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Chapter  Two


 
 
 
             
     It was a good day. The road to Castle March lay wreathed in evening summer sunshine. Oswith of Foll was now minus, not only Leric’s cattle but some of his own, and no one had died.
             
     Men’s anticipation grew higher the closer they came to home. Three weeks they’d been away. Camping under the stars wasn’t bad in summer, but a man’s own bed was something worth fighting for. That and a pretty girl. Irian smiled as the castle walls came in sight. He’d missed Sera, he realized. Not long ago she’d just been an annoying brat. Still was some days when she climbed one of her hobby horses, but she certainly had blossomed. In all the right places, too.
             
     Irian stood in his stirrups to better see the back of the train where the wounded brought up the rear. Four injuries, all minor, and one of those come about because a damn fool soldier couldn’t stay on his horse when he’d tried to separate a cow from its calf. A broken collarbone was easily mended. Indeed it was a good day.
             
     The last stretch of road and the portcullis came in sight. Irian halted his horse until the last man was through into the inner ward and then a groom came to take the beast. Irian didn’t leave until men and equipment were away and the wounded before the surgeon. He’d already made a brief written report to King Leric. Later would see the details. Now all he wanted was a bath, food, and a change of clothes, in no particular order.
             
     As the last horse was led from between a cart’s traces someone cleared their throat behind him. Irian turned to see Tigh, the dungeon guard. Damn. For a little while he’d forgotten about the hyatu.
             
     “Still alive, is he?” Irian asked.
             
     “Aye, sir,” the craggy sergeant said.
             
     “You have a problem, sergeant? Can’t it wait until I’ve bathed and changed?”
             
     “Not exactly, sir.”
             
     Irian removed his gloves and raised an eyebrow in question.
             
     “There’s been, like, a complication, sir.”
             
     Keen to get to his bath, Irian smacked his gloves against one thigh. Tigh flinched, clearly in a dilemma about something. “Out with it, man!”
             
     “Tis the Lady Sera, sir.”
             
     “What has the Lady Sera got to do with the prisoner?”
             
     “It were the princess, sir. I couldn’t sees how to make it right, so I did as I’s told, but it ain’t right, sir.”
             
     “What isn’t?” Irian cried in exasperation.
             
     “The princess had the lady imprisoned with the hyatu.....”
             
     Irian didn’t let the man finish. He ran across the courtyard and into the prison tower entrance, hurtling down the twisting stairs in frantic haste.
             
     Imprisoned with a hyatu? Only Sera could have managed that. A highborn lady in danger of losing her soul to one of those beasts. He’d think about what Princess Faella had done after. Right now all he could think of was Sera.
             
     Breathless, he reached the corridor before the archway leading to the dungeon room which housed the ironbound cell. He quelled the urge to call out Sera’s name and took a breath. Before he could walk in Tigh caught his arm. 
             
     Breathing in wheezes, the craggy gaoler gasped, “Sir! Just listen a moment will ye! Please!”
             
     He listened in growing disbelief to Tigh’s tale. “I’ve stayed close, sir, listening like, making sure he didn’t do nuthin. He speaks a civilized tongue and he didn’t hurt the lady. Says he’s a king’s son and his death could start a war.”
             
     “Does he indeed. Has he taken your soul, Tigh?”
             
     The old sergeant blanched. “No, sir! and I doubt he took the lady’s either. He’s been too sick for that kind of nonsense.”
             
     “So now, for the first time ever, we have a decent hyatu? Tigh have your brains descended to your bollocks?”
             
     Tigh straightened, offense written into his features. “Don’t think so, sir.”

     Irian turned back to the archway. He walked through slowly. Sera didn’t look up from what she was doing. Something glinted in her hand and she was so intent she didn’t even notice him. A smudge of dirt decorated one cheek. Straw laced her dark
hair.
             
     “You know generally a key works much better.”
             
     Her busy hands stilled. She didn’t look up immediately but her cheeks rounded as she smiled. “I haven’t got a key,” she said.
             
     “Obviously not. Where were you thinking of going?”
             
     It was an old game. One they’d played as children the many times she’d been disobedient enough for her grandmother to lock her in her room. It didn’t seem that long ago he’d treated her as a sister. Not anymore. Not for a while in fact.
             
     “It’s just...”
             
     “He’s convinced you he’s something he’s not and you felt it only right to free him. My darling girl, I’m sorry, but they do that all the time.”

     "You were listening," Sera accused and looked into his eyes.

         "No, but Tigh is blessed with a good memory. He told me of your conversations, among other things."

         Irian held a great ring of keys he’d plucked from a wall hook. He glanced at the supine hyatu, selected a key, placed it within the lock, and turned. The door sprang
open. Sera climbed to her feet, dusting straw from her dress.

         "I stink," she stated, wrinkling her nose.

         Irian began to smile. Actually she looked quite fetching with her tussled dark hair, but the smile left his face as anger came. He said, "You do, sweetheart, and for
that, Faella is going to pay, king's daughter or no. Come."

         Sera lifted her chin. "Not without K'sar," she said.

         So the hyatu had a name. Irian paused. "Sera, no," he said softly. "This isn't one of your strays. This is a beast who wields magic as easily as you and I breathe.”
             
         “Beast or man, does it matter? His death might cause war between us—is that what you want?”
             
         “No! But you cannot believe him.”

         "If Tigh told you of our conversations, how do you know he wasn't telling the
truth?"

         "Because that's how the sneaky bastards work. Doubt and manipulation are their second names. –What did you say his name was?”

     She hesitated, but then she said, “K’sar Raheeth Tianon.”

     “Then I know he's lying. K'sar Raheeth Tianon's been dead these past hundred years."

         The straw rustled as K’sar climbed to his feet. Memory of this creature within Irian's mind remained vivid. Now he stood behind Sera, cowardly enough to use a woman as shield.

         "I'd never heard the name before Faella left me here. How do you know it, Irian?"  Sera asked.

         "Because my great-grandfather killed him. It's not a name the Highgren's forget, since the bastard caused our first castle to fall in upon itself, killing half my family, including great-grandfather's first wife and baby son. There's even a pretty picture of grandfather standing over the filthy animal with a sword, about to deliver the death
blow."

         "What Lord Highgren so conveniently forgets to mention is that his grandsire built his castle on hyatu land without even asking it's owners. Directly over a
holy site whose destruction brought starvation, illness, and death to my people," the hyatu said in his cutting voice. "He also neglects to say that the holy site was a spring bubbling out from bed rock, on which his foolish ancestor built the foundations of his castle. The castle collapsed because the ground underneath it was unstable."

         His whole life, Irian had been taught the hyatu were not human; that they were beasts with far too much intelligence. No one had ever seen where they lived. It might be a hole in the ground for all Irian knew. The arrogance of this ones speech told another tale. Irian did know there was truth in the tales of magic and manipulation. Why would his own family lie about a castle collapsing around their ears and done by one hyatu with no more than a thought?

         "Your lies might fool a naïve young girl; they have no effect on me. I have
experienced your brand of manipulation. To engender an innocent’s sympathy is
the lowest form of cowardice," he said, sarcasm matching K'sar's biting tones.
"And you seem to have an inordinate amount of memory for a hundred-year-old
tale—or is that just another rumor we hear?"

         "If we live longer than you, man, it is because we live properly, and no, I am not a hundred years old, but the story was passed down as an example of human
stupidity and excuse for their own mistakes. A classic apportionment of blame on
innocent people. Oh, how I applauded when I heard the tale. At least your
grandsire's death was swift. History is consistent. I see the Highgren's killing ways haven't changed."

         "Stop it. Please stop it," Sera cried. "If you want to quote examples, isn't this just
another? Perhaps, Irian, your ancestors didn't know about the holy site. Perhaps
they truly believed the hyatu toppled the castle. Perhaps if they had
talked
it might never have happened?
         "Can't you see what you are doing? You are both taking a position and defending it like vermin in a barn. You aren't discussing possibilities but declaring warfare before the army's even lined up. It takes two to fight a war."

         "Yes, one to attack, the other to defend," K'sar cut in. "Should we just give you
everything and be done?"

         "I don't know! You are talking history."

         "Am I history, Sera? But of course, every word I say is a lie. Perhaps I am a hundred years old—no, make that three—and remember the first time you took from us. If it's a hanging he wants to salve his conscience, then let him go ahead. I'm sure I shall dance enough to amuse, while my brother plans retribution. Mayhap my brother can find another fault under this castle."
             
     The passion in Sera’s hazel eyes was for the hyatu, not him. That hurt, that the hyatu had done that. Manipulating such an innocent was beyond reproach. He’d even called her by her first name--as familiar as a friend. Irian’s stomach clenched with hot anger.

         During the conversation, both Sera and the hyatu had moved away from the cell door. He should have locked it after he’d let Sera out, but the iron should have held him. Except that his manacles were no longer in place. Had Sera removed them? Irian rested one hand on his sword hilt as Sera took another step--to get the hyatu even further from the iron? Irian’s fingers tightened on the hilt.

     The hyatu looked regal standing in the flickering light, his face a pale contrast to his dark clothing. 

             Sera touched Irian’s arm.  "Irian, you know I am not that gullible."

         "Not normally, no, but you'd defend a wolf for killing your favorite hound, if you
thought it had reason."

         Hurt filled her eyes. She lifted her chin. "Perhaps I would, if my hound had invaded that wolf's den and slaughtered its cubs. And would I be wrong?"

         "It's not the same. You are wrong to make the comparison."

         "Not so," K'sar said, "for are not the hyatu the wolves and humans the hounds? You misjudge on the basis of rumor and fear of what you do not understand."

         "You attacked me,” Irian said with conviction.

         "Because you had just killed a woman I loved!" K'sar cried. "And what did I attack you with, my brave human? Nothing but my bare hands.  Five of you bore me to the ground, burning me with your foul accoutrements and stabbing me with your poison. Then you chained me like a dog. If I tried to escape by manipulating this lady, at least I did not stick a quarrel in her first."
             
     “God’s truth!You know well that I didn’t realize it was a woman. You were quick enough to rape my mind. Did you plan this once you knew who Sera was? Saw
her in my mind, didn’t you?”
             
     “Oh I saw your guilt for loving another when your wife was barely in her
grave. Saw what you’d like to do to her body. You took the woman I loved, why
shouldn’t I take yours? Her innocence was only fuel to my hunger….”
             
     "Damn you!" Irian roared and lunged with a slither of steel.
             
     A cry echoed around the dungeon, followed by shocked silence.
             
     So focused on an enemy it never occurred to Irian what Sera would do. Too late for Irian to pull his blow, Sera had placed her body between him and K’sar. Desperate he’d tried to stop the momentum and had failed. When the blade sunk into flesh, fuelled by his anger, it was already too late. He’d reacted instinctively to the hyatu’s provocation.
             
     Everything slowed, especially the horror of what he’d done. He stared stupidly at his hand on the hilt of his sword, wishing it wasn’t his; wishing so many things that would never be. He had to pull the blade from her flesh, but if he did that she would die even more quickly.

         "Irian?" Sera whispered.

         Her voice sank into his brain. He moved forward as though to take her in his arms, but K'sar spoke.

         "If I let her go, she will die. I am all that is keeping her alive. For once, believe me, man."

         Irian hesitated then stilled. "You can do that?"

         "I might have saved her life, away from this iron. If I wasn't so weak."

         "You goaded me!" It was a plea.

         "You weren’t listening. I wanted your attention. This is so wrong. So wrong, Gods help me!” His voice was ragged, hoarse, filled with tears and pain.

              “I have to pull the sword,” Irian said through his teeth. “I have to.”

     “I have her pain,” the hyatu said, and for some reason, Irian believed him. The shame was even greater when he saw that his sword thrust had caught the hyatu as well. 

     Irian pulled. He dropped the sword to the ground, its clatter echoing on the ground like an accusation. Sera and the hyatu still stood upright, holding each other as close as lovers. Slowly, she turned in K'sar's arms. With trembling fingers she touched the bloodied wound in K’sar’s stomach.

         "I can't..." K'sar began, then staggered. They sank to their knees, still close. It
was as though someone had taken all the air out of Irian’s lungs. His limbs, his
voice, his mind, nothing would work.

         "Irian!" Sera cried urgently.

         "I'm sorry, so sorry," Irian rasped as he knelt beside them.

         Sera lifted a hand, touched his lips. "It's all right."

         He caught her hand, enfolding it. "How can you...?"

         "Say that? Because I know you didn't mean it. Listen. Please listen."

         It took him several moments to breathe, to make his heart start beating again. He got himself under some semblance of control. His voice shook but he said, "I'm
listening."

         "Then listen to K'sar also. Faella did this because she was jealous of our friendship. That doesn't matter now. What matters is that I learned so much and I haven't time to tell." She laughed softly, a whisper of sound. "I so wanted to be the
heroine of the tale, prove everyone wrong. And I would have. Promise me you will
listen to K'sar."

         He would promise her the world if only she would live. "I promise."

         She smiled, which nearly broke his heart. Then she turned back to the hyatu. "You can let me go now."

         The hyatu smiled back although Irian could only imagine the effort that took. "I have my own promises to extract." He looked at Irian and for once, Irian did not avoid
his golden gaze. "Man, go to my brother. Tell him not to seek revenge. This was my own fault as much as yours. That G'dera died with his name on her lips, and that any punishment I am due I have received tenfold. Tell him to forgive me for loving them both too much. Swear you will do this."

         Swear to a hyatu? Go to them? The idea was unfathomable, but he knew Sera watched him, could feel her hazel gaze on his face. He would do it, for her, not for the
hyatu. "I swear by my sword, but I don't know where to take the message."

         "I will show you in your mind. Don't be afraid."

         Irian was long past fear. Pictures came into his mind. Pictures he barely acknowledged, still unsure if he could carry out the promise. He didn’t deserve to live and knew it. When K'sar had finished, he turned back to Sera. "Thank you Sera
Ayabara, for believing me. For your kindness to a troubled soul." Then he crumpled, leaving Sera kneeling.  She cried out and Irian gently pulled her into his lap. She looked up at his face. Guilt made it difficult to meet her eyes.

         "It has to be for something. Don't waste it," she said. She shuddered as though cold. He’d seen too many men die on battlefields. He knew how they drifted. He
clutched her more tightly. "You know... we never kissed."

         No, they never had, and now ... that would be all he ever had from her. He bent forward and kissed her gently, and tasted the copper tang of blood. He tried to smile but his lips trembled as he fought back grief.
         
     "Sera!"

      His voice seemed to call her back for a little while. "I so wanted to leave my mark. To have people say, Sera Ayabara did that."

      "Oh, you have, my darling girl," he said. "You've left your mark upon me, indelibly written in stone. I will go to this hyatu's place. For no one else but you."

         A tear fell on her face. His. He reached out to wipe it away and she sighed and
  stilled.  It took Tigh and three others to part him from the knife he tried to use on
himself.


 
 
 

 


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