streams.

Still, driven by a sense inside him that this was the right way to go, he pushed on through the rugged mountains. At night he sought shelter in berry thickets and caves and rockfalls. He stuffed dead moss into his thin, flimsy slave’s shoes to keep his feet from freezing, but his worn tunic and breeches did little to keep the rest of his body warm. At Source Makarsk, slaves had to keep their hair cropped short and their beards shaved so they would always be recognizable, which meant weekly shearing by the barber, who was as likely to cut your throat as your hair and whiskers if he took a dislike to you. But now, Davian’s hair and beard grew out thick and wild, which kept his head and face a little warmer.

The path got steeper and more difficult as he worked his way over ridges between towering peaks then down into narrow valleys, many with villages or farmhouses. Davian took care to give the dwellings a wide berth. As far as he had seen, no one here had black hair like people who had been born in the fiords. If any of the mountain folk saw him and spoke to him, they would know immediately that he was from the Empire. From what he’d heard, the people of the mountains hated the people of the Empire with a fierce and bloodthirsty hatred.

Why had the wizard’s power sent him here? he asked himself more and more often. He couldn’t seek shelter among these people, and with winter coming on fast and hard and him without any supplies or provisions, he wouldn’t survive very long. Surely his great destiny didn’t include starving and freezing to death.

He had heard that it was warmer in the south, so he tried turning that way, with the rising sun on his left hand. Every time, though, he would find himself wandering among ridges and ravines as that feeling inside him nudged him west again, deeper into the mountains.

The cold sharpened, along with his hunger. The first light snowfall made the chill sink even deeper into his bones. Sleep, when he could find enough shelter, was no refuge; he would awaken drenched in sweat, his heart thundering, from nightmares of being dragged into Makarsk’s endless pit.

He had been a fool, he thought one day as he struggled to climb out of yet another steep, rocky ravine that had cut across his path when he tried to turn south again. What business did he have thinking he had some great destiny? He would never be anything but the unlucky, unwanted eighth son who was sold as a slave to Source Makarsk. That was what he was born to, it was all he deserved, and it was stupid to hope for anything more. He never should have run away; he should return to Makarsk and beg the Archpriest and the Inquisitress for mercy and be grateful for whatever they gave him…

No.

The word was as commanding as if it had been spoken out loud. Inside Davian, the blue-green glow of the wizard’s power flared up hot and bright. He stopped where he was, the sharp rock of the ravine wall cutting into his hands and feet. “No,” he said out loud. “I won’t go back, and I won’t die.”

He faced west again, or somewhat north of west – the power glowed a little warmer at that, so he knew it was right. Instead of trying to scale the wall of the ravine, he now followed it to its head between two mountain slopes. He crested the ridge, climbed down into the narrow valley below, then continued making his way up and down more ridges and through more valleys as the warm, certain feeling guided him northwest.



* * *



THE GUARDIAN HAD no trouble following the slave’s trail through the foothills along the Empire’s northern border. The physical tracks were clear enough, and the seal of Makarsk on the slave formed a strong link with the power from the Source-token the Guardian carried. There was also that alien magic the stubborn prisoner had left on the slave, though that power was buried so deep that the Guardian could only sense it faintly and with great effort. Strangely, it hadn’t yet dissipated as Makarsk had seemed certain it would.

As well, there was the trail of sweat and breath perfumed by fear. The Guardian’s sense of smell, trained to a keen edge along with the rest of his abilities and sharpened even further by Makarsk’s power, easily picked up the sweet stink of terror and desperation the slave had left in his wake.

At the place where the Crown of the World Mountains rose up from the earth, the slave’s trail led into a steep, narrow ravine that climbed into the mountains. The slave would have had to be insane to venture into the territory of the mountain barbarians, but desperation could drive a man to do many insane things. Such as try to escape from Source Makarsk in the first place.

The rest of that day, the Guardian hid in the woods and observed the ravine and the border outposts, two on each side of the border, a mile or so apart. He also reached out into the mountains with his magical senses – and reeled at the other magics that assaulted them, utterly antithetical to Makarsk’s power. His head spun and pounded, nausea clenched his stomach, he couldn’t breathe. His link to the seal on the slave disappeared in the storm of magic.

He drew his senses back into himself. As he waited for the sickness, the smothering sensation, and the pounding in his head to ease, he thought about what to do next. Tracking the slave was going to be much more difficult after this, through this rugged, hostile land filled with fierce barbarian warriors and that sickening miasma of clashing magics.

Still, he hadn’t been chosen as Makarsk’s Guardian for nothing. He had never failed in any task given to him by the Source, and he had no intention of starting now.

After nightfall but before the moon rose, the Guardian slipped across the open area between the woods and the ravine and started climbing, following the path the slave had taken. Though the way was rugged and thickly wooded, offering plenty of cover, it still required all the Guardian’s physical and magical skills to avoid being spotted by the patrolling mountain soldiers. How could it be possible that the slave had evaded them? Even if the slave was in possession of the prisoner’s magic, he would have no idea how to use it. And he had no training that would help him survive.

If he had made it into the mountains, the slave couldn’t be more than a day or so ahead, and his lack of supplies would only slow him down further. The Guardian considered the slave’s plight. With autumn nearing to the early northern winter, the logical path for him to take would be south along the easiest path through the mountains, a path the Guardian should be able to find and follow with no trouble.

Still unable to re-establish his link to the slave through the fog of interfering power, but guided by his guesses and the slave’s faint physical trail, the Guardian reached the top of the ravine and set his course deeper into the mountains. The slave’s days of stolen freedom were about to end.


Chapter 4


AFTER A FEW days of letting the power direct him north of west, Davian topped yet another ridge and saw below him a small valley where a cabin stood among patchy woods. He started to turn aside to avoid it, but the gnawing emptiness in his stomach made him stop. Someone lived down there. He might be able to find food there.

But how could he ask? Whoever lived there would probably kill him on sight.

He stood rooted in place, trying to decide what to do. Why should he beg? a voice inside him asked. Those who were powerful and great took whatever they needed or wanted. If he was meant to be powerful and great, shouldn’t he do the same thing?

But it was wrong to steal. He knew it the same way he had known that he should leave Makarsk and which way he should go. If he was going to live up to what the wizard had told him he could be, he shouldn’t choose to do wrong. He should throw himself on the mercy of whoever owned that cabin, show them he meant no harm, humble himself, and ask.

Make himself an easy target for them, the dark voice in his mind said.

But stealing was wrong.

In Davian’s mind, the words echoed in his mother’s voice as she whipped him for stealing a pair of socks that his brother had given him.

His mother, who had sold him into slavery when he was twelve years old.

A cold, heavy sensation throbbed through Davian’s veins, and a dark mist seemed to narrow his vision to the cabin and the clearing immediately around it. His pulse pounded in his ears. Watching for any sign of whoever lived in the cabin, Davian descended the slope, then ran for cover in a thicket of trees nearby.

For a long time, he hid behind a clump of bushes, holding as still as he could while he watched the cabin. No one came; no one went. The little valley was absolutely still and silent. Keeping low, Davian moved out of his concealing shelter and ran over to the cabin. He crouched beneath a window covered with oiled paper, listening.

No sounds came from inside the cabin. He stood up and sidled around the corner to the door. A thought made him pause; what if it was bolted? He shook off the worry; if it was, he could tear out the window. What did it matter if the cabin’s owner came home later and saw signs that someone had broken in? Davian would be long gone by then.

Or what if the cabin was abandoned and there was no food there?

No matter. Even if it was abandoned, he might find some other useful items. If nothing else, he could use the cabin for shelter while he rested and gathered more food from the woods.

A leather thong hung through a hole near the edge of the door. Davian pulled on it; on the other side of the door, the latch lifted and the door swung open easily on its thick leather hinges. Davian slipped into the cabin.

It was a single room, with a narrow bed along one wall and a table and single chair in the middle. Shelves and barrels along another wall held food and household items neatly stored. Everything looked clean and well cared for. The cabin definitely wasn’t abandoned, then. He’d better hurry before the owner came back.

A leather knapsack hung from a nail by the door; Davian grabbed the knapsack and went to the shelves and barrels of food. Hard sausage, a hard cheese in a wax rind, paper packets of flatbread and dried fruit, a barrel of apples… Stomach growling, mouth watering, he stuffed food into the knapsack as fast as he could. A folded blanket of gray wool lay on the bed; he took that as well, and snatched up a pair of heavy socks that had been laid out by the fireplace.

As Davian took one last hasty look around for anything else that might be of use, he heard a dog barking, loud and deep. It was distant but coming closer. He was out of time. He ran out the door, leaving it standing open, and dashed for the cover of the woods.

The deep barking turned to angry growling. “Get him, Tishka!” a man’s voice shouted. “Get that no-good thief!”

The growling got louder. Davian pushed himself to an extra burst of speed as he wove through the trees, imagining a dog behind him the size of a horse, with fangs that would tear his head from his body.

And then the growling was in his ear, and hot breath blew against his neck. A heavy weight hit his back; he stumbled to the ground, dropping the knapsack with his bounty. The weight of the dog bore down on his back and sharp teeth ripped into his left shoulder.

Davian screamed. He tried to fight his way out from under the dog, but each movement only made the beast dig its teeth and claws deeper into his flesh. With a louder growl, the dog took his left upper arm in its powerful jaws and shook it as though trying to rip it off. The bone snapped. Davian screamed again at the fresh explosion of pain. Nausea swept through him and blackness wavered over his vision.

The dog let go of his arm and tore into his right shoulder, growling and gnashing. In too much pain to keep fighting, Davian lay weeping into the dirt. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to die this way. He shouldn’t have listened to those dark thoughts; he should have humbled himself and begged. But he hadn’t, and his only hope now was that the dog would finish him off quickly.

“Call her off, Griffin!” a man shouted. Davian barely heard the words above the dog’s growling and his own sobs.

“He’s a no-good thief!” That was the dog’s owner. “Caught him stealing from my cabin!”

“Damn it, man, call her off!” The other voice was louder now. “She’s trying to eat him alive! The magistrate’s not going to be happy about this.”

“The magistrate can come guard my cabin, then. Tishka! To me!”

The stabbing and tearing and growling stopped and the weight disappeared from Davian’s back. Burning pain throbbed through his arms, back, and shoulders, and he started shivering.

“Magistrate ought to do more about thieves,” Griffin, the dog’s owner, said. “Hanging’s too good. Anyhow, you can see for yourself he’s a foreigner. Spy from the Empire, I’d wager.”

“He’s no threat to you now,” another man said. “Is that your bag over there? So you’ve got your belongings back. Leave it alone now.”

“What’re you going to do with him?” Griffin asked.

“Never you mind,” the first man said. “I’m sure he’s learned not to steal from you or anyone else again. And, just so you know, I’m getting tired of sewing up people that beast of yours has chewed up, and the magistrate’s about run out of patience, too.”

Griffin spat out a curse. “No one’s making you stitch ’em up, Kevert. Come on, Tishka. Good girl, you done your job.”

Through his shuddering sobs and the blaze of pain, Davian heard footsteps crunching towards him. They stopped next to him, then a hand prodded at his left shoulder. A fresh jolt of pain shocked through Davian’s arm. He cried out and jerked away. At the sudden movement, more pain flared through his back and shoulders.

“Easy there, big fellow,” said the first man, the one called Kevert. “Didn’t mean to hurt you. I just need to take a look at this.”

Davian opened his eyes. Through tear-blurred vision, he saw a big man with brown hair streaked with gray crouching beside him. A second man, tall but not as broad, with lighter brown hair, stood behind him.

“That damned dog,” Kevert went on. “I’ve had to warn Griffin about her too many times. One of these days she’ll kill someone and then the magistrate will have no choice but to have her put down. You’d think Griffin would think of that.”

“He’s too crazy to understand,” the other man said. “How does it look?”

“Bad,” Kevert said. “Bring the kit; let’s see if we can keep what’s left of his blood inside him where it belongs.”

The other man walked out of Davian’s range of vision, then returned, carrying a leather bag. He squatted down beside Kevert, and the two of them began gently prodding at Davian’s injuries and dabbing them with cloths from the bag. Davian yelled and jerked away as each touch sent another stab of agony through him.

“Easy, easy. Sorry,” Kevert said. “That arm’s pretty badly broken, and he might never have use of that shoulder again. The other one’s bad, too. Let’s bandage him up and go.”

They wrapped more strips of cloth tightly around Davian’s shoulders and chest, then splinted his arm with pieces of wood and more bandages. He cried out at the pain as they handled him, lifting and turning his upper body and broken arm this way and that, but once the arm was splinted, it didn’t hurt quite as much.

When the two men were done, they walked away, taking the leather case with them. Leaving him to live or die, Davian supposed. He didn’t understand why they should have wasted effort and bandages on him, but that was their business, not his.

He raised himself up on his right arm and tried to drag himself a few inches along the ground, thinking to get himself to some shelter, but he was too weak and moving hurt too much. He collapsed into the dirt and tree litter, sweating and shaking, and let his eyes close. So this was his fate, to lie here and hope he died of blood loss or cold or starvation before the crazy man sent his dog out to finish him off.

The footsteps came back; something settled onto the ground nearby. A pair of hands slid under his bandaged shoulders and rolled him over. He tensed up at the pain. More hands grabbed his ankles. “Come on, let’s go,” Kevert said.

Magistrates. Spy for the Empire. Hanging. “No!” Davian roared. He tried to twist out of their grip; fire shot through his broken arm. He felt himself start to fall, then the grip under his armpits tightened. A wave of panic swept through him. He kicked; his foot met something and he heard a grunt of pain.

“Damn it! More trouble – than he’s worth,” the second man gasped. “No point fighting – he’s just going to die anyway.”

“That may be, Alban,” Kevert said, his voice strained with effort. “But you know our vows.” He tightened his hold under Davian’s arms and shoulders with a pressure that forced another yell from Davian. “The blood loss has him addled, and he’s hurting and no doubt scared out of his wits.”

Davian went on struggling as they set him down onto something that felt like cloth stretched between two long poles. While Alban held Davian’s legs in place, Kevert bore down on his chest and pulled a leather strap tight across his body, binding his arms to his sides.

Davian’s fear churned darker, deeper, pulling him down into a vortex of terror and fury. He thrashed desperately. “Let me go!”

Alban pushed down harder on his legs. “You’re a better man than I am, to put up with this,” he said, his voice raised over Davian’s yelling.

“It’s our job.” Kevert strapped down Davian’s legs. “If I’m so much better than you, what makes you think you’re good enough for my daughter? Let’s go.”

One man holding each end of the litter, they stood. Howling in rage, Davian tried to throw himself free of the bonds. Wherever they wanted to take him, he wasn’t going. The litter tilted wildly and one corner by his head dropped. Kevert quickly grabbed it. Then Alban nearly dropped his end of the litter. “Damn it, how does he have the strength to keep fighting like this?” he shouted as they carried the litter.

“When we get to the horses, we can put him down then.”

“Anyway, I was going to say, you did give your consent, so you must not think I’m too worthless.”

“Ah, well, I suppose no father ever thinks any man is good enough for his daughter.”

Kevert and Alban lowered the litter to the ground. Davian thrashed even harder as the men hitched the litter behind one of the two horses that were waiting then mounted up. With a lurch, the horse began pulling the litter through the forest, taking him – he didn’t know where. Magistrates, prison, torture, hanging. “Let me go!”

Neither man answered him. Drowning in the storm of darkness, Davian could only rage helplessly as they hauled him towards whatever fate awaited him.


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