'Feed the Gods' - part 4

‘Morning Echoes'

 

Nresha was impressed. She was also angry. Last night the temple had been denied a truly worthy sacrifice. Finally she ended her agitated slithering about her chamber and tugged sharply on a bell pull beside her bed to summon a slave to put some salve on the wounds on her back. Although it would not soothe the pain, it would prevent infection and promote healing. She yanked again on the silken cord, irritated that no one had appeared within the three seconds following the initial ring.

The human leader Stelarn had put up a remarkable fight. After the entertainment had finished and the last dancers had cartwheeled from the court, the great drums had thundered and rolled and he had been dragged in. Bound by heavy chains Stelam was thrown onto the hard, unyielding stones before the Pharaoh. Although his naked body had been tortured to the point of breaking, still the human held his head as high as damaged tendons and a ruptured larynx would allow.

There was a steely pride and resolve in his eyes that caused a wave of anger within the Pharaoh only Nresha was close enough to notice. Ssiron liked to see his prisoners already broken and screaming for mercy when they were brought before him. Nresha, on the other hand, liked to see their spirits as well as their bodies being broken.

A gentle tapping came from the stone hallway beyond the heavy curtains of silk and plush velvet that served as her door.

‘Enter!’ snapped the High Priestess before the sound had even stopped. The edge of the curtain was gently pushed aside and a young female hssaar slid into the chamber. Naked save for a shinil, the modesty flap that served the equivalent purpose of a loincloth, her body was clearly visible as slender to the point of being underfed. She kept her sunken eyes on the floor, terrified of accidentally looking into the face of her superior, ‘Get my barsa ointment and treat my back.’ Commanded Nresha.

The slave bowed her head once, then went to a shelved alcove in the polished limestone wall. Jars of all shapes and sizes containing all manner of reagents and preparations, their contents denoted by specific glyphs, lined the shelves. The girl studied them, searching for the correct one.

‘Hurry up! Or are you too illiterate to find the right jar?’ snapped Nresha, glaring at the complex markings on the slave’s back and cobra-like hood. The remark was a cruel taunt for Nresha knew full well that she was not illiterate and the markings told the girl’s story. They indicated that she was of noble blood, but her house had fallen to the constant machinations and turmoil of the struggles within the power-hungry Upper Castes. In these struggles the losers lost everything including their freedom and their identity. No more than a child when this occurred, the girl was now one of the Nameless and in servitude to the Priesthood. All slaves here had their tongues cut out to prevent their unworthy voices defiling the quarters of the Blessed. As a final insult they also had their fangs pulled out.

Seeing her reach for the correct container, a white alabaster jar, Nresha turned away and took off her ceremonial headdress and then removed her beautifully carved golden halter-top. Where the leather straps had been, red marks indicated its not inconsiderable weight. Lying on her front Nresha folded her arms and rested her head on them, making herself comfortable on her nest as the slave came over to her.

As the bitter smelling salve was gently kneaded into her wounds, Nresha thought again of the events last night. The prisoner had been fed gilthin, a plant preparation used by torturers the world over to heighten the sense of pain and to make blood coagulate faster to prevent victims bleeding to death too soon. Yet he had resisted a long time before his screams finally tore from his broken body. Shortly after, he died.

Nresha had resolved not to allow herself pleasure from the event, as the chieftain should have been a sacrifice for the Temple: thus condemning his soul to her dark goddess Anshu for all eternity. But this had been denied. However, to her chagrin, she had found herself thoroughly enjoying the music of the human's screams when finally he could take no more. To this end, she had punished herself for this failure of will.

It had been many centuries since the High Priestess of Anshu had shed tears but that did not mean she could not, and the stinging ointment made her eyes glisten despite herself. Concentrating on things other than the pain, Nresha noticed something strange about the girl’s scent. Flicking out the black tip of her tongue to better taste the air, she came to realise what it was and her pale blue eyes, rare for her kind, narrowed.

When the slave had finished she went over to return the jar to its correct place. Having done this she turned ready for the next instruction and let out a voiceless gasp as she found herself face to face with the Priestess. The girl fell down at once, covering her eyes, terrified they would be burned out now she had looked into the perfect gaze of Anshu’s Most Blessed: a terrible blasphemy indeed.

‘Get up!’ snapped Nresha, her voice the crack of a whip. The commanding tone so strong the Nameless found herself standing against her own volition. Shaking, head bowed and eyes fixed on the mosaic floor she awaited retribution. Reaching out, Nresha put one finger beneath the slave’s chin. The girl flinched as though it burned but did not resist as her mistress tilted her head up. However her watering eyes, slit pupils dilated wide in fear, still desperately tried to retain contact with the floor as her head was turned this way and that for inspection.

Nresha hissed quietly. She had not noticed it when the girl had first entered but the dark green skin of scales so fine it appeared leathery, was darker in some places than others. Bruises. There were swellings too. Placing her hands on either shoulder, Nresha gently pushed the shivering form before her back. Looking down she saw viscious marks evident on her neck and exposed breasts.

‘Lift the shinil’ she demanded. Now the tears spilled over. The slave's hand was shaking so much she could barely grip the thin flap of material to move it aside. Nresha looked at the dried blood and violent bruising and for an instant something other than cold indifference flashed in her eyes. “One of the new guards?” she asked, returning her gaze to the beaten face.

The slave closed her eyes and nodded, tears spilling freely over her cheeks to the floor. All servants to the Priestesses had to be chaste. She shivered in terror for she was no longer so, even if the act had been forced upon her. She awaited her punishment.

‘I have his scent. His fellows will learn from his remains that although you do not have voices, my slave quarters are not their harem!’ The girl’s eye’s widened as the realisation sunk in. ‘You may go.’ Shaking like a leaf from fear, shock and bewildered relief, she headed for the exit. On her way out, she paused in the doorway as Nresha added, ‘Report to the head cook for some food at the forth bell. I will send word that it is with my permission.’

Alone once more Nresha went to another alcove, this one concealed by a floor-length sheer gauze curtain. With much greater reverence than the attack she had made on the bell pull, she gently pulled on the cord to draw the drape aside. Behind it was an exquisite statue of Anshu. In every detail save size and material this was like the huge black icon in the Hidden Temple. Also this much smaller image of the dark goddess was made of solid gold.

Nresha settled down in the hssaar equivalent of a kneeling position, bowed her head and allowed her mind to slip into solemn contemplation of the will and strange whims of her deity.

After a few minutes, remaining still with her eyes closed she spoke, apparently to no one ‘You can stop skulking in my garderobe now.’

There was no reply. Then, at length, a smooth male voice spoke, ‘How did you know I was here?’

‘Because Anshu told me.’ Replied Nresha testily. She rose slowly, swearing to herself that it got harder to do so every time as she felt the aches of age in bone and muscle. Not caring that she had not dressed in her golden top again she turned around to face him, naked save for her kilt.

The male slid out into the main chamber. He did not answer to her response because he could not quite tell whether she was being serious or sarcastic. The glass-less window created a pool of sunlight in which he stopped to face her. A slight breeze blowing off the desert, warm and dry, made the material of his white headdress flutter. His olive green-skinned form was lean and muscular, particularly lithe even for a hssaar. His hood, extended in the heat, was perfectly curved and his serpentine features were elegant and handsome by the standards of his species. His tongue flicked out of his snub-ended snout, ‘Barsa salve?’ he inquired.

‘Never you mind. What are you doing sneaking around my chambers?’ snapped Nresha.

‘Why, “sneaking” is what you and your Sisters taught me to do!’ The high assassin, handpicked at birth by her through Anshu’s guidance and raised by the Priesthood, never ceased to surprise Nresha with his impudence. This was the second high assassin she had mentored, the first being one whose name was spoken as a curse these days. Despite warnings and beatings he still managed to be disrespectful in small things. However, this one was no traitor, unlike… she decided to not even think his name.

Nresha hissed in exasperation, ‘The proper reason.’

Knowing when not to overstep the mark, the assassin gave the real answer, 'I bring news from the Cult of the Secretive Mistress in Mors.'

Nresha's face remained impassive, but her heart beat faster for a moment as the name of the city evoked crystal clear memories of the visitation by the goddess herself many years ago, 'And..?' she prompted, keeping the excitement from her voice.

'They send word that they have discovered the location of the Path of Gates.' He paused, awaiting an enthusiastic response as he knew of the special task this non-hssaar Anshu cult had been given. When Nresha said nothing he continued, 'It is in the possession of Wizard Councilor Antonis Kelar.' Nresha stiffened visibly at this, 'However, they are taking steps to resolve this situation and are confident it will be yours by the next Equinox.'

'For their sakes, such confidence had better not be misplaced.' Nresha said simply, 'In fact, you will go and ensure this comes to pass.’'

'Whatever you command, Most Blessed.” The assassin bowed low.

'Be wary. Remember the warning we were given that there are some among the Celestials who would send agents to thwart us.'

Again, a bow.

'And on your way out, tell the head cook to prepare a nourishing meal for a slave girl who will stop by on the fourth bell. Oh, and order Guard Captain Rssi to meet me in my audience chamber.'

At this, he raised an eyeridge, 'What am I, an errand boy?'

Nresha's eyes flashed and her voice carried a grave warning, 'You may be the Blooded Knife of Anshu but that does not mean I cannot have you disciplined. Now,” voice returned to normal she slithered to the potion alcove, her eyes scanning the shelves until she found a certain small vial. It was of black marble with a green blade painted on, 'Ensure the slave's meal is laced with this.'

Obediently the assassin took the vial of poison.

'I will not abide having unchaste slave girls about the place.'

 

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Morning came apparently without incident. Shade drifted into consciousness to the sound of birdsong from above the overhang. He lay listening to one particularly loud one until it stopped. Meccha stirred a little in her sleep, her head resting against his chest. She was wrapped in both their cloaks to fend off the chill. He stroked her hair gently, brushing stray strands away from the mark across her left eye; she had seemed to suffer troubled dreams as the storm had raged earlier that night but now looked serene. He guessed Blackjack was still asleep too; he could see his dark form, wings folded about him almost like a tent, almost a shadow against the rock wall. His tail was twitching a little and Shade could see one ear, a ragged island of grey fur in the black mass of his mane, poking up.

The storm had eventually subsided in the small hours and now a miserable drizzling rain drifted silently outside although the brightness of the sky to the north east suggested this too would soon end.

A damp tortoiseshell coloured cat trotted up to the cottage, carrying a bird in its mouth. It dropped its catch in a pail F’lair had noticed containing other birds, mice and such, then disappeared from view. He looked over at the empty stew bowls, and tried to push from his mind the inkling suspicion of what last night's stew ingredients had been. A loud meowing sounded from round the front of the cottage and was joined by several other felines in the vicinity. Blackjack snorted and then a faint red and blue glow against the cove wall indicated he had woken up. From under the edge of one wing his hand groped subconsciously for a weapon before he checked himself and sat up. Fully aware now and able to see the animals from his position he grabbed a sod of earth and chucked it at the middle of the group of cats. They scattered with indignant yowls, ‘Mangy fleabags.’ He muttered in response to F’lair’s amused look.

‘Mrrrphl’ Shade looked back to Meccha at the unintelligible semi-canine noise she had just made. Her eyes flickered then opened, ‘Huh?’ The cats had disturbed her sleep too. She looked up into F’lair’s eyes looking down at her and smiled at him. Reaching up she put a hand on the back of his neck and pulled him, unresisting, down and gave him a kiss.

‘Please! Don’t put me off my breakfast before I even know what it is.’ Groaned Blackjack. Unlike humans (or near-humans) dragons were not of a particularly romantic disposition, ‘Speaking of breakfast, I thought Belline usually got up at dawn.’

Shade suddenly had a bad sensation of prescience. He frowned a little, turned his gaze to the cottage and unfocussed his vision. As the image returned to clarity, he concentrated on what his altered right eye could see. Touched by Raven’s magic, that tiny greenish yellow pupil in its ocean of black had the power of witchsight. The rickety cottage before him would not stand forever, and its temporary nature showed by it seeming not entirely corporeal, almost transparent. Through it he could see the faint flickering glows indicating the living souls of the cats. But in the hut there was nothing.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Meccha with a sinking feeling in her stomach as she saw the change in F’lair’s expression. The tone of her voice caused Blackjack to sit up, alert.

For a moment his face became unreadable, then he sighed, ‘Guys? Do you want the bad new or the bad news?’

 

 

The cause of the old seer's death was not evident, but she had lived to a grand old age so the Daemonslayers put it down to natural causes. Shade claimed to feel uneasy about this, but Blackjack coldly pointed out that Shade felt uneasy about everything and every mortal had to die at some point. And so the three found themselves standing quietly around the small grave they had dug, none knowing quite what to say. Although the rain had stopped it was too wet to build a pyre, even with Shade's Fireblade. So on F’lair’s suggestion they buried Belline facedown. This followed the wise tradition of various peoples all over Tymaera who had learned the hard way what could happen if you did not dispose of your dead carefully in an area pervaded by magic.

They fashioned a cross out of some firewood and Blackjack found the skull of a dead cat nearby, which he carved a rune into then jammed onto the top of the cross to watch over the small sad grave. Made even sadder by the fact they could not get the cross to stay upright in the sodden earth.

Belline had been a follower of Lineer, god of wild places. Neither Shade nor Blackjack were in the habit of talking to the Tymaeran deities (frequent blaspheming not withstanding) and Meccha did not think a prayer to a non-Tymaeran deity would be appropriate. Being the oldest, they elected Blackjack to say a few words, which went along the lines of ‘Oh Lineer. This one’s yours, I believe’ until F’lair took over and said something a bit more respectful.

With nothing left for them to do in that little dale, they readied themselves to leave. No one was in much of a talking mood as saddle straps were buckled and bags were packed and loaded.

‘Where now?’ asked Meccha, ‘We never got our reading so do we just keep heading north west or what?’

‘Actually, it might be the case that we did.’ Said F’lair, ‘Remember her whispering something about ‘my love’ at the end? Maybe she meant Kelar. If something or someone is guiding us then her saying that mightn’t be coincidence.’

‘That’d be great thinking if he hadn’t died last winter.’ said Blackjack through a mouthful of leftover stew. He rode Knightmare bareback, so apart from securing his small amount of baggage there was little for him to do. The question of him making himself useful and helping the others was not even raised.

‘Sy! How could you eat that now?’ admonished Meccha. She had liked Belline, who had always reminded her of her own grandmother in her distant childhood. She'd had a better grave than poor Belline. Not the best of starts for the afterlife, Meccha thought sadly.

‘What? She’s dead. What’s she going to do with it? Besides I’m hungry.’

F’lair looked despondent ‘That leaves stuck for ideas, then.’

Swallowing the last mouthful Blackjack replied ‘Maybe not. Serin had a son, Antonis, who lives in the Wizards' Tower in Mors which, incidentally, is due north west of where we stand (or sit in my case) now.’ Somehow this thought just sounded right to the others.

‘How far’s that?’ Asked Soul.

‘Far enough, with you for company.’ Muttered Blackjack under his breath but loud enough for her to hear.

Shade groaned inwardly. The trend for the journey had been set and it was a long, long way to Mors.

 

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To be continued...

All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2005 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2005

Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.