Authors: T C Southwell
Tags: #cat, #orphan, #ghost, #murderer, #thief, #haunted, #familiar, #eunuch
Sorrow invaded his heart with cold fingers, snuffed out his will
and rinsed away his life. Beyond the dark veil, Rivan's lingering
presence yearned for Conash to join him. He could not live without
his beast brother. He would not. He sensed his spirit shrivel,
withdraw, curl up in a dark corner. Part of him split away and
drifted off into the frigid darkness of despair. Desolation clamped
hard shackles of hatred around his heart.
his cheek, then gripped his hair and dragged him upright. A
different man squatted before him, a strong hand clamped around the
boy's neck. A cup rattled against his teeth, and water flooded his
mouth. Conash spat it out. The man threw the rest in Conash's face,
making him gasp in shock.
“So, you want
to die, huh?” the stranger asked. “That's not going to happen, boy.
You want to know why?”
not going to let you. I'm Sub Eagle Sharem, and I paid good silver
Conash did not
want to listen to anything the monster said. If he cast himself far
enough into the desolation, he could get lost in it forever. His
crotch hurt, but he did not care why. Many parts of him hurt.
Someone had probably kicked him while he was unconscious.
sand over the pool of vomit with his boot. He gripped Conash's hair
again, pulled back his head and pried open his mouth, pushing a
water skin’s spout into it. Conash turned his head away, and water
spurted onto the floor. When Sharem tried to pry his mouth open
again, Conash bit him, and he recoiled with growl.
animal.” Pushing aside the tent flap, he shouted, “You! Get in here
and give me a hand!”
entered the tent, and between them they forced the water skin spout
into the boy's mouth and filled it with water, but Conash refused
to swallow. Sharem squeezed the boy's throat, making him cough, and
he was forced to swallow or choke.
When the Cotti
officer had forced Conash to drink half the water, he left him
curled up on the floor. As soon as Sharem left, he vomited.
after a time-glass and cursed when he found the pool of watery
vomit. Once more, he employed the services of a soldier to force
water down Conash's throat, then squatted in front of him and
glared into his glazed eyes.
and eat boy. I won't let you die, no matter how hard you try, so
you might as well give up that idea, understand?”
up the water, and Sharem stood up with a curse. Shoving aside the
tent flap, he left, and Conash curled up on the floor. Many
time-glasses later, the officer returned and dumped a girl beside
Conash, who sat with her head bowed. Sharem dragged him upright,
slapping his face.
This is your sister, isn't it? I know it is. Look at her!” He shook
on the girl, and a hiss of surprise and despair escaped him.
“Good. You want me to hurt her? Hmm?”
“Then you'll do
as I say. You drink and eat what and when I tell you,
The boy nodded.
Sharem grunted, picked up the girl, and left.
out at the shimmering camp. The heat sapped him, made his legs
leaden and his head pound. A moon-phase had passed since the
Jashimari slaves had been brought to the camp, and the silence told
him that they were either trained or dead. He leant against the
tent wall and bowed his head, his hair hiding his face. He had
co-operated after the threat to his sister, and now wore a coarse
buff slave shirt and trousers. A slender chain encircled his neck,
with which he was shackled at night. Sharem had named him Runt.
drew Conash's attention, and he frowned at a group of men that
headed for a patch of sand in the middle of the camp. Sharem, who
lounged in the tent's shade, rose and stepped out into the sun,
gesturing for the boy to follow. Trudging after the growing throng,
the Cotti officer pushed through the soldiers to discover the
reason for the excitement.
girl stood in the centre of the circle, her long, tangled black
hair gleaming in the sun, her eyes downcast. Sweat beaded her brow
and ran down her cheeks, soaking the top of her a gauzy shift.
Conash's heart leapt into his throat, almost choking him. What were
they going to do to Ryana? She looked ill, her skin pallid and her
eyes sunken, and she swayed. He longed to run to her, but Sharem
would stop him.
A beefy sub
commander walked around the circle, holding a helmet in which a few
coppers rattled, soliciting money to pay for the sport. Soldiers
threw in more coppers, and the sub commander rattled the helmet at
the men until no more were willing to contribute. Conash almost
shouted Ryana's name as dread filled him. They were going to do
something horrible to her, he was sure. She was to be entertainment
for the crowd of coarse, leering Cotti soldiers. A strangled sound
escaped him, and Sharem glanced down at him and smiled.
stung with unshed tears. He had to save Ryana. He would not allow
the Cotti to torture her. Somehow, he had to stop them, although he
had no idea how, in a camp full of warriors. Turning to Sharem, he
tried to yank the chain from the Cotti’s grip, determined to reach
Ryana and comfort her, for she looked so frightened. Sharem hung on
and jerked back, and Conash sprawled. The men laughed as Sharem
dragged the boy back to his side, forcing him to kneel there.
Conash clawed at the chain, then punched Sharem, who slapped him,
knocking him down again, and dragged him back.
made derogatory comments that caused Sharem to scowl at them, and
they desisted. He might only be a junior officer, but he was an
officer nonetheless, with a water viper to prove it. A few more
jerks and another hard slap forced Conash into submission, his head
ringing from the blows. He knelt panting, his face twisted.
voice was thin and cracked, husky from disuse.
at him in surprise, and Ryana looked up. She ran towards Conash,
who held out his arms. A man stepped forward and scooped her up,
carrying her back to the centre of the circle. More laughter came
from the ranks. The sub commander emptied his helmet into his purse
and donned the helm. Ryana's captor stood beside her, holding her
arm. The officer signalled for the man to let her go, and she tried
to dash past him. He slapped her down, then dragged her back and
placed her on her feet once more.
She shook her
head, tears running down her face. He cuffed her, and she
“Dance, or I
whip you. Dance!”
Conash leapt to
his feet and lunged to the end of the chain, straining at it.
“Leave her alone! Ryana!”
him back, and the soldiers laughed. Conash kicked Sharem and clawed
at the chain until the Cotti clubbed him to the ground. He panted,
his head pounded from the blows, and the bright scene swam in his
eyes. Ryana gazed at him, her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide.
The officer cuffed her.
clapped and jeered, and Ryana shuffled her feet. The Cotti officer
slapped her harder, making her cower.
“Dance like a
her arms and swayed. The men clapped and cheered. Tears ran down
her cheeks, and the sun reddened her skin. Conash made a strangled
sound, stifling another bellow of outrage. The officer lifted his
hands and clapped, goading the girl to greater efforts. She made a
clumsy turn, waving her hands. He kicked her, sending her rolling,
and Conash lunged to the end of the chain again.
her alone, you Cotti pig!”
the boy back and punched him, making him curl up with a groan,
clutching his stomach. Ryana shrieked and ran towards him, but the
officer caught her and flung her back, repeating his order.
Rising to her
feet, the cowering girl spread her arms and swayed, shuffling. The
officer smacked her, and she performed a clumsy skip and waved her
arms. Sweat dripped from her chin and mingled with her tears. The
officer clapped and skipped, grinning, and the men cheered.
drooped and her eyes glazed with fatigue. She resembled one of the
delicate clay dolls the village potter used to fire in his kiln and
paint with pale skin and large dark eyes. Conash knew she would die
if she did not stop. She needed water and rest. His mother would
have wrapped her in soft sheets and sat by her side night and day,
placing cool damp cloths on her brow, as she had done for Conash so
many times. Why did she have a fever now? She was just a baby, and
already weak. They had probably starved and beaten her, and he
longed to save her. What was left of his heart turned cold and hard
as tears ran down his cheeks. He could not save her.
in the hot sand, which burnt her bare feet just as it did his. The
Cotti officer stepped closer and yanked the shift off over her
head. She stopped and covered her face as the men shouted ribald
encouragement. Dreal slapped her and repeated his order once more.
She stumbled around, her feet dragging, then turned to him and held
out her hands in supplication. The officer slapped them away and
turned his back on her.
Conash to lunge towards her, trying to jerk the chain from Sharem's
hands. If he could reach her, he would impose himself between her
and her torturer. He did not care if they beat him to death. The
chain brought him down with a grunt, gouging his throat. He tried
to tug it off over his head, and Sharem dragged him back,
bellowed, his voice cracking.
Conash turned to him. “Please save her! Please!”
dead, stupid boy. She has the fever.”
collapsed, and the officer walked closer to kick her, then turned
away with a snort.
was a lump of despair and fury. Sharem chuckled and jerked the
chain as the men dispersed, clearly eager to return to the tents'
shade now that the entertainment was over.
up at him, making no effort to hide his feelings. If he could, he
would kill the sneering Cotti, and all those who had laughed at
Ryana's pain. He hated them more than he would have thought
possible, and it consumed him. Sharem dragged him back to the tent
and flopped down in his chair to sip his wine.
at Conash, who walked beside him, and gave the chain a tug that
made him stumble. The sunset's fading glow softened the endless
dunes with ruddy light, making it resemble an ocean of blood.
Conash’s hair hung below his shoulders now, and he had sprouted and
filled out in the last two years, although he remained thin. Sharem
had dressed him a ragged gown, and Conash knew what lay in store.
Undoubtedly it was intended to humiliate him, and they would laugh
and mock him, as they always did. It did not matter, however, for
he no longer cared. His heart was dead, and all that remained was a
dull, dispassionate existence. Nothing could hurt him anymore.
Conash into the light of the fire that roared in the centre of
camp. Soldiers surrounded it, talking and drinking, some chewing
meat roasted on the cook fires. Several long-haired slave boys of
varying degrees of prettiness stood beside their owners, clad in
ragged dresses. Sharem evidently wanted his slave boy to win the
competition again. Some men called vulgar comments as Sharem tugged
Conash into the light, others whistled and clapped. Sharem led the
boy around the circle, and soldiers stepped closer to stroke his
hair or pat his cheek, laughing.
The other boys
also did the rounds, and soldiers slapped or pinched their bottoms
and pulled their hair. Sharem completed his circuit, ensuring that
all the men had a good look at the boy before he sat down. A
drunken soldier tried to kiss Conash, who turned his face away with
a grimace of disgust. It brought a roar of derision from the crowd,
and the man recoiled and slapped the boy, sending him sprawling
with a ringing ear.
“He's not a
girl!” Sharem shouted, then chuckled. “Although you'd be forgiven
for thinking that!”
The man beside
Sharem nudged him. “I'll bet you could prank someone with him.
Imagine his disgust!”
guffawed. “And then his anger! He'd probably kill the boy.”
stood up and raised his hands. “All right, time to vote! Who's the
prettiest Jashimari here?” He pointed at a red-haired boy. “That
A few men
cheered, but most booed or hissed. The commander pointed at another
boy. “That one?” Again, the boy got more boos than cheers. The
commander pointed at each boy in turn, and selected Conash second
to last. The crowd roared when he did so, and he raised his arms to
silence them, then pointed at the last youth, who only got boos.
The commander gestured at Conash, who stood with his head
“That one it is
then. Sub-Eagle Sharem wins a jug of wine!”
Sharem rose to
collect his prize, dragged Conash to his side and forced him to
sit. The crowd settled down to talk and drink, and grew rowdier as
the evening progressed. Just as Conash hoped Sharem was considering
retiring to his tent, the owner of one of the other boys stood up
and shouted a challenge.
“Your girl may
be the prettiest, but can she fight?”
“I'll wager she can beat your snivelling girl.”