It was the first time in years that Skye had entered the palace proper, but there was nothing enjoyable about the experience. Muriel, beside him, had turned pale with fright. Her face was nearly as white as the darkest of their captors. He tried to calm her with words until a sharp cuff brought spots to his eyes. If they understood him any better than he understood their strange speech, he couldn't tell, but his words were not tolerated. Quiet, and more frightened with each step, he let himself be dragged along.
The Queens' rooms were swarming with more of the strange, pale men. Were they an army of the damned? They were taking valuables, shattering everything else, and he felt sick as a cradle went crashing to the floor and splintered apart.
He remembered the termite mound Muriel had once pried open. The halls of the main palace seemed to be boiling with white, armored bodies. Or perhaps it would have been better to remember the murals the priest had shown him of the demons that thronged in Hell. Muriel was openly sobbing, but he could do nothing. They started to pass groups of huddled palace servants as they came closer to what Skye vaguely remembered was the main banquet hall. The people cowered from the damned men watching over them, but some shot him sidelong glances.
They were in their rights. He was the palace damned, after all; who else but himself could have brought this upon them?
The tall doors to the hall were all but shut with two-dozen pale warriors arranged before them, weapons drawn. Their eyes swept over Skye and Muriel as their group passed through their ranks. He bristled when he recognized the glances towards his charge for what they were. The hands on his elbows only tightened. He was pushed through the narrow gap in the doors first. He gasped. Distantly, he heard Muriel whimper as she was pulled into the banquet hall, but he could only stare forward.
The nobles, surrounded by bronze swords, were pressed into the center of the hall, but they were avoiding its true middle. There was a pile of iron there, and both crushed beneath it and strewn on top were the charred bodies of the priests. A dark, vindictive voice deep inside of Skye started to laugh with glee. The men and women who had hurt him, dragged him to temple, and burned him with iron, all for making light dance as a child, had suffered the same fate. The rest of him was horrified. Muriel's wet breathing quickened. "Don't look!" he called out to her.
No sooner had he spoken, than his head was slammed back onto his captor's sharp breastplate. How they could stand wearing so much metal in the desert's summer heat, he didn't know. Everyone else gathered in the hall was dressed lightly. Skye stood out with his long sleeves, but even was dressed for the climate. The damned were not. They were armored from the neck down, but, he realized, not one of them wore a single bead of sweat.
Muriel and he were pulled past the pile of iron and bodies and towards the front of the room. There, on the dais were arranged two women and a man. The Queen, ashen-faced and drawn, lay on a fainting couch, most likely unconscious. She had been ill for some time, but this was much worse than Skye had imagined from what Muriel had managed to tell him after her visits with the woman who bore her. In stark contrast, the Princess—the real princess, Miriam—sat up straight and stiff. Her spine might as well have been made from a bar of holy iron. The King wasn't there on the dais. It wasn't until her highness stole a glance at the corner that he saw it.
Slumped in a disrespectful heap, bathed in blood, was a corpse. Skye felt his eyes start to burn. He desperately hoped Muriel wouldn't see it. He wished that he hadn't. The King was dead.
"Who are these?" drawled the man on the dais in proper speech. "A,"—a strange word followed—"and a"—the rest was the same unintelligible tongue that the warriors spoke. He turned appraisingly to the Princess. "You remember my words? Gather all your people. After, all that my men find will die."
Skye's blood ran cold.
Studiously staring off into space, Miriam replied, "All my people, yes. Those…" she grimaced, "are not people."
The man jerked back slightly. He seemed to be the only one shocked by the Princess's words. Several of the highborn in the room nodded or muttered in agreement. Skye felt an old spark of anger flare up, but he was not surprised. Muriel, if even she understood, didn't react. Nor did any of the armored men. The one on the dais seemed to be the only one who could understand the words their people spoke, but he did not understand. "Not people?" he repeated. "One head, two eyes, two feet. I can see that one is a woman." Skye's lips peeled back in a snarl. "Those are not people?"
"The younger is damned and..."
The man scoffed, and she went quiet. "Damned? That again?" He called out something in the other language, and laughter broke out among the warriors. His warriors. He wore similar armor to the damned men at Skye's back, but it shone brighter, and a cloak of verdant green draped down from his shoulders. "Damned," the leader mused. "Your father called me that. I think you are wrong. I think you are pretty little idiot." He paused and shot Muriel a glance. "Not as pretty as the girl who is not person. Still an idiot. Damned. This is not damned. This is magick." Upon snapping the last word, he idly tossed up and caught a bright orange ball in one hand. Skye stared at it even, leaning forward as Miriam and her people shrank back. The ball wasn't made of any real thing but of colored light.
"Pretty," Muriel called out, suddenly mystified and no longer afraid. Skye's fear was enough for both of them when the leader, a truly damned man, looked at her and smiled. Two more balls, red and violet, flared into existence around him. "Pretty. Yes, are pretty. Do you like?"
There was danger in his simple, mangled words, but Muriel paid no heed. She cocked her head, thought, and answered proudly, "Fool's are better."
Skye was both relieved and terrified when the damned instantly turned to him, gaze intense and Muriel forgotten. "You are Fool? You can make these? You make…" he trailed off and gestured at the lights, unable to find the word.
"Pretties," Muriel supplied.
He sighed. "Pretties, he said, nose wrinkling as though the word had a bad smell. "We will make a deal, you and I. Make a…pretty and you live."
Heart in his throat, Rowen forced himself to ask. "And Muriel? Will Muriel live?"
The damned frowned him before pointing at the cursed princess. "Muriel?" he asked, to which Skye could only nod. "Make five, at once, and yes, Muriel will live," the man replied. There was a look in his eyes. They were green, like a cat's, and Skye couldn't have felt more like a mouse being toyed with. Five? Five, all at once, with his stomach empty and his arms wrenched behind his back? With iron?
"Pretties?" Muriel asked from beside him, hopeful, her voice high and lilting. The man holding her wrists looked down at her oddly.
Mustering a deep breath, Skye forced a smile. "Yes," he answered her. "Pretties." In front of her, a vivid blue light burst into being, and she gasped, delighted. The man holding Skye shifted, suddenly—finally—fearful of him, but he wasn't released. He squinted and a second light, this time yellow, appeared. It held less color than the blue and bobbed around lazily. There were murmurs and shrieks from the crowd of nobles, but he forced them from his mind and focused on Muriel. The priests were dead, he reminded himself as he willed a pale violet sphere into existence. The priests couldn't hurt him. His heart started to thud in his chest, and he felt his knees shaking. The fourth was hardest, had been hard even as a child when he first called the lights for Muriel and Miriam. A ghostly sheen of green passed before him before winking out. The rest of the lights vanished with it. Only the warrior gripping his arms kept him from smashing his head on the floor as he dropped, gasping for air.
"Three," the damned mused. "Good. You live." He shrugged. "She dies."
Skye's head shot up. "No!" he cried. "Five. I can make five!" It was a lie. Four had been the absolute limit, even before the iron had been snapped around his wrists. He could feel it now, greedily sucking away at everything he was: damned.
The leader of the invaders smiled indulgently, like Skye had for Muriel so many times. "Five," he repeated and waved a hand.
Not bothering to stand, Skye settled down on his knees. For Muriel, he thought fiercely, and the blue, yellow, and violet pretties flared up before him, glowing hot and bright. He gritted his teeth. His vision swam with green. The worms were crawling all over his skin, lapping at the color, eager to swallow it whole and let Muriel die and be dumped into the corner with her father. With a cry, he forced the green to gather together. It hung loosely, not a tight sphere but a floating puddle of light.
The damned mused something in his own tongue before calling out, "Four."
Skye was sweating. It ran down his face. He was sure he was crying, too. Everything hurt. The iron was starting to feel hot, like it would burn right through his sleeves to sear his skin. He squinted into the air before him, but there was no color. He just couldn't concentrate. She was going to die. His Muriel. It wasn't fair.
She laughed. Numb, he turned to face her. The blue and yellow lights were dancing around her head. She swiveled around, following them until, whatever reason, she turned and looked to him, smiling. A little of her lost color had returned. Her cheeks were rosy. Only…not. He stared at her, at the pale, pale pink surrounding her. "Muriel?" he gasped out. "Look at me, please? Look at Fool?" His heart thudded. Everything was swelling inside his ribs. His breastbone felt ready to split. A ruddy glow came up around Muriel. She stared at him quietly. He forced a smile. His little princess.
She gasped, delighted. "New pretty," she sighed. And there was a tiny flickering sparkle of whitish rose before her.
There was roaring in his ears, but he heard the damned murmur, almost reverently, "Five." She would live. The lights guttered at once as he moaned and slumped back against the warrior's leg.
The damned laughed. He strode forward, speaking in his tongue to the men around him. Skye was released and he dropped, boneless, to the floor. The damned strode forward, only to stop and utter a strangled word. He reached forward to touch one of the manacles. Hissing, he snatched the hand back and cradled it. "Five. With iron," he breathed, then began to laugh again. "Good. Good! Sleep now, Fool. In the morning, we begin."
As good a stopping point as any. Hi! I hope you like this so far. I just wanted to let you know that I'm serious about making the best story possible. Anyone who gives me helpful input will have their name and profile link added in an Acknolwedgment section of my profile. I'll do my best to swing people your way.