Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Dragon Wine Volume One
Donna Maree Hanson
Dragon Wine Volume One contains Shatterwing, Dragon Wine Part One and Skywatcher, Dragon Wine Part Two
Shatterwing and Skywatcher were first published by Momentum Books in 2014
This edition published by Donna Maree Hanson 2017
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2014 and 2017.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organizations, in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the author.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
Cover design by www.crocodesigns.com
Box set ISBN: 978-0-6480650-3-6
To report a typographical error, please email email@example.com
Dragon Wine: Part One
Donna Maree Hanson
For Cynthia Eileen Cora McCrudden (1935–2015)—my mum
Preview of Dragon Wine Part 3 Deathwings
Also by Donna Maree Hanson
In the velvet dark of space hovers Shatterwing, the fragments of a broken moon. Vestiges of decaying power crackle and twist in among the debris orbiting Margra, sending rock and dust to rebound against the atmosphere, sometimes piercing its envelope to plummet down to the planet’s surface. Yet something approaches, something disturbs the precarious balance. Another piece of dead moon breaks away, larger and more deadly as it plunges to the world below…
Dragon wine is to man as salt is to the sea
The Prison Vineyard
Salinda trod the mud tracks of the vineyard, inhaling air that was fresh and damp from the previous night’s rain, dispelling the ever-present smell of sulphur for a time. As the sun notched a little higher over the mountains, the humidity levels rose, making sweat bead on her upper lip and her dress cling uncomfortably to her legs. In the distance, dragons rode the thermals, hunting for prey above the barren plains. A reminder that the Fire Ranges, the geothermal wastes and the dragons served well to imprison them all in the vineyard.
Coming up on the winery building that bordered the staging area, she hid in the shadows and watched as a new prisoner arrived. A gray burden beast whined soulfully as it clawed forward, dragging the wooden cart free of the muddy track. A sudden jerk threw the new prisoner off balance and onto the side railing. Two guards stepped forward, lifted the latch on the cart’s rear gate and stepped back as the man tipped himself into the mud.
Ange, the one-eyed guard, stood with hands on hips. “Come on, yer ’ighness. Git up ’n’ view yer new princedom.”
Salinda clamped down on her revulsion. Next to the Inspector, Ange was the worst of the vile creatures that passed for guards in this place.
The cut of the prisoner’s chamois breeches and embroidered shirt confirmed he was a royal rebel, one from the many dynastic houses overthrown when rebellion erupted, who then in turn became a rebel. On climbing to his feet, the fair-skinned man spat into Ange’s weathered brown face. The guard wiped his cheek with a grime-covered hand, looked at his palm in apparent surprise and lashed out with a savage backhander, sending the young man sprawling unconscious into the muck.
Ange’s pot belly jostled as he laughed, only pausing when the guard prodded the inert prisoner in the ribs with the toe of his boot. “That’ll teach ya, scum.”
Curiosity drew Salinda out into the open. Hearing heavy steps behind her, she realized she’d been noticed by the guards and offered little resistance when they dragged her forward. They shoved her down into the pungent mud near the rebel, where she saw the newcomer’s bewildered face as he came to. He was young, barely an adult. It had been a while since she’d seen such innocence.
A cloud of smoke hit her in the face and her gaze slid to a smelting fire. Chains lay in a disordered pile, along with some tools propped up against the fence. She shuddered once, remembering her first day when the chains had been fitted. “Stupid whore,” Ange growled at her. The rest of the guards laughed and flung curse words at her while she pulled herself up into a squat, indifferent to the mud that clung to her faded and patched pink dress. Tossing her loose braid over her shoulder, she smiled when she caught the young man’s eye.
“Welcome, friend,” she said huskily, lifting her shoulder invitingly for the benefit of the guards. It served her well that they thought her a whore, and a defective one at that.
At the sound of familiar, rhythmic footsteps, she knelt hastily in the dirt and cast her head and eyes down, surreptitiously keeping the Inspector and the guards in view.
“Inspector,” Ange said, dragging his hat off his head to worry it with nervous fingers. The other guards followed suit, grabbing their various dented and rusty helmets from their bowed heads.
The lithe Inspector shot a piercing glance in her direction. “Why is she here?”
Salinda flinched. Ange started. “Her helpmate be dead so we be giv’n Poxy Sal to show the new prisoner the...er...ropes. Tau’t it’d please ya, Inspector,” Ange said, bobbing his head vigorously. “Ya ’pproved it jus’ t’other day.”
“Ah, yes. I remember. She was all alone out there on the rim. Good.” The Inspector focused his gaze on the new prisoner and slowly and deliberately peeled off his clean, beige gloves. “Prisoner Brill of Duval?”
“Yes,” Brill answered as he climbed to his feet and stood unsteadily. His face was swollen around the eyes and jaw. Old bruises lingered, with streaks of purple and yellow staining his pale skin, traces of his interrogation.
“Kin, I think,” the Inspector said, slapping a glove against his immaculate breeches before sliding it to join the other at his belt. “But I am not as stupid as you.”
Brill blinked and then with slightly hooded eyes examined the Inspector’s face, perhaps looking for signs of his noble heritage.
The Inspector smiled thinly. “I am a Karonen of Bristling Flat. My mother was your cousin.”
Brill looked ready to smile. But Salinda, still kneeling, warned him with a wide-eyed look of alarm. His gaze shifted toward her, catching her signal, and he kept his mouth shut.
“Good,” the Inspector said with a slow nod. “Don’t think family connections will help you here. Your father’s foolish altruism died with him. Thankfully, all trace of his Highland Confederacy was obliterated.”
Salinda saw Brill’s fist clench and worried that he might protest. But the young man remained silent, his anger betrayed only by his heightened color.
“I understand you are here because you trusted unwisely.” Throwing his head back, the Inspector barked out a laugh. “You’ve learned too late never to trust another, especially with your life.” The Inspector paced by the fire, five steps up and five steps back, his gray eyes intent. All was silent except for his even footfalls. He stopped suddenly and gestured with both arms to the surrounding vineyard, like a shrug. “We make dragon wine here.” He turned again and began to walk away, only to return and halt abruptly in front of the rebel, almost nose to nose. Then he rasped out, “You will learn that dragon wine is all there is.”
Salinda watched the Inspector, the clenching and unclenching of his hands, the pink flush turning livid on his neck. She had no idea why this particular rebel angered him more than any other, but she sensed trouble and climbed to her feet.
“Yes, Inspector—dragon wine is all there is,” Salinda blurted out, bringing the Inspector’s attention to her. Breathing hard, she realized she was being reckless, but something about the lad, some gut feeling made her do it, made her draw the Inspector’s malice to her and save him from some small part of it.
The Inspector lunged, backhanding her. She fell backward and lay on the ground, dazed. Looming over her, he said hoarsely, “I’m not talking to you, whore!”
Behind her, the guards guffawed and called her a slut and a stupid moll. Brill stood still, dumbfounded, and then when he had collected himself, she saw his gaze shift left and right, measuring up his chances of escape. Salinda worried that he might intervene, making matters worse. Luckily, he didn’t.
Blood leaked from her mouth, and she wiped at it as she sat up—a small cut, nothing more. After climbing to her feet, she faced the Inspector, keeping her expression impassive. The mud would dry and brush out of her hair. No harm done. There, she thought as she jutted her chin out slightly, no need to fear him.
Turning to Brill, who stood immobile, the Inspector’s face creased with a grin. “Good, good. No heroics from you, as I expected. You’re the lazy, self-centered, minuscule prince you always were, living off the suffering of others.”
The punch to the gut took Brill by surprise and doubled him up. The kick to the ribs that followed when he was down winded him painfully. He was barely aware when Salinda helped him to his feet. Her hand steadied him as he lurched, keeping his eye on the guards and the Inspector.
“Chain him and set them to work.” The Inspector pushed an indolent guard out of his way and marched off.
Ange headed for the fire and grabbed a length of chain. Caressing it, he grunted out a command. “Fust, bring the prisoner. The rest of ya, git.”
The remaining guards drifted away sulkily into the vines or wandered off in the direction of the village. Fust shoved Brill toward Ange from behind and then kicked the rebel’s leg forward for the ankle manacle. The memory of her chaining returned to Salinda, as acrid as the smoke. The emotion, the utter desolation welled up inside her. She had to breathe through it—push the images, the feelings, away.
Brill screwed up his face as he leaned away from the heat of the soldering iron.
“I’m called Salinda.”
Brill nodded and then tensed his face when the hot iron was brought back for his wrist. After tugging on the chains to test them, the two guards stood back. When she saw the metal anklets, the memories surged back. It was long ago and she was free of them now, an earned privilege, but her ankle still bore the mottled, white scars.
“I said git.” Ange waved smoke away from his face and the second guard, Fust, heaved a fluid, chesty cough before spitting a glob of green-tinged mucus at her feet.
Ignoring it, she caught the boy’s eye again. “Come, I will teach you what you need to know to survive here.”
Brill’s face was slack with surprise, and it took a moment for him to register what she had said. “What?...I am Prince Brill, late of…”
A thump across his ear sent him reeling. “Save yer ’igh talk ’til later. She’s a poxy whore...nuttin’ else. Ya know—tavern slut. Don’t go puttin’ yer rod in there or it’ll drop off. She’s diseased.” Ange spat at her and walked off, rubbing his groin. If any prisoner was still abed, they would suffer Ange’s attentions that morning.
Brill moaned slightly, once again claiming her notice. Salinda put her hand under his elbow to support him. He lifted his wrist, testing the heavy weight of chain linking it to his ankle.
“The chains are more for show, you know. Walking is possible once you learn how to manage the weight.”
He gaped at her in disbelief while flexing his bicep.
“It’s true. There’s no point in preventing you from working, is there? They hinder rather than prevent escape. It’s all in the mind—don’t let it get to you.”
Closing his mouth, he nodded and cast a look around him, the dark shadows beneath his eyes a telling sign of his despair. He leaned on her and then gradually worked out a rhythm with the chain, looping the slack over his arm so he could walk. A chained prisoner couldn’t run from a dragon on the plains, nor could one climb down the side of Crawlers Gorge, even if they found a way to it through the maze of mud pits, boiling pools of water and hidden steam vents. The road was guarded by more than the Inspector’s men. Fear and degradation created worse prisons; they entrapped minds.
As they passed in front of Fust, he glared at them with red-rimmed eyes.
“Move,” he yelled after them. “Or I’ll chain ya together ’n’ make ya dragon fodder.”
Salinda kept walking steadily, weaving through the grid of vine rows, out and away from the central spoke, which was the main path through the vineyard. It connected the outer rim to the winery buildings, the staging area and the free village. After twenty minutes they reached her hut and she saw that Brill was completely disoriented, surrounded as he was by row upon row of grapes.
Open-mouthed he stared at the structure, which was made from old cask wood and bits of cloth. A half-round of pipe ran along one edge of the roof, allowing her to collect water in a large ceramic urn. Her work tools were piled up alongside.
“This is home,” she said, and left him standing while she prepared some tea. “Being out on the rim of the vineyard has its advantages. We’re not usually bothered by the guards as they are too lazy to walk out this far. I hope you don’t mind the open air. I only sleep inside when it rains. The hut is not that big, but useful for storing things.”
“Salinda...”he began as if he wasn’t sure he had a voice.
“Please, call me Sal.”
His brows drew down. “Are you really a whore?”
She laughed and ladled water from the urn into a pot. After squatting down to kindle a fire, she put the pot on to boil. How fastidious this young lad was to be worried about whether she was a whore or not. She supposed prince and whore were an odd mix. She turned slightly to assess him as he stood there waiting for an answer. He had trusted her, so she may as well trust in return.
Letting out a slow sigh, she explained, “You can imagine how it is here for a woman. One must do things to keep whole. I had a fever rash when I was brought here. I told them I was a common tavern whore with the pox. So they let me be.” She tensed at the thought of Ange and the women he had mangled over the years. After licking her lips tentatively, she added, “I told them I was such a lowly slattern that I couldn’t afford to get my lips dyed red.”
Brill nodded, accepting her explanation. “So what were you really?”
She stirred some vine leaves into the water and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. My life is here. Only survival is important.” Thoughts of old Mez, her mentor, and the years they had spent tending vines arose, and his words echoed in her mind, but then that sensation, that presence of his, slid away.
Brill lowered himself to the ground by the fire, guarding his ribs, and surveyed the vines around him.
“How can you say that? This is a prison.”
“Old Mez taught me that I was a prisoner before I came here.”
“Mez?” Brill’s gaze darted around him.
Going into her hut, Salinda crouched and lifted a flat stone. Beneath it was a ceramic flask full of dragon wine, one of Mez’s illicit stashes. She measured some wine into a cup. From the look of Brill he needed it. The tea would help restore him, but slowly. The wine contained deeper healing powers and this young rebel was in immediate need. “Mez taught me to tend the vines, and now I’ll teach you what I know. Here, drink this...it will help.” She handed the wine to him.
His eyes widened involuntarily before he cringed and touched the cut on his forehead with a tentative finger. “Who and where is this Mez?” He took the cup and tossed back the contents in one gulp.
“My mentor. Over there,” she said, nodding to her left.
He looked to where she indicated. “Where?”
“There in the ground, under that young vine. He died two months ago.”
Brill sat forward, grimacing and hugging his ribs. “You put him in the ground? But that’s sacrilege.” His words hissed through his teeth.
Salinda quirked an eyebrow at his expression of half-horror and half-disbelief. “So is the common belief.”
He blanched at her comment. “You must be purified by fire to pass into the next life. How will the source receive us otherwise?” He paused, furrowing his brow. “They don’t bury all dead prisoners in the ground to condemn them in the next life as well as this one, do they?”
Salinda shook her head. “No, not usually. We are fed to the dragons when we can no longer work.”
Brill’s complexion grayed. “Truly? But…”
Salinda leaned forward and interrupted Brill’s contemplation of the religious consequences of being eaten rather than burned in death. “Mez asked me to bury him. He wanted to mingle himself with the essence of the vines and the warmth of Margra. He didn’t think fire helped or hindered our return to the source.”
An expression of horror passed over his features. “Then he was deranged...prison life must have driven him mad. The teachings of Magol specifically state that only through flames shall ye pass.”
“You are mistaken. Mez was content. You will find that there are many ways to the source. Those recorded as Magol’s words are only one part. Much knowledge was lost when Ruel moon split. Now drink this tea and be at peace.”
Brill almost dropped the tea, his face reddening in anger. “You know nothing about me and what will give me peace. My father was a good man, with a true and august vision. I have a revolution to fight.” He drank off the tea as he had the wine, despite its heat.
Salinda found her temper fraying. “Revolution? Don’t talk to me about revolution...I—”
Their argument was suspended when a familiar deep rhythmic whoosh approached, growing increasingly louder. Salinda’s gaze flicked upward and ranged over the sky. “Quick, into the hut. The hatchlings are coming.”
“Hatchlings?” Brill panted as he joined her in the shelter. He looked at her with mouth agape. “You mean—dragon hatchlings?” He peered out the doorway and eased back, his body quaking with fear.
“Have you not seen a dragon before?” she asked as she glimpsed the underside of a sizable hatchling, its mauve and gray scales glistening fluidly in the light as the creature passed overhead. She caught sight of two others.
“Yes, a couple...maybe.” He regarded her with his pale face and brilliant blue eyes.
She jerked her chin in the direction the dragons flew. “These hatchings would be at least three years old,” she replied. “The vineyard is in their path as they leave the hatchery and head to the plains to feed.”
The dragon hatchlings screeched, the sound lifting the hairs on Salinda’s arms and blanking her ears so she felt deaf. Then hissing, wet-sounding thuds smacked against the ground nearby, making Salinda jump as Brill sucked in a cry.
“What’s that?” he asked, his voice strained.
Salinda measured him with a look. “It’s their droppings. They fertilize the soil as they pass overhead.”
Brill’s nose wrinkled in distaste. “Dragon wine grown in dragon shit. That’s a new concept.”
Salinda nodded. “Yes—and as they haven’t dropped a load for a while, I need to make use of it.” She leaned out of the shelter and scanned the sky and the surrounding vines. “Come with me. We must be quick.”
Brill limped out of the shelter and gaped when she shoved gloves at him, and then a long-handled stone scoop. “Put them on,” she said, nodding at the gloves as she slid on her own sand-encrusted gauntlets and grabbed her shovel.
“This is heavy,” he said, sagging.
Ignoring him, she bolted down the nearest vine row, yelling over her shoulder. “Quick!” He followed after her, but the heavy chains bound to arm and foot slipped and dragged, nearly tripping him several times. Because he lagged behind, it was a few minutes before he came up and stood beside her, panting. Already, she was shoveling out a portion of a large, still steaming pat and separating it into little piles. A trail of smaller mounds littered the vine row.
“What are you doing?” he said, grimacing. “That’s revolting.”
“No time to talk now, young prince. Separate this dung into smaller piles like I’m doing. Don’t let it touch your skin.”
After hesitating for a few moments to study her method, he inserted his scoop. A gush of sulphur-tainted gas nearly sent him reeling. Salinda heard him cough. She was used to it and knew when to hold her breath and shut her eyes. He could barely lift the full scoop, but he tried. Salinda knew his injuries were impeding him, but sympathy wouldn’t help his situation.
“We must dilute the dragon dung before it sets. Then we have to layer it along the bases of the vines. It is nutrient rich and the fumes help keep disease at bay.”
Brill stood with shoulders drooping, letting his scoop fall to the ground at his feet. “When do we do that?”
The three hatchlings had left seven large pats within a trail of smaller clumps. Salinda made some mental calculations. “By the time we finish breaking them up it will be too dark. We’ll have to begin the mixing at first light. It will take all of tomorrow at least.”
“A whole day.” Brill groaned as he bent to pick up his scoop and began forming another pile. “How long have you been doing this?”
“Just over ten years.”
Brill gaped at her. “Ten years? You must have been young when you arrived.”
“I was fifteen.”
Brill turned back to his work, shaking his head.
When Salinda finished separating the dragon dung and looked up, the sun was slipping behind the Fire Ranges, lighting the sky with filaments of purple and red. “We can finish now, young Brill.”
The small fire had burned down to red and gray cinders by the time she finished preparing the meal. While she cooked, Brill set out their sleeping mats, tossing their thin blankets on top. When Brill finished, he edged closer, sitting on the ground on the other side of the fire pit. She handed him a crudely carved wooden platter topped with grain wrapped in vine leaves. He stared at the food, a look of distaste on his face. She supposed he expected fresh meat or warm bread. When she passed him the watered dragon wine in a roughly hewn goblet, he took it straight away and sipped.
After swallowing another mouthful of wine, he picked up one of the stuffed leaves and eyed it from underneath. “What’s this?” he asked with a sideways glance at her.
“Standard rations embellished with vine leaves. Very healthy. Soon you will have more strength than you could imagine.”
His eyes rolled up. “Spare me,” he said wearily, and shoved the food into his mouth. He gulped down the rest of the dragon wine. Then, without a word to her, he crawled over to his bedding and dragged his scrap of blanket over his shoulders.
Ignoring him, Salinda ate slowly, savoring each of her vine leaf–wrapped grain bundles. She sucked on her fingers leisurely and sipped her wine as the embers dimmed. Full night had fallen and Shatterwing, the remains of Ruel moon, rose in the dark sky, the debris field sprinkling the firmament with flecks of mauve. Spread over a tenth of the visible sky, the fragments of the moon reflected the light from Margra’s sun in a narrow arc. Dominating the wing were the two larger lunar pieces called Rueline and Ruelette. She sighed when she looked at the wing—a thing of beauty and peril. Then she saw it, a small ball of flame streaking across the sky as another piece of broken moon plummeted. She hoped the meteor did not cause any destruction when it impacted. Too many had already died.
It wouldn’t be long before Belle moon rose too. Its lavender light would turn the landscape gray and dim the brilliance of Shatterwing. The cadre that Mez had transferred to her glowed in her mind as it continued to settle there. It still carried his presence on the surface, bringing his thoughts and memories to mingle with her own. A tear leaked down her cheek. She missed the old man so much. A future without him was hard to contemplate, but that is what she had to face—a future alone. Protecting the cadre was of paramount importance. It had been hidden at the vineyard for sixty years, since Mez had brought it with him. But there was still so much she didn’t know. The world was dying around her and yet she had no idea when the moment would come when she would need to act. There was still so much to learn about the cadre and from it; she was still a beginner at this. After reflecting on her careless deeds of the morning, when she’d intervened with Brill, she shook her head and wiped the tear away. That had been too big a risk. What if the Inspector had killed her on a whim? If she died before transferring the cadre to another, the cadre would die with her and all the knowledge and accumulated power would be lost when Margra needed it.
With a sigh, she crawled into her bedding, draped a scrap of blanket around her shoulders and closed her eyes to the world.
The sun was barely above the horizon when Salinda shook Brill awake. She shoved a bowl under his nose, a thick green soup swirling within it. “Eat and then we start.”
Brill squinted up at her and hesitated.
She raised an eyebrow. “Ground-up vine leaves, watered wine and a few herbs. We only get rations for one meal a day and we eat that at sunset.”
“Oh?” He sat up and gulped it down.
Salinda sat with her back to him, stripped to the waist, while she bathed with a small cloth. Her hair, unbound from her braid, swished past her shoulders. She heard his intake of breath before he said, “I thought whipping was a man’s punishment.”
As she ran the cloth over her shoulder and back she felt the ridges of the scars—criss-crossed white lines overlaid with deeper, pink gouges. She pulled on her dress, tugging her hem down below her knees, then rebraided her hair. When she turned, she noticed his puzzled expression.
“You were whipped.”
She frowned at him and, gathering her tools, shoved the scoop into his hand. “My husband’s work—nothing to do with me being here. Come along.” Her shoulders straightened of their own accord. She didn’t need his pity or his questions; it had happened so long ago and the pain was...distant…
Surreptitiously, she assessed Brill and saw that his health had improved already. The vine leaves and the wine were working well. The cut above his eye was sealed and dry and his bruises were fading to streaks of yellow and brown.
But by dusk, after working in the vineyard all day, Brill could barely stand. The violet rays of the setting sun illuminated the vine rows, where other prisoners shuffled back to their own home sites. At camp, Salinda put away the tools and thought about a meal while she washed off the stench of dragon dung.
A moan from Brill as he sprawled himself in the dirt interrupted her train of thought. A quick glance was all it took to convince her it was time to take action. Walking over to him, she said, “Take off your shirt, young prince.”
Brill quirked one eye open, his expression wary. When his gaze fell upon the stone jar she held in her hand, he relaxed.
“Come on, I’ll help you,” she said gently as she dragged his shirt off. He stank of sweat and dragon dung. She spread her ointment and kneaded it into his stiff and sore flesh. The herbs she’d used in the ointment had been a good trade.
“Is that better?”
“Mmmmphf,” was all the conversation she could get out of him. Before he fell asleep, she placed a few morsels of food into his mouth and helped him to sip his ration of watered wine. He was snoring softly on his sleeping mat as she ate her dinner and watched Shatterwing rise above the deep-purple horizon.
A surge of fear, followed by a cry of pain, pierced Salinda’s dream. Groggily, she sat up. Belle moon hung full near the horizon, casting violet-tinged light onto the Inspector and his lackey, Ange. A lantern sat by the guard’s foot and lit up the ground, masking the men’s faces with shadow. Salinda’s heart beat recklessly, for this visit was a surprise. Brill lay prone on the ground huddled into a ball, trying to draw breath.
“Stay where you are, cow!” the Inspector hissed. “Or I’ll be telling everyone the truth about you.”
Salinda sat on her heels, gulping back spit. Why fling that information at her now? He’d obviously known for a while. Was it because Mez was dead and could no longer protect her? Her sense of unease drew the interest of the cadre. It was there watching with her. Ange hauled Brill to his feet. The Inspector wore something metal on his fist and used it to hit the young lad across the face. Blood spurted from the cut on Brill’s eyebrow, then his body went limp and his face slack. “Bring him.” The Inspector slipped the knuckle-brace into his shirt pocket.
Ange dragged the semiconscious Brill away, leaving Salinda alone with the Inspector. The sun would rise soon; already she could make out the dark silhouette of the vines behind the Inspector, his features chiseled by shadow.
“You did well not to interfere,” he said.
Salinda stood and nodded dumbly, feeling helpless and afraid. What would Mez have done in this situation? His comforting presence faded from her mind. Mez had warned her that it would take time for her to master his gift, even though he had trained her to receive it. The thing he had given her, the cadre, receded with the anxiety she felt and that worried her. Would fear be her undoing?
The Inspector stood still, staring at her as dawn began to blossom around them. Tentatively she lifted her gaze to his, saw him nod. “You have served the vineyard well, Salinda. For years now your crops have been consistently the best in quality and quantity.” He unhooked his riding crop from his belt and then tapped it against his leg. There were no sleek urin to ride at the vineyard, but still he carried the crop with him always. She doubted he rode the crude burden beasts, so it was more likely he carried it to intimidate the inmates. She was very aware of it. “I noticed signs of disease in the center two rows in your allotment.”
“Yes, I was to treat them today...but I need help to do that. Brill will not be able to assist me now—”
Suddenly the Inspector was unexpectedly close, his breath brushing against her face. If she didn’t know him to be cruel, she would have said he was handsome in a smooth way—small, straight nose, fine, unblemished skin, neat teeth—except for the chill in his gray eyes. “You dare question me?” The tip of his riding crop brushed lightly against her mouth. She dared not flinch.
Salinda could smell leather mixed with something else...blood? She shook her head, swallowing a mouthful of saliva. “No, I...I was merely trying to explain…”
The Inspector laughed once, but there was no amusement in his eyes. In the early light of the sun, his gray eyes glinted red. “Mez was the vintner here before this place was a prison. Did he tell you that? Did he tell you he wasn’t a prisoner here at all but an employee? Brilliant, yet deranged. I indulged a few of his idiosyncratic whims, such as allowing you to remain unmolested. For a price, though.”
She’d known Mez had been there a long time. He had lived so like one of the prisoners that it was easy to forget that he had not been one. Yet weren’t they all prisoners in their own way? Once assigned to the prison vineyard the guards and the tradesmen never left. They lived in the free village, but that name was ironic. They produced the majority of food and resources, like wood from the plantation, meat and vegetables in the farm, so there was no need to leave, no way to leave. Salinda swallowed another mouthful of saliva. All of a sudden her heart beat hard again and twinges of anxiety made her gut clench. The Inspector never revealed anything without a purpose. What did he mean by reminding her that Mez was no longer there to protect her? Letting her know that she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was?
The riding crop rose to her brow, and he shifted her hair and then brushed the top of her ear. Her pulse raced. Why was the Inspector still here? Why did he taunt her? She knew nothing of rebels or plots and counter plots. Not anymore. She’d done nothing but tend vines since she was fifteen years old.
“Brill will be returned to you if he knows nothing. He is weak and will break soon enough.” The tip of the riding crop dropped between her breasts, pressing into her sternum. “New prisoners are growing scarce these days and one cannot survive without information from the outside. And I have a pressing need.”
The first rays of the sun broke, dimming Belle moon to pale purple as it sunk below the horizon. She gazed at it, using it to forget he was there. He stepped away, retrieved the lantern in one lithe movement, and turned his head to see where Salinda was looking. Without a word, he was gone.
Alone, Salinda fell to her knees, her nerves shattered, her inner harmony destroyed. “Oh, Mez. I can’t do this. I can’t...”Shaking her head, ashamed of her fear, she soothed the cadre as best she could and commenced the day’s work.
A Taste of Wine
The Inspector’s boot winded Brill. The time it took to fill his lungs stretched out interminably. Dazed by the blow to the head, he was aware enough to realize he was going to be interrogated, likely tortured. The interrogation at the prison in Sartell should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. The true beginning was here, right now.
Ange seized Brill in a brutal grip, near twisting his arm from his shoulder. Row upon row of vines filled Brill’s vision. Fear roared through his blood when it occurred to him that they might be taking him to some secluded place where no one could hear him scream. In the dawn light, he could see that they were now in a field. Struggling against Ange’s hold, he wrenched his head around and saw the shadow of a large building. He tried to remember if he had seen it before, tried to get his bearings. There was a dark square hole in the ground—a trapdoor. The darkness below swallowed him up as he was shoved down.
A cold splash of water roused Brill and, even then, his senses were muddled. He realized that he’d been out for some time when he saw that he was naked and held by taut ropes face-down and spread-eagled over a wine barrel. With each breath splinters pricked the skin of his abdomen, forcing him to consciousness. The room smelled of dirt and damp. Lanterns cast pools of yellow light, leaving the corners in shadow. There were wine barrels stacked in the room. Lots of them.
He blinked, turned his head and saw Ange, a bucket by his boot. The Inspector strode in, loosening his neck cloth, revealing skin tanned above the neck and sickly white below.
“So,” began the Inspector. “You’re probably wondering why you are here as my guest.”
Brill stared mutely at him.
The Inspector raised an eyebrow. “No? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I have a thirst for knowledge—I will know all that you know.”
Brill watched him warily. Fury rippled under the Inspector’s skin like a serpent skimming under sand. He tried to remember if there had been any mention of this man in the family. Bristling Flat had never joined his father’s Highland Confederacy, that much he could remember.
The Inspector undid his shirt and, removing it, folded it over the back of a chair. Bare-chested, he watched Brill with an emotionless gaze. Then he walked to a small table shrouded in shadows. When he returned, he held a whip with sharp bits of glass sewn into its seven tails. Immediately, Brill could picture how it would flay his skin. Sweat itched along his spine.
Taking his time, the Inspector walked out of Brill’s line of vision, stepping so quietly that Brill had no way of anticipating the strike he was sure would come. When it did, it took him by surprise. He bit his tongue and tasted blood as the pain reverberated down to his fingers and toes in waves. Another strike and Brill pissed himself as the lash cut his flesh. Yet the Inspector had asked him nothing. One more stroke fell and Brill fainted.
The next thing he knew the Inspector had him by the hair and he was blinking away a fresh splashing of water. “I want you awake for the cleansing of your wounds.” He nodded to his guard. “Pour on the wine.”
The sting and rush as Ange poured dragon wine over Brill’s back paralyzed him, froze his lungs. His eyes stared straight ahead until his body convulsed with rigid spasms. The pain pushed him out of his mind into something almost akin to euphoria. The Inspector still held him by the hair and studied his face. “Yes, pure dragon wine’s potency will aid me. As well as cleaning the wounds, a portion is taken up by the blood. It has an interesting effect.”
The wine etched a fiery path into Brill's brain. Then, in the aftermath, a voice called to him, a voice from the past. Brill followed the memory, threw himself after it to escape from the present.
An old familiar face smiled at him, concern creasing the corners of his blue eyes as he ran his fingers through his graying beard. “Brilliant?” His father reached to clasp his hand as a much younger Brill lay in his bed.
“Father?” Brill opened his eyes. He hurt everywhere. He had fallen from the great tree the day before. His father smiled at him, relief as well as tears in his eyes.
“I am so happy to hear you speak, son. I thought you were taken from me. And now to see you awake gives me hope.”
“Yes—a man needs hope. Hope that there is a harvest, hope that the sun will rise tomorrow, hope that his children will live on after him. I have only one son.” His father reached out again and ruffled Brill’s hair.
Brill’s body shuddered as pain racked his body. He clung to his father’s hand.
“Don’t leave me, Father. It hurts.”
The memory shredded, bits tearing away as the Inspector’s voice penetrated, not allowing Brill to hide any longer. As if from a distance, he heard himself answering. Again and again answers emerged from his unwilling lips.
Agony. There was so much pain and the Inspector wanted to know everything, from details about the current government in Sartell, to the whereabouts of every rebel group in this part of the Stoli continent. He wanted to know what the condition of Sartell was after the meteor had hit the docklands two months before, and whether anyone in the government besides the Port Sergeant had died. He wanted to know if there had been any collateral damage or rumors of other government installations being hit. As Brill had spent very little time in Sartell himself, he could only relay what he had heard. Duvall was a rural zone quite some distance south of the capital, and not much news filtered through there. Even though it was technically a breakaway principality, Duvall was left alone these days. There wasn’t much there anymore since government troops had eliminated his father’s Highland Confederacy, killing or capturing its adherents. All that was left was the old homestead and the family retainers.
Brill didn’t understand what any of that had to do with his own rebel band or how he and his friends had been betrayed. He had to relive the loss of Henley, his closest comrade, taken at the same time as he had been. The questions wore on and on. Slivers of pain etched into his brain and expanded, building in intensity until he could think no more.
Later, when awareness returned, the Inspector was standing over him. “Come, boy, you know where the Infra-pact has its headquarters.”
The pain had possession of him. “I… never…any of them…” Brill could hardly recognize his own voice. The Infra-pact were a nasty bunch of rebels who didn’t work well with others. He’d stayed clear of them as best he could, and had always been relieved when he arrived somewhere to find they had cleared out a few days before.
“But you did… The interrogator’s notes say you confessed that you encountered them. Surely you know where they are situated.”
“Give ’im to me. I’ll make ’im tell ya,” Ange grunted from behind him.
Though Brill’s vision was hazy, he could see the Inspector theatrically considering Ange’s suggestion, with his head cocked at an angle and a finger supporting his cheek. Brill wondered what more they could do to him. “Please, Inspector,” Ange begged. “I’ll work ’im ’ard.”
“Yes, very well. But do not be gentle. I want him to scream the location out. He is young and doesn’t understand that the weak are prey, and those who defend prey are even weaker for they seek to destroy the natural order.” He yawned loudly, stretching his arms over his head. “I’m tired of this, for today at least.”
Brill did scream the location out, over and over again. Ange laughed while he raped and brutalized him. The Inspector looked on and cleaned his nails. Shame coursed through Brill, leaving him feeling so hollow he thought he would die of it. He had told the Inspector everything he knew, even facts he hadn’t known he knew.
When Brill, the last of his strength gone, hung flaccid, suspended in the ropes, the Inspector stood up and brushed off his pants. “Thank you, young Brill. Your information is most useful to me. We are so cut off here. I’ll let you know if I need more.” He approached Brill with a small cup. “Here, drink this. It’s a special fortified brew made from dragon wine and will help with your healing. Can’t have you slacking off in the vineyard or the guards will have to discipline you. We’re in for a big harvest this year.” His smile was thin-lipped as he held the cup under Brill’s nose. The scent of it made Brill’s head feel light. Anything was a welcome respite from the ache in his body and the humiliation in his mind. He drank down the liquor and the room around him blurred.
Sweat glistened on Brill’s naked chest as he lay in the dirt in Salinda’s rude camp. His clothes were in a pile beside him but he was too injured to dress himself. The liquor had numbed his pain, enough for him to crawl to Salinda’s water urn and wash the blood and grime from his body. The sun’s rays felt soothing on the welts on his back until the sweat dripped into them; then he was seized by agony. Each breath scoured his dry throat, still raw from screaming. Pain snaked down his spine and across his abdomen. He drank deeply and sank to his knees. Raw emotion seethed within. He had been so easily humiliated and dehumanized...so easily conquered.
A sob rose up. He tried to stop it, but the memories came with it and assaulted him anew. The pain re-lived was nothing to the memory of the abandoned way he had told the Inspector everything he knew. Huddling in the shadow of Salinda’s hut, he cried until sleep and tears merged.
The sun had set by the time Salinda returned. Brill dared not move a muscle because during sleep his battered body had stiffened. His gaze tracked her as she trod warily into camp. She frowned as she neared, then when she realized it was him her eyes widened and her cry of alarm startled him.
“Brill?” she breathed next to his ear. Her gaze raked over his body and then she moved to the hut to rummage among her pots and jars. He could see she trembled. Did she fear for him? Did she care what happened to him?
“Let me put this on your injuries. Some of the worst ones have healed over, yet I don’t understand how. You’ve been gone only a day.”
Brill could barely speak. He whimpered, though, when she spread her unguents on his wounds. Not because they hurt, but because her tenderness moved him. Here was a woman who had suffered once, perhaps as he had, yet she had the kindness to care for him when she barely knew him.
Salinda spoke to him gently, quizzing him about what had happened. Brill focused on the questions he’d been asked, not on what had been done to him. She nursed him through the night, plying him with her ration of watered-down dragon wine and ground vine leaves. After assessing his injuries further, she made up an ointment. Some she spread on the damaged skin on his limbs, the rest she placed where Ange had violated him, much to his embarrassment. At first it stung, and then the mixture produced a soothing sensation, allowing him to close his eyes and drift off to sleep. Images of torture filled his mind until he replaced them with pleasant memories from the past. Of a time when joy as well as hope filled his heart. Before they had come and taken it all away.
When he awoke at mid-morning the following day, Salinda had already departed for the vines. The humidity made sweat bead on his skin and the air felt too thick to breathe. He crawled on all fours to relieve himself in Salinda’s carefully placed privy. His inner pain nearly overwhelmed him, and fear stalked him. Every rustle of vine leaf, every chink of chain and every distant cry of a dragon hatchling made him flinch. He knew he had to fight this or he would die here, forgotten and useless.
Dozing again in the afternoon heat, Brill woke to a thick-coated tongue and a powerful thirst. Insects hovered, but didn’t bite, probably repelled by something Salinda had included in her concoctions. Part of him wanted to die, let his life end, but another part of him seethed with anger at what had been done to him. He felt the urge to fight for himself, to win back his self-respect and to continue his efforts to bring his father’s vision to people everywhere.
From the earliest age he had wanted to rid the world of tyranny, and considered it lucky that he had been born into a position of power so that he could succor those in need, build a better Margra. Yet that dream was now as broken as Ruel moon. But not forgotten.
When he woke again Belle moon was rising, dimming the light of Shatterwing, and the sound of splashing water roused him. Salinda was preparing food quietly under a magnificent sky. Why hadn’t he noticed the heavens before? Did he see its beauty now because he had thought he’d never live to see it again? He sat up, suppressing a groan, and found to his surprise that he felt much better. He reached for his breaches and pulled them on.
“You seem quite healed,” Salinda commented as she handed him some thin, green broth. The tell-tale leaves swished darkly within the bowl. Salinda urged him closer to the firelight, where she inspected his back and arms. “These large gashes have faded already. You will not bear scars. He must have put pure dragon wine on your wounds.”
“He did,” Brill croaked, before swallowing a mouthful of broth. “Hurt like a funeral pyre.”
“Surely it did. But how did he know to use it? Was it accidental, intended to inflict pain, or does he understand the true nature of dragon wine?”
“True nature? What?”
Salinda’s eyes widened. “I can explain—”
“—Don’t care. I don’t want to hear it,” Brill said, and drank off the last of the broth. He’d had enough of her quaint ravings, enough about burying people in the ground and her blasphemy about Magol. “I’m hungry. Is there food?”
Salinda shook her head in puzzlement. “Yes. Are you sure you can eat?”
“I’ll not let it defeat me. I’ll eat. We must be up early and working before sunrise. I don’t want them to come back and catch me by surprise.”
Salinda looked ready to argue, her eyes glittering and her hands clenched. Instead, she sighed loudly and said, “I’ll be glad of the help. Tomorrow is the last chance I have to go to the cistern. It would be difficult alone. The disease in the vines has spread far more than I would have liked. If I don’t treat it tomorrow I will lose about half of my share of the harvest.”
Handing him some more stuffed vine leaves and a heel of stale bread, she watched him carefully as he began to eat. He fought the nausea that threatened to destroy his appetite. It was necessary to eat, to heal. After the last bite, he lay on his less injured side and stared at Shatterwing. Belle moon had dropped behind the Fire Ranges, allowing the fragments of the broken moon to glitter like amethysts once again. Overcome with fatigue, Brill barely remembered covering himself with a blanket or falling asleep.
Nils of Barr
Deep within Margra, in the subterranean city of Barrahiem, awareness came slowly to Nils of Barr. After countless years, the mechanism had freed him from his prison of sleep. He breathed slowly and shallowly at first and, when his breaths deepened, his warm skin reacted to the cool air. Rapid thoughts seared across his mind and then came the memories—imprisonment, sleep and now freedom. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and saw the glowing lid of the sarcophagus ajar above him. How strange to know he had been asleep for one hundred years and yet felt as if he had only said goodbye to his kin yesterday. Was this part of the punishment? The bittersweet knowledge that he would never see them again, and the torture of knowing the memories will remain fresh?
Nils listened for those everyday sounds of the world around him and heard nothing. His heart beat a loud thump-thump in his chest and he strained harder to hear—something—anything. After a moment of disorientation and blurry vision, he lifted his right hand to the side of the sarcophagus, shoving the lid up with his left, and struggled free of it.
The light in the sarcophagus faded. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the chamber beyond. As the angles sharpened, he saw that the room was much the same as it had been when he had entered it, except for a subtle difference. He could not pinpoint what it was. Those who had accompanied him were absent. Of course, they would be—they were dead, joined once again with the source of all living things. How long had he slept? he wondered. Was it the full one hundred years? Surely, someone would remember him after such a short time and welcome him back to his kin.
Leaning against the sarcophagus helped him gain strength. Once sufficiently steady, he took a few hesitant steps and then the room shifted around him as dizziness hit. Falling to his knees, weakness rolled over him in waves. Someone should have been here to assist him, to help with the transition from sleeping prisoner to welcomed kin. Why was it so quiet?
Calling out served no purpose. His voice died as it left his throat. None of the other Hiem came to investigate. He supposed the room was too isolated for him to be audible to a casual passer-by. After all, criminals were meant to be out of sight and out of mind.
Hobbling to the door of the small, dark room, he opened it and looked out into the corridor. He blinked a few times, unbelieving of what he saw. When he’d gone to sleep the floors and walls had gleamed. Now grime coated everything and the lights were dim. He tried to reconcile what he had seen yesterday—no, it was a hundred years ago—with what he was seeing now.
As he entered the corridor, dust rolled along the skirting of the walls, bouncing faintly as his full-length tunic stirred the air. The scent of the place was strange—stale, musty, unused. A headache grew behind his brow as he strained to detect any trace of another of the Hiem. Barrahiem had few prisoners like him. The Hiem were few in number, and Nils could not imagine them allowing anyone to be abandoned and forgotten, no matter what their crime had been. More importantly, the Hiem were not breakers of rules or disregarders of duty, and it was the duty of his nearest kin to collect him.
Fatigue weighed him down as he climbed the stairs. The light was coldly blue and faint, not the bright light he remembered. He paused, noticing that every second lamp was dead. Stooping to examine one of the broken ones he found that it had gone untended and was now a blackened orb. Straightening, he sucked in a breath. The sight of that neglect sent a sliver of fear down his spine, sent a thousand speculations running through his head. He continued along the corridor.
Only at the Hall of Elders would he find answers. He quickened his pace. The stairway terminated in a wide landing. Out to the right, the corridor led to the balconies that spanned the city’s buildings in a wide arc. They overlooked the lesser city of N’Barek across the cavern and the deep underground lake. To the left, the corridor led to another set of stairs joining the main thoroughfare, which was the most direct route to the Hall of Elders. Looking down, he noted there were no signs of recent traffic in the layer of grime at his feet. The same dust lay everywhere, lifting up and rolling away when it was disturbed by his passage. Here and there coarse gray ash accumulated in piles.
Shivering in spite of his resolve, he headed left and once again drew himself up the staircase. This one was dark; all the lamps were out. He turned to look behind him and thought he saw shadows move.
Gaining the main thoroughfare with his heartbeat thudding in his ears, his mouth dropped open. There was no one there either. As he leaned against a marble pillar for support, he noted the dullness of the walls, the faint marring of the murals and the swirls carved into the cornices and ceilings. It was as if no one had lived here for an unspeakable age.
His strength returned gradually and with each step he grew steadier, except that his heart would not relax its heavy beat and his breathing was harsh and ragged. Then he stood on the threshold of the Hall of Elders. A loud “No!” exploded from him before he could stop himself.
The Hall of Elders was empty and the light even dimmer there than elsewhere. The phosphorescent growth, shuwai, which emitted a light of its own, hung in long tendrils and draped almost to the floor in the far corner. An unsightly mess, it was evidence of a neglect his people would never have tolerated. The sacred lamp stood tall in the center, but it was unlit. Nils shivered with trepidation. The sacred lamp always cast illumination over the hall and the tales portrayed in the murals. Always. He called again, shouted, yelled, and tried to ignore how his voice echoed repeatedly.
Gripped by a nameless fear, he ran back down the main thoroughfare, a wide corridor that had once held twenty Hiem abreast, and charged down the stairs. He ran until he came to the central tier of the city’s wide balconies, where once his people had walked and talked to each other. Panting with fatigue and leg muscles twitching, he looked around him. His gaze flew to the roof of the cavern encapsulating the city and out across to the other side, to the empty balconies and walkways. The deep lake that separated Barrahiem from the lesser city of N’Barek was still and dark. There were no beacons on the lake and no signs of life from N’Barek. Seized now by panic, Nils ran along the balcony and up the street, going from house to house.
The first houses were all in order, as if the inhabitants had packed up in an organized fashion and left. On the next level, he backed out of a house in the Sigum family node. There he found the piles of dust he had seen elsewhere, but there were also piles of bones, which he feared belonged to his city brethren. Propelled as if chased by the ghosts of his kin, he shot out of the Sigum node and headed down to the lower levels. There he found the same story, dust and bones. All the hearths were cold and the homes empty, and in his wake were his own footprints in the thick dust.