Skyfire - Donna Maree Hanson - ebook
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Deliciously dark fantasy… "Shatterwing has all the fantasy ingredients I love: tormented heroes, a truly twisted villain - and a brand new take on dragons!" Glenda Larke, (award winning author of The Stormlord Trilogy) "Dark and compelling, with strong characters and a sense of grim inevitability that pulls you along with the story." Craig Cormick, (award-winning author of the Shadow Master Series.) The Dragon Wine story continues… On the devastated world of Margra, where man-eating dragons are tamer than the humans, a small band of heroes fight for a brighter future... After a battle with the malevolent baron and the evil dragon creature, Gercomo, to prevent the life giving dragon wine being sequestered in the doomsday city, Eternity, for use by the rich elite, Salinda turns her attention to the looming disaster that threatens their very existence. With the aid of the powerful cadre, an ancient source of power and knowledge, Salinda fights to save her planet, Margra, from the final moonfall—an event that will destroy the already ravaged planet. Currently safe within the underground city of Barraheim, a heavily pregnant Salinda knows that the end is looming and that a solution must be found. Plagued with doubt, she ponders whether her child will be born before moonfall or born at all. With Nils’s, her alien mate incapacitated and others in her band recovering from injuries, Salinda struggles to decipher an ancient text that speaks of a machine that might help them. And in the dark spaces beneath Barrahiem lurks something else, something mysterious and dangerous…

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Skyfire

Dragon Wine: Part Five

By

Donna Maree Hanson

Copyright information

First published by Donna Maree Hanson 2018

Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2018

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, audio) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

ISBN978-0-6482795-1-8 (ebook)

ISBN 978-0-6482795-2-5 (print on demand)

Cover design by www.crocodesigns.com

Edited by Stephanie Smith

Proofread by Jason Nahrung

Dedication

To all those lovely readers who get it. Thank you from the heart of me.

Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

More than a Trace

Chapter Two

The Last Days of Trell of Barr

Chapter Three

A Woman Takes a Stand

Chapter Four

Suffer unto Me

Chapter Five

New Beginnings

Chapter Six

A Good Book

Chapter Seven

Games of Strategy and Games of Risk

Chapter Eight

A Little Bit of Sweat

Chapter Nine

Seeing Eye to Eye

Chapter Ten

Black Day and Red Night

Chapter Eleven

Trial by Fire

Chapter Twelve

Dragons Undone

Chapter Thirteen

Inner Strength

Chapter Fourteen

A Rendezvous and a Lost Soul

Chapter Fifteen

A Rebel Dame

Chapter Sixteen

Finders Keepers

Chapter Seventeen

Reunion

Chapter Eighteen

The Truth in Rhyme

Chapter Nineteen

A Trace of Dust and a Flicker of Hope

Chapter Twenty

Migration

Chapter Twenty-one

Barrahiem Lives

Chapter Twenty-two

Secrets Undone

Chapter Twenty-three

Trell’s Clue

Chapter Twenty-four

Skyfire

Epilogue

Preview of Moonfall

A note from the author

About Donna Maree Hanson

Also by Donna Maree Hanson

Prologue

A seething cauldron of fire and rock brewed above Margra. Soon the boiling, churning mass would be ready, and skyfire would pour on the world below…

Part One

Drop by drop the dragon wine leaks away, drop by drop your life fades away…

Chapter One

More than a Trace

Karol hated the compound where his kind were imprisoned. This morning, his mother had said that Nakel, his father, was never coming back, and then she cried. Ilania was so sad and Karol hated that she was like that, without hope. She spoke with so much conviction that he had to believe, and to grieve. He remembered before, before they’d been brought to this compound where their poor circle of tents barely kept out the wind and the dust. Surrounded by rock on three sides, there wasn’t any place to go in this prison. Not one that the guards knew about, at least. Their village had been neat and tidy and happy, and hidden from the outer world. Now, Karol understood why they hid away from the awful humans, who knew nothing grand, who had no culture and were just miserable, evil creatures, preying on everyone.

Karol was small for his age. But he didn’t mind that so much for it meant he could explore where the adults could not and, even better, he could go where the guards could not. His favorite place was a fissure in the cliff face behind his family’s tent. There he had found a small spring. Water gurgled pure and clear from the ground then it slipped over a small rock to disappear into the nooks and crannies of the cliff, never to appear again. It was his secret place. The camp had a dam half-full of murky water that had to be boiled before drinking.

He dipped his hand in the sweet-smelling water and sipped his fill.

His loincloth had seen better days. His mother wanted him to wear his tunic, but it lay abandoned in their tent. He didn’t mind that his ribs stuck out or that his knees were bony knobs on thin legs. He would grow big and tall like his father one day.

And one day there would be enough food. Food for them all. And he’d lie around with his belly protruding and sleep for an age without being prodded awake by hunger pains.

His long hair was tied back, which made climbing and drinking from the spring easier. He peered down to the camp below, careful to keep his body in shadow. The guards didn’t know he climbed up here and he wanted to keep it that way.

Like his mother, his hair was white. He didn’t mind that it wasn’t like Nakel’s, for his father praised him for his looks. Praised him for being true kin.

The water helped ease his hunger. There was never enough to eat. Once a day they were given dried bread and a few beans. The cliff held no edible plants, nothing to supplement their diet. The spring was the only treasure. His mother said his growth was stunted forever now because of the poor diet. Thinking of his mother, he watched the water trickle. He had forgotten to bring a cup to take some back to her.

The sun moved while he sat there staring at the interior of the fissure. What he thought was a shadow disguising nothing suddenly seemed more. With thin arms and legs, Karol slid into the dark cleft. The slit in the stone was long and gloomy, and as he peered in he saw that there was an opening. Not a big space, but if he could squeeze through it might make a good hiding place.

“Karol? Karol!” His mother’s words reached him, echoing around the rocks as if her voice came from everywhere. No time now to explore. His mother needed him.

Back in their tent, he saw nothing had changed. His mother was still stooped with grief.

“I’m glad you’re back,” she said in a low voice and hugged him to her.

Yelling in the compound jerked them apart. They shared a terrified look and then let their breaths roll out of them. “Roll call?” his mother ventured.

“Could be early food delivery?”

His mother bit her lip. “You wait here and let me see.”

She slipped out of the tent with its ragged flap that kept nothing out. Karol went to his sleeping space. Rolled up and placed at the rear of the tent was his sleeping blanket. It was where he could be the most unobtrusive. Where he could be unnoticed. He folded himself among the bedding, hidden.

It was so quiet and the sound of his breathing annoyed him. His mother hadn’t returned so Karol crept to the tent flap and peered through the strips of torn fabric into the compound. Bent old men, ragged women and a bunch of thin, white-haired children stood in a group, surrounded by guards. There were not many of them left. Some had died of disease and hunger. Karol’s stomach clenched painfully. He could see no signs of food.

A scream rang out. Karol started. His heart raced as he squinted against the setting sun. A child ran across the clear area and then fell down. Karol stared. A spear stuck out of the child’s back. Karol gasped, not quite believing his eyes. With sweaty hands, he moved strips of fabric out of the way to run forward.

More screams. Splashes of red. Then his mother’s voice: “Run, Karol. Hide!”

Karol bolted from the cover of the tent. Feet pounded the hardened ground behind him, but he didn’t look back. He closed his eyes and thought of his mother. Was that her scream?

Their captors were killing them all. Karol ran harder, so hard he thought his heart would fly out of his chest. He was ten years old. He could do this. He was the man of the family now.

With a quick leap, he landed on a protruding rock and then scrambled up. A spear hit the boulder near him and it clanged and then clinked when it dropped. A deep voice yelled, “Stop where you are!”

Karol didn’t look and scrambled faster, higher and sideways.

A dispassionate order rang out: “Follow him.”

“Hey, kid, is this your mother?”

A whimper echoed around Karol’s ears.

“Hide,” his mother screamed.

Karol didn’t look, couldn’t look. If he did, he’d go back to her, he would die with her. He knew they were baiting him.

“I’ll kill her,” a deep, angry voice raged.

Karol scrambled up the rock face. He was heading for his little stream. There he could survive for a while without food. Karol’s legs shook; his muscles were starting to feel the exertion, the lack of food, the fear. This was a dash to safety, not the fun climb he did for a lark.

“I will kill her. Stop!”

But Karol knew his mother was already dead. She didn’t want him to come back. She didn’t want him to die too.

An odd sound reached him, amplified by the rocks. It was followed by a dull thump. He had to look, had to see. The man had cut his mother’s throat.

There she was, blood pooling around her head, legs twitching. Standing over her was a man, a brutal-looking man, thick muscled, bearded. A beast.

Something snagged his foot. He’d been still too long. A hand tugged at his ankle. Karol kicked, kicked like one crazed, but still he was dragged down. He was caught. As if a demon possessed him, he screamed and kicked.

The man held him around the hips, and then changed his grip. Karol took his chance. He kicked out hard, blindly, and connected with something soft, something that left a wet smear on his foot. A crunch, a pain-filled whoof, a hail of curses. The man let go. Karol flung out a hand and a foot to stop his plummet to the compound below. He slid and then caught a nub of rock, clawing for a hold. Dirt and stones hissed as they moved beneath him, but Karol was driven by fear to climb like a spider up and away from pursuit.

I am a leaf, I am a feather, I am light and I can scuttle like a beetle so fast no one can catch me. Soon he was out of sight of the compound. The tell-tale trickle of his little spring beckoned. He took a different path, behind a boulder, and squeezed between it and the cliff face. A small cave captured the spring and made a stream.

Panting, he slid down at last to a tiny cobbled bank, a space just large enough to crouch in and no more. He drank and he wept but only for a minute. They were coming. More of the men were climbing to where he was. Pulling himself up to where the water emerged, he stared into the fissure. He was small. He could fit. He had to try. Climbing up and over the canyon wall to escape by the plains was beyond him. He’d tried and there was no easy way out. Not without ropes and supplies.

He could hide. He had to hide. He had to hide or die.

As Karol inserted himself into the fissure, the cold water ran over him, startling his sun-warmed skin. The rock surrounded him, and beyond, where the light did not reach, loomed dark. The sounds of pursuit were wiped out by the crash of the water, his own frightened breaths and beating heart. The fissure grew very tight and even smaller after a few sideways shuffles. Karol flattened himself and squeezed farther in. If he was far enough in they wouldn’t see him—they wouldn’t know he was there.

Karol squeezed and squeezed…first a leg, an arm, and then managed to wiggle his pelvis and chest into the narrow gap between the rocks. He ought to have been scared, but Karol wasn’t. The rock was safe, welcoming. While he had not been underground before, he knew that his forefathers had lived in the ground. Nakel had told him. Told him of the great cities. Regaled him with tales of their people.

As the darkness embraced him, Karol didn’t fear anymore. The water provided cover at the entrance and he was now hidden in darkness.

The pursuer’s large face jutted through the water. Karol drew back, jammed between the rocks of the fissure, water pushing around his body. He had to keep pushing through or they would notice the current wasn’t as strong, that the flow was less.

Karol slid and squeezed, used the palms of his hands as they pressed against the rock face, pushed with the soles of his feet, keeping the pressure on himself so that he could get through. Karol held his breath and then let it out slowly and pushed harder.

His lungs were desperate for air. Water smothered his face, ran into his nostrils, his mouth, his ears. There was no sound except for water in his ears. Karol knew he was going to die. Here. He was going to drown here. He should have died with his mother. He shouldn’t have let her die alone.

Then, as his strength was draining away, something shifted. His body passed through and he landed in a heap on the other side of the fissure. Choking and crying, he looked around him. It was a cave. Here the water was but a rivulet and passed through a channel in the floor. He saw where it fell from above to the right of him. He’d lost his loincloth and his pale skin had dark smears where he’d torn flesh from his torso.

Shaking his head, he sucked in breaths and checked his body for further injury. Scrape marks ranged over his chest, hips and knees. He rubbed at his chin and his hand came away with blood on it. He cried more, releasing his pent-up fear and grief. His mother was dead. His people were dead and he was alone.

He calmed himself. His mother wouldn’t have wanted him to cry or be sad. She wanted him to live and live free. His father would have wanted him to be true to his people. Nakel had said there was a place for him in the world. He only had to look.

After wiping his eyes and clearing his nose, he looked around the space, serenaded by the fall of water hitting the floor. It was surprisingly light inside, with the sun filtering through the fissure and reflecting off the rivulet. He realized the floor was tiled. He ran his fingertips through the spaces between the mosaic patterns. This was no natural cave. He quickly scanned his surroundings and in a dim recess he saw something strange. He crawled forward, rubbing tears from his cheeks. In front of him was an archway, embellished with strange writing. He staggered to his feet and went up to it. It was a door.

***

Karol slept, turning fitfully due to his various aches. It was a sound that woke him. There were men outside the fissure. He crept forward to hear what they were saying. His heart hammered so loud he missed a few of the words.

“…the debris will cover the dead…”

“…explosives…here…”

Karol blinked, trying to understand. They couldn’t come and get him, but they could kill him by blowing up the cliff he was hiding in. He backed up and detected a waft of smoke. He didn’t have any time left. He turned and faced the door.

He knew what it was. He knew what lay beyond. It was a secret that his father had died for, that his mother had died for. It was what was going to save him.

He knew the chant off by heart. It had been a lullaby when he was young, something that made little sense to others.

“High for the sun, down for the ground, once for the right and twice for the left. There you can enter into the Travel Ways of your forefathers…”

The door slid open. The smell of smoke was stronger, the rumble under his feet making him sway. He dashed inside the darkened Way and groped around in the dark when the door shut. As he moved away, praying that the Way Gate would hold, Karol tapped his feet in front of him and put his hand out to the wall. A faint glow grew outward from where his hand touched. The longer he was inside, the more he adapted to the low lighting. Soon he saw stairs and the various directions they took. He had no idea which way to go. He had no food or water. He wasn’t going to go far or last very long, but at least he was free.

The ground lurched suddenly, throwing him off his feet. He fell into the wall, which glowed light gray, and the substance of it smothered him. Karol fought and fought, and then relaxed: he was either going to die or be all right. He moved his legs as if walking and found he could move. Not back out into the Way, but within, or through, the tunnel wall.

Chapter Two

The Last Days of Trell of Barr

In Nils’s office, deep in the tunnels beneath the city of Barrahiem, it took Salinda many days to decipher Trell’s writings. If Nils had been out of the healing tray this work would have been a few hours, but not for Salinda. She knew the code but it was laborious translating it. Trell’s word use was different than the present day and that made the task of translation even harder. In many places she had to write “undecipherable” where she could not make out the words. Some of the sentences didn’t make sense to her.

She read over what she had written down, shaking her head, certain that Nils would be able to correct her work and fill in the spaces. Salinda went over the translation of a particular section, tidying up the words so they made sense. This particular section sounded like she had it right, but she wondered if it was useful at all:

The last days of Trell of Barr and the tale of the Fall of Ruel moon.

I do not know if any of my kin will read my final words. I find I do not care. They will perish as surely as the Sundwellers if nothing is done. But here in the Sundweller city of Unethea I found others who saw the danger and planned to make a stand. Bright minds and brave hearts so like my kin in their better days. Not like the [undecipherable undecipherable] my kin have become.

In the end there were seven of us, seven of us who dared the [undecipherable]. Two great minds instigated this. It was not I, I was a willing contributor. [Undecipherable and undecipherable] Benenge and his sister Annabeau were a scientific team of astrophysicists who had been studying the bands of power that bound Ruel moon. They were not interested in the mystery of the Moon Binders for they felt that the mystical aliens who had placed them there were not likely to return to save Margra. [Undecipherable] maggots! Ruel [undecipherable] moon. No, they were more interested in what was happening to Ruel, what kind of elements and rock it was made up of and how this knowledge could be used to save Margra.

My knowledge was scant as well. Curse my [undecipherable] soul. I had only the writings of our great astrophysicists and historians who theorized that Ruel was once a mine, that the Moon Binders took something so essential from the moon that it became destabilized. We have their artifacts but not [undecipherable] written account of who they were and what they did. We do not even know how long ago they left this planet or if indeed they died out. [Undecipherable]

It was Annabeau who developed a telescope that identified the elements on the moon. It worked on the stars too, but much better so close to home. Annabeau was a dark beauty, along with an amazing mind. My kin would renounce me for such an act as loving her. [Undecipherable] dotards. I was an old Hiem, but she didn’t care about that. I had a family, although my mate had [undecipherable]. Annabeau loved me in return. While Annabeau calculated, Benenge worked on his matter converter. Annabeau explained it to me thus: Benenge’s ray would target the heavy elements in the moon fragments, transmuting them to gas or other types of matter so that the mass was less. It sounded damn near [undecipherable].

In these last weeks, we know we cannot deflect the moon. My heart is [undecipherable] heavy. My spirit is low and [undecipherable]. Merkon and Taha have been developing scenarios of how the moon will break apart. We cannot avert the impact totally but we can lessen it. It could be all for naught. All could perish. But our efforts may leave a few alive to carry on. When I think of the lives I cannot save, that we cannot save, I cry and I cannot sleep and it is Annabeau who soothes me. Dark eyes light the black of night [undecipherable] warm and smiling just for me. We are not just these bodies, she said, pinching me. We are more than that. We live on. We come back. I [undecipherable undecipherable].

My faith was not as strong as hers. I was jealous of my life, my identity, my personality and I was not sure I would ever be the same. My attachment to my life and who I am was too strong and [undecipherable]. If I wasn’t going to remember myself, remember who I was, then that was death for me.

Rinul built the machines that would target the moon with Benenge’s invention. The Sundwellers had surpassed the Hiem with their ingenuity and their desire to save. Not so my [undecipherable] Hiem brethren who ignored my warnings. My first observations were but conservative estimates of what a broken Ruel moon could do. Now that I have joined with my learned colleagues I know it is going to be far [undecipherable] worse than I could have [undecipherable] imagined.

So I am faced with the [undecipherable] knowledge that I will die whatever decisions I make. I am faced with the choice to make my [undecipherable] death matter. There is the rub. I know what is coming and I will spend my life to give life to others that come after me.

My grandson, Nils, lies in a prison of sleep. Maybe he will [undecipherable] survive and read these words from me. Maybe he will perish along with my kin. I cannot tell, I do not have such foresight. The [undecipherable] Hiem cities are well protected. The observatory may survive. It was they who led me to the city of Unethea. My learned friends. How I mourn for thee. [Undecipherable, undecipherable, undecipherable…]

Salinda’s heart rate thumped as she translated each word then read each sentence. Her excitement was immeasurable. The names were familiar to her. She cast her mind back to the time she broke through the layers of the cadre to learn how to transfer it. She had seen a vision— seven people who went into a machine. Could this be the same people? The names given in this tale—were they the seven that the cadre spoke of? The vision of a machine...there had to be a connection. Trell mentioned machines, so there was more than one. Where were they? Did they still exist? If only Salinda had paid attention in her history lessons, studied the maps of the world, she would understand more. If only Nils was awake, he could do this so much faster with greater precision.

A noise in the corridor alerted her to Garan’s approach.

“Salinda,” Garan said as he entered the study. He held a platter and Salinda smelled food. “You have been down here for so long I thought you might like something to eat.” Garan’s smile didn’t quite reach his violet eyes. He could not hide that he had some worries.

“Thank you, Garan. I am hungry.” Salinda sat up and realized her back and neck muscles were stiff and sore. How long had she been at this?

Garan supplied the answer to her thought before she could ask. “You have been down here for ten hours straight.”

Salinda smiled and gestured for Garan to put down the tray of food. She lifted the lid on the bowl of steaming vegetable stew and noted with interest the freshly cooked cacti bread. The people of Vanden dried the cacti and ground it into flour. It made the most delicious bread. Because the observatory traded with the Vanden, they had been making it for years, and Garan had had the foresight to learn how to bake it. “I thought it was longer. Oh, that’s so good,” Salinda said, inhaling deeply. She took a nibble on the edge of the bread, closing her eyes and savoring it. “I didn’t realize I was so hungry.” Salinda opened her eyes and noticed the little tells that Garan’s food delivery was for another purpose. “Sit down and talk to me.”

Garan leaned his back against the wall and slid to the ground. He ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. His tanned skin had paled after being underground for so long but it was still a creamy olive, not so much lighter than her own. His straight nose and full, vulnerable-looking mouth made him an attractive lad. Not that he had had any joy in the love department. “’Tis Laidan,” he began. Salinda took a sip of the liquid from the casserole and bit into the bread. Closing her eyes briefly, she enjoyed the taste. “This is so good.” Then she realized what Garan had said and apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m listening. Does she still think you hurt her?”

Garan grimaced. “I think she is beginning to understand that I didn’t. She misses Nils. She has come to depend on him and I thought it was going well between us…”

“Until Brill arrived.”

Garan let out a long sigh and leaned his head back against the wall to stare at the ceiling. “Yes, maybe…I don’t know. ’Tis not that he has done anything or she…I find I am reacting to ghosts…to what went on before.”

“You know her brain was damaged. She may never be the girl you fell in love with. You have to temper your expectations, you know that.”

“I know!” he said, rather too fervently. “I am sorry. ’Tis just so hard…so hard…so much harder than I thought it would be.”

Salinda took a spoonful of fungi and swallowed before answering. “I understand that. If we live through this moonfall then we will have time to see to our own relationships. Our hearts will do what they will. So how is everyone else upstairs?”

“Danton has come down with a fever. Brill suspects another infection.”

Salinda’s lips compressed at this news. It had been her decision to put Nils in the healing tray while leaving Danton to recover from his horrific injuries the natural way. It had been touch and go already and the damage done to him by the baron was too awful to contemplate.

Yet Salinda had contemplated it—she had cleaned and dressed every wound, every cut, every burn, every bruise. She had nursed him until she could barely stand. Every minute of his suffering was a cut to her soul and every look of blame from Brill burned a hole in her mind.

The call had had to be made. There was but one healing tray. Nils was important for the future of Margra. She had to be right about that because one doubt about that decision was likely to cause her to lose her grip on sanity. Danton suffered so much. Suffered because of her choice. Salinda didn’t think she could cope if it had been the wrong one.

Salinda thought she had been through the worst this life could give. She had survived torture at Gercomo’s hands, rape by Ange, brutalization by the people of Gunner, and still she had persevered. She had found Nils, or rather, he had found her and saved her. It had to be fate. It had to have meaning. But letting Danton suffer? Letting another soul continue in agony. It had been the worst. Absolutely the worst. Salinda doubted she would ever come to terms with the outcome of her decision. But she didn’t let on, didn’t let Brill’s pained looks and Danton’s fevers get under her armor. She couldn’t show weakness. Not now.

And Laidan. Oh Laidan! Her suffering was on Salinda’s conscience, more and more each day. The constant “if only I had done this” or “if only I had done that” plagued her endlessly. But looking at Garan and how well he had settled the cadre within his mind, she knew she had that part right.

She finished the meal he had brought and piled the bowls on the tray again. Garan stood to take it from her. “Are you coming back up tonight?” he ventured to ask.

Salinda frowned as she looked at the book. “In a few hours. I will come to check on Danton, too.”

Garan lifted his chin, indicating the book open on the desk. “What is that?”

Salinda realized that she had kept the most exciting news from Garan. “Source preserve me! You don’t know. Garan, you did it. You found the book. The book Nils was searching for.” She tapped the book with her hand. “This contains the last writings of Trell of Barr.”

“I did? From the old observatory?”

Salinda nodded eagerly.

“Trell of Barr. Nils’s grandsire.” Garan shook his head. “I found the book. It’s been sitting here?”

Again she nodded.

Garan’s eyes flashed, his skin reddened and a smile bloomed on his face. “That is wonderful.” He leaned over to examine the script. “You can read it?”

Garan studied her. Salinda squirmed under his scrutiny, conscious that she wasn’t quite up to the task, then shrugged. “Yes, but not well. Nils did teach me the Hiem code language when I came here. It’s a bit of a slog for me, and the language Trell uses is archaic.”

“And?”

Salinda knew what he was asking. Did it provide the answers they sought? Salinda thought it would, but didn’t know for sure, not yet. “There is so much in here. I think this is the clue we’ve been looking for. I’ll let you know when I’ve translated a bit more.”

Garan backed away, a lopsided grin on his face. “That is really good news.” He took the tray and headed out.

“Garan…” She stopped him before he reached the corridor.

“Yes,” he responded, the smile still there but damped down.

“You recall how I went inside my cadre?”

Garan nodded. “Yes, you needed to find out how to transfer Laidan’s to me.” His brow furrowed. “Why?”

“I think you might learn more by doing something similar. The key name for you would be Trell of Barr.”

Garan’s head jerked up. “You think Trell of Barr is inside my cadre? Inside my head?”

“If what I read in here is true, then yes.”

Garan gulped, his neck bump moving up and down. “I will see what I can do… in my spare time,” he said reluctantly. “I’ll tell the others you will return to check on Danton soon, then.”

“Yes, thank you.” She bit her lip as she continued to stare after Garan long after he was lost from view. Salinda moved her tongue around her dry mouth, and then leaned over to take a drink of water.

There was a sense of disappointment. Why wasn’t the lad as excited as she was? Yes, he said it was wonderful, but it didn’t set him on fire. Didn’t he understand the importance of what he’d found, of what she had discovered? She smiled to herself, thinking his head was just too close to his heart. But no time to think about that. It was back to translating Trell’s words. She took another sip of water, picked up the pen she’d been using and tackled the next paragraph.

It would have been easier to read sections of the text and only translate the relevant parts, except she still had to translate each word and writing them down was the best way to do it so she could then read each sentence aloud to ensure it made sense. Too many words were labeled “undecipherable”, but she suspected they were mostly curse words because she could make sense of most of Trell’s writings: a lot of technical details about their plans, about his growing love for Annabeau, and bitter recriminations about his kin.

A few hours later she needed a break. Stiff shoulders and her head ached. She’d been working on the same word for over ten minutes. It was time to call it quits. She pushed herself off the chair and turned to the door. Before she could take a step, Brill bounded into the room. “Come quickly. It’s Danton!”

Brill turned and fled back up the corridor. Salinda shuddered once, forgot about her aches and pains and ran after Brill.

Chapter Three

A Woman Takes a Stand

Toola had a very personal attachment to Linel. So much so that she couldn’t bear to live without him. He stood in the corner, looking as he always did, except his eyes were made of glass and his complexion had a waxy sheen of preservative. She ran a hand down his stiff chin and rested her head against his silent chest. She would never forgive Mandin for striking that killing blow.

That Toola had had her revenge was not enough, not enough to fill the storm of anger that raged inside her. She had stabbed Mandin, stabbed and stabbed, but still the rage would not die. The woman couldn’t die enough times for Toola. But Mandin’s death did not bring her obedient dog Linel back. Her sometime fuck. He was her creature and now she had him no more.

Mandin had been cut into tiny pieces. Some had been flung in the dung heap, some thrown into the river, some fed to the burden beasts in the corral.

Now Toola was empty. It was all for nothing. Business went on as usual. Toola sat down and poured her tea, but she couldn’t remain seated. There was a blade waiting to fall. She just didn’t know when. Surely the baron’s spies would have told him that Eneit was gone. The young virgin that would have been her star attraction, who would have earned her price back in short time, thus allowing Toola to repay the debt. Toola had no means to pay the baron what she owed him.

Restless, Toola went to the mirror and smoothed an imaginary strand of hair and turned her head left, then right, admiring the high pile of dark hair held together by long pins. The small curls curving on her cheeks. She was made up in her best style. Wafting, sheer robes gave more than a hint of the body beneath, perfume light and spicy lingered in the air around her, and her body was massaged and moisturized, smooth and subtle to the touch.

It was too much. The sounds of the brothel went on around her, but she felt two degrees removed. The brothel she had built up through hard work and cunning strategy. To think she could lose it. She could be homeless when the baron came to throw her out. He had taken Danton—the only person she cared about. He had outmaneuvered her and that stung. How many regimes had she survived? How many near misses had she survived? How many times had she pimped herself to gain what she wanted?

And still she had no idea what the baron was up to.

A knock at the door disturbed her train of thought. “Yes, what is it?” she grumped, unable to disguise her mood.

Lexia poked her head around the door. “Oh, there you are. My lady, the bartender asks if there are any special orders.”

“None.”

Lexia bowed her head. “Madam Tyree said there have been five cancellations in the bathhouse this morning. She asks whether she should use this opportunity for cleaning.”

“Of course she should. Is she stupid?”

Lexia bowed her head. “Is there anything I can do for you?” Her gaze slid to Linel in the corner. Toola saw the lines of Lexia’s face, the hint of revulsion.

“No. Get out or I shall beat you for your impertinence.”

Lexia’s eyes widened and she retreated into the corridor, shutting the door quietly behind her. Toola lifted her chin and turned her gaze to the ceiling, trying for patience. It wasn’t their fault she was ruined. What was going to happen to them? Just the thought of the baron claiming what was hers was too much to bear, but she knew there was nothing she could do. The best step she could take was to send everyone away and close the business, even burn it down and hope it took her competitors as well. But her people had nowhere to go. She owed them a livelihood and, except for the debt for the purchase of Eneit, her business was profitable. Could she bargain with the old lecher? Could she? Would she dare?

She shook her head. What choice did she have? The best face was a brave face. Her people stood a better chance if they were gainfully employed. So what if there had been cancellations. Rumors traveled fast, but she could show they were unfounded.

Hiding in her room drinking tea wasn’t going to bolster morale. She stalked up to her table and drank off the cooling liquid. She would do a walk-through, inspect everything, get everyone motivated. Then she would come up with a plan to deal with the baron and his inevitable takeover.

The kitchen was not expecting her impromptu inspection and they received a tongue-lashing. The young apprentice cook she sacked on the spot. Better he was out of there. She scribbled down a note and gave him directions to another establishment where he would be safe. She gave him some coin, then mussed his hair and pushed him out the door.

The cook stood, nonplussed. “Who will scrub the pots?”

“The girls aren’t busy. Get one of them. Just keep your lecherous hands off them or I’ll be feeding you your own cock in white sauce. Got it?”

He bowed his head and wiped his hands on his aprons. “Yes, ma’am.”

Tyree was in the middle of having some bath attendants scrub out the main bath. Toola nodded in approval. Others, she saw, were cleaning the urns and scrubbing towels. They were hard at work. Tyree appreciated the need to keep everyone busy. While Tyree didn’t know it all, she’d been with Toola long enough to know that the situation was bad.

The brothel proper was in the middle of being spring-cleaned. Mattresses were being carried out to the rear courtyard to be put in the sun. Girls bent over small brooms and cloths, cleaning diligently. In the bar, customers were few. Here, the sluts were cleaning too. The barkeep was polishing his tools of trade and his serving bench shone darkly in the light. Toola said nothing, just looked it over.

The means to pay back her debt were few. The only thing she owned was the brothel and even then she didn’t think it was enough. She had overextended herself. It was Mandin’s fault, with her talk of stolen virgins and confiding in Toola. She wouldn’t have known anything about it if Mandin had shut her big, fat mouth.

A smile twisted Toola’s lips at the memory of seducing that country wife. The woman had never had an orgasm in her life until Toola gave her one. Not that Mandin was grateful. All her life she’d been poked at by men who knew nothing except their own pleasure and need to reproduce. Mandin could have been something more than she was. Now she was just dead. Stupidly dead, and her darling daughter, the next star whore, had escaped her fate.

Well, if you can hear me, Mandin—fuck you!

Toola reentered her room and put her kettle on to boil and it was doing so when she heard them. Booted feet stomping through her halls. Her heart leaped at the sound, but she kept herself calm. She’d known this was coming. Continuing to make her tea, she put some aromatic leaves in the pot and inhaled them as if doom was not coming in the door. She poured in the water and put her face over the rising steam. Then she put the lid on and grabbed her favorite cup.

Dark liquid streamed into the mug. It caught the light and glittered. She smiled. How silly to notice such a mundane thing at this moment.

A thumping on the door failed to shift her calm. “Enter!”

It was Jent, the pompous, hated servant of the baron’s. “The baron requests your attendance. He is in your upstairs parlor.”

Toola lifted the cup to her lips and sipped, then lowered it and lifted her eyes to Jent. “I will be there shortly.”

“You will come now or you will be dragged naked up the stairs.” Two burly men in uniform stood behind him, dark shadows in the hall.

Carefully, Toola put her cup down and stood, stopping to adjust her clothing and run a hand over her hair, ensuring her pins were in place. “After you,” she said sweetly.

Jent lifted a dark eyebrow. “No, after you.” There was no trace of sweetness in his words. The brothel was unnaturally quiet, as if its inhabitants were holding their collective breaths. With as much dignity as she could muster, Toola ascended the stairs. Her stomach was a bit riotous, but she admitted to herself the baron was one scary customer.

Toola glided up the stairs, head held high. Eyes were on her. The guards that the baron had brought were arranged around the corridors and key points. It brought to mind Danton’s capture, how snared he had been. But Toola wasn’t going to run. There was no point in that. Other eyes were peeping out through the cracks in the doors and the spyholes. These were her people and she would show no fear. She would do her best for them.

The door was shut so she stood there until a guard knocked on the door and opened it. Here was where Danton had fought his last fight. Toola sniffed and tried to forget her betrayal. She tried not to think about how she had played the game and lost. What a fool she had been to think she could weasel her way into the baron’s inner circle. If it hadn’t been for Mandin, she might have succeeded. Mandin, you fucked me utterly.

The baron sat on a chair, arranged so that it was the only one against the wall. All the others were stacked in a corner. His servant stood out ahead of him like a pompous herald. Guards were arranged beside him on both sides and from the loud shuffling some had moved to block her escape. The baron really didn’t know her. To her dismay, the kitchen boy she’d fired was standing by the baron’s knee, his face a bland mask. Toola sighed. She had tried to save the boy. Now he would be consumed by the baron.

Hate for the baron burned like liquid fire in her gut. She didn’t care if he saw it. The baron would not care either way. Love or hate would make no difference to him.

“So, Toola, where is the girl?” the baron asked, rat eyes squinting.

“Gone,” Toola replied in a bored voice. She couldn’t help getting a dig in.

“Gone where?” the baron asked. It had to be a kind of game. His spies would have already told him.

“Ran off with Brill, Danton’s rebel friend.”

“And where did they run to?

“I have no idea.”

The baron lowered his chin. A guard strode up and slapped her across the face. The blow was hard and Toola staggered back, but then righted herself, not even bothering to touch the sore part of her face. Her eyes watered, though, and there was nothing she could do about that.

“I don’t know where they went. I had them chased, of course, but I had other problems at the time.”

The baron grinned at her and it chilled her to the core. “Your little fuck toy. I heard you cried and screamed like a child. You’re too emotional by half. That is why you don’t succeed, Toola. Too much heart, not enough balls.”

Toola didn’t deign to reply. Toola had plenty of balls. She just wasn’t a sick fuck like the baron. Even she had limits.

“You have defaulted on your loan. Do you have the means to pay me?”

“I have and, no, I do not. My wealth is in this brothel.”

“Then the brothel is now mine. Agreed.”

“Yes, that is reasonable,” Toola replied, knowing there was more. It wasn’t enough, not nearly enough.

“You are mine.”

Toola stiffened, not quite able to repress her reaction. His? That was a shock. Unexpected.

He lifted an eyebrow in query. “Agreed?”

The words stuck like ice in her throat. She managed to squeak out, “Yes.” Owned by this man? Never.

“You will sign the contract Jent has prepared.” Toola hated Jent beyond reason. He was a mere servant and thought himself superior to her.

“I will. What will you have me do, baron? As your slave, I mean?”

The baron sat forward on his seat, elbow on his knee. He gave his hand a casual flick. “Anything and everything. Your slave price will not even dent the debt of honor to me and the penalty for failing me.”

Toola’s hand went nervously to her coif and relaxed when every hair was in place. “What is your first order, baron?”

Her eyes flicked to the boy, and then she looked to the ceiling. His face was fresh and young. Too innocent of the world to know what was to come. The baron placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and the lad trembled. Perhaps the boy was already regretting his decision. Toola had to control her stomach in case she vomited. Most of the girls were safe provided they brought in a good return. The baron didn’t like girls. At least she hoped so. For herself, she had a pretty good idea what was in store. It was an open secret what he had done to his wives.

“After you sign over the deeds to this place and sign your slave contract, you will be stripped naked and placed in the bar. You will be our new lowliest whore, doing tricks for spit and small change.”

Toola shuddered. No, not that.

Everything came crashing down on her. Manage the place for the baron and send him the profits, take a beating and fuck some official for information she could do willingly. But not that. Not that lowly whoring. The full meaning of what the baron intended hit her full force.

She took a step toward him, just as the servant took a step toward her. The guards had taken a step too. She held out her hands showing she had no weapons. They did not relax. The rustle of the documents drew her attention. She took another step closer, but not close enough.

The servant smirked at her and took another step closer holding out a pen. Toola’s lips were drawn into a straight, hard line. Her gaze slid to the papers. The servant took a step closer.

Toola reached up to her hair. The servant’s eyes widened in puzzlement at her action. She should have been cowed, she supposed. Shaking in fear. Crying up a storm. No. Not Toola.

In a blur of motion, she drew out two long hairpins. Her hair fell long and lush down her back. She grinned and then lunged, stabbing the servant in the neck. There was a yell from the baron and the clink of weapons. Toola turned the other hairpin on herself. It had poison on the tip. She didn’t need to stab it far.

Bodies fell on her and tried to stay her hand, but she was unstoppable. A guard gritted his teeth as he held her hand. Toola grinned and bent her arm up to meet the tip of the pin. The guard did nothing. He didn’t know it was poison.

The pin fell from her numb hand. Four burly men held her and the baron stepped up now that she was held tight. The baron leered at her. “You thought you could trick me.”

Toola spat at him. “No man tells me what to do with my body. None.”

Her body shuddered and then she writhed, a scream ripping from her lips as the poison burned. Her throat closed, her breath was hard to draw in.

“Damn you,” the baron seethed. “You stupid fools. She’s used poison.”

The baron punched her in the gut then sideswiped her across the head. Toola could not feel it over the fire in her nerves. She tried to smile. Her mind was full of gloating.

Toola looked to where Jent, the stuck-up servant, lay stiff and dead on the floor. If only that had been the baron.

Another shudder as her muscles contracted. Her diaphragm would not move. The baron didn’t know she had won. It was a pity that his was the last face she saw. Then, everything went dark.

***

Gercomo’s damaged left wing hung down on one side and, no matter how he placed himself either in the dirt or the sun, it just would not heal any faster. He was in so much pain that he couldn’t transform. A very annoying thing, that. Bertha licked him, licked his wounds, and he was too put out to even growl at her. She’d proved her worth, her loyalty.

Gercomo couldn’t believe how well Bertha had fought. Ruthless, cunning and wholly vicious. If he had trained her himself, he couldn’t have taught her any better. Her skill came naturally. In the battle over Eternity, they’d lost the alpha male. Lost four bulls. Their numbers were sorely depleted. Gercomo wasn’t going to give up, though. He’d come so close. Salinda had been so close and her power was like an itch behind the eye. If only he could scoop it out and take it.

The baron had got away. Gercomo could sense him too, smell him. As he lay there feeling his body ache, he wondered why? Why did he serve the baron? What sort of twisted desire existed in him? He should have ripped the man to pieces. Should have, but didn’t.

There was a link there, some kind of inexplicable joining. The baron had shaped him, had molded him as if he was a clay model. That’s why there was the need to serve, the need for recognition. He thought he’d outgrown that, had shrugged off that cloak while he rotted away at the prison vineyard, but it had come back like a thirst. He needed and wanted the baron.

Bertha sighed listlessly beside him. He really needed her to get food. He projected thoughts of hunger and food at her. And threw in a few curse words and insults for good measure. Get me food, you lazy cow. Now!

Bertha nipped at him. You get it.

Gercomo nearly fainted in shock. Did you just speak to me?

Yes. Did you think I couldn’t learn your mindspeak?

Gercomo stared at Bertha and then laughed. Bertha hadn’t said anything. No. He was going crazy. She understood emotions and strong thoughts. She didn’t talk back. Bertha eyed him inscrutably and said nothing more.

She lumbered to her feet and called to some of the other dragons—young males, a few females. Together they took off in search of food. Gercomo lowered his snout and nosed it into the sand. If only he could get comfortable. If only…

***

Later, after he’d finished off a delicious meal of old burden beast, Bertha nursed his wounds again. He stretched out his injured wing and found it moved freer than before. Once again, he had hopes that he could fly and that he could change. He needed to seek out the baron. They had plans they needed to make. Salinda couldn’t be allowed to get away from them. That power could not be allowed to slip through their fingers. He licked his claws. Slip through his claws, he corrected.

The baron was useful, and Gercomo was bound to him, but if he was objective about it, he could break that hold. He was more powerful than the baron and smarter, and he had less dangerous proclivities.

Perhaps it would even be possible to regain his old self. That was something to work toward. Being Gercomo again.

Chapter Four

Suffer unto Me

Salinda had to cut into the infected tissue and drain it. Danton was going to find it hard to walk for a while. Keeping him lying down was not going to be easy. As she sliced into the puckered red skin, she realized that the infection went deep. This meant digging farther into the wound to drain the infection.

“You’re going to have to sit on him, I think,” she said to Brill.

“What?” Brill asked her, brows knotted together, fists balled up and resting on his thighs.

“Just do it. Sit on him,” she said as she flamed the blade again. No point in introducing infection on top of the one he had.

Brill grumbled, but he swung his leg over and sat astride Danton, effectively blocking Danton’s view of the proceedings. Danton lapsed in and out of consciousness, babbling insensible words half the time.

As she dug deeper into the wound, Danton’s body stiffened and he screamed. It unnerved her, that sound. That pitiful, scared and pained sound. And she was causing it. Salinda’s hand shook, but she fought for steadiness. The tip of the blade touched the source of the infection and pus shot out, hot and green. Within the wound, she spotted a small sliver of metal that had not been removed when she first tended him. In the tray of equipment she found a pair of tweezers with which to grip the metal and draw it out. Then she flushed out the wound until no more pus exuded.

While she washed her hands, she nodded at Brill and he climbed off Danton. He’d passed out, which was a mercy for him and them. Sick and vulnerable, Danton lay there, and Salinda’s heartstrings grew taut. Please live. Please, Danton.