In times of need,
What better recourse than war?
-From 'Observations of the Blind'
The city was burning.
Above the rooftops of the western quarter the night sky was glowing as fires raged. That would be the area around the breach in the city's curtain wall, the gatehouse perhaps. There was already the distant sound of fighting in the streets around him, house to house as the Ch'sty Rim soldiery advanced.
Sekher nervously licked his jowls and clutched tighter at sword and shield. The hilt of his Shern'ae blade was damp with perspiration, causing his fur to cling to the binding. His heart was hammering in his chest, the reek of his fear and excitement rank upon the air in the dark doorway. Where in the names of the Gods was he? In the excitement - dodging enemy troops and mobs of fleeing citizens - he'd twisted and turned like a ribbon in a river, completely losing himself in the strange town. For now he tried to get his bearings. Over there to the north, the wall of the female quarters loomed, its whitewashed planes ethereal against the dark sky. Eastwards was the inner wall, the final line of defence surrounding the palace grounds.
The K'streth Plain militia and Guard would need all the help they could muster.
Pulling his shield close he ducked his head from the doorway, making sure the coast was clear, then began following the road north at a steady jog, hugging the shadows, tail rigid. He'd try to reach the main thoroughfare below the white wall. From there it wasn't far to the walls and the fighting.
An explosion thumped. Sekher's ears and ruff folded flat. That came from the direction of the temple. The priests. He shuddered, refusing to imagine the conflict taking place there. With what Gifts were the shaved Rim priests possessed?
Gods! Being embroiled in a full-blooded war was not what he'd imagined his tour of the bordering principalities would entail. His sire had decided it was now time for him to see more of the world and at the same time make a gesture of goodwill to his allies and neighbours by sending his son as emissary. It would be an opportunity to make new acquaintances and learn something about protocol, diplomacy, and the idiosyncrasies of other lands in one stroke.
Copulating great timing! he snarled to himself as his toe claws clattered on wet cobblestones. Bless the damp plains night, it would make fires harder to start. There had been ominous rumblings from the south for some time now, but nobody had expected it to flare into all-out war.
He dodged around a wagon sitting abandoned in the middle of the lane, the draft shen ululating lowly and rolling their eyes nervously, nearly ran into the enemy.
A trio of them in their eerie red, orange, and black armour were backing a warrior in K'streth cream livery and visored helm up against a wall. The lone soldier's blade was wavering before him, tip flicking from foe to foe as he tried to watch them all at once. An impossible effort.
And the stink of Sekher's fear redoubled. He'd been trained, had drilled many long hours with weapons of many sorts, but this was no game where the loser would lose some fur, perhaps gain a bruise.
And that training held fast where his consciousness failed. Still holding the Shern'ae his hand slipped behind the shield, finding one of the four flat blades fastened there, rose, and snapped down. One of the three Rim soldiers screamed in pain and just had time to try to clasp a hand to the flat blade jutting from the opening in his armpit, then collapsed.
As his comrades automatically turned to his cry, the K'streth guard took advantage of the opening. His sword slashed and opened the neck of a Rim trooper beneath the helmet flange. Blood fountained in a dark spray. The remaining one howled and flung himself upon Sekher. He barely had time to fling his shield up before it rang with the resounding clang of swordstrike.
He struck out with the shield and danced back, whipping his own sword around, but the Rim soldier was fleeing back towards his own lines. Panting from shock and exertion Sekher lowered his sword.
Across the street the K'streth guard was also gasping, looking up at Sekher with the most incredible gold eyes showing above the visor. With one hand he reached up and stripped aside the mask to catch a mouthful of air and Sekher's ears wilted in shock. Not a he... she.
A female! He gaped in foolish wonder. A pelt of a grey-blue so deep it faded into the night, making her sand-coloured armour seem to float unsupported. She returned the stare with a slightly amused smile, raised her sword in salute to him. Small Guard, she had to be: the females who kept order in their part of the city where males were forbidden. What was she doing here? in the male sector?
Only one reason.
He saw it. Beyond the White Wall was the glow of flames.
The female followed his gaze, then gave a wry grimace. She had beautiful little teeth.
There was a commotion behind him as a mass of soldiery burst into the street. The light cream armour of K'streth troops this time, some smeared with soot, others bleeding from minor wounds. Sekher flattened back against the wall as they ran past, metal jingling, headed for the palace. Beyond them he saw the female join them.
"Wait!" he began to start after her.
"Hai! Outsider! Hold!" another voice hailed him.
"What?" he jumped as a grizzled mass of red-brown fur in an officer's helm and armour clamped a hand over his shoulder, forestalling him. "You Sekher Che, right?" A squad of weary looking guards had halted behind their leader, watching their surroundings with nervous eyes. "Orders from the High Lord. We're to get you out of the city and away in one piece."
"But the city..."
"A lost cause," the officer growled. The designs on all their shields were scratched and scarred. They'd seen action and from the looks of them had barely gotten away with their pelts intact. "Come on. There's a postern gate to the river on the west wall." Behind them another explosion rolled across the city. Balls of fire rose from siege engines, then fell in graceful arcs into the packed mass of buildings.
The tiny postern gate did open into the river; by way of the storm drains. By the time they reached the grill at the far end, the small band was covered in the filth that congealed in those tunnels. Sekher coughed and spat in disgust, gagging at the reek.
In the cloudless sky the Hole was a brilliant mass of dots in the night, turning the river into a rippling mass of blackness. There was a small boat well concealed near the drain and within a minute the soldiers had it upright and in the water. Before they boarded, the troopers all smeared their armour with mud, hiding the tell-tale whiteness, although after the filth of the sewers there was little to cover. Sekher in his green and brown blotched livery was dark enough to be exempt. For this he had cause to be grateful: the mud had the thick stench of bad flatulence.
The muffled oars made little noise as the two troopers rowing moved them out into the current. Another pair sat with arrows on their bowstrings; ready.
They could all see the dark mass that was the walls of the city moving away behind them. The orange glow in the sky was brighter. The Lightbringer rising or a more mundane fire?
"Where do we go from here?" Sekher asked.
"Shut it!" the elder warrior hissed, cuffing his ears.
Ears stinging, Sekher bristled, about to reply when a hand was clamped over his mouth. "Silence!" the officer repeated his hiss, directing Sekher's head.
The younger one's eyes widened as the bridge appeared, the troops on it silhouetted against the sky. Silently the boat drifted past, its passengers holding their breath. They could hear the conversation of the guards above, the laughter. Then they were past.
When they were out of earshot Sekher felt the pressure on his jaws lessen, but then there was a painful tweak on his ears. "Cub," the officer snarled. "When I tell you to shut your face, you obey. Without question. I have my orders to protect you, but I swear by all that's sacred I shall put you off at the first town if you endanger the rest of us! Understand?"
Sekher gaped, feeling the heat rising in his ears, then swallowed. "Yes... Sir. Understand."
"What is your name?"
The warrior grinned, his teeth flashing beneath the fringe of his moustache. "Twistfur. But they," he jerked a finger towards the other troopers crowded into the small craft, "usually call me Furball."
None of the others said a word.
"But never to my face," Twistfur concluded with a glistening grin. "Now stay down and quiet."
Sekher crouched down low. There was water in the bottom of the boat, wet on his feet. He grimaced in distaste at the feel, water was something he never felt comfortable around. Still, he tried to find a spot where he could wait out a long ride without cramping up.
They moved as silently as they could, the only sounds the water flowing past the gunwales and dripping from the paddles. In the remote distance, from beyond the mountains bounding the realms of the Trenalbi, the Lightbringer was stirring, the sky bleeding in his honour, while the twin Daughters of darkness danced into the sea.
And ahead of them, against the rising light, four boats moved out into the river, archers standing to draw their bows.
Twistfur saw them also. "Down!" he screamed, throwing himself on Sekher before the younger male had time to react. He landed face down with the warrior on top of him and there were screams of pain and the weight on his back spasmed, then went lax with a gurgling sigh and the boat tipped, spilling him into the water.
He sank, of course, the armour weighing him down.
He tried to cry out; cold tendrils wound their way into his nostrils and down his throat. With frantic desperation he clawed and scrabbled at the encompassing liquid, fighting toward the light above.
Coughing streamers of water, Sekher broke the surface.
"Hai! Here's one!"
Claws caught at his ruff before he could sink again, dragging him through the water to finally dump him on soft sand. He twitched, shuddered, then vomited.
Someone rolled him over.
"Others are dead. What about this? He'll live?"
"Huh, just tried breathing some water. He'll live."
"Look. The others were all K'streth Plain. He's Che Plain."
"Well, well. Do we throw him back?"
"Nah, keep him. Looks like a prize catch to me. Here, look at his sword." Hands touched the Shern'ae blade pulling it from his belt. Sekher batted out feebly but a foot was planted on his throat, claws biting.
"A prize! Look! The crest! It's the Che crest. Gods! He's Highborn."
A face leaned close to Sekher and hands caught at his jaw and jerked his head around to hiss in his face, "Highborn, Huh? I know someone who's going to be very pleased to see you."
Sekher ached; inside and out.
He huddled inside his cage, a box of heavywood and expensive metal scarcely twice his length and barely high enough to sit upright in. It filled most of the back of a goods wagon. There were always guards.
He'd been stripped of his armour and weapons, then shuttled, naked, through a Ch'sty Rim encampment to an occupied town that was now being used as a supply staging post for the invading army. There was no telling how long he'd been locked in a half-flooded cellar before they dragged him out, chained him, then threw him into his little cage.
The wagon was part of a convoy. Southbound for the foothills of the Ch'sty Rim. The other wagons carried supplies and troopers bound for home. Also they carried the loot of the countryside. Near priceless silver and jade ornaments mixed with the more mundane gold and diamonds. Sekher had witnessed troopers gambling away earrings, armlets, statuettes, and small utensils they'd 'liberated'. He'd seen villages and quiet towns with burned buildings and Rim warriors in the streets.
Would this be the fate of his land?
He felt his claws twitch, winced, and spread his hands. Projecting from the ends of his fingers were the remaining stumps of his claws.
His land was not one of the most prosperous. The city's walls were still undergoing extension, as they had been for decades. A little added now and then as budgeting allowed. There were problems with the Guard: their equipment was old and worn.
Gods, anyone could find that out. He knew more.
Such as the fact that the grain warehouses stood near empty after the last failed harvest. Many, too many young warriors had been forced to find employment in other, wealthier realms, hence the low muster of the few garrison towns.
Also, there was no doubt he'd be held as a hostage.
Sekher clamped his other hand over his ruined claws, wishing he could take them to his own throat. Perhaps he would be able to escape, but the closer he came to the Ch'sty Rim, the slimmer that hope grew.
He pulled his legs up and curled into a furry ball of despair.
A strange cry echoed outside, followed by the shouting of Trenalbi and the clattering of equipment as wagons rolled to a halt.
Sekher looked up and blinked, then shook his head violently. Outside his cage he saw troopers in armour and others in only fur and kilts running towards the disturbance at the head of the column. Bandits? He saw no weapons being readied.
On all fours he crawled to the heavy bronze grill and twisted his head up against it, trying to see what was going on.
There was a knot of soldiers gathered around a white lump at the foot of a small cliff. An outrider atop the bluff was cautiously leaning over, shouting something down to the others. What was going on?
A couple of the Rim troopers were bending over the object, poking at it with their swords, then examining it more intensely. They picked up a few bits and pieces, pondering over them with much bemusement and scratching of heads.
There was also an argument taking place, with the white lump the object of the disagreement. Finally a solution was reached, one which caused an uproar of snarling laughter that Sekher liked not in the least. Four warriors took up the burden which appeared to have arms and legs. As they hauled the thing back along the line of wagons and draught beasts, Sekher got a good glimpse of it and stared in astonishment.
Then guards were in front of his cage, slapping the flats of their blades against the bars where his fingers had been a split second before. "All right! Get back there, High One! You've got a house guest!" The last was delivered in a derisive bark.
Sekher snarled back at them, then scrambled madly backwards in a rattling of chains as swords and spears jabbed through the bars at him. Again he crouched in the back of the cage. Outside, the guards were watching with amusement something he couldn't see, then they rattled around with the lock on the cage, sliding the door up. Then Sekher understood.
"Hai! No, you can't!" he cried in panic. "Not in here!"
They beat him back with spearpoints while several of them pushed the white thing inside. The door rattled down behind it.
Sekher crouched in his corner, panting, the smell of his fear overpowering in the confinement. The thing in the cage with him gave vent to a low noise, then raised a head caked with impossibly red blood and saw him.
It gave a yelp, tried to leap to its feet, cracked its head against the overhead, tried to fall forward and was yanked backwards to collapse in a heap, clutching at its skull and making low noises. Now Sekher saw the dull bronze collar about its neck and the very short chain tying it to the cage hatch.
And his captors found this hilarious.
So, it couldn't reach him if he stayed at the back of the cage. They weren't about to risk their prisoner being torn limb from limb, but it meant his tiny box had just grown that much smaller. Sekher snarled silently but relaxed a little, his bristling tail subsiding. He warily studied the semi-conscious creature.
His houseguest was not attractive. That hairless face looked like it had been struck by the flat of a shovel. The short fur covering the top of its skull was a light, dusty brown. However that whiteness covering it was not hide by any stretch of the imagination. Clothing; like none he had ever seen before, but clothing nevertheless. Even its feet were covered. Another little point to puzzle: the creature's furless flat face, fur, and forepaws were coated with dust and a red liquid that could only be blood, but its apparel - the white tunic-like thing and peculiar breeches - were spotless.
Its shoulders were broad, not sloped as a Trenalbi's, and its broad chest and narrower waist gave its torso a marginally triangular shape. Those forepaws, they certainly looked to be at least as dexterous as Sekher's own, despite their apparent lack of claws. That face was flat, muzzle-less, with a small, pointed nose and eyes of a piercing grey, like stone, with round pupils.
What was this thing?
Chenuk sat apart from the others gathered about the warm glow of the campfire, half-listening to their conversation and jokes while turning the strange artifact over and over in his hands.
That peculiar creature that'd fallen from the cliff that day had dropped it. It'd tumbled and rolled down rocks and a scree slope, bounced across the road, and come to lie at the waters edge. And the thing didn't have a scratch on it.
Again Chenuk raised it to his nose and sniffed carefully: the thing bore a lingering, indefinable odour; faintly salty, faintly musky, like old armour.
It was larger than his head, rounded, like a bowl of some kind. In fact it reminded Chenuk of a battle helmet more than anything, but there were no ear holes. Also there was that thing that could be a visor: from the outside it was opaque, black, but by tilting it in his hands Chenuk found he could see through without obstruction. The inside was also padded and lined with curious little projections. Outside it was a mat white, thin blue lines running laterally around the back, two red C shapes on either side.
With a claw Chenuk tried to scratch the black, one-way glass on the front. Nothing. A bluesteel dagger was equally ineffective.
Chenuk weighed the thing in one hand, then impulsively tried it on.
His muzzle almost brushed the glass and his ears were uncomfortably pressed back against his ruff, then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the discomfort faded. He realised with a start that the thing was moving, shifting, reconfiguring itself to fit his head. In front of his eyes the night landscape abruptly flared into brilliant relief, the fire, the warriors around it, and dozens of specks in the grasslands beyond glowing white, shades of grey.
"Gods!" With a muffled curse of fear and disgust he tore it off. Twice it bounced, then lay still. He stared at the thing, heart hammering.
"Hai! Chenuk," a comrade hailed him from the fire. "Problem?"
"Ahhh," he eyed the cursed thing, then cautiously replied, "No... no problems."
"The spirits wandering tonight, huh?" There was laughter.
No, it wasn't tales told to frighten cubs that had his fur standing on end. It was lying like the oversized egg of a coldblood in the light of the moons. Not without trepidation he picked it up again. This time it was still.
The guards around the cage pricked up their ears as he approached. "Hai! What do you want?"
"Just looking," Chenuk said. "What've they been up to?"
"Not much. I thought we'd get a little more excitement. Still, that thing scared the fur off our highborn guest, all that banging on the bars and grunting at us. Seems to have quietened down now."
Chenuk moved so he could see into the dark box. The highborn captive was sitting against the far wall, Drifting, eyes watching the beyond. He shuddered and focused on Chenuk when he moved in front of the bars, watching him warily. The creature was slumped against a wall, head bowed and eyes closed, unmoving.
And that thing in his hand had to be a helmet. That head would fit it like a sword fits a sheath! A demon-made tool! The fear rose from him, almost swamping the scent that came from the cage. The guards looked at him curiously as he backed away from the cage, then spun and bolted for the commanders' pavilion.
The rise of the Lightbringer roused Sekher from drift. Several times he blinked into the light seeping into his cage before he actually began seeing. From outside came the sights and sounds of the Ch'sty Rimmers preparing to move onwards. He stretched as well as he could, then scratched and spent a while chasing small biters through his fur. Gods, but he stank.
At the other end of the cage the creature was still slumped in the corner with its eyes closed. Occasionally it twitched a foot or hand and made a small sound. Was it ill? The previous evening it had growled and tried to scratch lines on the floor for some time before howling, pounding its head against the wall and finally curling up in its corner.
Even last night, when that Ch'sty Rim trooper had come so close to stare at it, the thing hadn't moved. Still, for some reason that trooper had been terrified, taking off as if his tail were alight.
Beyond the bars the Lightbringer was eclipsed as a guard crouched to peer into the gloom of the cage. "Your friend all right?" he grinned.
"Gods," Sekher hissed, "get that thrice-cursed thing OUT of here!"
"Sorry," the other said, looking anything but, "no spare cages. Here's your meal. Enjoy." So saying he pushed pieces of meat through the bars. They fell to the floor at the creature's feet.
"There you go," the guard chittered in amusement. "Prime stuff too. Perhaps it'll share."
"You're not fit to give your seed to a riding beast!" Sekher snarled after him as light once again strained through the bars. His stomach growled to him and he shifted his gaze to the steaks, running his tongue around his salivating mouth. How was he going to accomplish this?
As gods-be carefully as possible.
The creature didn't move as he crept forward one finger span at a time on all fours, eyes flicking from the prize to the thing and back again. Stretch out an arm under the creature's leg. Almost. Not quite. A little further... There!
He attempted to hook a piece, belatedly remembered his claws were gone, then tried to grab it... At the instant the wagon started off with a jolt.
Off balance he fell flat on his face, slamming his nose against the floor. Pain blew a white hole in his face. He lay still until the haze cleared, then shook his head and looked up into the open eyes of the creature.
With a howl, Sekher threw himself backward and crouched panting in his corner. Too close... and he'd dropped the meat. It still lay there.
A hairless hand scooped the slabs up and raised them to the face as the creature sniffed at the steaks. Sekher groaned in despair. There went his meal, and he'd been so close!
And the creature made a low noise, then held out the meat to him. Sekher froze in astonishment, then gazed longingly at the food. The thing shook it, then beckoned with its other hand. Come.
Slowly Sekher did so. Reaching out carefully, then snatching the meat and scrambling back to his corner. The creature hadn't moved and watched as he tore into the meat, bolting it. Cold it was, he'd have preferred it warm, barely living, but still the tangy juices flowed over his tongue and chin. He was growling as he polished it off, licked his fingers clean, and belched.
The creature was watching him with head cocked to one side.
"Thanks," Sekher said, then felt foolish.
Its mouth twitched, then it reached down to its side and fiddled around with a formerly concealed flap in its clothing, producing a small rectangle of some dusty-colored material that it then proceeded to eat: slowly, with no great relish.
Why? It'd had perfectly good food right there in its hand. Sekher watched, not understanding, while it ate, ridiculously tiny mouthfuls and much chewing. Then, from that pouch, it produced a silvery thing like a wineskin that it raised and drank from.
Sekher smelled water, licked his lips again, aware of how thirsty he was...
"Hai," he said, feeling incredibly foolish.
The creature glanced at him.
"That's water?" Sekher asked, then hesitantly pointed at the flask. "Water?"
The thing looked down at it's hand, then slowly offered him the skin.
Just as slowly he took it, surprised at its weight. A skin it wasn't; something else thin and flexible. And he couldn't get a drop out of it. Again the creature beckoned him and its long slender fingers showed him where to press the neck of the flask. The water that came out was the freshest he'd ever tasted, and as cold as if it had just come from a mountain spring.
He drank his fill: there was an impossible amount for the size of the receptacle. The creature took it back, making it disappear again, but for an instant Sekher's fingertips brushed its hand: the flesh was warm, soft, and silky smooth. He absently stroked his own coarse fur.
It sat there, staring out through the bars.
"Hai," Sekher began.
It turned its head. Eyes lost in their shadows, but there was a spark there...
"You're not an animal, are you," Sekher murmured.
The strips of fur above its eyes drew together.
Jai'stra, seat of power of the Ch'sty Rim domain, nestled in the south-western foothills with its back to the grey, cloud-capped wall of the Rampart mountains. The rolling hills surrounding it were dotted with farming communities, their fields mottled yellow-gold, light and dark chasing each other across the countryside.
The city engulfed five hills on the southern bank of the She'ng River, one of the none-too-modest tributaries feeding the distant Daycross river, then the still more distant Torn Teeth Sea. Dark, stocky, granite walls and docks faced the river, high above the water mark to guard against the floods the mountain thaws brought. Watchtowers loomed over the walls like overprotective dams. On several towers were the skeleton-like structures of semaphore stations, their outlying counterparts mere sticks wandering off across the plains to the horizon. In the river, barges and skips lined the quays in the shelter of a breakwater while workers moved bales and barrels, loading and unloading. The covered bridge that crossed the She'ng was a wonder of engineering: five arches supporting the weight of a thousand-span wide mass of stone, wide enough for two goods wagons to pass. There were three more like it. Beyond them the walls loomed, a massive gatehouse warding gates of Heavywood, bronze, and iron.
It looked too massive to Sekher. You could fit the royal palace of Tsuba into the temple grounds of this place. Crowds began to gather around the convoy as it crossed the bridge. Sekher's fur bristled to a chill wind as the gatehouse's shadow swallowed him.
An hour out from the city he had been taken from the cage, his fur stinking, plastered to his body, and had his arms tied to the framework intended for a canopy. He was forced to stand with arms spread high and wide as if supplicating the Lightbringer. Every muscle in his upper torso now ached from holding the impossible position.
Despite the absence of many males off fighting in the north the main street was bustling with activity. The smell of animals and body wastes was just as oppressive as they had been in any other city Sekher had visited. The buildings were strange, with their high-gabled roofs and red and orange trimming contrasting with the black slate of roof tiles.
Stalls and shops lined the thoroughfare, as did carts and traps from which signs and scents advertised the wares. Outside a prospering armourer a troop of Wanderers, their long leather roadcoats dusty from riding, waited on their mounts, watching him alertly but disinterestedly from under their floppy, wide-brimmed hats. Sekher saw this, these Trenalbi living their lives while half a world away he had seen their counterparts fighting for their homes and their lives.
Merchants, soldiers, professionals, mercs, and even a cluster of females in colourful veils with their entourage watched the caravan, jesting with the guards, swapping news, exclaiming in astonishment and mock bravado at the creature in the cage, jeering at the tattered prisoner. Sekher lolled his head back, staring at the dark azure vault of the sky above. Gods, why me?
The main street of Jai'stra was aligned west to east, to follow the path of the Lightbringer. It ended in a plaza dominated by the royal palace: a vast, tiered disk squatting behind its walls, towers jutting up from the top like the spikes on a northern warhelm. Unlike the subtle white and cream stonework that would be employed by the masons of northern realms, the Rim palace was built of a dark material that endowed nothing of the airy grace and coolness of northern buildings. Instead it was solid, indomitable, an edifice designed to withstand the winter storms of the southern climes. Behind it, the north-south wall separating the female quarter was also a dark grey.
Royal mounted guards moved to escort their single wagon as it separated from the rest, their shaggy shens stamping and tugging at their reins as they led the prisoner's wagon through the inner gates into the palace courtyard. He was cut down, manacled, and dragged from the wagon.
"Sir? Where can we put that thing?" one of the caravan guards asked, jabbing a thumb at the cage.
Palace troopers peered into the cage and recoiled slightly. "What in the hells is that thing?!" a sergeant demanded. "This ain't a zoo! Where'd you find it anyhows?"
"Just sort of dropped in." There was some laughter.
"Ahhh!" the sergeant growled. "Dangerous?"
"Doesn't seem to be. No claws. Doesn't like meat... or plants. Gods know what it eats. We've had it in with our friend here. Keeping him company."
"Well, what do you expect us to do with the wretched thing?! Huh? There's not much room down there at the moment." He made a noise of disgust and waved at the guards, "Ah, stick it in with him again for the time being. Until we see what the Lord wants done with it, just make sure it doesn't eat him. Lower level: the royal suites."
His guards seized him by the scruff and arms and hauled him off. Behind him the cage was being opened and animal handlers with restraints moved in.
Sekher sat quietly while the guards fastened the creature's chain to a ring in the cell wall, two others holding it at bay with nooses on poles looped around its neck; they seemed to be half-strangling the thing if that bluish color it was turning was anything to judge by. Sekher really had no choice, the sword resting on his throat made sure he behaved.
Once the chain was fastened securely, the handlers flipped the ropes off with practiced twitches and withdrew from the cell. The heavy door swung to with a dull boom and the light was gone but for the faint glow from around the edges of the door, barely enough to see by. A key turned in the lock and there was the muffled sound of voices outside, footsteps receding.
Then there was silence, and an emptiness that clutched at Sekher's chest. Alone!
"Roommates again, huh?" Sekher said, trying to cover the quaver in his voice. The creature looked up from where it was hungrily sucking air, rubbing at the collar around its neck and bared square teeth in a warning grin.
"Just trying to be sociable," Sekher sighed. Talking to a beast. Gods! was he losing it already? He muttered a hasty prayer that they wouldn't leave him waiting for long. He'd seen convicted criminals who'd been sentenced to solitary before, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
Trying to banish thoughts like that Sekher stood and went across to the door, trying to peep through a crack. He could see a chink of corridor and blank wall. He sighed and leaned against the damp wood. "Don't suppose you've got a key tucked away somewhere?" he asked the creature. It just stared at him. "Didn't think so."
Twenty-five spans by the same again: a featureless cubicle of cold stone. Palatial in comparison with his previous accommodations, but still small. A stinking slit in a corner was the depository for bodily wastes. Sekher made use of it, reflecting that for the eight days they'd been locked in that box, not once had he seen the creature relieve itself. Did it not shit like everything else? Urinate? Gods, was it male or female?
At the moment it had opened that concealed pouch again and was laying upon its lap those little bricks it ate every now and then. There were three left. What did that portend? Sekher wondered. What happened when they ran out?
He settled himself and watched the creature nibble a little of a brick and wondered when something would happen.
End Godsend part 3