"There was a shadow on the floor, so I knew he was waiting. If I hurried, I could run past him and into the Hall before he had time to beat me. Otherwise, I'd have to take it. I ran. He caught me. He always did. I hated him as much as I could, but he was still my father. He was still my brother's father, too, and I could never truly hate the man who had sired my precious Thristen.
"My brother, who always saved me. When I was about to completely lose my head, to fall into the abyss, to hit the mines and never surface, my brother was always there for me. He always saved me, from whatever pain I was going through. When my father beat me, I would never say anything. But, if my brother found the bruises, my brother would get mad. My father never wanted my brother to get mad, because my brother was the only one with the power to disobey him. The only one who could strip my King Father of his Title.
"It wasn't a beating today. It was the Cave. At least, that's what I called it. But she called it her cage. It was the only place she had known, for a long time. Sometimes she was sent out to kill someone or burn a village, but usually she was just stuck. I don't think anybody knew she belonged to us, but she did. She was the Kashrin; the beast we all feared in the depths of our souls. Her title meant 'masked heart,' because her blackness made her appear frightening and soulless. But, she was very kind. Not exactly mother material, but she was the closest thing I had, so I didn't mind. She was the only female presence I had, other than the maids, but the maids didn't talk to me. Nobody did, really. Only my brother, the Kashrin, and my father. Sometimes the Dragon would say something, but not often.
"The Kashrin told me that she knew the Dragon from long ago, back when they were both free. He belonged to us, too, since the time of the Oak Heart. Her name was Anaran. She was one of the Four Nobles, and she was my ancestor. I was named after her.
"But I am a bastard. My father took a human and that's how I was born. My mother didn't want a half-breed like me, so she gave me to my father. My father didn't want me, either, but it had created a scandal, and he couldn't get rid of me without someone making a fuss, and then everyone would make a fuss, and then he would be dishonored. If you were dishonored, you lost your Title. My brother would have become the king.
"When my time with the Kashrin was done, I went back to my room. It was at the top of the castle, in the highest spire, because my father wanted to hide me from the world. It was small, and dusty, and cramped. I had a nice bed, though. And a dresser, and a wardrobe. They were small, but I liked them. There was one window. It was about as wide as my forearm was long, and went from the waist-height of a woman to a foot above the head of a man. It was originally stained glass, but none of the color remained; only the iron that once held it in place.
"Today was the day of my brother's birthday. We didn't know when mine was, so he shared his with me. I was going to meet him at midnight, in the meadow where I always saw him. I put on a scarf to keep myself warm, and then I left. I knew the schedules of every maid and servant. It wasn't hard to sneak out. When I got to the meadow, though, I couldn't move. I had the sword with me; the one I had mined and forged for his birthday. He was in the middle of the clearing, and there were thirteen Tarun around him. I knew the youngest was their king. He was roughly the same age as my brother. When they were done with him, nothing would have let me believe it had been my brother. Thristen's eyes hung out of their sockets, several feet away from where the top half of his skull had landed. Most bones were stripped of their muscle, and lay glimmering in the moonlight. The Tarun King turned around and saw me. I tried to look away from my brother's organs, but I couldn't. The king raped me. Then they left, after he whipped me across my chest. I felt the hot blood running down my torso, but I couldn't move. The last thing I remember seeing is Zakari's vibrant purple eyes and long white hair. Then it all went black."
I hesitantly met Bard's eyes. He sucked on his pipe a little more, apparently ill-concerned. I wondered if he knew all of this about her already. Tress seemed worried, and Rain was busy staring at the fireplace. The others, except for Ana and the Tarun, were staring intently into my soul.
"What's it like, to have the hallucinations?" asked Gears. I shrugged.
"It sucks, mostly. When I have them, I go through whatever she's going through. I feel whatever she felt, when that happened to her. Her depression, her fear, her courage, her hatred."
"What about her disgusting brother complex?"
"Rain!" scolded the den mother, "Have you no compassion?"
"It's fine, Tress. Anaran didn't have a brother complex, he was just the only one who paid attention to her without beating her. He was her whole world. After he died, she became their father's only heir. He remarried, and his new wife had another daughter, a few years later. Then, Anaran was arranged to be married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom. She ran away after that, because she loved the Dragon, and didn't want to marry Andraison. She felt like that would be a betrayal. That's all I've seen, though; I don't know what happens next."
"You talk about her like she's real," began Gears, "do you believe she is?"
It caught me off guard. Gears and the seven others of our squad were humans. Bard was half Fox, and Ana was…Ana. I wasn't sure what he was, but he wasn't human. The Tarun had to know about Anaran, and Ana did, and Bard was the one who told me she was real to begin with. The others thought they were just hallucinations, because of my disease, but they didn't know they were Showings. Ana gave them to me, allowing me insight to his past. Anaran was his sister. He went by her name, because of a part of his travels. Someone had named him Anaran, oblivious of the connection. I wasn't allowed to tell anyone else about Anaran, because then I would be executed for a connection to demons. Ana almost had been, and that was only because he refused to kill a toddler.
"You know, I'm not sure just what I believe. Part of me thinks that she was real, because of how real the hallucinations are," I told him. "But the other part of me would be happy if she wasn't."
"Why?" piped Ana. They all looked at him. "Why would you ever want someone to not be alive?"
"It's not like I want her dead, I just can't imagine a life like that. I've lived moments of it, and they're awful. She was only seven, when she saw her brother's murder. Her dad raped her, after the Tarun did." At this point, the king's eyes grew wider, and he glanced at Ana, but then returned his gaze to me, with a renewed scowl. "He said that if she was already scented, then he could do no harm. He used her as a sex slave…her own father. Not to mention, the things that happened in the Cave-"
"What happened in the Cave?" I ignored Leviathan and continued answering Ana.
"She ran away from home when she was ten. The castle was in the middle of the Forest, and we all know what's out there. Demon or not, it's no place for a ten-year old girl to be running around by themselves. I'd just prefer that nobody actually lived that life. But, they're just hallucinations, so I don't know if they're dependable." I hoped he got my meaning, and the slight nod he gave me told me that he did. Ana could Listen- it meant that he could hear the thoughts of those around him. I found it both impressive and annoying.
"So tell me, Thief, how much did the girl hate the Tarun for what they had done?" I knew Ana was just trying to piss the king off, and I could see it was working. I knew I had to answer honestly, regardless.
"Not as much as she hated her father."
"Really?" the king inquired, overly intrigued. "She hated him more? Are you sure?"
"Y-yeah," I stuttered in surprise, "in her mind, everything bad in her life can be traced back to her father. She hates him even more that she hates the Tarun…even more than she hates you. She only held herself back because he was kind to Thristen-her brother. After you killed him, she didn't have a reason to not hate her father. Don't get me wrong, it's not as though she didn't hate you, it just wasn't as severe."
"You're still talking like she's real," sneered Rain. "And you just accused King Garrett of murder. Isn't there a penalty for that? Maybe even death?"
"No. I did kill Thristen." We all went silent. Bard even looked away from the tapestries on the wall and took his pipe out of his mouth. I was surprised he was allowed to smoke here. And that he even smoked. "Thristen wasn't murdered, though. It was a sort of revenge thing. I'm the only one who attacked him, and he had every right and opportunity to fight back. He didn't though, which meant he must have felt relatively sorry for what he did. I doubt he was too full of remorse, though," the man hissed. He was only twenty years old, but he had already been ruling for six years. Killing Thristen would have been the first thing he did. I pointed this out, and he smiled. "It was, little human." We waited for him to say more, but he didn't. They asked him why he did it, but he wouldn't say.
"So," chimed Merrit, "what's your interest in Kid?"
"Ana," I said, and the king nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts.
"I killed his family."
That night, we all went to bed with unease. I didn't think it was fair to Ana, having to sleep in the same house as the man who killed his brother. But, I supposed it wasn't for me to judge.
This life had all started, for me, when I joined the military about seven months ago. All men are required to serve at least three years of military service for the queen, at some point in time. Nobles tended to do their service between childhood and higher education, but always before taking over the name of the family. I'd heard that commoners did different things depending on the financial situations; some left immediately because their mothers could not support them and their fathers, and others waited until they were summoned before they would leave. But, if a man died before he could serve, his closest kin was required to fulfill his time. If he had no kin, his service was bestowed upon a random name among a crowd.
On a related topic, my twin brother Jay had died when he was eleven of the Severing; the disease we both shared. Being his closest kin, I was required to take on his three years as my own. So, I decided to start serving as soon as I turned fifteen, which was the youngest age available. I had only just finished my childhood education when I entered into the Noble's camp.
My name is Eric Arturious Pendragon, and I am the Heir House Pendragon, which was once the queen's treasurer. We were prominent, to say the least. But, then, when I was nine, my mother was murdered. Two years later, my brother died. A year and a half ago, my father was accused of siphoning money out of the queen's treasury. It had proved to be false charges, but the real culprit was never found, and the other Nobles treated my father and I as though we were thieves. In part, that's how they had conjured the name 'Thief' for me.
Bard could sing, Leviathan was huge, Gears was smart, Tress had long hair, Rain made girls cry, Merit was an asshole, etc. We were all 'named' after a trait the others thought stood out, sometimes sarcastically so, like in the case of Merit. Ana was called Kid because he was one. The youngest you were supposed to be able to enter any faction of the army was fifteen. Kid was going to turn thirteen in a few days. He was incredibly young, and incredibly strong. I had never seen him lose a fight, even when Scolding, our camp's general, had pitted him against Bard, Tress, and Leviathan at once, just for shits and giggles. Those three had ended up bruised and sore for weeks, and Kid had left with hardly more than a scratch on him. Until recently, I had marveled at the thought. I used to wonder what training he had undergone, and what family he came from, to be able to fight like that.
I now knew he was a demon of some kind. At least, on his father's side. Also on his father's side, he was a prince. I'd no clue who his mother was, but I was almost certain she hadn't been entirely human. For instance, his father was the king of a race called the Shi'Hun; the Shifted Hunters, pronounced shee-huhn. Ana himself had the blood of a race called the Kor, which were, apparently, virtually extinct. So, since that most certainly did not come from his father, his mother must have given it to him. The only question was whether or not his sister had possessed the same blood.
The Kor and the Tarun were, apparently, mortal enemies of sorts. If Anaran had been Kor, it would almost make sense for King Garrett of the Tarun to rape and nearly kill the seven year old. At least, it might make more sense than if she weren't Kor at all.
In any case, Ana was generally stiff and guarded around the king, which made perfect sense. The king had killed Ana's older brother, and then had raped and left Ana's sister for dead. Kid didn't exactly hang on the king's every word. What confused me, though, was how the Tarun had received Kid, the first day we had come here. I replayed the events in my head, as I readied myself for bed.
Kid and I were in the same squadron, in the same camp. He was young, small, and looked like a woman. Barely taller than five foot four, with pale and soft skin, a smooth face and small nose, sunny blonde hair, blue eyes the color of the sky. I had actually mistaken him for a girl, the first time I'd laid eyes on him. I soon learned he wasn't, and must admit my disappointment. He was lovely as a dove, and it was rare to find women like that these days. To have such prized features wasted on a man was a shame. But, Ana never seemed insecure because of it. He never acted like a woman, and he never acted like he even knew he had a woman's face.
We trained together often, but never spoke much. Once, he 'accidentally' whacked me in the head, and the doctor had me out of training for a week to be sure I was safe. In a fit of boredom, I had opened the trunk at the base of Kid's bed, and read of the three books in there; the only one written in Human. I'd ignored the other two, figuring that my head injury was just scrambling my vision and playing tricks on me. Turns out, it hadn't been. The other two were books written in Sira, which is the demon tongue. One was filled with songs and poems, and the other was filled with the legends of their people. The one in Human had been about Changing – a thing certain races could do, that changed their appearance. The Tarun could become giant, lion-like cats. The Kor could become birds. The Shi'Hun were bears. The Shi'ha were raccoons. This book had detailed every species and subspecies of each of these animals, and given a ranking in the social standing a being would receive based on what they became. For instance, the Kor virtually ex-communicated flightless birds, but revered lightly colored ones, and practically worshipped snowy owls. There was some reasoning behind the social aspect of it, but I mostly just read it as a joke, wondering why Kid would have such a thing. In hindsight, I wish I had paid more attention.
There was another item in his trunk, though. One that I never really looked at. It was a large sword, with a sheath made from some sort of a green animal hide. I found the books more interesting. After the hallucinations started, though, I realized that this was the sword Anaran had forged for Thristen. It was made from the ore her brother was named after – thristen was stronger than anything else you could mine, and even rarer. It was the metal that tipped the Tarun king's whip, and there were stories about what even a small scratch could do to a man.
Anyways, the books gave me a notion that Ana was, like myself, somewhat intrigued by the demon world. I decided not to report him. But, after I woke up screaming due to the first hallucination, rumors began spreading around our camp about my disease and what it entails. Rain made a rather rude comment about me inevitably dying a horrible, painful, delusional death, and Ana broke his nose for it. Scolding was Rain's uncle on his mother's side, and had created some other crimes to blame on Kid, and then had whipped him for them. Almost one hundred lashes, when he really shouldn't have gotten any.
Scolding had interrogated him publicly about obscure parts of his past. The first time he'd been raped. Why his mother had abandoned him. Why he would never be able to return to his house. Things like that. I'm not sure how many of the questions had reasoning behind them, and I'm not sure how much of Kid's mostly vague answers were true, but it seemed to me Scolding was just trying to humiliate him. It was already amazing that such a small child could stand after all those lashes, and it was even more amazing how asinine he could be after all of them. But, what was most amazing and most frightening was when Scolding brought a cage forward. He pulled a little creature out of it. At first glance, just a young, three or four year old boy. Then you noticed he had a fox's tail swishing back and forth nervously.
Ana and the boy had begun speaking in Sira. At first, it seemed informational, almost a 'how are you today' conversation. Then, it became heated. The boy said something that had set Ana off on a rant, and Ana didn't seem inclined to stop until scolding had cut him off.
"If you can speak demon so fluently, you must be one of them. You can redeem yourself by killing this freak, or you can be killed yourself."
Hey had cut Ana down and given him a staff, with the intention that he would not merely kill the boy, but that he would beat it to death. Instead, Ana had fought through the crowd of Noble soldiers, and had allowed the boy to escape. Without having realized it, I had flung myself into the madness next to him, and had tried my hardest to aid him. So, he was charged with the heinous crime of aiding a demon menace, and I was charged with aiding a criminal. Both were punishable by death. We were sent to the Palace of Queen Maria in disgrace, with the rest of the camp to testify to our insanity. I was in ropes that chaffed and stung. Ana was in a metal mess called the Chains of Leil. He was clasped around his neck, wrists, and ankles, with segments of the Chain connecting each part of his mobile cage. By the time we reached the Palace, just three day's walk away, he was bleeding profusely from each of these places.
On the day we arrived, it had been raining. We poured into the Palace, and tracked mud in after us. There was a red trail through it. You could see every place Kid had stepped, and each footprint had a river connecting it to the next one. Scolding informed our Queen of our crimes, and said each man of the camp was ready to testify as witness. She had been about to give us each death, without hearing anything more, when King Garrett had stepped forward.
"Maria, do you not remember the Contract of Tarun and Human? The boy in these Chains is descended of Kor, and is therefore under Tarun jurisdiction. The boy in the ropes is the Chosen of this Kor, and therefore ours as well. Passing judgment on either of them, in any way, would be violating the Contract, and cause immediate war between our races. You and I both know that you and your kingdom could not afford such a thing, not at this point of time. You must allow us to take them, or we will have the right to kill you where you sit, here and now."
"Very well," the Queen said, without reprimanding him for having not used her Title. "You may have them." I remember the cold look in her eyes, and I remember how reluctant her voice was when she let us go. It almost seemed that the fact her guards could not kill us before King Garrett could kill her was the only thing holding her back. She would have been willing to die, if the last thing she had seen was our corpses on her floor.
Anyhoo, we're still in her Palace, but Ana and I have been treated like the royal guests of the Tarun, and our squadron's been allowed rooms in the Tarun Wing, as well. It really shouldn't be called a 'Wing,' though. It takes up almost half the Palace's insides, and then another three quarters of the yard. The peasantry don't know that, and the Nobles don't, either, but it became clear as soon as we started staying here. On the inside, once you get above the first floor, it becomes clear which side you stand on. The Queen's maids and servants scurry around her side, and all the flowers and pots are pruned to perfection. On the Tarun ground, there were no flower pots. There were no sculptures or statues, and there were no maids. The window's stained glass had all been replaced by panes of varying red and shades and clarities. Everything seemed to be bathed in blood and lined in gold. On the outside, the Queen's gardens are all roses, and her training grounds are all neat squares of dirt, leveled, lined with petunias and other low-growing plants of the season. The Tarun's gardens are a maze. Boxed in by hedges and high shrubs, it becomes a forest of multiple levels. I am to believe that they have burrowed into the ground, and have created and entire fortress all to themselves, though I have never entered that area. They have their own miniature lake, in their garden. They treat the entire thing like a training ground, as well.
I had heard rumors and stories when I was a boy, about the Tarun fighting with fire from their hands and earth from beneath their feet. I had always taken it as metaphorical. Looking out the opened witndows at night, when King Garrett allows the younger Tarun, visiting from their own homeland, to play in that small forest, it is very clear that fire is being wielded. They do not carry torches down with them, and they do not carry torches back in with them, and they do not carry torches through the maze with them. There is fire, and it comes from nowhere.
We have been here a week, now, and the men and I are to return to camp tomorrow. Ana is to stay with the Tarun. King Garrett has promised to train him, although I'm not sure how well I like the idea, especially knowing about Tarun and Kor, and especially knowing about Thristen.
But, King Garrett is muscular and rather imposing. Even if he were a human, I doubt even Leviathan would willingly enter a fist fight with him. Much less, knowing he is Tarun. They are the beasts we warn our children about, because they are demons we are not allowed to kill. The mark of Tarun blood is red hair. If a child is born red-haired, they are given to the Tarun and raised in their land. None but they have entered that land and returned. They walk among us, like as though they are our own, and we must respect them. They are trained from birth to kill, the rumors say. They are trained to fight. Once, they were in a war, and were attacked by a different kingdom. The mothers and smallest children were the only ones left behind, and the attackers were an entire army. The army never returned. The vicious cry of a Tarun was said to be enough to kill you, and I have heard of people who simply hear their voice and faint, never to rise again. They are infamous, horrendous beasts, and are hated even by their fellow demons.
Centuries ago, in the time of Our Human Queen Elizabeth, this kingdom made a contract with them. Legend says the demons were all in a war, almost as big as the Falling Starr, and we needed allies. The Tarun were much stronger of a force than us, and Our Human Queen was unable to get all the security she wanted out of the Contract. For instance, instead of having the Tarun kingdom obliged to protect the entire Human kingdom, they are only required to "devote an exceptional and reasonable amount of energy into aiding and otherwise fully protecting the Royal in charge or otherwise the entire Royal family with the exception that this protection or otherwise aid does not interfere with the safety and security of the Tarun homeland itself, or otherwise endanger the people of the Tarun race." Essentially, the Contract was a mountain of statements similar to that. The Tarun were supposed to protect our Royals, but the terms releasing them from that duty were so vague and open to interpretation that there had been entire generations devoting only a Tarun or two every few months of the year to us, and that was only to punish those specific Tarun for some wrongdoing of theirs.
King Garrett, in comparison, was doing quite a lot. Not only was it rare for a Tarun king to give even a month of his time to us, but even rarer was it for them to give a month each year, as his father had. He himself lived in the Palace, returning to his homeland only when absolutely necessary. His second-in command stayed here, as well, and he had at least eleven others there, at all times. In the throne room itself were generally five or six at any given moment, and they rotated shifts. The Tarun were said to only need ten minutes of sleep each night, though I find that hard to believe. The children who played all night were non-existent during the day. I'm not sure if they slept or simply stayed hidden. King Garrett, himself, I had never seen sleep. I had hardly seen him blink. He always had a stony expression on his face, as though his green eyes had never felt emotion. The other Tarun seemed to have the whole gamut, but the only time I'd seen even a flicker within him was that first day here, and the story about Anaran.
I wondered what had happened, to make him so guarded here, and to leave his kingdom so exposed.