The ring of eman vath, p.34
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.34

           Hal Emerson

  * * *

  The Prince woke to a dull ache in his head and too bright of a light shining on his closed eyelids. He rolled over to hide his face – and rolled right off the bed onto a rough wooden floor with a painful thump.

  His eyes sprang open, and he immediately regretted it. Breath hissed into his lungs, cold and crisp, as a lancing stab of pain shot from his eyes to the back of his head, down the length of his spine and all the way to the soles of his feet, before returning to pound like a mad carpenter on his closed eyelids. The sensation made him shudder and gasp like a drunk doused in a bucket of ice water.

  “Good morning!”

  The voice that called to him was very deep, and as it entered through his ear it paused to rattle around the inside of his head a bit, before abruptly leaving through his clenched teeth. It was a thoroughly unpleasant sensation.

  “I would offer you breakfast,” the voice went on to say, the Prince moaning as the deep rumbling quality of it continued to twist into his skull like a rusty screw, “but dillixi venom does not react well to food. And when I say does not react well, I mean you’d start vomiting all over me and then die. Highly unpleasant for me at least, whatever you may think.”

  The Prince finally managed to get his eyes open, and he tried madly to find the source of the voice. For that matter, he also tried to find his own voice, which seemed to have gotten stuck somewhere around his stomach and wouldn’t come out of his mouth no matter how hard he tried to force it.

  The first thing he noticed was the floor, because his nose was pressed up against it: it was made of rough-hewn planks of wood, fitted poorly together and warped by the elements into curving, twisted lines. He managed to raise his head slightly, despite a nasty throbbing ache in the back of his neck, and saw that the wall, barely a foot in front of him, was in the same state; indeed, it was so warped that he could see brief flashes of colors from outside, though his eyes wouldn’t focus enough to allow him to discern definite shapes.

  “Here,” said the voice. An enormous hand descended on the Prince and yanked him into the air. His stomach twisted violently and he was almost sick as the hand deposited him unceremoniously into a rickety wooden chair. The world finally stopped spinning, and the Prince gaped at what he saw in front of him.

  The man whose voice he had heard was no man but a giant – that was the only way to describe him. Swallowing noisily, the Prince tilted his head back to look up into the man’s face, which was broad and rough with a square, well-kept black beard that was so thick it almost looked like an extension of his chin. The man was so tall that his head nearly scraped the ceiling of the small wooden shack; the Prince was no stranger to giants - he’d been surrounded by Guardians, the elite fighting force of the Empire, since his infancy, all of whom were no less than seven feet tall – but this man would have towered over even them. His clothes were simple, made of brown, gray, and green cotton, though they seemed to fit him oddly, and he looked strangely bulky in places. The long sleeves and pants were worn at the cuffs, and the man’s boots – enormous leather affairs that looked as if they could have been made of the entire side of a cow – were old and well broken in.

  The Prince, who had never seen such a sight in his life, couldn’t make any sense of it, and for a brief moment began to question his sanity. But the strangest thing wasn’t finding a towering hulk of a wild man holding him captive in a shack. The strangest thing was that this towering hulk of a wild man who was holding him captive in a shack was bustling around a makeshift kitchen brewing tea.

  At that same moment, the Prince also realized that his heavy palace robes had been removed, and he was now dressed in his simple linen under-tunic and a pair of heavy brown pants he’d never seen before.

  “Who are you?” the Prince managed to croak out, finally finding his voice. “And where are my clothes?”

  The behemoth of a man ignored him, and instead reached over and placed a small tin cup full of some steaming liquid in front of him.

  “Drink it,” he growled, his voice deep and implacable as a rushing avalanche. The implication seemed to be that if the Prince did not drink, drinking would be thrust upon him. So, the Prince reached for the cup and downed the liquid contents in a single, long draught, his head still fuzzed and he unable to decide whether this was all a dream. His memories were only splintered impressions of sights and sounds that helped him not at all in deciphering where he was or how he’d come to be there.

  As the liquid hit his throat, it began to burn, causing him to gasp and choke. The feeling of pins and needles being pushed into his skin burst into life at the tips of his fingers and toes before the sharp, stabbing sensation behind his eyes gave one final parting throb and all the pains disappeared together. The man chuckled as the Prince continued to cough and sputter, and he reached over with an arm as thick around as the Prince’s entire torso and thumped him on the back, nearly knocking him off the chair and onto the ground.

  “Good, right? Dillixi venom - sorry you had to go through a bout with that nastiness. But hey, you get to drink spirits to clear it out of you. Strange, don’t you think? That a venom can be purged by alcohol mixed with mint and ginger tea...”

  The Prince recoiled, knocking over the chair as he retreated toward the bed where he had awoken.

  “How - how dare you touch me?” the Prince choked out.

  The big man rolled his eyes and turned back to the makeshift stove, where sat roasting what looked like the entire leg of some unfortunate animal. The Prince took the opportunity to look around the shack while the man’s back was turned.

  It was small, barely large enough to fit the wooden table, the metal stove, and the large bed. It had only a single door, which was hanging precariously from a single hinge beyond the giant man. The coal and clockwork pieces that would normally power the stove were missing, and it was instead powered by what looked like the most rudimentary of energy sources: a wood fire. There was a large pack in the corner that had a roll of some kind of fabric and two large bulging things that looked to be made of animal skin attached to it.

  But what drew the Prince’s eye was the enormous sheathed sword propped carelessly against the stove. It was a sword the size of which even a Guardian of the Fortress would have had trouble wielding, the biggest greatsword the Prince had ever seen.

  The sight of the blade seemed to flip a switch in the Prince’s head, and suddenly his memories caught up with him. In a flash he remembered his kidnapping in the Fortress, and the attempt on his life.

  “It was you! You kidnapped me!” he shouted at the giant. His hands balled into fists as he dropped into a defensive stance.

  The big man didn’t even look up as he responded, but kept right on cooking, turning the leg to brown the other side as he packed away the metal canister he’d used to brew the tea.

  “Not originally,” he rumbled, vibrating the very walls with his voice, “but yes. Now I have. Because judging by those marks on your and shoulders and back,” he motioned without looking to the Talisman markings visible beneath the Prince’s loose tunic, “you’ve been marked as a potential Bloodmage, maybe even begun the training. And yet here you are, far from Lucien. That’s of interest to me.”

  The giant took a poker and broke up the fire before turning to look the Prince in the face – just as the single wooden door was flung open so quickly it almost fell off its single rusted hinge. A shaft of oddly colored light pierced the gloom of the cabin as a young woman rushed in; she had light olive skin and midnight black hair and wore the same simple browns, greens and grays that the giant wore.

  As she entered, her eyes, bright green, flew to the Prince, took in his appearance in one swift glance that missed nothing, and hissed like a cat flung into a tub of water.

  The Prince took in her appearance just as quickly, and suddenly all of the pieces fit together. Who else would kidnap one of the Children from the Fortress? Who else would have the audacity to do something of that magnitude in defiance of the Empress, t
he proper ruler of all of Lucia?

  “Exiled Kindred!” hissed the Prince, recoiling. Again, his hand dropped automatically to his side, though his sword was still missing. Shadows and Light curse them all! He needed to find a weapon!

  “Bloodmage!” snarled the girl, having caught sight of the black markings under his tunic. In a flash of movement, two remarkably long, curved daggers appeared in her hands, and she launched herself at him.

  “Peace!” roared the mountain of a man. He caught the young woman around the waist and threw her back across the room, where she landed with the nimble grace of an acrobat, daggers still held menacingly.

  “He is not to be harmed, Eshendai – he is not a danger to us!”

  The Prince’s ears perked up at the strange word. The way he’d said it didn’t sound like a name – a title perhaps? He filed it away in his mind to deal with later. His eyes never left the twin daggers, following every small twitch of movement as the Exile girl paced back and forth across the opposite side of the small cabin. The blades themselves were beautifully smithed, over a foot long and three fingers wide. From the way they gleamed in the light and the casual tension with which the girl held them, the Prince had a sneaking suspicion they were well used.

  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw a glimmer of light flash through a crack in the wall of the wooden shack and another piece of the puzzle clicked into place as he realized with a shock that the light streaming through the door couldn’t be artificial. The color was off and the angle was all wrong … it was coming from the sky.

  How far away from the Fortress am I?

  No matter – he would have time to wonder about his whereabouts after he’d freed himself from the hold of his captors. The girl stood in front of the door - he had to get past her and out. The Prince feinted left, then rolled under the table, as the two Exiles moved to follow him with cries of alarm. As he emerged on the other side, there was a sharp whisk! sound, and the Prince dodged just fast enough to feel the air from one of the girl’s daggers ruffle his hair. The door was there –

  The Prince was pulled straight off his feet into the air and flung back across the room to land on the pile of blankets upon which he’d woken. He spun to his feet once more, only to find the girl’s second dagger pressed against his throat. How had she crossed the room so quickly?

  “Do it, Exile!” taunted the Prince. “It would be just like you to kill an unarmed man.”

  Her eyes flashed with rage, haunting green eyes that watched him with hatred and contempt, and he could see her desire to end his life. But the dagger remained completely steady and unwavering, neither cutting into the flesh nor pulling back.

  “Remember your oath, Eshendai,” the big man said slowly and firmly. He seemed to sense her desire to kill as well. The Prince remained silent, staring at her with arrogant defiance.

  “We are not to kill innocents, not to kill victims of the Empire’s injustice.”

  “This is not an innocent!” the girl responded through clenched teeth. “This is one of the Empress’ Bloodmages! This is not even a man, it’s an animal!”

  “He’s barely older than you, if at all,” the man pointed out calmly, “and it takes years of training to become a Bloodmage. If anything, he is barely a novice. But that’s irrelevant; I know that he is not part of the Empire. I found him unconscious, left to die from his wounds by a group of the Empress’ men at the bottom of the mountains. He’d been beaten, severely; several ribs were broken and he had been concussed – ”

  “You mean you’ve had him ever since I left?”

  The Prince felt a chill go up his back. What? But that’s impossible; his Mother’s soldiers would never even dare to –

  The memories of the events since he’d been attacked in the Fortress rolled through his head in a rush that made his ears rings. The soldiers who had left him to die by the stream, they had been dressed in uniforms of the Empire … no, it was a ruse. They had to be traitors; it was easy enough to change clothing. He felt his anger rise. Did they truly think he’d fall for a trick like that?

  “I’ve seen markings like those before, Tomaz, and he’s a Bloodmage, old enough for it or not! And if he’d been beaten like you say, he has healed remarkably well.”

  The Prince had seen and heard enough. He was the rightful son of the Empress, and these Exiles were nothing. It was time to put an end to this farce.

  “I am not a Bloodmage,” spat the Prince, silencing the two of them, “I am the Prince of Ravens, Child of the Empress, Seventh Son of the Diamond Throne – and you will release me, now!”

  Silence fell. For a moment there was no reaction, the two Exiles staring incredulously at the Prince. And then their eyes grew wide and the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees as they saw the truth of the statement in his eyes. The muscles in their bodies became tense and ready, as if he would at any second leap forward, shooting fire from his eyes and cursing them into a thousand pieces. The Prince allowed himself a small smile at the pleasure of knowing the name of one of the Children still struck fear into the hearts of the Empire’s enemies.

  “Release me,” said the Prince, his voice snapping out like a whip.

  The girl took an involuntary step back, watching him with superstitious horror and awe. But the big man shook his head like a bear dislodging an annoying fly, and the Prince watched with surprise as he stepped forward, lifted the greatsword from where it had been resting, unsheathed it, and pointed it directly at the Prince’s heart.

  “Do not lie to us,” he said. The Prince looked from the bared sword up into the man’s eyes. No, not eyes – dark black chips of stone. Staring into those eyes, the Prince felt a strange sense of uneasiness.

  “I am not lying,” he said calmly. Slowly, very slowly so as not to frighten the Exile and make him do something stupid, the Prince took a step forward. He held the man’s gaze with his eyes as he had seen Symanta do when she was reading someone, watching for the slightest hint of emotion. The man began to relax, and the Prince was certain he had won.

  But then the man shook his head once more and actually stepped forward to rest the point of his blade against the Prince’s chest.

  “Stay where you are,” he rumbled.

  “We need to leave,” the girl said. “We need to leave now!”

  “No,” the big man said. “No, something is not right here.”

  “He’s a Child of the Empress, Tomaz, shadows and fire, he’s the Prince of Ravens! Those markings are the Talisman of Death! If he’s here, the Empire is not far behind!”

  She moved toward the door, panic and terror clear in both her voice and her manner, but the big man remained still. The Prince locked eyes with him again. There was something strange in the depths of the black chips of stone. This was a hard man, the Prince could tell, hard by nature but hardened by a life of exile, a life lived in the shadows. As he watched, the big man’s eyes seemed to light up as he contemplated the Prince, and small bits of fire and life sprang into being where there was nothing but coldness before.

  The moment passed, and the big man took a deep, calming breath, then spoke.

  “I found him in a clearing at the far end of the mountains. He was lying on the ground with only the barest hint of a pulse - I almost didn’t check. That was nearly a week ago, the day after you left.”

  The girl stopped in the doorway, then slowly turned back to face the man, and the Prince could tell her mind was suddenly working very quickly. She looked at the Prince – and not just at his face, but at his clothing as well, his chafed wrists, his dirty hair. Her eyes roved over him, from head to toe, and the Prince had the distinct impression the girl was cataloging every detail of his appearance. Her demeanor changed completely. She stopped backing toward the door and instead took a few steps toward the two of them, her fear evaporating like an early morning mist.

  “What do you see?” the big man asked her slowly, almost ritualistically.

  “His shirt,” she responded immediately
. “It’s certainly finer linen than most of what even the Most High would wear, but it’s torn and dirty. His face is dirty – there’s dirt in his hair, too. His wrists look as though they were recently bound together with a rough material. He’s favoring his left side, but only slightly, so the ribs you said were broken have healed, implicating accelerated healing time that could come from a number of different blood practices.” She looked over at the big man. “How many times have you seen the Children?”

  “More than I’d like to remember,” the man, Tomaz, responded darkly, “and more than once up close in person.”

  The Prince’s head jerked to him in surprise.

  “Have you ever seen this one?”

  “No,” said the big man, “but he was born after my time.”

  “Have you ever seen one of them looking anything less than immaculate, though?”

  The big man shook his head, his bearded face drawn in concentration.

  “You said he was left over a week ago? There’s been no activity here, not even the hint of a whispered breath. Have you seen anything?”

  “No,” the big man said as if that settled matters. A look passed between them.

  The Prince looked down and realized they were correct: the clothing he was wearing was ripped and torn where he’d been bound and thrown to the ground. There was also the mud and sweat stains from the journey he could barely remember.

  “He was brought here against his will,” she said. She was reexamining him quickly, glancing again at his wrists, his clothing, his bare feet. Her voice was coming quick and breathless now. The Prince had the sudden feeling he was on an examination table. “He was in a struggle – against a group I would guess. He certainly put up a fight – those rips in his elbows are from escaping their grip … wait a minute, what’s that on his … ”

  She let out a gasp.

  “Hold him!”

  Immediately the big man sheathed his sword and grabbed the Prince, who, despite his years of physical training, was no match for such overwhelming strength and size. Before he could resist, Tomaz had wrapped a single arm through both of the Prince’s and placed his other hand on the back of the Prince’s head, rendering him completely immobile.

  “What are you doing – stop this! I’m the Prince of Ravens! Do you not understand that?!”

  The man shifted and the second large hand covered his mouth.

  “Quiet for a minute, Prince … ” started the man before tapering off. There was a jerk and the Prince assumed it was Tomaz looking up at the girl.

  “I can’t say his name.”

  The girl opened her mouth, but only a small noise of surprise escaped.

  The Prince felt heat flood his cheeks in embarrassment and shame at being handled in such a way. He stopped struggling and tried to strike up an air of dignified silence, attempting to appear as though he was indifferent to his plight, though as his face was slowly becoming tight and hot from lack of circulation, he was fairly certain it wasn’t working. The girl stepped up to him, and for the first time he was able to take a good look at her, and was surprised to find she was not a girl at all but a young woman, at least his age. Her eyes were boring a hole through a spot on his neck.

  When she was barely a step away, she reached up with her dagger and slashed the skin. The Prince drew a sharp breath, but the cut was shallow. She reached out and pulled something from his skin with a sharp tug. The Prince just managed to suppress a groan and even kept his body from tensing, though whatever it was she had removed had hurt like a kreoling.

  His eyes slowly focused on what the Exile held in her hand. It was a small three-pronged dart, made of steel with blackened tips. The end was rounded and meant to slide beneath the skin on impact. She held it up to her eyes.

  “The tips are hollow – and it’s barbed.”

  She looked up and the Prince felt the big man’s head shift so they could exchange a glance.

  “He showed all the signs of dillixi poisoning,” the mountain of a man rumbled, “but there was a puncture wound - ”

  “I see it,” the girl confirmed. “He must have been drugged again after they arrived. The skin here has only partially healed, so the dart must have come first.”

  “It makes sense he was captured by surprise, and then taken to where I found him. Where was he supposed to be delivered?”

  “All of that on top of his name being taken away...”

  “Death Watch,” finished the big man. The girl looked at the Prince and considered him for a long time. Fear and curiosity were warring in her eyes … but slowly the fear died away, and when it was gone completely, her lips began to slowly move into a smirk, her wide, green eyes making her look almost demonic.

  “If you were the Prince of Ravens,” she said, “then it looks like you aren’t anymore.”

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