Dragon Blood

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1 - TISALA IN ESTIAN

It takes many years of hard work and dedication to produce a competent torturer. Young men just don't want to take the time to learn the craft.

-  Lioth of Edelbreck, Royal Torturer

"It's just like skinning a rabbit," the old man said to his grandson. There was strength in his grip that belied the age on his face as his sharp knife removed another sliver of flesh from Tisala's finger.

"I've never skinned a rabbit alive." The boy looked ill, like a newly blooded recruit, thought Tisala.

The old man lost all patience with him. "Don't be an idiot. Now watch."

The next move of the knife forced Tisala's attention back to her body. Eventually she would tell the old man what he wanted to know, but if she could wait long enough, they could trust none of what she said. But she'd only been there something under two days and already her body ached and her mind flinched away from what had been done to her.

"What do you know about Alizon's rabble, little girl? Tell me and I can quit hurting you," he crooned as his knife worked its magic. "I don't like hurting little girls, but you are hiding something our king needs to know. A brother shouldn't try to hurt his own kin. What Alizon is doing is wrong and you know it. All you need to do is tell me who's helping him and I can stop."

She didn't fear death, not even death by torture. Death was a constant companion in the battlefield, as often a friend as an enemy. Betrayal, though, betrayal was truly frightening. Best she die fast, before she could hurt someone she cared about. She'd bide her time and see if she could use her tongue as a goad to make the torturer slip. Someone had once told her that her tongue was her most formidable weapon, and it was one they hadn't taken from her.

"How can you do this all day?" asked the boy passionately. "Grandfather, cannot the mages make a person talk?"

The old man snorted. "The mages can make a person say anything the mages want him to, but they can't get real information from magic. Good information comes only from men like me. We save lives on the battlefield, give our king his victories."

"Why are you doing this one here, instead of in the castle?" Bravado, not curiosity, sparked his question. Tisala could tell that he knew the answer already.

"For secrecy." The old man's voice trembled, betrayed by age.

The boy sneered. "Because if his precious nobles knew what we did here to a noble woman, they'd join Alizon's rebellion. Torturing a weak woman is filthy work, unworthy of the king's torturer. He'll get rid of you, too, Grandfather, when you're done here."

Quite likely, thought Tisala.

"I do what I am told, boy. I am the king's man." The old man was so agitated, he slipped with the knife and blood cascaded down her arm and over his hand.

The boy looked at the mess, swallowed hard, then turned and ran, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him, leaving the old man distracted from his work, cursing the mother that raised her boy to be weak and foolish.

Tisala almost couldn't believe the old master was so stupid, but he continued to look at the door with the knife in his blood-slick grip - so near to her hand, held only by his inattentive clasp. Tisala never waited for second chances.

She twisted her wrist, breaking his grip, and then drove her shoulder forward. She caught the hand that held the knife and used it to slice the old man's throat.

Tied to the bench she lay on, she couldn't slow the old man's body down as it fell, nor move out of the way of the blood gushing from his ruined throat. But she held on to his hand with her own, damaged and bleeding though it was. Once the body hung limply, she slowly shifted her grip from his hand to the knife.

For a terrible moment, she thought the knife was going to slip from her weak grasp, and she'd be stuck tied to the table. But when the old man's arm slid away, the knife was still clutched desperately in her hand.

The knife, small but sharp, cut through the ropes as easily as it had sliced through her skin. Her body moved sluggishly, stiff from being tied too long, and weak from shock and the indignities visited upon it. She ignored her aches as best she could, and she found a bit of rag to wrap around her hand.

No one ran in to investigate the sound the body had made. Hope rose a notch higher as Tisala weighed her chances.

The boy had said they were not in the castle, but she knew better than to trust anything she heard in a place like this. Still, if it were not true, then she might as well slit her own throat now. She was hardly in any shape to walk unnoticed through the royal halls. Maybe the boy had been right.

The hope of escape made her fumble with the crude bandaging on her hand.

Where could she go? She had to make the right decisions but her thoughts flowed like mud.

She had friends here in Estian who would hide her.

If someone followed her tracks through the city - very possible in the condition she was in - she would be sentencing her friends to death.

She couldn't afford to run home to Callis in Oranstone on her own. If she went home now, she'd be signing her father's death warrant. Their public estrangement, ostensibly because she was tired of her father abiding by his oaths of loyalty to the king, was the only thing that kept her father out of Jakoven's cells. If he saw what Jakoven's man had done to her, he'd start a war on his own - and the time was not right yet.

She pulled herself back to the immediate situation. Think, Tisala, think. Five Kingdoms under Jakoven's rule, surely there is someplace to hide.

Outside of the city, Tallven was firmly in the hands of the High King Jakoven, whose family name it bore. Tallven was all grasslands, no mountains to hide in. To the south was Oranstone, where she couldn't go because of her father.

East was Avinhelle, and she had acquaintances there, but four years ago Avinhellish lords had conspired to betray the Kingdoms. Caught and humbled by fines and hangings, the remaining lords would hand her over as soon as they realized who she was in hopes of demonstrating their loyalty to the king.

West was Seaford, but she didn't know many people there. Seaforders were sailors and they explored the oceans, leaving politics to land-bound folk.

North ... Shavigmen were coldhearted savages. She remembered seeing a troop of Shavigmen when she was a very young child, their pale hair strung out behind them as they charged down upon a hapless village on their monstrous horses. Remembered the cries of terror of her countrymen. "Shavig," they called. "Shavig." Shavig. She shivered.

"Barbarian?" laughed Ward, pushing his exotically pale hair out of his eyes. "Tisala, we're stubborn, obnoxious, and coarse. But we're hardly barbarians. We even cook our food ... if it's convenient."

Ward of Hurog. She had a sudden vivid image of him the last time she'd seen him, his sword red with Vorsag blood. He was strong, strong enough to stand up to King Jakoven if need be. Moreover he was not involved in the king's half brother Alizon's rebellion. He lived in a keep on the coast, not too far from the Tallvenish border. Surely she could find it.

Better yet, she had information for him - a payment of sorts for helping her. She slipped on the old man's shoes to protect her feet and took his cloak off the wall. She would have taken his clothing as well, but death had released more than just blood. Wrapping the cloak around her nakedness, she decided she could steal clothing before she left the city.

She opened the door and climbed up a long flight of stairs to another door. She opened it, too, expecting to find a hall or another room, but there was fresh night air and a set of stone steps that led up into a tidy alley.

The guard who stood in front of the door didn't even turn around, his eyes scanning the rooftops and the shadows.

"He'll learn, Master Edelbreck. Boys grow up," he said in the flat, nasal tones of an Estian native.

He didn't live long enough to understand that it hadn't been the torturer who'd opened the door behind him. The knife was very sharp, and Tisala took the guard's belt and sheath to carry it. His knife was crude, an eating utensil rather than a weapon and she left it on the ground beside the body. Leaving the sword was a more difficult decision. She longed for the reassurance of its weight, but in Tallven, only armsmen and nobles carried swords.

Swordless, Tisala disappeared into the maze of Estian, leaving no trail for the king's men to follow.

2 - WARDWICK AT HUROG

I've found that after the harvest is finished, I have time for renewing old acquaintances and discussing politics.

"You're cheating," Oreg said, and pain seared down my vision, weakening me until the flame I'd lit on the bowl of water flickered a sad, faded yellow and died. "I told you not to draw on Hurog - you might find yourself somewhere else when you need magic, and then where would you be?"

I wiped sweat off my forehead and glared at him. He looked more like a young man with dark hair and pale violet eyes than an old dragon, but appearances often lie - something I've found to be useful myself. Oreg looked young and vulnerable, and I looked big and dumb. Neither happened to be true.

Oreg ignored my wrath and nodded at the bowl. "Try it again, Ward."

He maintained the shield that separated me from Hurog's magic, and the pain made it difficult to work what power I had left. Losing touch with Hurog hurt.

"Concentrate, Ward."

Over the past few years I'd grown to hate those words. But working magic with Oreg had become my refuge when the pressures of running Hurog grew too great. It's not easy to rebuild a keep.

Technically, Hurog, lands and keep, belonged to my uncle, Duraugh. But four years ago, my uncle proclaimed me Hurogmeten in my dead father's place. Ironically it was Hurog, not my uncle's richer estate, Iftahar, that gave him power to do so - for Hurog, which had lain in ruins by my own actions, was the heart of Shavig, northernmost of the Five Kingdoms of Tallvenish Rule. If my uncle, Duraugh of Hurog, called me Hurogmeten, then all of Shavig was prepared to go to war in defense of that proclamation.

King Jakoven, unwilling to begin a civil war when his seat was so uncertain on the throne, ignored Hurog. I stayed on Hurog land, where ignoring me was easier.

But even if my uncle had not returned Hurog to me, it would still have been mine, by bond of blood and bone.

I looked at the bowl of water and envisioned a flame roaring from the surface. My world narrowed to the water in the bowl. Something shifted in my head, and the stone bowl cracked as flame rained to the floor borne by a sheet of water. Power roared from the soles of my feet through the hair on the top of my head, and I shook with the effort of redirecting it back to where it had come.

When at last I stood empty, I realized the sound I heard was Oreg laughing.

He waved at the fire and it dissipated, leaving only a damp spot on the flagstone floor of the guard tower.

"If you can break through my shielding," he said, still fair hiccupping with laughter, "I suppose there's a fair chance you can pull magic from Hurog wherever you happen to be."

I felt a surge of triumph replace the emptiness, and I grinned at him. "I broke your magic?"

"Hurog broke through my spell when you called it," he corrected, and his humor gave way to bemusement.

I picked up the pieces of the bowl and set them on a small table. "Hurog's magic feels different to me than it did before I killed you," I said. I knew it sounded odd, but I never forgot that I had killed him. He just hadn't died the way we both had expected him to.

"Different how?" He perched on the edge of the only stool in the tower. We'd furnished it sparsely so that there would be less to burn when my magic went awry. The tower was one of six on the wall surrounding the keep proper, so there was only stone nearby. The scorched bits of rock on the tower wall proved the wisdom of Oreg's choice of classroom. Almost four years of work and I still had occasional, and spectacular, miscalculations.

"Do you remember Menogue?" I asked. The hill with Aethervon's temple stood deserted outside of Estian - deserted by people, that is. We'd had a vivid demonstration that Aethervon had not left the holy temple when his priests had died a few centuries ago.

"Yes."

"The magic here at Hurog isn't as focused as that was, but I sometimes feel as if there's some intelligence behind it." I looked at him. "Something that might break your shielding when I called for it. It's gotten stronger the past few months, ever since you taught me how to separate my magic from Hurog's."

Oreg's eyebrows pulled together. "Interesting. Has the connection between you and the land altered?"

I shook my head. "Not that I've noticed."

I left Oreg in the tower and crossed the bailey to the keep. I had a while before arms practice, and whenever I had a spare minute, I worked on the keep.

Once Hurog had been made entirely of blackstone, but many of the stones had shattered when Oreg's death had destroyed the keep and its walls. Blackstone was expensive, and when we started rebuilding, there had been little gold to buy it with. Whatever quarry had supplied the original builder with stone was lost to time, always supposing that he'd gotten the rock from somewhere nearby, as was customary - Oreg didn't remember one way or the other.

But Hurog had an old granite quarry, so we'd used granite instead and the result was ... odd. Black pockmarked with gray made the keep much less imposing, and part of me regretted the loss of the old keep bitterly.

We'd rebuilt the inner curtain walls, except for a properly secure gatehouse. Instead we had only a primitive set of wooden gates while our blacksmith and our armorer labored mightily to supply the ironwork we needed. Most of the outside of the keep had been finished as well. Our progress had been unusually quick because of the aid of the dwarves, but I suspected that it wouldn't be completely rebuilt until my body was dust in the grave. The keep wasn't overly large by the standards of the Five Kingdoms, but neither was the workforce we had to rebuild with. The outer curtain wall was no more than a pile of rubble enclosing nearly thirty acres of land. I hadn't even had the heart to begin on it.

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