The Poisoner's Ring

By Rayne Adams

Chapter One

Welcome to Town

The streets were cool, dark, and silent. The rain that had thundered down upon the countryside all afternoon had tapered off to a fine mist, clinging to my bare arms as I made my way through the empty streets. For some reason, the Way Lamps weren't lit, and if it hadn't been for the moon, nearly full at this time of the month, I wouldn't have been able to find my way at all.

The cobblestones were wet, smooth, and familiar under my bare feet, and I welcomed them as a soothing change from the rough, ill-paved paths of the South Road. I'd been away for more than a fortnight and it was a relief to be home, though the silent streets unnerved me. On any other night there would be lights in the houses and voices issuing from the taverns lining the road. Tonight, there was nothing but stillness.

Why—I wondered. It wasn't the Sabbath, and even if it had been, that custom of rest and reflection was barely ever observed this far into the rustic north. The people were much too poor to miss a day of work. There was no reason I could think of to send the townsfolk inside at barely ten hours past noon.

It was if everyone had just…disappeared.

My hands went protectively to the amulet at my throat. It was meant to ward off danger and keep travelers safe, but I was a mediocre craftsman at best. I doubted it would hold up if any real trouble was to befall me.

I nearly jumped from my skin as a gruff voice shattered the tension-ridden silence of the night.

"You'd best get off the streets, boy!"

I squinted, honing in on a pinprick of orange light at the end of the road. A bearded man was hanging out of his top window, lantern in hand.

"Why?" I called back, half-running toward his house and the chance of an explanation. "What's going on?"

"Never mind that," the man said, shaking his shaggy head. "Go home! Keep off the streets!"

"Why? Tell me why!" I demanded, but the man was already snuffing out his lantern and closing his shutters tight. The sound of a bolt being thrown echoed along the narrow lane.

A tinge of nervousness stirred in the pit of my stomach. Something was coming, something frightening enough to scare my fellow townsmen into their homes with doors locked and windows closed. These were country-folk, a bit simple, perhaps, but capable people. What were they so afraid of?

I quickened my pace, choosing to take the path along the edge of town instead of probing my way through a maze of looming buildings and deep shadows. I felt choked in there, too closed in. My hand went to my waist, curling around the hilt of the small blade I took with me wherever I went. It wasn't much protection, but it reassured me nonetheless.

I was just passing the main gates of the town, when a distant sound caught my ears, a frenzied, constant rhythm—hoof beats. I turned my gaze to the gate, eyeing the massive padlock that kept it closed until the gatekeeper woke in the early morning. I stood there, frozen, as the pounding came closer and closer. Abruptly, everything stopped and a horse's whinny penetrated the thick wood of the gate. I heard muffled voices, and then a resonating knock.

I stood frozen to the spot. I didn't know what to do. It wasn't my place to open the gate, but I couldn't very well let them stand out there in the cold, could I?

Before I could make up my mind, one of the voices rose above the other, and I was able to make out a few words.

"—Most likely asleep. Let me."

Then, before my disbelieving eyes, the giant lock trembled. Once, twice, three times, and fell to the ground with a solid clunk. The gates rumbled slowly open, and I realized I was holding my breath. Two shapes appeared beyond it, mounted on horses of purest white, like ghosts in the moonlight. A wavering flame burst into light, dancing in the palm of one traveler's hand.

"You there," a man's gruff voice called out. "Is there a place to put us up for the night?"

I had to swallow several times before I could speak. "N-No sir, I think everything…everything is closed."

"Closed?" said another voice. This one was careless and light, and it made me think of windy days high on the western hills. "Is it a special occasion?"

"N-No, sir," I repeated. "I don't think so…I mean, I'm not sure, I just returned tonight. I've been away."

"Wonderful," the first man rasped. "We finally find a town and there's naught here but more closed doors."

"Patience, Rizak," the other said. He made a low clucking sound in his throat, coaxing the white horse further inside, the light in his hand casting eerie shadows over the wet cobblestones, making them shimmer. He threw his hood back to reveal dark hair and a young, lineless face. He couldn't have been more than six or seven years older than I was. I swallowed sharply, unnerved.

His eyes glowed.

Deep amethyst and vibrant, it looked as if this man wouldn't need a light to see by in the darkness. His eyes recalled to mind all the tales I'd heard as a child, stories of the demon wars of old; battles against creatures who's eyes were like gemstones.

Rizak laughed, deep and throaty. "Looks like your face still scares them all to stone, Azri."

The second man frowned. "Is there not anywhere we could rest for the night?"

"I-I…" I swallowed. "I was heading home, sir….I'm... it's not much…"

"But it's home," the man finished with a small, wry smile. "We'll take it." He spoke with a finality that made me sure he was accustomed to being obeyed.

I led them along the last leg of my journey, scampering ahead of the horses and dwelling on what my tendency to act before I thought had landed me in. Two strange men, one with glowing eyes, were following me home, where I'd graciously offered them room and board. Well, my father had always called me an idiot.

I attempted to move with a confident air as I pushed open the creaking door to my dark, silent hovel, but fear prickled over my skin, settling somewhere at the bottom of my gut. I heard the two men speaking quietly outside, Azri ordering Rizak to tie the horses up somewhere nearby, as I had no stable.

On most days when I came home after dark I would fumble about until I could locate my rusty lamp and strike a flame. Tonight I was blessed by the guiding light cupped in Azri's hand, whatever it was. I dropped my pack onto the scrubbed wooden table, reaching for the little chipped flint glittering in the half light. Before I had even extended my arm, a crackling sound reached my ears and orange light flared, filling the room to the corners. Azri stepped away from the grate, where a roaring fire had leapt up. The heat washed over me in a delightful wave, warming me to the bone.

"How did you do that?" I asked, amazed. Azri just lifted the corner of his mouth in half an amused smile.

"Easy enough to learn," Rizak said gruffly, stamping back in. He was kicking off his heavy boots and removing his gloves. The fingers beneath were thick and calloused, the nails long and raggedly pointed. It looked like he could rip my throat out if he had a mind. He was older than Azri, perhaps by twenty years or so. There were wrinkles around his eyes, and his skin hung strangely off his neck, like he'd lost a great deal of weight in a very short time.

"Where do we sleep?" he asked.

"I only have the one bed."

Rizak shrugged. "The floor will suit." He stomped his way over to a corner and sat down. There was something distinctly animal about the way he curled up, wrapping his long, worn cloak about him and tucking his head under his arm.

"He'll be fine there," Azri told me, shrugging off his long red coat and hanging it on one of the wooden pegs I had nailed crookedly to the wall. It seemed wrong somehow—to see a thing so fine hung alongside my own raggedy garments. The rest of his clothing was no less grand: a spotless silk shirt, cream white in the firelight, tucked into brown trousers. They looked like they were made of doeskin, which was both ridiculously expensive and ridiculously hard to keep clean. His didn't have a speck of dust on them, nor on his dark leather riding boots.

I realized I was staring and jerked my gaze away just before he turned back. His dark purple eyes were eerie in the dancing light, and for a moment he didn't look human. I had to swallow several times before I could speak.

"There isn't much food, but you're welcome to what I have."

Azri chuckled. "That's very kind of you, but Rizak and I are well enough provisioned." He waved a hand toward the saddlebags the two of them had placed against the wall. "Besides, all I really crave at the moment is somewhere warm to sleep."

"Alright," I said.

He turned to me, offering a hand. "Thank you, my sweet, for allowing us the use of your home. May I inquire your name?"

I frowned. "Cale," I answered, forcing my voice as deep as possible.

Azri's brow furrowed, as if in confusion, but I could see the telltale hint of laughter in his eyes. "My apologies." His lips quirked up. "I mistook you for a woman."

My frown deepened. I brushed past him, hanging up my cloak beside his coat, before moving over to the brass basin to wash my hands. The water in it was rank and stale; I would have to draw some more from the well before the night was over.

I didn't look back at Azri—I had no desire to let him see the angry flush that had ensnared my face. He had been making fun of me, I was sure of it. As much as I hated to admit it, this wasn't the first time someone had mistaken me for a girl, whether by accident or out of spite. Not even the first time this week.

My hair, though currently dirty and tangled, was a soft, golden blond and hung nearly to my shoulders. It would be practical to just chop it off, considering how much it got in my way, but it was the only remnant of my mother that had lived on after her. She'd always worn her beautiful hair tied back in a single braid, and I'd yet to see a girl who could measure up to her in loveliness. My hands were also small and delicate, though calloused by the tools of a carpenter. And though I was nearly sixteen, my voice had not quite yet deepened to that of a man's.

"I'm sorry to disappoint," I said brusquely, drying my hands on my trousers and jerking open the cupboard so hard that the door slammed against the wall.

Azri just laughed softly. I continued to stare into the cupboard as I heard him shuffling things around on the bed in the corner. I had no doubt that it would be nothing like he was accustomed to. The blankets were thin and scratchy and hadn't been cleaned in over a month. I knew I would eventually need to turn around and get my face out of the wall, but right now I didn't want to look at my guests. I was beginning to violently regret letting them into my home.

When I turned, Azri had folded himself into the blankets, rolling over to face the wall. I sighed, finally turning around and lifting the pail off its rusted hook on the wall and opening the front door. The wind had picked up, sending a chill through me. I reached for my cloak, but my hand came to rest instead on Azri's coat. The material was soft and fine under my fingertips, and before I could think better of it I pulled it off the peg and slipped it on. It was nice, long and warm and much better protection from the wind than anything I owned. It also didn't smell like dirt and sweat, but of something unnamable, something that spoke of wealth and comfort.

I set off for the center of town, picking my way through the moon-washed streets and still marveling that the Lamps had not been lit. The cobblestones were slick and slimy from the rain, and I almost fell twice. I had no fear for myself, but I didn't want to damage the coat.

The well was in the town square, an old wooden and brick construction that had stood there longer than anyone could remember. The water never dried up, not even in high summer when most villages would have to ration their supply. It was rumored that once upon a time a traveling magician had cast a spell on it in thanks for the people of my town's kindness. I didn't know if I believed that, but I did know the water was always cool and pure.

I drew a bucket and took a drink, savoring the taste after my long day of travel. Instead of heading back at once, I sat down on the edge of the well. It was peaceful here and in the rich red coat I wasn't cold at all. I slipped my hands into the pockets, surprised to find something in each. In the right was a small leather purse, but instead of coin it held little stones, like the kind I used to find in the streams in the forest, worn smooth and polished by the current.

In the other pocket was a slender band of silver set with a tiny red jewel. It flickered and gleamed in the moonlight. The ring was fairly simple, but it was also better than anything I could ever hope to create. True, my family's business may have been wood-working, but in this village and a few beyond it I had always been fancied as a bit of a jewelry maker. Of course, I never had anything to work with past quartz, bronze, and copper, but some of my things were fine nonetheless. I'd never had time to hone the craft. The majority of my customers were farmers and herdsman, and the things they required never progressed further than a table or a milking stool. Jewelry was not a luxury my buyers could afford. The amulets I carried with me were the only trinkets I ever sold, and it was more for their use as luck charms than for their beauty.

I hesitated for just a moment, before slipping the ring on my finger. It was so large that I had to put it on my thumb. Standing up with a sigh, I hefted the bucket and turned back toward home and the two strangers currently using it as their own.

I only made it four steps before the feeling hit me. It was like my veins were suddenly filled with fire, burning through me, tearing at my insides. I screamed, falling to my knees and clawing at my arms. The fire turned cold, freezing me from the inside out. All except the thumb on my left hand—that still burned.

I was vaguely aware of people shouting, of doors opening and lights coming on, but I was trapped. I couldn't move and I couldn't make a sound, it was like being imprisoned in my own body. Everything slowly faded to darkness.

And that's the end of the first chapter! This is the first original slash story I've ever worked on, though I'm quite an old hand at the fanfiction element. If you enjoyed this in any way, shape, or form and would like me to continue, please let me know. I really appreciate reviews and critiques.