Authors: Jacquelyn Frank
To say Jaykun envied his brothers was something of an understatement. Oh, he did not actively seek or desire a family of his ownâthose days were long past himâbut he did envy them their contentedness. Their peace. He had never known a life that was not surrounded by war and strife, and perhaps he would be bored in a life without itâ¦but stillâ¦
“Where is Tonkin?”
“He should be back shortly.”
Tonkin was Dethan's most trusted aide.
He walked into the tent at that very instant. He was very tall, nearly as tall as Dethan, so he had to duck to enter the tent. He was broad shouldered and lean, and he always gave the overall impression of being very easygoing.
“Tonkin, are the supplies stowed?” Dethan asked.
Tonkin took in the tableau inside the tent, his eyes widening only a fraction as he saw Jaykun's injuries and supine position on the cot. Other than that, he acknowledged Jaykun's injuries not at all. It was typical of Tonkin to react very little to things. It was one of the reasons the brothers kept him close. Jaykun did not need someone who grew emotional at the drop of a hat. His brothers used to be steady like thatâ¦before they had fallen in love. Now they could be as emotional as most women were. The juxtaposition of the situation gave him some measure of amusement.
“Yes. All the supplies are well secured. We should have another caravan coming on the morrow, according to the missive I just received.” Tonkin held up the letter he was referring to.
“Sorâ¦you will sleep,” the mem said.
“The hell I will,” Jaykun barked at her.
“You do not have a choice. Your body, however strong and enchanted it might be, will force you to sleep so that you may heal more quickly.”
“I am not enchanted,” Jaykun barked.
“Of course you aren't,” the mem said a bit dryly. “You are merely miraculously able to live after what should have been a death stroke.”
“She's got you there,” Dethan said with a laugh.
Jaykun gave him a rude hand gesture. He turned to the mem. “You'll not be speaking to anyone of miracles or anything else concerning this,” he said threateningly.
“Of course,” she said with a patient smile. “Have good dreams.”
“I am not going to sleep!” But Jaykun found himself suddenly with the desire to do just that. An overwhelming desire. An irresistible one.
He was asleep within minutes.
y the time Jaykun awoke, the battle was over.
And dusk was approaching.
He sat up sharply and pain lanced through him, taking his breath away. Still, he was much better off than he had been. And he had felt much worse before. Much worse.
Garreth and Dethan were both missing from the tent. Tonkin was sitting close by, however. No doubt keeping an eye on him.
“Where are my brothers?” he asked with a groan as he threw his legs over the side of the cot. Tonkin hastened to his feet and reached to help him, but Jaykun fended him off with a raised hand.
“They are helping bring the wounded off the field.”
“And the battle?”
“Won. All that's left now is the city walls to breach. But I don't imagine it will be much of a fight since they sent most of their men into the field.”
“Wise rulers would have held at least some for defending the walls. But in the face of an army as massive as ours, they would have been much better served to open their gates and let us in peacefully. Now there is death on their doorstep and women without husbands and sons. Even some daughters.”
“People think fighting for their way of life is more important than their lives themselves.”
Jaykun straightened to his full height, although it took some doing. His whole body ached, and his chest throbbed painfully. But his heart was beating, and the bleeding had stopped. It was all an improvement over hours earlier.
“Sor, where are you going?” Tonkin asked hesitantly. He knew that questioning Jaykun wasn't a wise idea, but the brothers had told him to keep Jaykun down as long as possible.
“It is almost dusk. I have business elsewhere.”
Tonkin nodded. He had been around the brothers long enough to know what came with dusk. He stepped back and let Jaykun pass.
Jaykun walked out of the tent and into the camp. The whole of it was active, but it was a weary sort of activityâmen coming back from battle, tired and bloodied and some deeply wounded. But their day would not end until darkness forced it upon them. They were good men, dedicated soldiers. Jaykun was completely committed to them, as they were committed to him.
He didn't have time to find his brothers, and there was no reason for him to. They would know where he had gone.
He walked through the camp as quickly as his abused body allowed. He had chosen a spot when they encamped four days earlier. He had gone there every duskâ¦and would go there every dusk following for as long as they would be in the area.
The spot was along a not-too-distant beach. Far enough away from the battlefield and the encampment to ensure he would not be seen. The beach was littered with seals, their large, sleek bodies sprawled out in the late-day sun, catching the last of its light on their shiny fur. Natural jetties bracketed the sheltered cove and they too were full of seals. There were even some morari to be found, their bodies just as sleek, though on a much larger and bewhiskered scale, ivory tusks long and jutting out from beneath their lips.
Jaykun had found a coveâa cave, reallyânot too far down this beach and he headed right for it. The floor of the shale cave was submerged and that was fine. It didn't matter. He waded to the rear of the shallow cave and slowly disrobed, placing all of his clothing on a shale outcropping. Once he was fully nude, he sat down in the water. Upon being seated, the water came up to the bottom of his ribs and lapped there quietly.
From here he watched the sinking sun in the west. When the first touch of dusk came, he began to feel it. Sometimes he thought this was the worst of itâ¦when he went from feeling fully normal toâ¦
It always started in his hands. It felt like a stinging sensation, and then it intensified. He put his hands under the water, as if that might somehow delay what was coming.
It did not.
In the center of his palms his skin began to blacken. Then, like the sharpest burning cinder, the centers of his hands began to glow. That was because they
cinders. His entire body was burning from the inside out and even the water could not douse the ferocious burn. He began to glow hotly, like a star caught on land, and agony clawed through him again and again. But he gritted his teeth and refused to shout out, even though it took everything that he was to keep from doing so.
The water around him began to steam and boil, hissing as it lapped up against his fiercely burning body. It overtook him completely, every molecule of his body on fire. The water did not help or soothe.
Nothing could help.
This was his punishment and he must see it through, every night from dusk to juquil's hour. There was nothing he could do to change it. He would never be able to change it. He must suffer it alone, far away from anyone who might be accidentally harmed by what he became.
But what he didn't know was that he wasn't alone. Curious eyes were watching him, growing wide as they watched him burn and the water around him bubble.
But Jaykun was far too overwhelmed with his pain to realize it.
At juquil's hour the burning stopped. His body still glowed like the hottest ember in a fire, but now the water was able to douse that ember. The water was still steaming hot around him, but it was better than the temperature of his body, so he lay down in the water and let it cool and soothe him.
He began to heal almost as soon as the fire was out. Healing was not an instantaneous process, but it would happen quickly. As soon as his vision had healed enough to allow for it, he got up and stumbled and waded out into the colder, deeper water. The salt of it burned even as the cold of it soothed. He could hear the hoarse barking of the seals, even though he could hardly make them out in the darkness.
Slipping into the ocean, swimming into the calm waters of the cove, he let the water cool him completely. The dead, burned skin sloughed off his body, and within an hour freshly healed muscle and pink skin could be seen in odd patches on his flesh. By the time two hours had passed, there was no more blackened skin, only the scarring of the healing burns. Given enough time, that scarring would disappear almost completely as well.
Jaykun swam back to the mouth of the cave and waded into it, looking for his clothes. He was nearly dressed when he thought he heard a splash that was somehow out of place in the rhythmic lapping of the waves. Probably a seal, he thought. But he was on his guard just the same. The last thing he needed was to be ambushed by a stray enemy contingent. Especially since he had foolishly left his weapons behind. He had not been thinking straight when he left the camp, but still, the lapse was inexcusable.
He moved to the shore, stepping around the shale outcroppings with sure footing, the darkness meaning very little to him. He had keener eyesight and senses than most, so he was able to navigate pretty easily. It also helped that the moon was newly full so it shed a fairly bright light upon the beach.
Jaykun stepped from the sand and into the low, scrubby vegetation, picking his way back toward the camp. That was when he heard a shuffle of soundâthe sound of brush being disturbed, but not by him. He turned about in the darkness, his eyes narrowing. He could sense that he wasn't alone.
The shout preceded the launch of dark bodies out of the vegetation. Three men in dark clothing. They had been crouched down low, indiscernible from the shale rocks and long grasses. Moonlight gleamed off a raised sword and Jaykun had to move swiftly to get out of its path. As it was, the tip of it nicked his already abused skin, leaving a thin cut on his cheek in its wake.
That was the last lucky shot they were going to get, he thought with rising temper. But even though his temper began to bubble, his movements were sure and calm, almost rote. He caught the hand wielding that sword and jerked on it, throwing the wielder onto the rapid rise of his knee. His enemy grunted as Jaykun belted the breath out of the man's body, and then Jaykun disarmed him, arming himself in that same fluid movement.
The sword he had acquired was heavy in the pommel, making it poorly balanced, but it was just right for smacking the butt of it into the nose of the second man. The third man rushed in, tackling Jaykun to the rocky sand. Jaykun rolled with the weight of the man until his enemy was beneath him. Jaykun straddled the man's chest and brought the pommel of the sword down hard on his nose, breaking it and stunning him all at once. Then Jaykun jammed the heel of his free palm up under the man's chin, pushing his head back and opening his neck to the swipe of Jaykun's blade.
Blood erupted from the man's cut throat and splashed against Jaykun's clothing. Not that he cared. He was more concerned with the two remaining men, who had since thrown off the effects of his stunning blows and were now rushing him as a single force, tackling him back onto the sand. He felt his shoulder wrench under the impact, but he literally shrugged the sensation of it off. His heavy-bottomed sword, however, went flying from his hand.
He wrestled for control of the situation, trying to throw off the weight of two heavy bodies sitting on his chest and legs. He arched his back hard, twisted every way he could think of, but the fact was, he was wrung out. After being run through the heart and then suffering his nightly torment, there was almost nothing left inside him. Oh, he was immortal, but he felt every single solitary second of that immortality in one way or another. Tonight it was in the injuries he had been forced to sustain. They weakened him, made him vulnerable. And gods help him if by some rare chance one of these men was wielding a god-made weapon. All it would take was a simple beheading by one such weapon and that would be the end of him. Although, sometimesâ¦at some very low timesâ¦he wondered if that wouldn't be for the better. It would certainly end the torment he suffered night after night. But who was to say he would not face an entirely new torment should he end up in the eight hells? At least alive there was some reprieve.
And so he fought. Oh, how he fought. He kicked and snarled, threw the both of them off himself, but they quickly pinned him down again. Still, he did not go down easy. The two men were panting hard as they held him down, their faces battered from where he had managed to punch them, their bodies bruised likewise.
!” the one nearest his head snarled at him, calling him what the Krizans called foreigners to their lands. The Krizan on Jaykun's chest was built for sheer brute strength. There was no grace to him, merely muscle and ferocity. His bottom canine teeth, as with all Krizans, tusked up over his upper lip, and they were capped in a silvery metal that gleamed in the moonlight. The Krizans liked to adorn their prominent teeth in all manner of ways, but the warriors preferred to keep them sharp to make the men appear more vicious. A Krizan was not above biting his enemy.
His nose was flat, his nostrils wide. He looked a great deal like one of the morari Jaykun had seen on the jetty. He had on a sealskin hat, the floppy ends of it hanging over his ears.
you fall to Lukan! You are perhaps not so formidable after all!” he said in his guttural, heavily accented voice.
“I presume you are Lukan?” Jaykun said dryly. He had relaxed, saving his strength for an opening when it came.
“Lukan! Greatest of all the mighty Krizan warriors!”
“Your mighty warriors looked more like sleepy women out on that battlefield today,” Jaykun said.
The Krizan roared in outrage, spittle flying from his lips. “The demon
leaders use sorcery to win their battles! Evil trickery!”
“I hate to break it to you, but we don't have any mages with us at present. The most dangerous things we have along those lines are the mem healers. Not very dangerous at all, I'm afraid.”
“You are a liar,
are liars and demons!” He hissed past his plump lips. “Now we will disembowel you and cut you into little pieces, painting a picture with you on the beach for the other
to find in the morning.”