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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 19

 

The morning light was gray over the ocean. It brought with it the scent of rain. The wind that rolled in past the cliffs smelled of salt and clean sea things. It swept away the char and the scent of ash and burned flesh that clung stubbornly to the ruins of the burned village.

Sinnah's men crept about stiffly, newly risen, grumbling and gruff amongst themselves, uneasy with the camp they made, so close to the place they had pillaged. Close to the resting place of the dark and foul thing that was the cause of so much suffering. They were wary with the absence of their lord and the lady sorceress who had contracted them. All the night long, Tiana and her henchmen and at intervals, Sinnah, were in the caves. It made the men nervous, magical goings on. The rumors of a great power soon to be risen. They lived in a land that worshipped the name of Kerisai, but to them, it was nothing more than a word to use in cursing. Not a one of them was comfortable with the notion of a walking, breathing god amongst them. They did not quite believe it was possible, despite the lady sorceress's certainty.

Theo was vaguely aware of all these things. The morning, the sea smells, the anxiety overlaying the camp. He had lain sleepless all night, curled beside the spike that tethered him, staring blindly into darkness, hearing tormented screams over and over inside his head. Fingering the blood on his shirt that was not his. It was dry and stiff now, but he could still hear the shrieks. If he shut his eyes he could see Wing's face, twisted in agony. So he didn't shut his eyes.

There was a stirring of the men in camp. Attention focused towards the cliffs. A band of people climbed up from the treacherous path leading to the caves. Their own fellows, their lord and finally the lady herself. She stood out amidst a cocoon of larger male forms. There was relief, because no great dread thing came with her.

Theo hardly glanced her way, not compelled at all to view her murderous face. Not unless he had a blade in his hand. They walked into camp and Tiana's imperious voice called for a cloak. Someone ran to do her bidding.

He was tethered outside a row of tents. They had to walk past him to reach hers. She looked down at him smirking as she did and he could not help but glance up. Her smile was laced with purest satisfaction, her eyes glittering with malice laced delight. The men behind her moved on and between their dark clad bodies he caught a glimpse of naked flesh.

They shifted and Theo gasped, body uncurling, all lethargy fled. Wing strode among them, unclothed, unmarred, his eyes drifting about the pale morning sky.

"Wing!!" Theo cried out, lunging to the limits of his chain, all but yanking himself off his feet in his eagerness to reach his friend. "You're alive. You're alive."

Relief made him lightheaded. Wing stood just beyond his reach, Tiana beside him. He slowly turned his attention to Theo. His pale blue eyes fixed upon him, stared at him as if he were a curiosity -- an odd, noisome thing to be studied, but eventually ignored. The eyes drifted away from him, emotionless. The face never changed.

"Wing? Wing!" Theo stood baffled. Where was the blood? The damage done by blade and club and fire? He had been unmanned, but he stood gloriously whole before all. The cloak arrived and Tiana herself lay it about Wing's broad shoulders. Her face was reverent when she looked up at him. In the air about them, faint bits of light ebbed in and out of existence. Like Tiana's magic spirits, but not so concentrated, not so purposeful in their gathering. None of the men seemed to notice them, but Tiana's eyes were occasionally drawn to the air around her. But they did not clamor around her. It was Wing who seemed to attract them.

Theo's relief began to pale and dread suspicion rose in its place. "What have you done?" he cried. "You bitch. What have you done to him?"

Someone stepped in close to him, burying a fist in his gut. He crumpled, choking on lost breath, pain tears blinding him. He couldn't gather the breath to talk, so he glared up at her -- stared beseechingly at Wing. But Wing took no notice. Did not seem to care in the least that Theo was chained and gasping in the dirt.

Tiana urged him on and they disappeared into a tent. Theo pounded the earth with his fists, denying the reality. Denying that she had done what she said she would. The whole time he'd been looking for the damned stone to place the old wizard's rune upon, had he truly believed what he'd been told of it? Of course not. He was superstitious, but not a fool. Something else had happened. Some magic to be certain, but not the rising of the dread god Kerisai. His friend had not lost his life to host --- that.

"That was unmannerly."

Sinnah crouched next to him, forearms resting on knees. Theo glared up at him.

"What did you do?"

"I thought you knew." The slaver grinned at him.

"I don't believe it."

"No one really cares what you believe. Least of all the thing that wears your friend's body."

Theo snarled and lashed out at him. Sinnah reared back, caught the chain attached to Theo's wrist and yanked hard enough to send the other man off balance. Theo's shoulder hit the earth. He tried to twist away, but Sinnah came down with a knee in his groin and a forearm across his throat, the chained hand held pinned at his side and the other grasping ineffectuality at the arm crushing his windpipe. The slaver kept up the pressure until Theo began to see black spots, until his free hand dropped listlessly to the ground, then he drew back a little.

"You've so much to learn, Theo. Don't fight me. Subduing people is my business. You can't win."

Theo glared up at him, refusing to be cowed. Sinnah grinned, as if the defiance pleased him, then gracefully hopped to his feet, dusting off his hands and the knees of his trousers.

After he'd left, Theo got to his knees, staring at the tent Tiana had taken Wing into. Shaking. He couldn't stop it. He couldn't believe it. But where was the blood?

 

*

For a while, the chilling import of the reason for being in the sparkling capital of Khell was forgotten as Prince Ilrath and Anson revealed to her the wonders of Perth. It was a city of wealth and colors and magic that had nothing to do with the actual summoning of spirits. It was magical in its gaiety, its charm, the beauty of its architecture and its gardens, of the fabrics that adorned its populace, of the music that seemed to drift from every street corner where minstrels played for rewards of copper and silver. Dharva had never been in such a place. Had only dreamed of such, from what she had greedily read from Pyphin's books, or heard from her old master or from Anson's descriptive tales.

They'd had a very fine white horse saddled for her. A mare that was solid and gentle and no hardship for a girl that had done very little riding in her life. Anson and the prince had an easy, bantering relationship. They laughed over shared experiences, and contemplated ones to come. Dharva listened wistfully, not feeling left out -- the both of them were far to considerate for that -- they told her stories of past deeds, in-between showing her this landmark or that.

A vender selling fine pastries ran up to the prince, offering delicacies to him and his party and Ilrath laughingly accepted, tossing the man a coin, even though the pastries had been a gift offered freely. One suspected the prince was not a stranger to these streets, that he was recognized so effortlessly, and him not even in fancy clothing or with proper escort. Not that Dharva knew what proper escort for a prince should be, but she suspected it was more than an apprentice witch and a journeyman wizard.

"So, tell me of this grand adventure of yours, lady Dharva? I'd rather hear your telling than sit and listen to the recitation of those dry old masters."

She blushed at his expectant look, his eyes seemed to catch every nuance of her expression. The intelligence and wit behind them was mesmerizing. He made her feel a little uneasy in the pit of her stomach. Very much the way she had when she stared too long at Theo. The prince might not be as comely in appearance, but he was startlingly appealing by force of personality alone.

She retold the tale, haltingly at first, but growing bolder as she realized both Ilrath and Anson were giving her full and respectful attention, as if her words were the most important thing in the world. When she'd finished, the prince twirled on one end of his mustache, frowning thoughtfully.

"I believe I've met the lady Tiana once. Hers is a powerful family. She and her father attended a trade delegation years ago when he was still alive. Beautiful girl, if I recall -- but cold."

"You mean she didn't respond to your flirtations?" Anson clarified.

Ilrath shrugged. "I don't recall making any, imprudent one. I don't believe anyone did. She was that aloof. She made my skin crawl."

"She had to have been fairly adept at magic, even then, if she's the accomplished sorceress Dharva says she is now. The power of Kerisai tends to mark a person. Anyone sensitive can pick up on its reek." Anson said.

They made their way back to the great palace, entering through the stable courtyard. A servant was waiting, and as soon as they'd dismounted, hurried up bearing a message.

"Your majesty. The master sorcerer Pyphin wishes master Anson and the young mistress to attend him at once."

Anson frowned, tossing the reins of his mount to a waiting stableboy. Dharva felt a stab of apprehension. She hurried in his footsteps, the prince following behind at a more respectable gait. Anson took a back hall that he was apparently familiar with, upstairs and eventually to a comfortable study, with plush chairs and couches and a broad topped desk that had a number of maps spread out upon it.

Pyphin was there, as well as master Malafor. Both their faces looked pale.

"What?" Anson asked as soon as he stepped into the room.

"We won't be going to Ishvan." The old man said, thin mouth tight. "I'm afraid our young captain failed to accomplish his task."

Dharva felt her knees go weak.

"How do you know?" she whispered.

Pyphin's eyes met her own. His were rheumy, but hard with determination. "I felt the stirring of Kerisai, my dear. Those of us who've studied the stones for most of our life felt it." He indicated Malafor who nodded miserably.

"They've awakened their dark god."

"But --" The prince took a step forward, uncertainty in his voice. "-- if that is so, needn't we rush to the guardian stone to effect its repair?"

"The third stone can only keep the other two in check. It cannot vanquish the great spirit once it is awakened."

"Then what can we do? How do we stop Kerisai." Anson asked.

"I'm not certain that we can. Not alone. Therefore we have changed our destination. We go to Astaza and the guardians of the first stone."

Dharva's mouth dropped. The first stone? The guardians of Kurisar, who was ever the opponent of Kerisai. The light to balance the dark. Harmony to balance inharmony. She had read a hundred legends and histories of the time when the great spirits had existed and fought for dominance in the world of men. War and disorder and bloodshed had reigned. Spirits help them if such dark times would come upon them again. Spirits help them if their only succor was to raise their own great spirit to defend against the dark one their enemies had resurrected.

 

*

 

The camp at the edge of the peninsula broke not soon after Tiana's return from the caves. Sinnah's men methodically packed up tents and stowed gear, not once looking back towards the edge of the cliffs, or the ruins they'd left of the children's village. Theo didn't look either. The smell of roasted flesh still clung to his clothes. He tried not to think of the small bodies reduced to ash and bone in the bonfire. The bones of his own crew mingled in the coals as well. He could still see the look in Stol's eyes when the boy had been run through. The look in the little girl's eyes when she'd run at him more than ready to strike him down.

Please Spirits let Collin have gotten clean away. At least Sinnah's men seemed to hold no interest in chasing them down. They had what they wanted.

He could not take his eyes from Wing. From the moment he'd come out of Tiana's tent, dressed in clothes that might have belonged to one of her hulking henchmen, Theo had sat and stared. Looking for anything that might hint that his friend was still there. That this was a ruse Wing was perpetrating to escape their enemies clutches. But there was nothing. It was as if Wing walked in a daze of detachment. His eyes never once lingered on Theo. That Theo heard, he never spoke, though Tiana spoke to him constantly. From what little Theo was able to hear of what she said, it was mostly history and lineage and her own families unswerving loyalty to the great spirit Kerisai. She called him that, and Theo cringed everytime he heard it in reference to his friend.

When they were ready to set out, they removed the length of chain tethering him and manacled his hands together before him. He was urged onto a horse, the reins of which were fastened to the saddle of the man before him. A rope was tied about one ankle, looped under the belly of the horse and fastened to the other, neatly preventing any attempt at escape.

They set off, Wing and Tiana and Sinnah at the head of the party, Theo surrounded by the bulk of Sinnah's men towards the back. He hardly saw more than the back of Wing's head all day, and that only by the grace that Wing sat taller in the saddle than most of the other men.

They stopped briefly to rest during the middle of the day. Theo was fastened to a tree with a length of rope while the rest of them took a bit of water and trail rations. He was offered nothing. After no more than half an hour's rest they were back in the saddle. By evening they had reached the forest beyond Kathari Point peninsula. It was full dark before they made camp. The tents were struck and a fire pit dug.

The men were a little wary, a little hushed in their conversation. Theo heard one man, apparently one of the guards down in the cave, tell of how bloodied and mutilated Wing had been and then, when the guards had been chased out and it had only been Tiana and her victim alone, there had been a wailing that they could hear far down the tunnels. And when they next saw Wing, he was whole. Not a scratch upon him. The men made signs against bad luck. Theo sank deeper into depression.

Sinnah came by himself with a skin of water and a strip of dried fish and crouched next to Theo with an unreadable expression on his dark face as though he were waiting for something. Theo summoned the will to glare back at the man. He could think of nothing in particular to say, so he merely lifted his chin defiantly and waited. But Sinnah seemed to have no better purpose than to silently taunt him, and soon rose with a chuckle and drifted off towards the tents.

Theo drank from the skin, slacking thirst, but had no appetite. He would probably regret it, if they neglected to feed him again until tomorrow night, but at the moment, he doubted he could keep it down.

He slept fitfully, and woke with the unsettling flashes of blood and screams that had plagued his dreams. As they dragged him towards the horses he passed close to where Tiana stood with Wing. The swarming spots of light still coalesced around where his friend stood.

His friend? He wasn't so sure now. Wing never looked at him, even though he caught Tiana's eye and she paused a moment to watch him. He narrowed his eyes and spat on the ground. Her mouth tightened and she turned to whisper something to Sinnah. Sinnah's smile worried him and he looked away from it, concentrating on the horse he was pushed up onto, sitting stoically while he was bound to it like so much baggage. If he ever had the deck of a ship under his feet again, he would kiss the planks in gratitude. He was sorely tired of sitting astride a miserable landbound horse.

They made good time, forging through the woods at almost a reckless pass. Certainly much faster than Theo and his party had gone on their way in. Back to Corath, he had heard one of Sinnah's men say, a destination that made him cringe. He'd hoped never to see it again.

They ate in the saddle and as he'd suspected none was offered him. When they finally did stop for the night, he was duly famished. He was unbound long enough for two men to escort him to the side of camp to relieve himself. He did so, embarrassed at their close presence, and at the lewd commentary when he'd finished. They walked him back towards the fire, and Tiana who sat on cushions at one edge halted them with a word and a wave. They brought him to stand before her. He hardly paid her heed, staring instead at Wing, who sat cross legged beside her, looking into the fire as if it told him worlds of secrets.

"It all turned out for the best after all, yes?" Tiana drawled. "The fates always favor those with great faith. I hope the bitter gall of this hangs heavy upon the old fool who gave you that pitiful rune. I look forward to seeing his face again before he dies. Such a stubborn old man, to think he could best me. And using such an untrained boy." She tisked, looking him up and down leisurely.

"I'm not a boy." He growled. "I thought you remembered that --- lady?" The last word was uttered with contempt. Tiana lifted a brow.

"I remember quite well. Your face is by far more inspiring than your --other attributes. Your friend is quite exceedingly more impressive. As I said, things tend to work out for the best in the end."

"You black hearted bitch." He hissed. "I swear upon everything I hold sacred that I will see you dead."

She laughed and moved a finger. Something reared out of the earth at him, something dark and solid that the guards didn't even seem to notice, but stuck his belly and seeped inside his flesh with crawling, repulsive fingers, like a thousand squirming maggots. He cried out and doubled over, straining at the grips of the men who held him, trying to claw at his own stomach to get the things out. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the glowing nimbus lights of dozens of tiny spirits dancing about in a frenzy at Tiana's call of magic.

Then it stopped and he was on his knees sobbing in anger, arms curled around his middle. Wing was staring at him, blue eyes vaguely interested. It was the first sign of hope Theo had had of him.

"Please, Wing. You know me, don't you?" he gasped, reaching out, grasping Wing's hand where it rested on his knee. Wing looked down at his hand, then back up to Theo. The eyes were cold, and the expression was not anything his friend had ever worn.

"What have they done to you?" Theo cried. "You know me. You have to know me!"

"No he doesn't." Tiana said softly, her smile poisonous. "You don't really understand, do you, Theo? There's no help for you in him. Quite the opposite, actually."

He knelt, head bowed, breath coming hard. For the moment no hands restrained him. No magic harassed him. She was within reach. He wondered if he could snap her neck before they pulled him off. He made a lunge, actually got his hands around her slim white neck and bowled her backwards before they were on him. A hard blow behind his ear and his head reeled, others to his back and side that stole his breath and his strength. He was dragged back, vision unstable at best, but clear enough to see Darak and Sol helping their mistress up, both casting dark glares at him. Wing hadn't moved, had watched the whole thing impassively.

"Sinnah." Tiana croaked, eyes glittering with malice as she rubbed at her throat. "He sorely misunderstands his predicament. Teach him the error of his assumptions."

The slaver lord came out of the shadows beyond the fires like a scavenger waiting for a larger predator to abandon his prey. He smiled down at Theo, an almost happy light in his eyes, as if he'd been waiting for this moment. For Tiana to hand Theo over to him.

Theo glared back at him, thinking better Sinnah than Tiana's magics. He would take mundane punishment over arcane anyday. And with studied skill, and careful cruelty, Sinnah proved just how wrong he was.

Tiana's atrocities were fueled by passion and dark emotion. Sinnah was pure cold, calculation. He was professional to the core, the things he did designed to take the greatest toll mentally and physically. His men watched with great anticipation, with great entertainment as a master at his trade worked. Vaguely, in the moments of coherent thought Sinnah left to him, Theo thought he saw Tiana's enthralled smiles as she looked on with the rest at the night's entertainment. On Wing's face there was nothing.

Theo was stubborn and prideful, but he had never been forced to endure pain at great length. Hunger and desperation yes, but not purposeful torture. Pride was not so easy a thing to hold onto under exacting pain. The stubbornness that kept his lips sealed against screams went away very quickly. The hatred of these people did not. He kept that close to his heart and even Sinnah couldn't touch it and the man knew it.

"Your body's easy to break." The man leaned close at one point, a sheen of sweat on his face, a little of Theo's blood on his hands. Not much, he was careful not to make wounds that would not heal. "But your mind, that I think shall take a bit more time."

Theo couldn't speak. Hadn't been able to for some while. The faces in the shadows, in the flickering light of the fire were wavering pale shapes that had little meaning. The sounds of laughter, of expectant breathes held as some abhorrent thing was perpetrated upon him, had become a murmur of static. Only Sinnah's voice got through the self inflicted shield he had drawn up to keep the hurt from reaching too far inside his head.

They had striped him and strung him up from a sturdy limb so that his toes barely touched ground. Sweat and blood made tracks down his body. Sinnah ran a finger down his heaving chest, smearing the blood.

"He was physically stronger than you, he hardly flinched at what had you screaming for mercy." It was a whisper for Theo's ears alone. "But you're craftier, aren't you? Better to scream and get it over with than die a bloody mass of wounds, yes? You've got strength here, don't you?" a hard finger tapped against Theo's temple. "We'll see how long it lasts. I believe I've finished with you tonight. Shall we let the others have their fun?"

Theo didn't understand him until they cut him down and Sinnah pushed him into the arms of some of the slavers who had been lurking closest to the torture. It was only when they shoved him down, their hands on his body, their leering grins above him that he realized what further torment Sinnah planned to inflict upon him. Mindlessly he struggled against that humiliation, crying out with a raw throat to the only one in this place that might have helped him. But Wing merely looked on with mild curiosity, while Tiana leaned forward in delight.

It drove home with crystal clarity the fact that his friend was no longer. Dead by his own hand to make room for something else to inhabit his body, for if anything of Wing had remained he could not have sat there and watched this violence being done to his best friend.

Theo turned his face away, not able to look towards Wing one moment longer. He shut his burning eyes to block out the faces surrounding him, but he couldn't block out what they were doing and his own helplessness to prevent it. A part of him died with the violation, the sense of optimism, the assurity of invincibility and immortality that the young hold so dearly until time and adversity beat it out of them.

He shed no tears, even afterwards, when they'd sated themselves and he lay trembling uncontrollably in leaves spattered with blood and sweat and other less savory things. It would be a very long time before he cried again.

 

*

 

Someone kicked him awake and Theo curled reflexively into a ball to protect himself, heart hammering frantically in his chest. But they were only breaking camp, not come to torment him. He reeled when they pulled him up, aching from last night's abuse. He wouldn't look at the men that escorted him to relieve his bladder, afraid he might recognize a face. It hurt to piss, but that was more from Sinnah's attentions than the others. He stared at the ground as they led him towards the waiting horses, and heard a few lewd comments as he passed. Heard himself called names that made the color rise in his face from impotent anger. It made his head spin. He didn't know whether the weakness was from physical abuse or hunger. Two days or more since he'd eaten.

They pushed him at his horse and he tried to pull himself up. Somebody put a hand to his hip to help him up and he panicked at the touch, shying away, which made the horse shy. The world went a little tipsy and he felt himself falling.

Dizzy and nauseous he came back to himself on the ground, propped up against Sinnah's shoulder with the slaver lord holding the mouth of water skin to his lips.

"Drink it." Sinnah ordered and he did, swallowing until it was pulled away. Water dribbled down his chin and throat. A few men stood around them, but a good deal of the party was already underway, he could hear the sound of retreating hooves rustling in the forest floor.

"You're going to be very good today, aren't you, Theo?" Sinnah purred at his ear.

Helplessly Theo nodded. Sinnah stroked his cheek.

"Quick to learn. I like that. Obedience is rewarded, so if you keep your manners about you, perhaps something good will come of it."

Sinnah nodded and one of his men pulled Theo up by his manacled hands. They heaved him onto his horse and fastened him down. He sat listlessly while they did it, head down, trying to fight off the dizziness that still rolled behind his eyes. Sinnah stood looking up at him thoughtfully.

"Give him something to eat." The slaver lord finally ordered, before striding away towards his own horse.

 

*

 

If he hadn't been tied onto the horse, he would have fallen off. His body began to ache with more vehemence the longer the day wore. He leaned over his horse's neck in a daze of pain that sometimes stole his vision, sometimes left him all too aware of what went on around him. His mind wove circles of despair, imagining lurid things to come as often as it brought up the terrors of the past few days. He thought he might have been fevered, but it might have been anxiety that kept his skin damp with sweat and the blood throbbing behind his temples.

One of the hazy spirits that seemed a permanent fixture around the thing that Wing had become fluttered back along the line of riders, finally finding interest in Theo. It hovered about him noisily, like a bee inspecting a flower for pollen. It was the size of his hand and blue at the center. There was almost a heat to it when it ventured close. He recoiled at it at first, thinking it meant some mischief, but it brought no pain with it, only the curious warmth and a passing fragrance of magic that made the hairs on his arms stand on end. Sometimes it faded to almost invisibility, especially when another rider ventured close. Then it would disappear altogether, but it would be back in short order.

After a while, he ignored it, drowsing in the saddle, only to jerk awake when the horse shifted and he reflexively grabbed for balance.

Today they stopped at a stream to water the horses and stretch their legs. When they let him down, secured him to a tree by a rope through the links of his manacles, he immediately dropped into a doze. The man that woke him, pulled him up roughly by one arm before he'd had the chance to fully wake, then leered down at him and let his hand roam freely while Theo was between him and the tree. There was nothing to do but grind his teeth and endure it. He recalled Sinnah's words and wondered if this were some twisted test to get him to rebel against their treatment. Something to give Sinnah a reason to go at him again.

Evicting no response from his victim, the slaver tired of his game and hauled Theo towards his horse. Sinnah was already mounted, and looking back at him. For a breath, Theo met his eyes, his own glinting indignantly, then he looked down, hiding the emotion and anything else that was likely to bring more pain upon himself.

That night he sat shivering as more than one set of eyes passed over him expectantly. When Sinnah did come for him, he almost sobbed outright and only held it back out of sheer perversity. He would not give the slaver lord the pleasure of seeing him cowed. Not so easy as that at any rate. But Sinnah only unlocked the manacles on his wrists and drew him to his feet, one hand under his elbow almost solicitously when Theo's legs wavered. That consideration confused him as much as it frightened him.

Sinnah took him to the fireside. Tiana and her entourage sat on pillows, drinking from cups rather than skins. Wing sat cross legged at her side, his eyes staring into the darkened woods to the east. There was an intensity to him that was almost palpable, now that Theo wasn't searching single-mindedly for sign of something that was not there. It was almost like the feel of the little spirit that had taken to pestering him, only more powerful, deeper and sonorous in its quiet strength.

There was the carcass of a young deer they'd shot during the day roasting over the fire. The smell of it at any other time would have been mouthwatering. Now it made him slightly queasy. She looked up at him blandly, rolling her cup between her fingers. Sinnah squeezed his arm.

"I do believe you owe the lady an apology. If you're sincere perhaps she might forgive you."

Almost Theo laughed. But they were all quite serious. Her guards stared at him with dark, threatening eyes. Tiana's held a hint of amused expectancy. He didn't dare look up at Sinnah to see what his held. Probably a desire for him to balk so she'd hand him back over the slaver lord.

He set his jaw stubbornly. But in the firelight, the glinting eyes of the predators that waited impatiently for him to be tossed into their midst's made him reassess his decision. He bowed his head at her respectfully, murmuring.

"I was -- distraught. Forgive me, my lady."

"You can speak so prettily when you choose. Surprising for a common sea mongrel."

She waved an idle hand at Sinnah and he pushed Theo down, then sat down cross legged beside him, which put Theo between him and Darak, a pair that even under the best of circumstances he would have not been able to overcome.

Someone handed Sinnah a cup and he reached across Theo to have it filled with wine from a skin. He drank from it, then handed it to Theo. Theo stared at it, blinking, not knowing if it had been given to him to hold, or if he were expected to drink.

"How long before we reach Corath?" Tiana asked.

"We're making good time. Perhaps four days if the weather holds."

"Good." Her eyes narrowed in thought. "Have the other arrangements been made?"

"Oh, yes, lady. You should be suitably impressed." Sinnah grinned, then leaned closer to Theo and said. "You may drink, if you wish."

Without hesitation, Theo lifted the cup to his lips, welcoming any numbing influence the wine might bring.

"My lord?" Tiana herself leaned over and filled Wing's cup, folding his large fingers about it as if he did not realize what to do with it himself. Theo stared in dread fascination as Wing looked down at the dark liquid. Tiana smiled at him. "It has been long since you've held physical form and never a mortal one. You forget the needs of a living body. Let me guide you, lord Kerisai."

Wing drained the cup and for the first time since he'd come up from the caves, a slight smile crossed his lips. Tiana's eyes shone with delight. She refilled his cup. But soon, his attention drifted back to the eastern forest and Tiana and the rest of them were forgotten. The sorceress sighed, and turned her gaze back to Sinnah.

"You've served me well, lord Sinnah and selflessly. When the followers of Kerisai come to glorious power again, you will be rewarded richly."

Sinnah inclined his head graciously. "I ask for little, my lady."

"You ask for little, but expect much. You are too shrewd a bargainer for me to believe in your modesty, my lord. As shrewd as myself, I think. I would not wish to be on the opposite side of the bargaining table with you. But we all have our weaknesses, do we not? I've heard that yours tend towards pretty young men -- very much like our captain here."

"Perhaps." Sinnah shrugged. "I understand you've experienced that weakness yourself."

Tiana laughed, looking straight at Theo, who'd gone very still, his fingers white around the empty cup he held.

"Watching you get tumbled was almost as enjoyable as doing it myself." Her lips slanted up in a humorless smile. "Ah, but I don't believe you found much amusement from it. But they were a bit crude. Perhaps if I gave you to Sinnah he could make it more enjoyable."

He sat there, frozen. Not even daring to look at her in fear that something untoward would come out of his mouth, which was what she was waiting for.

Sinnah filled the cup Theo held, startling him with the movement. The slaver commented casually. "If you seek to grant me rewards, lady, this little one would be a humble enough start."

"You have slaves aplenty. This one's mine. But I assure you, if he displeases me again, you will be the first I call to meet out punishment. And by the spirits, the next time you bring him near me, clean him up. He's foul smelling."

 

 

 

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