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PROLOGUE

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Book Information
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Genre: High/Epic Fantasy

Author: Kate Elliott

Name: Prince of Dogs

Series: Volume Two of The Crown of Stars

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KATE ELLIOT

 

**VOLUME Two of
CROWN OF STARS**

 

PRINCE OF DOGS

PROLOGUE

ALL spring they managed to stay alive by hiding in the abandoned tannery quarter, coming out only at night to scrounge for food. After a few nights, running from the dogs, hiding in the pits, they became accustomed to the stink. Better to stink like the tanners, Matthias pointed out to his sister, than be torn to pieces by dogs.

Anna reflected silently on this. It gave her some small satisfaction to know that if they were caught by the Eika savages, if they were run down by the dogs and rent arm from shoulder, leg from hip, at least they would smell so badly of chicken dung that surely not even those hideous dogs would eat them. Or if the dogs did eat them, then maybe their flesh, immersed so many times in oak bark tannin that their skin had begun to take on a leathery cast, would poison the creatures; then, from the Chamber of Light where her spirit would reside after death in blessed peace, she could watch their writhing, agonized deaths.

All spring there was food to be scrounged, for those who had escaped the city had fled without having time to fetch anything and those who had not escaped were dead. Or so at least observation told them. Half-eaten corpses lay strewn in the streets and alleys, and many houses stank of rotted flesh. But they found stores of vegetables in root cellars and barrels of ale in the common houses. Once, they foolishly ventured to the kitchens of the mayor's palace where they found sweet meats that made Anna, who stuffed herself with them,violently ill. Matthias forced her to run, gagging, with a hand clapped over her mouth to keep it in and in such pain she thought her stomach was going to burst, all the way back to the tanneries so she could throw it up into the puering pits, a stew of chicken dung mixed with water that would, he prayed, hide the smell of fresh human vomit.

No dogs came 'round the tanneries for a long while after that. Perhaps the Eika had given up hunting their human prey or deemed there were none left worth hunting in the empty city. Perhaps they'd sailed down the river to hunt in greener pastures. But neither child dared climb the city walls to the parapet to see how many Eika ships lay beached along the river's edge. Now and again they saw Eika walking those parapets, staring north toward the sea. Now and again they heard the keening and howling of the dogs and, once, the screams of a human, whether man or woman they could not tell. They kept to familiar haunts and stayed mostly in the little shed where Matthias had slept after he had been apprenticed to a currier the winter before the Eika attack. Left behind, forgotten, in the confusion of the attack and the hopeless street-by-street defense of the city, he had had the wits to take refuge with his younger sister in the foul tannery pits when he saw the dogs hunting through the city. That was why they had survived when so many others had died.

But come summer, they used up their last stores and had to dig in untended gardens for those half-grown vegetables that had fought past the weeds. They learned to hunt rats, for there were rats aplenty in the empty buildings, fat ones well fed on dessicated corpses. Anna found herself with a talent for stone throwing, too, and brought down seagulls and complacent pigeons and once a feral cat.

Come summer, more Eika came, and these Eika brought human slaves with them, gleaned from a distant harvest.

When one fine summer's morning the Eika returned to the tanning quarter with slaves brought to work in the tannery, the two children fled to a loft and cowered behind tanned hides which had been hung to dry from the crossbeams. When they heard voices, the creak and scrape of a body climbing the ladder, Matthias boosted Anna up to one of the great beams. Her terror added strength to her tugs, and with him scrambling on the uneven plank wall and her pulling, they got him up beside her. There they huddled, clinging to the beam and shaking with fear. The
stink of the tannery protected them no longer. The trapdoor opened at the far end of the loft.

Anna sucked down a sob when they heard the first whispery soft words
—an Eika speaking a language they could not understand. A dog yipped and growled outside. As if in reply a human voice—below, from over by the puering pits—yelped in pain, then began screaming and pleading pointlessly and unintelligibly, screaming again until at last, mercifully, the screams cut off with a gurgle. Matthias bit his lip to keep from crying out. Anna's eyes filled with tears that slipped down her cheeks; she grasped the wooden Circle of Unity that hung on a leather cord at her thin chest—her mother's dying gift to her—and traced her finger around its smooth circle in silent prayer as she had seen her mother do many times, though this wordless prayer had not availed her mother against her final illness.

Footsteps shuddered on the rungs. A body scraped, half metal, half cloth, heaving itself up and over onto the loft floor. A man grunted, a human sound, curt and yet familiar in its humanity.

The Eika spoke again, this time in recognizable if broken Wendish. "How soon these is ready?"

"I will have to look them over." The man enunciated each word carefully. "Most likely all are ready if they've been here since
—" He broke off, then took a shuddering breath. Had he witnessed that killing just now, or only listened to it, as they had? "Since spring."

"I count, these," said the Eika. "Before you come, I count these skins. Less than I count come to me when they ready, I kill one slave for each skin less than I count. I start with you."

"I understand," said the man, but the children could not see him, could'only hear, and what emotion they heard in his voice they could not interpret.

"You bring to me when ready," said the Eika. The ladder creaked, and this time they recognized the slight chime of mail as the Eika left the loft and climbed back down, away, to wherever Eika went when they were not hunting and killing. Still the children clung there, praying the man would go away. But instead he moved slowly through the loft, jostling the hides, rubbing them, testing them. Counting them. A loose plank creaked under his foot. The quiet rustle of a hide sliding against another marked his progress, and the huff and stir of leather-sodden air in the dim room, spreading outward from his movements, shifted and swirled about them like the exhalation of approaching death, for discovery would indeed mean death.

Finally it was too much for Anna, who was three winters younger than Matthias. The sound got out of her throat, like a puppy's whimper, before she could gulp it back. The man's slow quiet movement ceased, but they still heard his breathing, ragged in the gloom.

"Who's there?" the man -whispered, then muttered a Lady's Blessing.

Anna set her lips together, squeezed her eyes shut, and wept silently, free hand clutching the Circle. Matthias groped for the knife at his belt, but he was afraid to pul! it out of its sheath, for even that slight noise would surely give them away.

"Who's there?" the man said again, and his voice shook as if he, too, were afraid.

Neither child dared answer. Finally, thank the Lady, he went away.

They waited a while and climbed down from the beam. "I have to pee," whimpered Anna as she wiped her nose. But they dared not leave the loft and yet, sooner or later, they would have to leave the loft or starve. She peed in the farthest darkest corner and hoped it would dry before anyone came back up. There were other chores for the new slaves in the tannery
—hides to be washed and hair and flesh scraped from them, new pits to be filled for puering or drenching, hides to be layered in with oak bark, saturated in the tannic acid, or, tanning completed, rinsed off and smoothed before drying. There were other lofts where hides waited, drying, in silent darkness, until they were ready for the currier. No reason anyone should come up here again this day.

But that evening they heard steps on the ladder. No time, this time, to scramble up on the beam. They huddled behind the far wall, wrapping themselves in a cow hide.

They heard, instead of words, the soft tap of something set down on wood. Then the trap closed and footsteps thumped down the ladder. After a bit Matthias ventured out.

"Anna! Quietly!" he whispered.

She crept out and found him weighing a hunk of goat's cheese in one hand and a dark, small, misshapen loaf of bread in the other. A rough-hewn wooden bowl sat empty beside the trap. She stared at these treasures fearfully. "If we eat it, then he'll know we're here."

Matthias broke off a piece of cheese, sniffed it, and popped it in his mouth. "We'll eat a bit now," he said. "What difference does it make? If we don't get out of here tonight, then they'll discover us sooner or later. We'll save the rest for after we've escaped."

She nodded. She knew when to argue, now, and when to remain silent because argument was pointless. He gave her a corner of cheese; it tasted salty and pungent. The bread was dry as plain oats, and its coarse texture made her thirsty. He divided the rest of the food into two portions and gave half to her. Both carried leather pouches, tied to their belts, for such gleanings as this. Such necessities the ruined city provided in plenty, taken from empty houses and shops or
—if valuable enough—pried from the dead. Water, clothing, knives or spoons or even an entire timbered house furnished with fine painted furniture and good linen, none of this they lacked; only food and safety.

They waited until no crack of light gleamed through the plank walls onto the warped floorboards, until gray shadow became indistinguishable from black. Then Matthias eased open the trap and slid over the edge as quietly as he could.

"Lady!"

A man, not Matthias, spoke. Anna froze. Matthias grunted and dropped to the ground.

"There now," said the man, "don't pull your knife on me. I won't hurt you. Lady Above, I didn't think any soul had survived in this charnel house. You're just a child."

"Old enough to be apprenticed," muttered Matthias, stung, as he always was, because this man's voice was like their uncle's and his taunt the same one. Only perhaps, Anna thought, this man had spoken with awed pity, not with contempt, when he called Matthias a child. She had a sudden rash intuition that this man could be trusted, unlike their uncle, and anyway, if Matthias was now caught, it was better to die with him than to struggle on in a fight she could never win alone. She swung her legs out and climbed quickly and quietly down the ladder.

Matthias swore at her under his breath. The man gasped aloud, then clapped a hand over his mouth and stared furtively around, but they remained alone. No one moved through the tanning grounds this late. The quarter moon lit them, and thin ghostly shadows cut the pits with strange patterns. Anna grabbed her brother's hand and held on tightly.

"Ai, Lady, and a younger one still," the man said at last. "I thought you was a cat. Are there more of you?"

"Only us two," said Matthias.

"Lord in Heaven. How did you survive?"

Matthias gestured toward the pits, then realized the man might not be able to see his movement. "There was food enough to be scrounged, until now. We hid here because the dogs couldn't smell us."

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