In a flash of speed and burning light that sickened him, Dethan found himself standing at the mouth of one of the four entrances to the eight hells, easily recognizable by the dragon’s head carved into the massive stones surrounding it, the mouth of the creature leading downward to the fiery pit. He could assume this was not the entrance in Olan. Weysa would not put him in the heart of the very city she wished him to conquer. So it was one of the others placed upon the face of Ethos. One he knew was underwater. One, like the fountain, was set high on a mountain. And since it was not cold but more summery climes around him, that left the largest opening, the one in Hexis. His armor rested at his feet and he hastened to pick it up. He was still seared and wounded, and he had no clothing, so he stood naked, knowing nothing of the world around him.
He could have hidden back within the cave, but he could not bring himself to step toward it, his muscle and sinew screaming in fear of moving toward the fires below in even the smallest of increments.
Luckily the closest thing to the mouth of the cave was an altar upon which sacrifices to Xaxis were made. He hurried over to it, hiding and skulking behind it as he looked around with wide, wild eyes. The altar was laden with all manner of things, from fruits to dead beasts. Things going to rot and waste. And thanks to that, the first thing he realized was that he was starving—famished from who knew how long without food. But to steal from the altar might mean an insult to the god it was meant for, so he touched nothing there, not wishing to incite any further wrath from the gods. Especially not Xaxis. He was to be working covertly for his goddess’s interests. He could not draw attention to himself until it was time to begin to war in her name.
But she had given him no army. She expected him to find one on his own. It had taken ages for him to build the forces he had once used to march across the world. But what of those lands he had once defeated? Would they still be his to command? How long had it been since he had been locked away?
No. He could not hope that any of the people of those lands would know who he was. None but perhaps … home. Perhaps where he had once sat as warlord and master they would know who he was. But it did not follow that they would accept him. And he was a very long way from the massive walls of Toren, his home. It would take travel across a desert, a lush living valley, and an ocean before he could get there.
It felt strange to use the term “home.” His home for so long had been that fiery cavern. His home had been a pair of chains.
That was when he looked down at his arms.
Free. Free. His skin—raw and ragged as it was; pale, damp, and weak it might be—was in the open air for the first time since … well … since. Naked in the cooler air after being in the scalding heat, he was shivering so hard his teeth clacked like heavy sticks knocking together.
There was no one nearby. That did not surprise him. The cavern was located well above the sprawl of the city. Xaxis was not the sort of god one wanted to spend too much time on or get too close to. He was worshipped out of fear. He was worshipped whenever someone died, the idea being that he could be convinced to turn a blind eye to the departed, allowing them to bypass the eight hells and be lifted up to the eight heavens, where they would reside in brightness and glory. Kitari, goddess of life and death, worked hand in hand with the goddess of fate, Hella, to decide the moment and manner of death one might face, but if one led an impure life, that person would be brought to the attention of Xaxis, and then he would decide whether the person deserved the chains of the hells. It was key that one did nothing to attract such attention. But often Xaxis was worshipped by those who dealt in death, who thrived in the causing of it—warriors looking to send their enemies to the hells. Dethan had been mistaken to be a worshipper of death because he had dealt in war. In war there was always death. But in truth it had been Weysa, the goddess of conflict, who had earned his devotion, and that was probably why she had come to him and none of his other brothers.
They were all warriors, but each in his own way. Garreth had not even been a part of his forces, preferring to take on quests of honor. Maxum was a gold-sword, selling his sword for gold and going wherever the money was best, whether the cause was good or bad. And yet Maxum had his own set of morals, his own limitations, his own rules. That left Jaykun. Jaykun had been Dethan’s right arm, his first lieutenant. His successor, had it come to that. But it never had. They had taken on the folly of finding immortality, in spite of all the riches and glories they already had in the world.
Riches. Yes, he thought with sudden elation. He had hidden caches of wealth all over the Red Continent. All he needed to do was get to one of them, hoping above all that they had not been discovered. He could buy an army if he had those monies. Or at least he could start to buy one. The one thing he had learned in his days as a warlord was that war was an expensive undertaking. Tactics and planning were all well and good, but without the funds to support one’s troops, the effort would come to a standstill.
But one step at a time. He needed clothes. And then a horse. With a horse and some proper provisioning, he could cross the Syken Desert and see if one of his largest caches was still intact.
He looked around and found some thick shrubbery to the side of the opening to the eight hells. He grabbed his sword and the armor and dragged it all behind a bush, hiding it well. The weight of it was light, but it was still cumbersome. He hid it as best he could, looking around furtively to make certain no one was watching. But set so far from the town, he was alone.
Once he was free of encumbrance, he crept toward the city. A piece of fruit had rolled down the hill, presumably from the offerings above, and he snatched it up greedily. He ripped through the thick skin, shoving his entire face into the sweet, pulpy heart of it. He devoured it as he moved, but it was gone all too quickly. He threw the skins aside and wiped his face.
It was daytime—late afternoon, by the position of the blue sun. It was told that the sun burned blue because that was the hottest part of the flame … although the songs of the gods said that the sun was the blue of the eyes of Atemna, the mortal woman who captured Lothas’s heart, the heart of the god of day and night. The moon and sun were his to command, and he had the power to change the color of the sun in remembrance of his love.
Of course Atemna had met a tragic end when Diathus, Lothas’s wife and the goddess of land and oceans, drowned the girl in a fit of jealousy.
It wasn’t the first story of mortals suffering because of the tumultuous whims of the gods. But Dethan knew that better than anyone. He wondered if he and his brothers were now one of the songs of the gods. A cautionary tale for those who reached too high.
The worst part of Hexis was closest to the entrance to the hells. After all, who wanted to live nearest to the hells? The children who ran in the muddied streets wore tatters and rags, the stench of poor sewage reeked heavy on the air, and the noise was more overwhelming the closer he got to it. The stench was harsh in his singed nostrils, but welcome after ages of smelling nothing but soot and crisping flesh. He had crept well into the edge of the mess of it without anyone taking notice of his lack of clothing. They had stronger worries, these impoverished people, and no doubt he wasn’t the first naked beggar they had ever seen.
But he would not beg. No. Not that he was above it. He was not above anything anymore. But beggars would be cast down on, would earn nothing but negative attention. Especially one like him, who looked so vulnerable on sight. Begging would not get him what he needed.
The first order was some kind of clothing. He snuck down a back alley, and immediately he could see clothing lines had been drawn up high between the buildings. But they were a good two stories up.
This did not sway him from his course. He found a strange metal pipe that ran from ground to roof, water running out of the opening in the bottom. He wrapped a hand around it and pulled, studying the fastenings that held it to the stone. With a shrug, he began to climb it. After all, if he fell, he would not die. Oh, it would hurt … it might slow him down, but he would heal, and then he would walk away from it.
Because he could walk. Because he was free.
Only … the sun was lowering. If the fires were going to return …
The thought lent him speed. Because his muscles were still burnt and shriveled, it took all his strength to climb the pipe up to the nearest line and the clothing he found upon it. There was a pair of pants, worn and barely patched in places, but clean and ten times better than nothing. A hundred times better. He snatched them from the line, and like a rat that steals a sliver of cheese, he scurried back down the pipe and slipped into the late-day shadows of the alley. Scrambling, he shoved first one leg and then the other into the pants and then held them clutched to his body, for he had no belt and they were meant for a much stockier man. But now he was clothed and could walk around freely. What he needed now was to find a horse. He would observe barns or smithies, places where horses could be found, and when night fell, he would come back …
After the juquil’s hour, he reminded himself. Because from sunset to the juquil’s hour he would burn. And he had to find a place where he could do so and not bring danger to others … or notice to himself. And the only place he could think of that would fit that need was …
Just thinking about the entrance to the hells made him break out in a cold sweat. The idea of voluntarily stepping into the mouth of the hells all but paralyzed him with fear. He had not been well acquainted with fear during his life as a warlord. He had even been called fearless in bard song. But he was well acquainted with it now. And he didn’t dare step back near the hells and Xaxis’s territory. What if Xaxis could sense him then? What if Xaxis came for him and dragged him back down and chained him once more?
The thought of it made him shake with terror. Bone-chilled, flesh-scorched terror. He had to stop, sinking down onto his haunches in the shadows of the wet, smelly alleyway, huddling into himself and trying for all he was worth to remind himself of who he had once been. A man of courage. A warrior. A warlord who had ruled with an iron fist.
But he was not that man any longer.
After a minute he rose up again and then made his way out into the open streets. The deeper he went into the city, the thicker the traffic. Pedestrians and horses, carts and coaches, lined the roads, kicking up mud and grinding it down again until Dethan found himself sticking in the sludge as it sucked at his feet and ankles. It was a wonder anyone managed to get anywhere at all. The wheels of one of the heavier coaches must have sunk a good four inches or better into the muck. It was only the team of stout ginger merries that kept it from slogging down. And beautiful horses they were. A perfectly matched set of four ginger-colored steeds with white manes and tails. They were called ginger merries because of their sweet, playful dispositions. They were usually women’s horses, and indeed the coach was full of highborn women.
At least that much was the same. The rich still lived better than the poor. Ginger merries still existed. But already he was seeing things he’d never seen before. Like the metal pipe he had climbed. It was a clever thing, he realized. It kept water from accumulating on the roof of the building.
The buildings were another thing. They were well made, not just of stone but of wood and some kind of plaster. Some of the buildings he was now passing were whitish in color, while those he’d just come from had been brown. Still others were made even better with wood planks nailed to the sides. He couldn’t help himself. He stopped and pulled at one. The wood shingle held fast. He could not comprehend its purpose, so he simply let it be and left. He had many other things to accomplish. Although he understood that he could not hope to conquer a world he did not understand. So he would pay attention as he went.
Dethan found a stable after a short while and within it a horse of fine flesh. If his fortune ran well, the horse would still be there come the juquil’s hour.
“Beauteous Hella, look upon me this night, so I may aid your cause,” he prayed with fervor to the goddess of fate and fortune.
He turned away and heard a loud shout. Fearing someone had noticed him, he cringed. He turned just as the sound of a cracking whip cut through the air. There, not too far down the partly cobbled road, was one of the fine coaches … this one led by dark stallions with shining coats that showed the musculature and fine breeding of the foursome. Now, there, he thought, was a horse worth stealing.
The whip cracked again and a man cried out. Dethan moved a little closer so he could see better because it was very clear the whip was not being used on the team of horses. The coachman raised his arm again and Dethan could see a man, wearing little better clothing than he wore, cowering away from the coming blow, two stripes of red showing through the mud on his skin where the whip had struck before.
“Dog! Foul thing, you dare interfere with his lordship’s horses?” the coachman yelled.
And then, when Dethan looked into the open coach windows at who was within, he could see a pair of dark eyes watching the exchange rapaciously. The man within did not intervene, did not stop the abuse. It was more like … he hungered for it. Was eager to see it. The smile that touched his cruel lips only solidified the impression. Dethan had known men like this before. Wicked men. Cruel men. He had fought both with and against them in the wars he had engaged in. Though he had had no tolerance for it in his own camps, there were those who had a thirst for such cruelties.
Dethan did not know why he stepped forward, did not know why he thrust his hand out, blocking the next strike of the whip’s tail from hitting the man, letting it wrap around his wrist instead. He yanked as hard as he could, testing the strength of his healing muscles to the maximum. The coachman had such a grip on the whip that Dethan ended up yanking the lot of them, man and whip, from high above down into the wet of the mud. The coachman spluttered and spat, getting to his feet in a state, his face mottled red with fury.
“How dare you! Do you not see the sigil on this coach? It is the lord high jenden’s vehicle! You will be whipped for your insolence!”
“Would that be with this whip?” Dethan asked, rolling the whip up slowly in his hands. His manner might appear mild on first glance, but anyone who looked a bit harder would realize what the coachman realized: that Dethan, for all he wore baggy rags and a thick layer of mud, was the one fully in charge of the altercation.
“You there! You let my man go or you will find yourself without a head!” barked a man leaning out the window of the conveyance.
“Oh, I’ll let him go,” Dethan said. “Only not with his whip. The whip is mine now.”
“How dare you commandeer anything of mine! How dare you interfere with—!”
He broke off suddenly when a delicate, gloved hand appeared from the darkness of the coach and rested on the hand of the man within. The glove was white with a sprig of flowers ringed around the wrist.
She, for it was obviously a woman, must have said something—Dethan could not hear what—because the angry man subsided somewhat, though it was very clear he was not happy about it. He looked to the left and right, seeing the crowd they were beginning to draw.
“But … my dear … he is an upstart of a peasant and we cannot abide—”
“Is this truly worthy of your time?” she asked, this time loud enough for Dethan to hear, though in no way with strong emotion. More like she might scold a puppy. Then she finally appeared in the window, and Dethan felt his breath lock up in cold shock in his chest.
She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen … save the goddesses themselves. Her only flaw, immediately noticeable, was the burn scar along her lower cheek and jaw on the left side of her face. But he hardly saw it because the rest of her face was stunning, her eyes dark and bottomless, her nose small and delicate, and her lips lush and smiling over perfectly white teeth. It was a shock to him that she had all her teeth. Women of his time hardly made it to her age with all intact.
Her hair was dark and curly, piled high on her head with a jaunty little cap set amid it. The teal cap had a stiff veil, which dropped down over the left side of her face, presumably to hide the scar, only it had been pushed back, either by accident or design, and she could be seen quite clearly. She had the longest of necks, the whitest of skin. Her gloved hand was graceful on the man’s.
“Can you not see how out of line your carriage driver was, Lord Grannish?” she asked him gently. “This man was only doing what was right. Those with power should not use it to press down those without,” she said, almost pointedly. No. It was with a point. Something Dethan did not fully understand was being passed between them.
“Very well,” Grannish groused, his narrow face with its curling moustache looking a cross between angry and deferential. Whatever it was, he was not happy about the situation. “Driver!”
“Sor.” The lady addressed Dethan. “The driver cannot drive without the whip.”
The implication was clear. She was trying to manipulate him the way she had just managed the other man. But he had no intention of being managed.
“A whip should not be applied to such fine horseflesh, woman. If he cannot control them with reins alone, then you are in need of a better driver. And I am in need of a belt.” With a sharp movement he whipped the whip around his waist, effectively belting up his pants, and tied the end tightly to his body, the long, hard handle dangling down against his upper thigh.
“This is a woman of the highest born blood,” the man Grannish hissed. “You will refer to her by her title—!”
She cut him off. “ ‘My lady’ will suffice.”
“Your pardon, my lady. I am a foreigner to these lands and things are different here than where I come from.”
“Then it is understood. Truly, you are forgiven. Driver, ride on!” she said in loud command.
The driver had since climbed out of the mud and back up into his seat, Dethan having kept a sharp eye on him the entire time. He made a sound to the horses and they drove on with a jolting start. Dethan watched them go, his eyes on the woman and hers on him the entire time. It took him a minute to shake himself free of the trance in which he found himself, and then he questioned why he had done what he had just done. He should be worrying about his own skin, his own tasks, and not what happened to a lone man in the filth of the street.
“Thank you!” the man said then, coming up to him and grabbing his hand. He touched the back of his hand to the back of Dethan’s, pressing them together. “I owe you much. Come, let me reward you.”
“I have no need of reward,” Dethan said. He eyed the other man. The man was tall and gangly, full of long, loose limbs and a corded sort of lean strength. It was clear he knew what a hard day’s work was. He had a mop of dark curly hair and warm, laughing brown eyes. “And you have little to give, I think.”
“Any other day that would be true, but today is the fair and I have been saving my silver to go. I think I might find me a wife today, if I can be so lucky.”
“You intend to buy one?” Dethan asked.
“Oh well … I suppose I could. From one of the slavers. But my money is so little that I wouldn’t be able to buy any woman of passing health. It takes a strong woman to be a mud farmer’s wife.”
“You might be surprised,” Dethan said. “A sickly slave might be made well with good care. I’ve seen it done.”
“It might be cheaper at that!” The man chuckled; it was a low raspy sound. He ran a hand back through his hair, obviously a habit because there were streaks of mud in various stages of wetness from the times before. “By the time the courting is done a man can be begging in the streets. Your idea has merit! To the fair, then? I’ll buy you a roasted gossel leg for your trouble, though I wish it was more.”
“A gossel leg is more than fair and will be more than welcome.”
“Very well, then.” The man pressed the backs of their hands together again. “My name’s Tonkin. You are new around here.”
“Yes. Why does that matter?” Dethan said uneasily.
“Well, no one who knows would step in to interfere with his lordship the high jenden’s business. He’s a cruel bastard, make no mistake about it. If I hadn’t fallen, I would never have come close to that vehicle of his. He rides it round here all fine and fierce-looking, making sure all us drudges know our place.”
“Jenden?” Dethan asked cautiously. He didn’t want to seem too strange to this individual. But by the look the man sent him, he could tell he was very much so strange.
“Advisor to the grand. You know, advisor to the king,” Tonkin stressed when Dethan’s expression remained blank. “And anyways, that was the grandina, the grand’s daughter, with him. I guarantee you had she not been with him the whole business would have gone much differently. It’s rumored that once the jenden killed someone right in the middle of the street. And the grand is so enamored with all the jenden says and does he can do no wrong. I suppose that’s why the grand has given his eldest daughter and heir to the jenden to marry. Though some say the jenden’s getting the raw deal, what with her being so ugly and all.”
“Ugly? That’s ugly?” Dethan asked incredulously, cocking a thumb in the direction the coach had disappeared. “She’s nearly as beautiful as Kitari. And I do not make that case lightly, for I’ve seen Kitari with my own eyes!”
He regretted it the minute Tonkin looked at him as though he’d grown boils all over his face. After all, what manner of man claimed to have seen the unattainable queen of the gods? But then Tonkin’s face relaxed and he chuckled.
“Oh aye, she is a beauty at that. I agree with you. But round here that burn makes her ugly to most. Some say she will be unfit to rule after her father’s death … no doubt some like the jenden himself. Jenden Grannish wouldn’t be marrying her, you could wager, if he could think of any other way of becoming grand himself. As it is, the grand’s children have been cast a sad eye by Hella. Misfortunes have fallen on the royal family in terrible ways. The grand’s sons dying like that. And his two youngest daughters taken by the plague just this past summer. That leaves only the grandina Selinda and grandino Drakin. But the boy prince is only two and of poor health.” Dethan’s companion tsked his tongue and shook his head gravely. As though to say that was the whole of it and there was nothing to be done about it. But surely anyone could see that there was something dark at play in the grand’s household.
Of course Hella was as capricious a goddess as any and she had been known to toy with entire families, entire bloodlines, especially if she felt slighted in some way. It was hard to say what moved her and why her whims fluctuated so wildly. There were those who said Hella had gone mad, her mind crazed by the many things she could see and feel unfolding in the world. From all the choices she had to make every day that could save a person or bring about their demise or worse.
But fate could be changed or altered under the right conditions. One just needed to know all the elements at play.