Tribute, p.2
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       Tribute, p.2
 

           L. D. Dailey
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eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Khrys remained patient, allowing her to work through the answer at her own pace. Intercession, regardless of intent or logic, always led to further denial with the petite woman who cradled his heart.

  She nodded. "I believe you. By the goddess, I believe you." She frowned. "Father won’t help. I already embarrass him too much." She clenched Khrys’ hands and gazed up into his eyes.

  The squire backed away, wary, recognizing that troublesome stare, "What-?"

  "Priestesses vow never to wed, bed a man, or birth children, just as Marrinae lived. If I were to," blushing cheeks hinted at embarrassment, "consummate our union-"

  Oathbreaker

  Time flowed, unmemorable and Khrys marveled at his current predicament, kneeling before the Alter of the Three, hands entwined with Celine’s as a drunk Shaman of Haldaorf muttered a prayer through a wine-soaked beard behind them. Chant complete, Celine began the ritual exchanging of vows, guiltlessly beseeching the idol of Marrinae for her blessing. Candlelight danced across the impassive knight’s face. Her visage seemed displeased with head bent toward the grounded sword her palms rested on.

  Supplication complete, Celine’s lithe figure turned toward Khrys and the squire’s throat constricted. Which god should he pray too? Most beseeched the Warrior, a barbarian from the northern isles shouting defiance to the heavens with clenched fists, and a gargantuan broadsword sheathed on his back. However, his gaze drifted to the Nameless One, the hooded conqueror vilified for dishonoring both heroes. His feet shuffled toward the god of his master. The priest groaned in disapproval, but his peripheral spied a confident smile from Celine, melting his apprehension. "Nameless One," he whispered, "Help me protect her. I don’t know how this is done, but I love her."

  "There she is," someone barked from behind, "Alert Sir Bohl." Khrys spun and confronted a trio of guards. One bowed toward the holy man, "Pardon’s servant of Haldaorf. Perfunctionary Cedric Bohl ordered the guard to find his daughter and bring her back to the temple."

  Anger spurred Khrys’ feet forward. He unsheathed his sword. "You will not touch my wife."

  "Wife?" A short aristocrat stepped into the temple with azure boots. Matching hose and doublet completed the ensemble as Perfunctionary Cedric Bohl studied the newlyweds. "I think not. Stand aside, boy- Ah," recognition widened his chestnut eyes. "The peasant whose defiance attracted my disgraceful heir’s notice." More guards flanked him as he continued. "You do realize how flighty she is. Irresponsible. Lazy! She’ll play with you and toss you aside when you begin to bore her."

  Celine whimpered and seized Khrys’ back. Khrys hunted for words and found none. The kettle-bellied spiritualist saved him with a meaty finger wagging at the intruders, his wine-soaked beard bristling with indignation, "They spoke the words in this holy house! Honor their vows or the gods will destroy you."

  "Holy?" Cedric gaged the conical temple with darkened recesses, the crude pews facing a raised altar adorned with axe, sword, shield, and helmet. "I own pigs that rut in comelier places. Tell me, holy man. Did you know that you just married the High Priestess of Marrinae to a homeless fisherman? No? I assume I’ll have your discretion in this manner? Ah, good." Cedric’s perfect bow mocked the deflated priest.

  Khrys wracked his brain for an escape and settled on diplomacy, sheathing his weapon. "The ceremony will kill her, my lord. The Old Gods-"

  "Yes, yes. Superstitious, down-country nonsense. The Halfman was right- about you and her. I will pay dearly for this night." Cedric retreated. "Take her. Kill the boy if he resists."

  Six men formed a tightening semi-circle as they surrounded the newlyweds. Celine prayed behind him as the couple retreated to the dais. The priestess’ prayer reached a crescendo as Khrys’ shoulders warmed from a strange heat. "She is still with me, husband. Truly, our union is blessed. Close your eyes." Men screamed. Heat radiated around the squire and disappeared in an instant. "Now, Khrys!"

  The squire opened his eyes, unsheathed his sword, and charged blinded guardsmen. He sliced open the throat of one whose flabby physique strained the bonds of his jerkin and moved to dispatch a wiry youth on his knees. Two guardsmen swung blindly at one another. Khrys gutted them both and six became two.

  Drunk off victory, he assaulted the last of them, scoring a glancing blow across the armored chest of a hulking brute as a lithe soldier regained his vision and darted away to flank his partner. "Run, Celine." But where? "To the Nameless Tower." Would his lord defend them? Doubtful, but where else could he turn? Celine fled and Khrys marveled. He was married. Married!

  The guards disengaged and gave chase. "No!" Khrys raced after them. "Cowards. Fight me!" He raced out of the temple. Something cold and hard stuck his face, knocking him to the ground. He struggled to his feet, but crippling pain sapped his strength.

  "Stay down, son," a familiar voice, pitiless as the mountains, ordered, "I don’t want to hurt you."

  "Celine." The words felt clumsy. Something was broken. Stubbornness forced him to his knees, but hopelessness deflated his strength. The Black Eunuch stood in the distance, manicured fingers gripping his wife’s arm. Dozens of guards fringed the gathering. He found Celine’s eyes, and despaired at the tears raining down her perfect face.

  Anger stoked a fire from within. Gasps escaped from the gathering as he wobbled to his feet, sword at the ready. "I’ll kill you all." The words sounded undecipherable, but drawn steel echoed throughout the gathering.

  Footfalls soft as the night encroached from behind. With a mighty shout, the squire faced his first opponent, and froze as Lord Vinograd approached, "I told you to stay down, son." He backhanded Khrys across his injured jaw. The agony buckled his knees. The darkness enveloped him.

  Accursed Anointing

  Khrys awoke from dreamless sleep to an autumn sunset dancing atop the distant coastline as a lazy breeze stirred silk drapes. Curtains? Throbbing pricked his jaw. His hand found a crude bandage fastened atop the wound.

  "Leave it be," Lord Vinograd instructed from afar. "The poultice will heal the fractures."

  Khrys rolled onto his stomach, too weak to rise, despair a bleak weight on his back. Peripherals spied his master fumbling within the wine cabinet. His dry mouth sighed, a sickening mixture of relief and shame. His lord saved him from the dungeons, yet a part of him preferred imprisonment to witnessing the displeasure from his savior.

  Celine. He still wanted to save her, despite everything. Nightmares of Celine murdered by the eunuch beneath a palpable darkness waiting to feast on her bloody corpse screamed in his mind. I have to rescue her. Resolve strengthened dead limbs as Khrys rose to his knees.

  Khrys’ master approached, wearing a dark mantle. He took residence in a cushioned seat. Disfigured hands placed a pair of wineglasses filled with a murky vintage on the table. Foreign eyes considered him. "What am I to do with you, my little fool?" The Dread Lord raised one of the glasses and sipped. "So, you wanted to save this priestess, oath bound, from honoring her oath?

  "You save her, by breaking the law.

  "You save her, by forcing her to marry a man with nothing.

  "Yet you expect this oathbreaker to honor her vow to you? Curious."

  Khrys nodded, humiliated, insignificant before Borislav’s piecing gaze. His thighs screamed in revolt as he stood, but the squire refused to face judgment on his knees.

  Borislav’s arrogant mouth curved in the barest semblance of approval. "You want to save a life, to live honorably, to be strong in the face of adversity?"

  "Yes," Khrys croaked before clearing his throat, "Yes. I- want- to save a life. I accept my fate, but I want to ask for your-"

  A raised hand forestalled him. "A Dreadknight endures whatever is necessary to accomplish the mission."

  "But I’m not a Dreadknight, master." Shame lowered his eyes. "I’m not even a good squire."

  "And yet you prayed to the Nameless One." The Dread Lord eased a second glass toward Khrys.

  Khrys recalled that impulsive decision wi
th confusion. What does that have to- and how did he know! Khrys stared at the drink with fear as a shiver tingled along his spine. Eyes rose to meet Borislav’s gaze, pitiless, detached. You want to be strong in the face of adversity… Unsteady hands reached for the glass.

  Borislav warned with a raised finger. "Do not spill a drop. Drink it all."

  The first sip tasted of ashes and death. A fetid aftertaste as it burned his throat. Disgusted, he set the glass down and consumed deep breaths to prepare for another swallow. He squinted as a dull throb beat a melody behind his eyes, distorting vision. Muscles spasms raced down back and legs, crippling, debilitating. Then true pain assaulted him, buckling his knees as fire boiled his blood. He tried to scream, but toxins squeezed the air from his lungs.

  A blurred shadow approached. "Your first lesson. Pain." The voice echoed from a distance. Fire clenched his bowels, shredding memory as the voice continued. "You asked for help. But what you truly wished for was power. Power could have saved your family. You hate weakness. You hate yourself. The Nameless One knows this and will grant you this boon… for a price."

  Darkness invaded the fringes of Khrys’ vision. The pain so excruciating that his body sought death as a release.

  "But," the shadow chided, "the transaction remains incomplete."

  "I," tears burned his flesh, "hurt."

  "You must bathe in it, befriend it, master
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