Blood and Ashes: Chapter 1 (Sequel to Dragonlord)

“I…”  Aurel stared at him.  Then he shook his head.  Then he stared at Bastien some more.  “He what?”

“He did give me permission to tell you, though that’s probably because he figured out I was going to anyway.”  Bastien nodded.

“Alright.”  Aurel slowly nodded.  “I…”  He closed his eyes, then reopened them.  “Gods above, if he…”  He took a deep breath.  “If he knew this, why the hell didn’t he just deal with Rutger years ago?”

“That…”  Bastien blinked.  “Is a very good question.”



Dragonlord: Chapter 39

King Wendel’s entourage filled most of the courtyard.  The king was nearly fifty, but still a sturdy man.  His brown hair was half turned to steel gray, but he walked as confidently as his knights.  In his youth, he’d been accounted a fair warrior, and Bastien knew the sword that hung at the king’s side was not purely ceremonial.  He greeted Nadja, playing the part of a fond uncle rather than the part of a king.  Hopefully, that meant he would be in a good mood, though there were the girl’s own feelings on Rien to consider.

Rien stood beside him, uncharacteristically quiet as they awaited what could easily be his trial.  It was nearly an hour before the little duchess went back to her studies, and most of the king’s entourage left the hall.  Maybe a half-dozen men remained.  Only then did the king appear to take notice of Rien.  Bastien felt his stomach clench.  It was more than just their lives at stake.  Even the king’s mercy could result in Bastien himself being banished from Solsthriem entirely, and the disgrace of the newly formed noble house of Kohler.

“King Wendel.”  Aurel and Bastien both took a knee.  Aurel’s face darkened just a little when Rien did not.

“Rise.”  The king gestured.  His eyes went to Bastien.  “Sir Bastien Kohler, the realm owes you a great debt.  I am not blind to the sacrifice you made to keep our kingdom safe.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”  Bastien bowed again.

Then the king turned his eyes once again to Rien.  “You are the one they call the River Dragon.”

“I am.”  Rien nodded.  “And you are King Wendel Jaeger.”

“I am.”  King Wendel returned the nod.  “Whatever your motives, you assisted Phillip in murdering my beloved cousin.  Additionally, you have conducted other raids along my borders, resulting in the deaths of both my soldiers and civilians.  You have taken slaves from among my people.  And I have been assured that if I do find in favor of your execution I will not incur the wrath of the Dragon Queen.”

His stomach started sinking.  It was starting to sound as though the king had made up his mind even before arriving.  And the worst part was the man was stating plain facts.  Aurel bowed his head.  “Your Majesty, I…”

“So, let us be very clear on this matter, Prince Marinus.  Your pardon extends only to the crimes previous committed.  Any further…”  King Wendel’s eyes narrowed.  “Malfeasance will not find me merciful.”

Bastien blinked.  Aurel looked shocked.  Rien tilted his head as if trying to make sense of what the king had just said.  “My…”  He raised an eyebrow.  “Pardon?”

“Your pardon.”  King Wendel nodded.  “Have his shackles removed.  We have much to discuss.”  He turned and stalked back to the table.


The Woods: Chapter 10

Thomas settled the breastplate over his shoulders, then smiled as Ileana began helping him with the straps.  A memory came to him.  “The last time you did this for me you tied them in knots.”

She laughed.  “I was fourteen, and you managed to win despite them coming loose.”  She straightened, then rose up to kiss him.  “And I’m much better at knots now.”

“Vula teach.”  The goblin was examining one of his gauntlets.  She poked them before wrinkling her nose with disapproval.  “Why have metal fingers if not add claws?”

Considering the time the goblin had bound him had nearly killed him, he couldn’t really deny her expertise.  “Claws make it more difficult to precisely direct the blade.”  He’d seen clawed gauntlets before, even tried them before rejecting them as impractical.  They looked frightening, but their sole use appeared to be intimidation.  Or at least, he’d always thought so until facing Keffer’s claws in a sparring match.  Granted, when Keffer abandoned his human mask his claws were more like talons and on the hands of a creature that was not only inhumanly strong and fast but capable of wielding considerable magic.  It had been a few years since a training match had left him almost too bruised and exhausted to move.

“If had good claws, not need blade.”  She sniffed before handing him the gauntlet.

“The blade allows me a greater range and more maneuverability.”  He put the gauntlet on.  And without that range and maneuverability, Keffer would have little problem tearing him to little bitty shreds.  For that matter, he wasn’t entirely sure Vula and her claws wouldn’t be able to manage the same.  He imagined fighting her would be something akin to battling a rabid wolverine.

“Until Vula bite off arm.”  She grinned, her inhumanly wide mouth full of sharp, jagged teeth.  A rabid wolverine with the teeth of a shark.  It was possible she could actually bite his arm off.  Or at least tear enough of it away to render it useless and bleeding out.

“Yes, but wouldn’t you biting off my arm also make claws useless?”  He raised an eyebrow at her.

“It…”  Vula blinked, then frowned.  “Vula need think on it more.”  She scratched her head, then her face brightened.  “Vula bite off leg!”

He exhaled.  Except in tournaments he’d always preferred to wear no more than greaves rather than bog himself down with heavier armor.  But when it came to facing something like Vula, maybe enclosing his entire body behind metal wouldn’t be a bad idea.  “An excellent tactical choice.”  He nodded to her, and she grinned again.  His eyes went to Ileana.  “Speaking of tactics…”

“We discussed this already.”  Ileana shook her head.  “The castle cannot be taken by outside forces.  The only way we can capture it is if we sneak inside.”

“If we enter announced, there may be no need to take the castle.”  He shook his head.

“As much as I hope Nicolas does prove reasonable, I cannot take the chance.”  Her voice was firm as she handed him the sword belt.  “We will use the hidden entrance.”

“And if Nicolas has already found it?”  He attached the sword belt.  Nicolas would undoubtedly have searched for such things his first day inside the castle.  Assuming he hadn’t done so upon previous visits.

“He can’t have found it.”  Ileana laughed.  “It can be revealed only by magic.  Once we are inside, we can activate the castle’s wards and hold it against anyone seeking to take it from us.”  She put her hand on his chest.  “No harm will come to Nicolas’s family, and I will do all I can to prevent harm from coming to Nicolas himself.”

“That is all I can ask.”  He gave her a small bow.


Dragonlord: Chapter 27

The night was cold enough they all huddled together under the cloaks.  The chill was sufficient Bastien couldn’t bring himself to even half-heartedly object, despite the fact that if Maela were any closer she’d actually be inside his skin.  Though asleep, Rien was holding Rachel to him.  The gesture seemed more protective than anything else.

From what little he’d seen, back in the tomb, Rien had stood down when Rachel was threatened.  That was not something he’d expected from the man.  Then there were the events of this evening to consider.  When Rien had pushed him against the wall, he’d expected…  Had the man actually apologized?

Bastien looked up at the stars.  Rien had lost two brothers.  One murdered, the other a betrayer.  If they were too late, Rien would lose the third as well, and he did owe Lammert.  From what he’d managed to understand later, Lammert had taken a not inconsiderable risk by intervening, and perhaps a greater one by stopping Rien from going after Wessel.  According to Rachel, Lammert had thrown Rien into a wall.  He wished he’d been conscious to see that.

They were taking a risk, and that was taking its toll on Rien.  If killing the dragon delayed them too long, Lammert would probably die.  If they failed to kill the dragon, Lammert and they would all die.  But if they went back without killing the dragon, it would be Rien’s word against Rutger’s.  And Rutger was far better with words.  The best they could hope for would be Rien’s mother sending them all to their respective rooms.  That Rien hadn’t been able to arrange a group of a hundred friends without half of them being willing to kill him didn’t bode well for their odds at that point.

But Wilders were Wilders.  If Rien came back as the dragonslayer, Rutger’s political maneuvering would be washed away.  However clever Rutger was with words and promises, it was strength and glory the Wilders prized.  It could be done.  Maela and Rachel had both pointed out all the stories said the Dragonlord had killed the dragon by himself, and there were similar legends.

Whoever had left them the keystones had said they would buy time.  Hopefully, they could buy enough.  And hopefully their motives were virtuous.

In the air, a dragon was nigh unstoppable.  But if they could get it on the ground and keep it there…

He sighed, and let sleep claim him.


The Woods Chapter 8

The Woods: Chapter 9

She entered the bedchamber to find it empty.  Ileana frowned a moment before a sound in the garden drew her attention.  A smile came to her face as she looked out the window.  Keffer and Thomas were both stripped to loinclothes, sparring with quarterstaves.  Keffer was fey, stronger and faster than a mortal man, and he had a greater reach than Thomas.

And yet it was Keffer who was losing the match.  Thomas caught the satyr’s ankle with the staff, taking Keffer off his feet.  The butt end of Thomas’s staff stopped a couple inches above the satyr’s throat.  A killing blow, had Thomas intended it as such.  Her husband tossed the staff aside before offering her lover a hand back to his feet.

“Ileana.”  Keffer caught sight of her watching them.  “My apologies, I took the liberty of untying your pet when I realized he was awake.”  Thomas glared at him.  “I also fed him, watered him, and took him for a walk.”

“Then I beat him with a stick.”  Thomas rolled his eyes.

“Thrice.”  Keffer nodded, smiling.  “I thought I’d save bathing him for when you returned.”

“Hmmm…”  She extended a hand, running it down Thomas’s chest.  His body had just a trace of sweat, and there were a few bruises starting to form from the duel to add to the ones she’d left on him the previous evening.  Ileana gestured for them to follow her to the bath chamber.

Inside the steaming room, she directed Thomas to sit in one of the shallow pools.  Then she stripped off her robe before selecting a soap.  He smiled when she joined him in the pool, a smile that only widened when she sat down atop him, straddling his lap.  His arms went around her, caressing her as she began to wash him.  “You taste of woodsmoke.”  His voice was soft.

Ileana hesitated, then nodded.  “In two week’s time we will travel to my father’s castle.”

Thomas was silent for a moment before meeting her eyes.  “Where Nicolas dwells.”

“I hope that Nicolas will see reason, and speak with me.”  She ran a hand down his chest.  “Since you are…”  She shrugged.

“You intend to use me as a hostage.”  Thomas raised an eyebrow at her.

“If it stops Nicolas from engaging in hostilities, yes.”  She brushed his hair back.  “If he resists my reclamation of the castle, I will be forced to imprison him.”

“Let me speak with him.”  Thomas leaned back a little.

“I intend to.  But first, we must actually get inside the castle itself.  Otherwise Nicolas could hold it against us.”  She smiled at him.  “I’ve arranged a place of safety for his family.  Whatever does happen, they will not come to harm.”

“Thank you.”  He returned her smile.  “Nicolas is a good man, and a wise man.  He will listen.”

“I…”  Strange, how much had changed in just the past few days.  “I remember him fondly.”  She settled back a little in his lap.  “He visited our library, a few months before you and I were wed.”

“He brought you the silk.”  Thomas nodded.

“It…”  Her eyes widened.  “Then it really was from you?”

“Of course it was.”  Thomas blinked.  “Who did you…”  He tilted his head at her.

“I…”  She leaned in to kiss him again.  “After everything, I told myself you probably had some servant handle the letters.  But they were you.  It was always you.”

“There was never another, Ileana.”  His voice was soft.  “Even after…”  He bowed his head.


“Who could compare to the daughter of the wind?”  He ran his fingers through her hair.

Her own fingers tangled in his hair as she pulled him to her for another kiss.


The Woods Chapter 8

The Woods: Chapter 8

It took him a moment to realize Ileana had spoken.  She stood, then gestured.  “Clear the hall.”  There was grumbling, but everyone save Keffer obeyed the command.

Thomas remained where he was.  At this point, he wasn’t entirely sure he trusted his legs to hold him anyway.  He focused on controlling his breathing.  Keffer’s hand still rested on the small of his back.  “Ileana?”  Keffer shifted his position just slightly.  “Earlier you seemed rather enthusiastic about this performance.”

He didn’t dare raise his head to look up as she walked over to them.  At least the others were gone.  Whatever Ileana intended now, he would not have to endure their eyes while it happened.  She stood there, silently.  Then her hand touched his hair.  Her fingers seemed almost tender as they caressed him.  “Thomas, look at me.”

Only then did he lift his head, and stare up at her.  She was looking down at him, her face contemplative.  “You told the truth.”


The Woods: Chapter 7

The next morning when she went looking for him she brought a strap rather than the riding crop.  His gaze went to the weapon in her hand before meeting her eyes.  She pointed at the posts.  “Put your wrists through the loops.”  Without a word, Thomas obeyed.  “There is no number, this time.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “I’m going to beat you until you beg for mercy.”

“If you wish me to beg, you need only give the order.”  His voice was quiet.


The Woods: Chapter 6

He vomited again, and started to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.  Someone offered him a towel.  He took it, then blinked when he saw the satyr.  His fists clenched.  “What do you want?”

“If you loved her…”  The satyr frowned.  “Why not tell her?  Have her go to her father and convince him?”

Thomas wiped his face.  “I suggested that to my father.  He…”  Thomas sat, leaning his back against the smooth stone column.  “I don’t know.  He was so convincing then, but…”  He looked up at the satyr.  “Why do you care?”

“I could say that the stupidity of humans never ceases to amaze me…”  The satyr shook its head.  “But this is one of those fascinating occasions where nobility and stupidity are all but indistinguishable from each other.  As much as I mock the latter, I do have considerable respect for the former.”  It tilted its head.  “You did something stupid, because your father told you to do it and you were taught all your life that he must be obeyed.  And now you are here, because you are willing to sacrifice yourself to save your family.”

“You’re mocking me.”  He glared.

“If I was mocking you, I would be bringing up just how terrible you are at sucking cock.”  The satyr rolled its eyes.  “If I had known interceding would make her that mad at me I’d have let her strangle you.”

His eyes widened as he stared up at the satyr.  And then, to his own surprise, he started to laugh.  “I hate you.”

“Pity.”  The satyr shrugged.  “I think I rather like you.”  It offered Thomas a hand, and Thomas let it pull him back to his feet.  “I would not protect you from her, even if I could.”  It met Thomas’s eyes.  “But I will ensure she keeps her word.”


Stone and Fire : Chapter 28

Pauwel was disappointed when Mbali was left behind, but he clearly understood.  Given Thirza’s feelings about Liam himself, there was no way to be sure how she’d react to his daughter.  Liam only stayed in Darodelf a week himself.  The queen was cordial, but didn’t do a good job of hiding the fact she’d prefer Liam to be far away.

Jurgen watched the children playing with the gifts Liam had brought.  For Rutger he’d brought an instrument made from the shell of a large turtle and two story-books, as well as the gift the boy was currently guarding like a dragon.  The lapdesk was made from olive wood, beautifully patterns and lovingly carved, and the pens inside were made of glass.  There were five vials of ink, three of them colored, cakes of paint, sealing wax, and a signet ring carved to look like a winged lion.  He wasn’t sure if the boy treasured it because of its own intrinsic value, or for the fact that Liam had told Rutger it had initially been commissioned as a gift for Koert.

Marinus and Petrus had both been given metal tubes that fired darts when they blew on the ends.  The people of Ocia apparently used them to hunt rodents and birds.  Marinus and Petrus were using them to hunt each other.  Fortunately, the darts had blunted tips.  Both boys had also been given small boxes that played a brief tune when a handle was turned, before fanciful creatures leapt out of compartments at the top.  The infants were both given stuffed versions of creatures Liam swore existed.  An elephant and an octopus.

Wharf Tower was functional, and Thirza grudgingly admitted it would increase Draak’s standing.  In addition to what the Ilael had brought, goods were starting to come in from Solsthriem traders.  Bringing goods by sea was considered less risky than bringing them by land, as the ships didn’t have to worry about being raided by rival clans.  King Wendel was keeping tariffs on that trade low in the interest of being a good neighbor.

He started to head for the door, then winced as something hit him in the left buttock.  He turned to see Pauwel concealing something behind his back and giving him an innocent look.  Jurgen rolled his eyes.  “He just had to get you one too, didn’t he?”

Pauwel grinned.


Stone and Fire : Chapter 27

Jurgen nodded to Pauwel.  “Things seem…”  He gave a cautious shrug.  “Better.”

“They…”  Pauwel smiled.  “They are.  Not fast or…”  He glanced up at the balcony above.  “Koert was teachin Rutger how to read a couple of the other languages.  I pointed out just how smart he was, and that maybe he could help her like Koert used to.  Taking notes during meetings and all.”

“Sounds like…”  Jurgen nodded.  “That might be good for both of them.”

“As long as she don’t want to actually read the notes.  He’s smart, but he can’t write fast and good at the same time yet.”  Pauwel grinned proudly.  “He’d getting there.  How’s Marinus?”



He laughed.  “Petrus started calling him Rien.  He likes the name.”

“I named him Marinus.”  Pauwel folded his arms.

“It’s a big name for a little boy.”  Jurgen shrugged.

“It was my grandfather’s name.”

“Give him time, Pauwel.  He’ll grow into it.”  Jurgen put a hand on Pauwel’s shoulder.

“He will.”  Pauwel lifted his head and gave another proud smile.  “He’s the River Dragon, and there ain’t nothing out there can fight a river and win.”

“I’m giving him Winterstar.  She’s a mare out of Lavender by Sugar…”  His eyes narrowed.  “Are you snickering at my horse?”

“Yes.”  Pauwel nodded.  “Sugarplum.  Lammert’s funny.”

“Speaking of Lammert…”  He held up a piece of parchment.  “Diantha and I are going to inspect Valyk’s holdings on the coast.  He’s going to meet us there.”  He tucked the parchment away again.  “Why don’t you come with us?”

“I…”  Pauwel hesitated a moment, the nodded.  “Yeah.  She’s got stuff to occupy her right now and uh…”

“And you could use some time for you.”  Jurgen squeezed his shoulder.  “You can bring Marinus as well.  Rozenn’s coming along to watch my kids.  One more…”  He frowned.  “I’ll get her a bodyguard.”


Stone and Fire: Chapter 26

Mbali and Ama were both wearing crowns of shimmering gemstones, and had silken capes draped around their shoulders.  Villagers were offering each plate of food to the two children, letting them choose the first morsels before allowing anyone else to eat.  Uduak blinked.  “Baako…”

Baako laughed.  “See it from their perspective, my heart.  Things are dark, their children are starving, a monster preys upon them, and then out of the sea come strangers, bearing the things they need most.  Answering their prayers.”  He smiled.  “And then, from where they sit, taking only a pittance as payment.”

“A pittance?”  Uduak stared.  “Do they have —”

“No, Uduak, they don’t.”  He laughed again.  “To them, colored pearls are common enough they give them to the children to use as marbles, and beyond that you are just asking for beans.”  He leaned back against one of the trees.  “Without Liam to guide us through the reefs, we’d have had only a small chance of making it here safely.  What we see is something we’ve accepted as normal.  They have clear eyes and so…”  He shrugged.  “They see the miracle.”

“Storm’s mercy, the charts to get here alone would buy us another ship.”  She exhaled, then took a slow, deep breath.  Her eyes went toward where a third of the crew were listening to Chidike tell the tale.  Liam had killed a basilisk in single combat.  Unarmored, and blindfolded.  “Return the gem to the fire, and you’ll be given a gift beyond what you dreamed.”

“Speaking of gifts…”  Baako glanced at the village.  “The governor or whoever he is keeps trying to give me a very large rock and…”  He shrugged.  “I’m going to need Liam to figure out what is going on with that.”

“I’ll uh…”  She sighed.  “Order Adaeze to let him out.”

“Just for a little while, and…”  Baako slowly nodded.  “Maybe on a short leash?”  He shook his head.  “Storm’s mercy, I’m going to set that boy to cleaning the bilge.  What the hell was he thinking with…”  He clenched his fists, then took a deep breath of his own.  “Should put him on bread rations and tie him to the mast and hang upside down from the rigging and…”

She shook her head and walked away as Baako was still muttering disciplinary actions.


The Woods: Chapter 5

Keffer caught her arm and yanked her off the bed, pushing her against the wall.  “Enough, Ileana.  You’re killing him.”

She started to protest, and his hand touched her breast.  A wave of sensation flooded through her, driving all else from her mind.  Ileana staggered when it stopped, catching and holding Keffer for support.  It took her several tries to catch her breath.  “My father was not a traitor.”

“I am well aware of who and what your father was, Ileana.”  Keffer pulled her into a hug, holding her tightly.

“He was lying.”  She clung to him.

“He told the truth as he saw it, precious heart.”


“Is it his fault he was deceived?”  Keffer looked down at her.

“That doesn’t excuse that he lied to me then.”  She glared.

“No.”  Keffer nodded.  “It does not.  You were his wife, and should have been his first loyalty.  He broke the laws of sacred hospitality.  You are not wrong to be angry.”  He tilted her head up.  “But some of your anger is misdirected.  Tell me, precious heart, is it the knife or the one who wields it that holds responsibility for the cut?”

“Why would they…”  She shook her head, and let Keffer guide her to a chair.  “Why would anyone seek to hurt my father?”

“Greed for his lands.”  Keffer shrugged.  “And sheer ignorance.  How few among the mortal realm would believe such as I still exist?  Your family has performed its sacred duty well these past centuries.”

“And now it’s his family holding the castle.”  Ileana sighed.  “Nicolas.”

“The man who tried to save your sister.”  Keffer raised an eyebrow.

“I…”  She sighed.  “I need to think.”

“Take your time, precious heart.”  Keffer rose, then bent and picked up Thomas, slinging the unconscious man over his shoulder.

“Where are you…”  Ileana frowned.

“Forgive me, dear one, but I do not think it is in his best interest to be within your line of sight.”  Keffer shrugged.  “I will return him to you when your rage no longer controls you.”

Ileana sighed, then nodded.  She took a deep breath, and then rose and began to pace.


Stone and Fire: Chapter 8

He stood on the deck, watching the water race by.  This wasn’t Uduak’s ship, and thus they were passengers rather than crew.  Still, they worked, lending a hand where they could.  The knot lessons he’d been given to pass the time in captivity proved useful when he spent the morning untangling lines.  The crew still stared when he spoke to them in their language, and as word had spread various crew had approached him speaking still different languages.  They’d yet to find one he couldn’t speak.  Uduak had taken to giving the captain of the ship, a woman named Anan, very smug looks.

The Ilael didn’t keep slaves.  Uduak had actually been shocked when she’d learned he’d believed himself to be hers.  She’d claimed him as her son.  The formal adoption had to wait until they were back at the islands, as there were ceremonies involved, but she’d claimed him as her son.  Enu had happily pointed out that now made him Lammert’s cousin, and had spent an hour taking him around the ship and teaching him the various terms for things.

Uduak kept him with her in her cabin.  He still had to wear a gag so as not to wake everyone, but the dreams were waking him less often.  Now and then he could even make sense of them.  Most were remote and abstract, but he once again saw Enu being hung from the front of a ship, kicking and thrashing as he strangled.  “The Ilael don’t do that.”  Enu rubbed his shoulder comfortingly.

“I don’t think it was an Ilael ship.”  Lammert swallowed.

“I…”  Enu frowned.  “Okay, just…”  He exhaled.  “If you see the ship, warn me?”

“I will.”  Lammert nodded. He tilted his head.  “What do the Ilael do?”

“There are islands scattered.  Some have food and water.  We put off offending crew on some of those.  Depending on the offense, sometimes we go back after a while and offer them the chance to come back.”  He shrugged.  “Some choose to stay, and there are a few colonies.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “What do the Wilders do?”

“Well…”  Lammert considered the question.  “If the person offended doesn’t just kill the offender, they can bring it to their clan chief and then if the clan chief agrees, the clan chief will have them killed.”

“So…”  Enu leaned back.  “They kill people for stealing?”

“No, not always.  Sometimes it’s just a flogging and you have to pay it back, or if you can’t pay it back you get sold into slavery and that money is used to pay it back.  It sort of depends on who you stole from and whether they want to get clan justice or just deal with it themselves.”  He shifted a little, then his voice became sad.  “Mees and his friends stole a silver piece from me, and my brother Jurgen beat them all up.”  He was almost surprised to feel the lump rising in his throat at the thought of Jurgen.

Enu rubbed his shoulder again.  “You miss him?”

“Him and Koert.  And Rutger I guess, but he’s just a baby.”  Lammert sighed, then looked up at Enu.  “I want to stay here, but someday, maybe, I’d like to go visit them.”

“We don’t trade with Wilders in general.  Your people have a bit of coast, but in the past haven’t been interested.”  Enu smiled.  “Perhaps with you here now, that can change.”


The Woods: Chapter 2

“How?”  Thomas stared at her.  She was…  and yet she couldn’t be.  Princess Ileana had thrown herself from her balcony into the river below.  He’d seen it with his own eyes.

Instead of answering, she lifted a thin bladed knife.  She moved toward his neck, and for a heartbeat he thought she was going to slice open his throat.  Instead, she cut the rope around his neck.

His head dropped forward, and he sucked in air.  His position still prevented him from drawing a full breath, but he was no longer limited to the painful, shallow gasps.  He wasn’t sure how long he hung there, limp, just breathing, before she caught his hair and viciously yanked his head up and back again.

Around her wrist was coiled a golden serpent.  It raised its head, flicking its tongue at him.  It hissed, revealing glistening fangs.  “You belong to me.”  Her voice was soft, with a curious echo to it.  “Body and soul.”

“Kill me and get it over with.”  He stared back at her.

Her smile was vicious.  “Oh no.”  She gave a small shake of her head.  “It won’t be that easy for you.”

The serpent reared its head back and struck, its fangs piercing the skin of his throat.  Fire seemed to flow through his veins as he felt it coil around his neck.  He screamed as darkness closed over him.


The Woods : Chapter 1

Ileana gave a slow shake of her head at the captive.  Despite the bonds being unnecessary, Vula had overindulged in the ropes.  The young man’s elbows were secured to one wooden pole, and his hands were secured to another.  The particularly cruel part was that his knees had been bound to the same pole as his wrists, and his feet to the same pole as his elbows, nearly bending him in a circle.  Additional ropes formed a harness over his chest and shoulders, going between and around his legs.  Another rope encircles his throat, tight enough to put pressure but not quite enough to strangle him outright.  He’d been blindfolded, with the blindfold used as an additional restraint to pull his head backward.  An inch and a half thick wooded rod had been jammed between his teeth like a bit.  It had been secured tightly enough that there was a thin trickle of blood coming from both corners of his mouth.  The poles had been placed atop two wooden beams, forcing his already strained joints to support his weight.  All he wore was the ropes.

She drew a knife from the scabbard on her hip as she walked over to him.  His breath was coming in short, painful gasps.  If she left him like that for a few hours more, he was likely going to die.  She considered just making herself comfortable and watching it happen.  At the moment, though, he was unaware of her presence.  Possibly even unaware of her continued existence.  And that was unacceptable.

There was a sharp intake of breath from him as she laid the tip of the blade against his cheek.  Even if he had any wiggle room, actual struggling had been beyond him for some time.  She slid the knife between rope and skin, then cut through the bound that held the dowel in place.  She had to tug it slightly to get it loose from his teeth, and he worked his jaw a moment when it came free.

His body was dirty in places, but sweat had long since evaporated and he was unable to produce more.  She found herself wondering if it would be dehydration or suffocation that killed him if she walked away now.  It was likely the bonds had already done serious damage to his body.  That, however, she could repair.  If it suited her.  Leaving him a crippled wreck had its own temptations.

“Water.”  She nearly jumped at the sound.  His voice was cracked and hoarse.

Even a small amount of water could keep a man alive for a long time.  How long could he survive, bound like that, if she watered him?  Her gaze went to the wood laid beneath him.  Vula’s idea, no doubt.  Fire was usually her first suggestion to dealing with any problem.  Ileana walked to the nearby table and picked up a silver cup.  She filled it with the cool liquid from the spring, then took a carved wooden spoon before returning to stand in front of him.  His mouth was dry, the lips cracked.  It looked painful.  She smiled.  She put a spoonful of water, a few measly drops, into his mouth.  It was barely enough for him to swallow.  She gave him another before setting the cup aside.  “Your name.”

“More.  Please.”  There was pain in his voice.

“I asked for your name.”