We stepped through the doorway into a rushing silence and the pressure of a thousand eyes.
Beside me, Lucian’s horse danced and then I heard him call out, sharply, “Back! Get Back!” and instinctively I sought for the doorway and it wasn’t there, there wasn’t anything there at all and we were caught in an invisible circle of standing stones where no magic would come to our rescue and outside the circle, there must have been five hundred soldiers or more, massed rank beyond rank, all around us, and behind them, floating half way and visible across their helmeted heads, haloed in luminescence, Serein in white.
The fear assaulted me all over like I was being drenched in boiling oil all at once. I automatically tried to steady my dancing horse and looked across to Lucian.
He had dropped the reins and drawn both his swords, holding them parallel to the back of his black, the expression on his face set in stone, not a single muscle movement discernable, his mouth closed yet relaxed, nothing at all to show the horror he must be feeling as strongly as I did, and the knowledge that we would never make it out of here alive unless we could break through the circle and get to a place where our magic would be able to give us a fighting chance.
He briefly glanced at me and then at the main doorway, across to our left and stuffed full of what must have been at least another hundred soldiers, and those were carrying tall lances with shiny copper tips that ranged higher than the crests on their helmets.
This was impossible. We couldn’t possibly make it. But I would go in the direction he indicated nonetheless – there was nothing else for us to do.
For another second, there was the silence, broken by nothing but the breathing of all those assembled in the vast circular space, then a voice rang out, low and harsh, and Lucian and I and even the horses turned to our right.
Steps beyond the ranks of soldiers rose to a platform upon which there stood a single large golden chair. In it, reclining comfortably sat a thin bald man in purple robes, bearing an enormous gold chain with a square pendant, a chiselled thin face, large beaked nose and burning eyes, backed by a semi- circle of richly clad men in many splendid coloured velvets and gold weaves.
Trant. That must be Trant.
“Welcome, Lord Lucian. And a welcome too to your courtesan. We have been expecting you, as you can see.”
Lucian remained entirely contained and silent. Beneath his legs, the black steadied and stood very still, only his ears flicking nervously, this way and that, his nostrils flaring wide and his eyes rimmed white. I followed suit, drew a little closer to him and stayed my horse at four square too.
“Put down your swords, dismount and give yourself up. This –“ he smiled grimly which was not a friendly sight beneath those eyes and indicated the circle that surrounded us with a brief gesture – “This is a fight you cannot hope to win.”
Lucian said nothing but I could see him gathering silently. I did the same and hoped I wouldn’t get him into trouble, get into his way, destroy our chances, whatever they were, to come out of this, somehow; but before he had the chance to do anything at all, Trant nodded to someone across from us and the whole left hand side of soldiery rushed forward like a wave and engulfed me – me! Not him! – and I was pulled from my horse without having as much as a chance to kick or slap a single one of them, the room rotating in front of my eyes and so many hands on my legs, my arms, my neck, in my hair.
I screamed and tried to writhe but I had no chance at all. No chance at all. Seconds later, Trant called out, authoritatively, “Silence!” and all fell silent in an instance.
There were two men, either side of me, their gloved hands crushing my upper arms, my wrists, forcing me to my knees and holding me without any compromise.
I saw my black being dragged away and that cleared my vision to perfectly see Lucian, who had not been touched by anyone, across on the other side of the circle, the swords helplessly raised to half vertical yet there was nothing for him to strike.
Trant nodded again and instantly, my arms were wrenched up sharply behind my back against the joints and I couldn’t help but to cry out in surprise and pain.
Lucian’s black responded by snorting and starting, that horse being as much mine as it had ever been his; I saw Lucian bite his bottom lip and knew that they had found just the leverage. I wished to all creation that I could reach him, touch him, tell him to go ahead and do whatever he must do and take no heed of me, but I could not; and when I took a breath to cry out to him, my arms were wrenched again and the pain of it pushed the air out of my lungs in a whimper instead.
Through a haze of fear and pain and purest anguish, I heard Trant’s voice again.
“I can send my soldiers now to hack you to pieces and then take their fun with your sweet little lady there, after. It’s all the same to me if that is what you want. But I suggest we end this in a far more civilised matter. Give yourself up to me, Lord Tremain, and your woman will be incarcerated yet not be put to death. It is your choice, your responsibility. What is it going to be? Decide, Lord Tremain.”
I tried to cry out again, Lucian oh my god don’t trust this man, don’t give yourself up to him, no matter what he says, just fight, get out of here, at least try! and one more time, the soldiers behind me didn’t even let me get as far as to take the breath for it; this time, the one on the right kicked me hard into the ribs and I screamed out aloud.
Lucian responded immediately. He threw the Tadara swords to the floor where they clattered and bounced, raised his hands to shoulder height, palms out and dismounted by raising a leg across the blacks neck and sliding straight down into a standing position.
His resonant voice filled the room and broke me in two as he said, loudly, “I yield.”
Trant stood up slowly. He was of medium height and sinewy, and the look of triumph and expectation on his face made my stomach heave to the point that I thought I was going to be sick.
“Remove your cloak, Lord Tremain, and kneel.” There was an undertone in that man’s voice that caused me to try once more; I relaxed then burst into a frenzy of struggling that unbalanced the soldiers for just a second and long enough for me to shout, “No, Lucian, not for …” before a hard gloved hand struck me across the face and caused everything around me to explode to black.
When I could see again, Lucian was kneeling on the floor, head high and eyes straight ahead, his hands behind his back, allowing a group of perhaps ten soldiers to guard a one who was fixing his wrists with thick shackles of a shiny bright metal; a larger pair of shackles prepared and held in readiness by a second for Lucian’s ankles.
How had they known? How had this trap been laid, how had all of this been so ready, so prepared, all of this proceeding like clockwork, inevitable, no chance, no hope for us to do anything at all? How had they known that Lucian would yield so readily for me, how had they known to take me first?
Behind the soldiers hovered the Serein, dressed in white. We had not killed them all. They must have been behind this all along, they must have been watching us from a level I had no access to. It was the only explanation and my heart was beating blood red pulses into my eyes, my head flashing agony across my neck and into my shoulder blades and my joints were creaking and I could not, could not stand the sight of Lucian taking once again the bondage and the torture just upon himself there, once again reneging on our union in his so mistaken attitude of wanting to take care of me.
The shackling complete, the soldiers turned to Trant and he gave a small nod. Roughly, they raised Lucian to his feet and pushed him forward, towards Trant’s platform and in the direction that lay beyond the circumference of the circle, marked in mosaic of green and gold and the tips of all those soldiers boots that stood in silent attention.
As they approached the threshold, I held my breath because once free of the circle, Lucian would be also free to rain destruction upon them all; yet he crossed the line, held between the soldiers, and the soldiers before him moved away, and nothing happened at all.
Nothing happened at all.
I couldn’t understand it. Why wasn’t he doing something? Lucian, what are you doing? You have not fallen back into your Sepheal’s victim’s mind once more? For the Creator’s sake, help us here. Set us free! Help me, set me free! I am afraid! But he couldn’t hear me and nothing happened, other than that Trant took two steps forward to the edge of the platform, the soldiers forced Lucian to his knees once more and Trant looked down upon him with a most satisfied grin and licked his lips.
“A most wise decision, Tremain,” he said with glee. “One I hope you will regret a few ten thousands of times before our time is done. Really, I had expected a lot more from you. The Lord Of Darkness, indeed.” He peered down harder at Lucian who was looking up at him and I could not see his expression, but I did see Trant be unable to keep eye contact or unwilling, for he broke off and then I heard Lucian’s voice, resonating through every part of my body, calmly saying, “I trust you will keep your word.”
Trant narrowed his eyes momentarily. “You can trust whatever your kind might trust, and you are in no position here to expect anything from me. I have you, Tremain, and I will do with you and yours exactly as I please.”
Lucian replied smoothly, “And have all these soldiers go to their loved ones and their tavern whores and tell the tale of how the High King’s word of honour is of no more worth than sewage in the gutters of his town?”
Trant turned paler still and in three strides was down the steps from the platform and had struck Lucian with both hands folded to make a swinging hammer so hard that not just Lucian went down, but also both the soldiers that had been supposed to steady him.
In the utter silence that followed, I could just make out the words as Trant hissed into Lucian’s bleeding face, “She will live, and she will be incarcerated. And I will make damn sure she wishes she was dead.”
He spun around and shouted, overly loud, “Take him away. I am sick of the sight of this monster of whom the kingdoms should have been relieved a thousand years ago. Let it be known that King Trant has once more taken what was evil and corrupt, and raised justice out of its very ashes! The kingdom is safe again at last!”
One of the velvet men cried out aloud, “Three cheers for the king! The Creator blesses King Trant The Great!” and the soldiers erupted into well rehearsed cheering so loud that it hurt my ears and made the very floor vibrate beneath my aching knees.
Through the cheers, Lucian was dragged away until the soldier’s bodies closed in behind him and his guards and I could just make out the top of his head as he was taller than most of them, then that too disappeared and I was all alone amidst an ocean of enemies.
An officer came forward and gave orders to the two who were holding me; he led the way as they dragged me to my feet and I too, was half carried across the circumference line in the floor and as I did, I realised why Lucian had not acted – the mental silence did not end with the circle but extended on beyond. And when they shoved and dragged me through the thronging soldiers towards the main exit, and I passed between two of the white Serein who flanked the door, their distortions perfect and so big they sparked lightning, the mental silence still extended, and it was in the vast corridor, richly decorated with many wall hangings and a scrolling carpet of pure red beneath my feet, and it was also present in the huge hallways we traversed, my arms screaming in furious pain as they half carried me forward, and eventually I had to admit the understanding that this entire building may be inside a circle of standing stones and we could never do our magic here at all and all was lost, indeed.
We came to a huge double door, deeply carved and inlaid with the most extraordinarily ornate decorations and fixings, before which two soldiers stood guard. They opened the door on our arrival, saluting the officer whose broad red back was in front of me, and we entered a huge room that held a long table and what appeared to be a throne which was faced by simpler chairs in circular rows. Apart from two dozen more soldiers, standing still as statues placed along all the walls, the room was empty. They dragged me forward and threw me to the ground half way between the large chair and the others onto a most luxurious carpet. I couldn’t feel my arms anymore and when I tried to move them, the pain nearly caused me to faint, so I lay still and just looked across the swirling patterns, the spirals and diamonds of blue and green and gold, woven into a deep wine red backing, and I lay there and didn’t think of anything until I heard voices and laughter and a very short time later, there were those hurtful hands again, dragging me up and renewing the hurt in my shoulders to screaming pitch.
I tried to compensate by hanging my head low and curling my back but then a hand grabbed my hair roughly and forced my head up and I had to scream again at the pain it caused to shoot through my neck, shoulders and spine.
Before me stood four men, Trant, one dressed in a dark blue velvet, one in a pale gold and – oh good god, could it get any worse? – Thoran of Thelein, in brown, paler than ever I’d seen him, eyes narrowed, greenish skin beneath his raven black hair and from his sleeve, protruding a replacement hand made from silver or a silver metal which formed a claw shape.
Trant walked right up to me and stuck his face into mine.
He had a big beaky nose, his eyebrows were virtually invisible and pale, and his eyes were a washed out greeny brown that held death within.
“So,” he said. “This is Tremain’s whore. The one who is said to have tamed the beast of darkness. Well she doesn’t look anything special to me.”
I said nothing and he turned away, walked over to the large chair and leaned against it. From beneath his invisible eyebrows, he looked at me again, then nodded to the officer who stood on my left, turned sideways on.
They stripped me then and threw my robe and undergarment to the ground, and with it my beloved bird. They left my boots on, though, and presented me to Trant once more.
He looked me over, rather bored, and turned to Thoran.
“This is the one? Are you quite sure?”
Thoran gave a very deep bow and responded, “Yes my king. That is the one. A commoner born, Isca by name, from Merina province in the south.”
Trant looked at me quizzically again. “Take that necklace off her. It is far too elegant a thing to be worn by a common whore.”
Obediently, the soldiers set to taking my necklace off but of course, there was no lock to be found. Then they pulled on it and hurt my throat terribly, then one had the great idea of trying to lever it apart by placing a knife between my neck and the metal weave that had been created to remain intact and self supporting until the stars fell from the sky.
I screamed and screamed as they succeeded only in tearing up the flesh around my neck and near broke my spine in the process and eventually, Trant called a halt to it impatiently.
“Lock her up when you’re through.” he said and began to walk past me, from the room and without giving me another glance. “You got an hour with her, Thelein. Make the most of it and make sure she’s alive when you’re done else I’ll take your head.” The two unknown men in velvet followed him, as did his train of soldiers, and I hung quite limply between my guards whilst the blood from the wounds in my neck was streaming down my back, and down my front and channelled between my bare breasts, onto my stomach, down into the hair between my legs and from there dripping steadily onto the carpet.
When the door had shut behind the High King and his train, Thoran came forward and reached out with his metal claw to me.
“We meet again, Lady Isca,” he said and made the word Lady sound like an insult worse as if he called me a whore as well.
The claw was sharp and very cold and cut the skin on my left breast easily; yet it was a calm, clear pain that was easy to resist in comparison to the violent throbbing in my neck and head.
He watched the wound appear as did I with a sigh of pleasure, then snapped out of it and ordered the soldiers to do something about the blood.
They cast around and found my clothes to be the only things of use in this endeavour; they used my undergarment to wrap about my neck to stem the flow of blood and my robe to try and wipe some of it off me, succeeding more in smearing it about and in the process, the soldier on the left became aware of the bird that was still in the pocket.
I saw him feel it, and I saw him pretend he hadn’t. He wiped me with the robe, roughly, and all the while he had his hand around my glacier bird inside the fabric, so he could steal it and walk away with it later on and no-one would notice.
I took my time then to look at this man, about my height he was so quite short for a guard, of stout build with reddish blond hair that was thinning on top, a reddish cast to his face and a tendency to be sweating, which he was now doing quite profusely. His eyes were of a washed out blue and he had the look of one who likes his wine too much or too often. He did not deserve my bird, but then, I thought that he would sell it on to have some more to spend on cheap wine when his watch was done.
Thoran grew impatient and gestured them to stop.
“What,” he said to me, “what would hurt you the most, Lady Isca? How can I repay you for what you and that bastard have done to me? Hm? What do you think would make up for that ride with my decomposing hand beneath my mouth? I have but one hour to make up for that ride of a tenday. I have but one hour, graciously allowed me by my King Trant to try and make a restitution. What do you suggest I do with you?”
I held his eyes easily enough and thought to myself if Lucian had let me help the man, way back on the road when I had the chance, this meeting would have been quite of a different flavour altogether.
As it was, what was done, was done and what was to come, was now to come.
Softly, I said to him, “What can you do, Thoran of Thelein? You can rape me, or have me raped, you can hurt me in any way you like, it is at your command.”
He nodded and responded grimly, “It is a shame that I can’t have you as I want, for I might rip you up from the inside and then watch you die slowly for a week, or two. But rape is a start, for sure. I would not touch you myself, for you have lain with the devil and sucked in his seed. But I am sure these good men here will have no such reservations and will be glad enough to comply, although it hardly serves to be a beginning of a punishment.”
Through the hands of the soldier’s arms behind me, I was linked to them and I could physically feel their responses to what Thoran said and when he came to order the one who had pocketed my bird to take me, and the man refused point blank and made the ancient warding off gestures I knew so well, it came as no surprise.
Thoran screamed at the three of them, and all refused as one, and so he set to hitting me instead in a frenzy, hitting me with his metal arm and tearing skin and flesh here, there and everywhere, until I knew nothing at all and felt nothing at all anymore just far away I noted that the officer stayed him at some point as he was in danger to contravene a direct order by the king.