The blow smarted, but he merely tilted his head away in a differential manner.
The muscular man looming over him snarled and stomped away. He stood staring out a window for a moment, his great figure black against the pale sky. Then he pivoted around, his arms crossed over his massive chest. “Last I knew, Sir Eanrin,” the man growled. “You were missing only your eyes, not your tongue.”
The prisoner in the center of the room was clad in scarlet and his eyes were covered by red patches. Notwithstanding the fact that his hands were bound behind his back and that he was kneeling on the floor, the prisoner held himself with poise, even authority. He tossed his head, flicking golden hair off his brow, and gave the man a slight smirk. “On the contrary, your majesty. My tongue remains firmly fixed inside my mouth.”
The large man stalked towards him, his pace slow and measured. “Then why?” he hissed, “Can you not explain why you suddenly showed up again in my kingdom?”
“Would you believe that it was an innocent mistake?”
Bending down, he leveled his face with Sir Eanrin’s. His blue eyes burned, and his breath was heavy and putrid. “Was the last time you came an innocent mistake?”
“Oh no,” Eanrin laughed. “That was completely intentional, great king.”
The king swore again, as a king never should, and swung his fist at the blind prisoner’s face. But Eanrin dodged the blow as if he had eyes to see it coming. “Careful, your majesty,” he said, and now his voice had lost all cheerfulness. He spoke in a low tone, but there was a certain bite to it that would make anyone pause. “Careful. If you strike me again, you’ll not hear another word from my mouth ever after.”
The king sneered. “Fool. You’re in no position to make threats.”
“Agree to disagree.” The knight cocked his head to the side and flashed a cold smile. “You’re the one who’s so desperate for information. I can choose not to say a word. I actually do know how to hold my tongue.”
“That’s hard to believe,” the king grumbled, but he stepped back and lowered his hand.
They remained there, staring at each other, one with eyes, the other with no eyes at all. The king exhaled in a long vibrating growl, before signaling to the guards who stood at the far side of the hall. “Take him away and lock him in the dungeon, no food or water. He can talk or he can die, I don’t care.”
Grabbing Eanrin by the upper arms, the guards yanked him to his feet, then pushed him towards the exit. The knight looked back over his shoulder and gave one last parting jab. “You’re a poor representation of a Faerie King, Cozalimar!”
The king snarled in his throat, but said nothing more.
The dungeon was dark, dank, and cold. The darkness bothered the blind knight not a bit, but the smell and chill was unpleasant. As the guards dragged him down to the under-story of the faerie castle, he wasn’t worried. Eanrin, knight of Farthestshore, Chief-Poet of Rudiobus, romantic bard of all history, could work his way out of any situation, in human shape or another.
But he had not counted on the iron chains.
Iron weakened faeries so that they were nearly powerless against it, some more than others. Iron was banned in faerie realms; it was carried by only the shadiest of dealers, such as Torkem of Arpiar.
But even as corrupt as Cozalimar’s kingdom had become, Eanrin still hadn’t supposed that they would have stooped to something so low-down as iron.
Eanrin found that out as they shoved him against the stone wall, and locked his wrists in iron shackles. He caught his breath at the icy fire that sliced through his body as the iron bands closed around his skin. “Dragon’s teeth,” he muttered through a clenched smile.
After the guards left, dead silence imploded.
Eanrin hung completely still for a few moments, unsure of his next move. He tried to swivel his wrists in the shackles, but they were far too tight and any movement only prompted greater pain.
His mind flew back over the centuries, back to when King Cozalimar’s
had been a faerie demesne of
joy and beauty. Before Life-in-Death had
entered the king’s mind. Before he’d
been driven mad. Before he had started
slaughtering every follower of the Prince of Farthestshore within his
borders. The people of Teltethma,
terrified and bewildered, had cried out to the Farthestshore for aid. The rescue of the Teltethma believers had been
one of the largest feats the Knights of Farthestshore had ever attempted. To succeed, someone had to distract Cozalimar
and his court. kingdom of Teltethma
Eanrin smirked at the memory.
Apparently, the Faerie Lord had never forgiven him for it.
Suddenly, Eanrin felt something cold, smooth, and strong coil around his arm, and something flickered against his throat. Before he could even feel his skin crawl, a voice spoke close to his ear. A voice velvety and smooth, but not without an insidious hiss. “There was once a cat with no eyesss; he fooled the whole court with his liessss.”
Eanrin drew his breath in sharply and didn’t even try to suppress the shiver that swept over him. “Dragon’s teeth,” he said again. “What are you doing here, Kasela?”
“What are you doing here, pussy?” the female voice replied.
The knight let out a little growl. “Forgive me if I never informed you that I detest being called pussy.”
“Blame it on my memory. How’d you get in this little messss?”
He knew better then to remind her that he had asked first, so he took a deep breath and began. “I’ve been recently deployed in Parumvir. There was a prince there, Felix, who was filled with dragon poison. I went to bring him back to Dame Imraldera for healing.”
“Dear Dame Imraldera,” the woman’s voice said in a sarcastic tone.
Eanrin ignored her. “I arrived only in time for the boy to be called away by a Fallen.”
“Yes, and I don’t know why he was called. I can guess, but why Felix? I wonder… Anyway, he went to the old crossing to Arpiar and stepped onto the Far Side. I was chasing him, and it was too late for me to stop my pursuit, so I touched ground on the other side. Where he went, I’m not certain, but I landed in the middle of Cozalimar’s guards. Figure that out. I couldn’t fight my way out, so to make a long story short, I ended up here. Now,” he sighed. “What are you doing here?”
“Sssssight-seeing,” Kasela purred.
“In this dark?” Eanrin snorted. “Seriously though, what are you doing here?”
“My business isss my own.”
He shuddered a little, and he shrugged his shoulders, trying to remove the sinuous coils that wound around his arm and neck. “Interested in helping me out?”
“Twill require touching iron. You’ll have to say please.”
He huffed. “Please?”
The snake slid down to the ground, and the next moment, she morphed into a woman with pale skin, black hair, and black clothes. Her serpentine fingers slide into her belt, and she pulled out something gleaming. When she slid it into the iron lock, she gave a tiny hiss of pain, for even indirect touch hurt. But in only a few seconds, both shackles snapped open.
Eanrin let out a gasp of relief and jerked forward, rubbing his wrists. “Thanks,” he mumbled.
The woman slipped back into snake form and slithered out of the cell. She looked back, her black tongue flickering. “Coming, kitty-cat?”
“How come you make everything sound like an insult?” he growled, switching into cat form.
The cat followed the snake up the stairs out of the heavy blackness. At last they reached the first upper-floor of Teltethma’s castle, and paused near one of the many tall windows in the long gilded hallway. When the light touched Kasela’s sin-black scales, a blue shimmer passed over her winding body. The cat froze for a moment; one paw upraised, and sniffed the clean air appreciatively, his whiskers twitching. “Cozalimar won’t be too happy to find me gone,” he remarked.
The corners of Kasela’s mouth turned up, and her white fangs gleamed. A change had come over her as she had traveled upwards. Her coy style had given way to something darker, and Eanrin had picked up a tenseness radiating from her. “He’ll never find out,” she whispered.
She hadn’t intended for him to hear, but when Eanrin had lost his sight, his other senses had improved. “What was that?” he asked, his voice as sharp as a knife.
She did not answer but slid away so silently he did not know she left. Only when she had gotten a fair distance down the hall did she swivel her head back to face him. “It is time for me to finish him,” she hissed. Then she took off in an obsidian streak.
Eanrin’s heart gave one great thud. Did she mean it? She’d never killed before, but considering her shady history, he did not doubt that she did mean it. And would do it. But why?
The next moment, he was flying after her, an orange blaze. “Kasela!” he shouted.
She ignored him.
His ears pinned back on his head, he sped up. The snake was fast, but the cat was faster. Pouncing, he pinned her down with his paws, his claws digging into the wood floor around her. She writhed, hissing, her nostrils flaring. “Let me go!” she spat.
“Kasela, you cannot--”
She struck at him.
She did not make contact, but she came close enough for him to smell the venom on her fangs. “One bite will be all it takes to kill Cozalimar. The same goes for you,” she panted.
Without warning, she was a woman, and with a thrust of her knee, she sent the cat flying into the air.
Eanrin hit the ground as a man, and after regaining his footing, he sprinted after her fleeing figure. In a few seconds, he caught up and grabbed her by the arm. “Kasela, you--”
She whirled around, her eyes afire, and laid a naked blade across his throat.
They both froze.
Slowly, Eanrin let go of her arm and dropped both hands to his side. Kasela kept the knife at his neck, her face wild and her chest heaving. “I’m going to kill him!” she hissed.
“But Kasela,” he reasoned. “That’s not like you.”
“Isn’t it?” she cried. “Isn’t it? Then why were you so quick to guess my intent? You know me as a street-world, slanderous, sinister snake. Well, I’m more! Or I was! My family was one of the hundreds who were killed in Cozalimar’s reign of terror. You don’t think I have a quarrel with him? You’re wrong! I would have killed him long ago, but I haven’t been able to find a Crossing since you rescued me. Today I found a Crossing. Today I shall have my revenge. I don’t want to kill you, Eanrin, but if you stand in my way, I will!”
He kept still and made his voice soft. “I’m sorry about your family,” he said gently. “I did not know…I…understand your hate and your pain.”
DON’T!” she screamed, her
knife hard into his skin.
“Very well, maybe I don’t,” he allowed. “But I do know that revenge is not worth two lives.”
Her eyes flickered. “Two?” She scowled in confusion. “All it takes is one. Cozalimar’s!”
“Wrong,” the knight said. “Revenge destroys both the lives of the avenger and their victim. I know it will ruin your already broken life, Kasela. The Prince of Farthestshore has offered you forgiveness and redemption, but you--”
Eanrin shut his mouth.
Kasela looked down, and closed her shadowed eyes. The strength of her anger was beginning to drain, and the hand holding the knife began to tremble. “Look,” she whispered. “I admire you Knights of Farthestshore. Yes, I even envy you. I envy you, Eanrin. I envy Imoo. I envy Oeric. I envy Imraldera, and not because she’s the only woman you truly love.”
“Now hold on just a se—
“I envy your happiness, your nobility. I appreciate how you’ve always treated me like a fellow person. None of you seem swayed by my appearance, even when I’ve tried to get attention. None of you shun me for my sins. Most people do. Even some followers of the Prince. I love you Knights of Farthestshore. Perhaps I wish I was like you.” Her voice shook. “But I’m not. It’s too late for me. All that is left in me is hurt. All that is left for me to do is hurt. I must kill Cozalimar. Get out of my way.” She seemed to recover herself then, and she pressed the knife in deeper, her teeth clenched.
Eanrin let no emotion flicker across his face. His voice stayed level. “Were you challenging him to a fair dual, I would not interfere, though I might strongly advise against it. But I cannot let you murder him. I won’t let you destroy yourself. If you wish to continue…you must kill me first.”
Kasela stared at him, her eyes huge, and her breath came in rapid little gasps. Suddenly with a cry, she drew back her arm and thrust the knife forward.
Her fist rested on his chest, and he did not move. For she had slid the knife’s blade up through her hand till only the tip pricked through the side that rested on Eanrin’s breast.
A sobbing shudder convulsed her body as her final will collapsed. The knife clattered to the ground. Eanrin pulled her into one arm and led her away. The fight seemed to have bled out of her, and she weakly sank into him.
“We’re getting out of here,” he said quietly.
They did not meet anyone as they left, for Cozalimar’s was a dying kingdom, and few still lived in his borders.
Eanrin walked the Faerie Paths with more ease then those with sight, and he soon found a Crossing out of Teltethma. They paused at the joint between worlds, but Kasela offered no resistance, so he stepped over.
The next instant, they stood in the Wood Between. Twilight hung over the trees, and an evening fog threaded through the trunks. The branches and leaves rustled, and a stream whispered a gentle song.
After some time, Kasela pulled away and stood still, head hanging, fists clenched. She glared at the ground. “As soon as you leave, I could go right back. I know my way now. You won’t always be here to stop me.”
She didn’t seem to know what else to say. The Wood watched them with thoughtful eyes. At last, she turned and walked away. For a moment she paused and looked back, her black eyes glistening. “Eanrin…” Her mouth hung loose for a moment, and then she shut it. The next instant, she was a snake gliding away into the forest.
Eanrin stared after her, still trying to calm his racing heart.
The Wood was silent and morose, and the light faded to deep amber, the last sunrays the day had to offer. A slight tenseness hung in the air, a feeling of expectancy. He frowned, and tuned his senses to pick up if something was wrong…
The knight smiled in relief and turned to where the Prince of Farthestshore stood. The poet dropped to one knee. “My prince! I admit you surprised me this time.” He licked his lips somewhat nervously. “Um…how long have you been watching?”
“I am always watching,” the Prince said softly. “Well done.”
“Ah…uh…thank you,” Eanrin stammered. “I wasn’t sure. Cozalimar is so evil. I half wanted her to kill him.”
The Prince’s eyes shone compassionately. “One day Cozalimar will be stopped. But not that way and not by her. You did right.”
“I wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t kill me,” he admitted. “She seemed so full of hate.”
“She is full of pain.”
“Will she ever heal?”
“I will never give up on her,” the Prince answered.
This seemed to satisfy Eanrin, and they both lapsed into silence.
Then the Prince said, “Eanrin, I have a new mission for you.”
The bard’s famous smile secured itself back on his face, and he gave a merry laugh. “Just when I thought my life might get boring,” he teased.
The Prince laughed with him, and Eanrin continued, “So where next? Shall I go in search of Felix?”
“No.” The Prince shook his head, a warm smile on his mouth. “I want you to go to Hill House, Southlands.”
The poet’s brilliant smile almost flickered out. “Huh?”
A sober look entered the Prince’s face. “Prince Lionheart is in despair. He needs your guidance.”
Now the smile plunged into oblivion. “Excuse me?” He coughed; almost gagged. “Prince WHO?”
“But…but…” Eanrin stuttered, completely discombobulated. “That…that no-good…scoundrel?”
The Prince smiled again, rather amused. “Weren’t you just talking to Kasela about letting go of hate?”
“But…” Eanrin’s voice trailed away, and he scowled.
“I need you to help Lionheart. Will you do this for me?”
The knight puffed a sigh, but swept a flashy bow, resigned to his fate. “As you wish.”
And the next instant, Eanrin stood all alone in Goldstone Wood. Somewhere, far away, a wood thrush sang.
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