“Do you understand the depth of the trouble you’re in?” The man was Corpa of the night watch, an old soldier at four and forty and a queen’s man to the core. He had held his post for fifteen years. Not a particularly prestigious one, but better than dying outside the city walls, defending some spit of land that may or may not be worth the lives of hundreds, sometimes thousands of men. He counted himself lucky. His position was stable, the men he was in charge of were intelligent enough to do their job without being interested in taking his, and nights were often quiet. But not this night.
The prisoner, given the luxury of a hard wooden chair on which to sit, only to realize that it was more uncomfortable than sitting on a pile of broken stones. All the same he tried to appear relaxed and calm. Varn peered at the man. There was something familiar about him, though Varn couldn’t seem to see past the long matted hair and unkempt beard. He had always been a stickler for cleanliness and the brute of a man, savagely dressed and covered in grave dirt near to turned his stomach. Why, in the name of the Dreamer, would anyone want to dig around in a graveyard?
“Robbing the dead on Bella’s night,” Varn mused. “Perhaps. And perhaps I’m a goldfish.” He pushed his chair back and stood up, rounding the desk. “Appearances can be deceiving.” Varn stood in front of the man and leaned against the desk. “One can appear to be robbing the dead of their wealth, when in fact one is harvesting parts for a dark ritual.” He crossed his arms and gave the prisoner a hard stare. “One can appear to be a filthy savage, when one is actually a well educated warlock. I’m sure you know how our Lady feels about magic.”
Varn let the silence stretch, willing the prisoner to crumble. He knew the man. There was no doubt about it. But who was he? Some minor nobleman’s son? What game was he playing? Whoever he was and whatever he was after, the man was a stone. If there was a man who knew how to draw blood from stone it was not Varn. Dare he wake the Captain of the Guard? Now there was a man who could make a stone bleed.
Sweat trickled down Tanis’s side. He could see recognition in Varn’s eyes, but confusion there as well. Would the man remember? Did Tanis look enough as he once had? He was different now, almost a whole new man. Where once he had been clean cut and well dressed, now he was covered in thick black hair, matted and dirty, and dressed in mismatched furs and leather. He longed to explain that he was only visiting his father’s grave, but the chances of Varn believing were slim to none, and besides, it would only lead to more questions. Varn was already suspicious. If Tanis spoke too much, or revealed who he was he would be in a good deal more trouble than he was in now. And above all else, the queen could not know he was here. Better he be punished for grave robbery than his existence revealed to that woman. Others might have forgiven him for the murder he had done, but she never could. Still, he had to make Varn see that he was not a magic user. If he was condemned for the use of dark magic, it would be a long and unpleasant death.
“Just looking for gold,” he said, attempting to disguise his voice.
“You’re too clever,” Varn said. “To just be robbing graves of gold. I think you know the penalty for stealing. And I think you know the penalty for magic use. Big difference between the two, I’d say.”
Tanis only nodded.
“What is your name, son?” Varn asked as he sent a quiet signal to one of the guards at the door to fetch the Captain of the Guard. His arm came faster than Tanis could think of a suitable name. He was so surprised at the slap that it knocked him full off the chair. His head bounced off the floor and his vision darkened for a moment. Varn was saying something to the guards. Tanis’s vision grudgingly returned, but the room spun and swam before his eyes. His head ached and his shoulder, where he had hit the hard stone, and as he sucked in a breath of air he took to coughing once more.
“Get up,” Varn said. Tanis tried to still his coughing and after a moment gained control of himself, though his chest burned. He rolled and wriggled his way to his feet and was about to sit down when Varn kicked the chair away.
“You’re name,” Varn said.
“I’m no magic user,” he managed to rasp. He tensed for the violence this time, eyes keen upon Varn, but all the old man did was nod his head. Tanis turned in time to catch the remaining guard’s punch, meant for the middle of his back, but taken in the arm instead. Tanis leaped away, put his back to a wall and stared from one to the other.
“This is no way to treat a man,” Tanis coughed, as the guard pulled the knife from his boot.
“Men have names,” Varn said, leaning against his desk. The guard tested the blade and then stepped toward Tanis. Glad that his hands were bound in front of him, Tanis used them to block the first swipe. The guard was quick. He slashed high, low and stabbed.
Tanis blocked with his hands up, received a cut across his forearms, through his shirt. He could feel the blood pounding its way out of his body, to slick hot and wet down his elbows.
He turned his body sideways. The second slash bit leather.
He threw his arms out to knock the stab away and hurled himself at the guard. They fell to the floor. Tanis had a strong grip upon the man’s shirtfront, and used it to lever himself into a position where he could throw his head down upon the man’s nose. The crunch of bone was resounding and blood coursed down the man’s face and into his open, wailing mouth.
Tanis lifted his head up, dizzy from the blow and was yanked off the guard and thrown to the floor on his back. With the room spinning, another man’s blood upon his face and his own dripping off the end of his elbows, Tanis scrambled to his feet as the door flew inward and a dead man walked in.
“Captain Iridian,” Varn cried and saluted with a fist on his heart, as all became quite still.
“What is the meaning of this, Corpa?” the Captain said quietly. He glanced at the guard who was struggling to his feet with his arm up to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. He turned briefly to Tanis and then back to Varn.
“Captain,” Varn said. “We found him in the High Cemetery. I do not believe he was looking for gold.”
The Captain raised a hand for silence. His eyes, filled with recognition and the mad gleam of glee, were fixed upon Tanis. His lips curved up in a smile and then he started to laugh. Varn had never seen the Captain of the Guard smile, let alone laugh as he did now, and he turned to the prisoner. There was a darkness around the man, no longer did he seem playfully in control. His countenance had become that of a great beast, full of black, spreading hatred, tensing to spring. Varn could almost feel the tightness in the prisoner’s jaw, the itching for violence in his fingertips.
“You... know this man, Captain?” Varn asked.
“You believe him to be Shen’nung?” the Captain asked. “Oh yes, that’s good. Practising dark magic on Bella’s black moon. Of course he was.”
Varn stared stupidly for a moment. The Captain recognized the man right away. Who was he?
“Iridian,” the prisoner growled and Varn barely recognized the voice as coming from the prisoner. He knew this man, this prisoner, the name was on the tip of his brain, he reached out for that name as the Captain reached back to take the crossbow from the guard behind him.
That moment seemed to stretch time out infinitely. Varn was forever reaching for that name, unable to move as the world around him did. He could see the prisoner, could almost see each and every muscle in the man’s body as they tensed to spring. He could see his Captain casually take up the crossbow, aim at the prisoner and pull the trigger right at the moment the prisoner sprang.
The bolt struck with the force of a war horse. Tanis’s forward momentum evaporated. He’d no recollection of flying backward, hitting the wall, sliding to the floor. His vision cleared with a shake of his head that sent a shock of red hot pain up from his left shoulder. Silence but for the throbbing. Moving tenderly he looked down to see the black feathered end of the bolt protruding from his upper chest, barely a hands breadth from his heart. When he moved he could feel it scrape bone in a blaze of pain that turned his vision white. He closed his eyes. The silence gave way to the sound of the wind rustling leaves, or was it waves upon the shore?
The prisoner sat like a child, like he couldn’t move below the neck. His head wobbled and his eyes crinkled in pain when he glanced down at the bolt in his shoulder. Varn counted the man lucky. If he hadn’t moved the way he had, in the moment that he had, the bolt would have lodged in his throat or his forehead, instead of his shoulder. If he had moved only a touch faster, it would have impaled his heart. The pain must have been unbearable, but still Varn figured that living was always the better option.
“Bring him,” the captain muttered, with a touch of disgust tinging his voice. He was gone before Varn could salute. The prisoner’s head had fallen against his chest and he groaned as the pair of guards took him by his legs and dragged him from Varn’s office. Varn sat staring at the streak of blood on the wall and floor, wondering whether it was better to live after all.