Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Chapter Two


Son of Darkness

Bane strode through his army. The host was camped in a rolling meadow that had once been covered with wild flowers. Now it was a vast tract of trampled, muddy grass dotted with cooking fires and tents. The horde stretched from forest to woodland, split into their ethnic and tribal groups. Woodsmoke fouled the air, along with the stench of the crude trench latrines on the outskirts of the camp. As Bane walked through them, trolls, gnomes, men and rock howlers scuttled from his path, opening a broad swathe before him, like a shoal of fish avoiding a shark.

They were having another ceremony on the hillock just ahead. The chanting and pounding of drums filled the misty dawn air. The horizon had started to lighten only slightly, and the night chill lingered. His head pounded with the drumming, which had woken him from a restless sleep and put him in a foul mood. His long black cloak, lined with crimson satin, swept the ground. The gold designs on his black tunic glinted in the glow of the many fires that lit the ghoulish scene. Shadows seemed to trail him, and his presence darkened the very air around him. Anger boiled in him as he reached the knoll. The chanting died away and the drums fell silent with a discordant thud. He surveyed the scene. A naked woman was lashed to a boulder, smeared with blood and other bodily fluids. She had been dead for some time, but that did not prevent the horde from sporting with her. He gazed around with a sneer, his eyes hard beneath lowered brows.

"Been having fun?"

Nervous nods answered him. He strode towards the drummer, who abandoned his crude instruments and dived into the retreating crowd. No member of the horde would come within five feet of Bane; they knew him too well. He kicked the drums, sending them bouncing into the crowd with a flat boom.

Bane glared at them, making them cower back further from his ire. His deep voice lashed out like a barbed whip. "You think my father enjoys these things? Do you think he listens to your pathetic prayers? What makes you think he will grant power to a pack of fools raping a dead woman? He has no time for gobbledegook! He wants blood! Death! Souls to torture!" He paused to let that sink in, then added, "And you will not disturb my rest with your infernal racket!"
Dead silence, broken only by the shuffling of retreating feet and paws, answered him. He swung to face those behind him, causing them to surge back with a gibber of terror. "Today, you kill! You drink blood! You torture, maim and make them suffer! You burn, pillage, loot! That is what he wants!"

A muted growl of assent greeted this. Bane flicked a finger at the corpse. "You will not waste your time with corpses. Use a live woman, or go without! She cannot suffer, you fools!"

Bane spun, and a dozen gnomes ran for their lives. Ignoring them, he marched back to his tent, a full half league away. Removing the cloak, he flung it across a chair and unbuttoned his tunic's high collar. The headache beat at his skull even though the annoying drums had stopped. He groaned as he sank onto his bed, rubbing his temples in an effort to relieve the pain. Why did his father allow him to suffer like this? He cursed and shouted for Mord. The troll entered warily, his twisted black face a picture of trepidation.

Bane snarled, "Make my potion! Hurry!"

Mord scuttled out, and Bane clutched his throbbing head. The headaches had started when he was sixteen, and had mastered the great arts of magic. The more he used it, the worse the headache. At first they had been mild, a mere irritation, but now they annoyed him immensely, making his life a misery at times. His father, the Black Lord, had been unsympathetic, blaming it on his weak human body. Maelle, a fire demon, had given him the drug that soothed it, but warned him not to take too much. The demon's sly grin had angered Bane, and he had tested the potion on a human captive before taking it himself. He knew better than to trust a demon. He tried to take the potion as little as possible. Only when the pain became unbearable did he resort to it. He had not used the dark power since yesterday, and the pain had been building since then.
Mord returned with the infusion, putting it gingerly on the table before scuttling out again, to wait within call. Bane slugged back the foul tasting brew, then threw the cup out of the tent flap and lay back. His father was well pleased with his work so far. His visits to Bane's dreams had been filled with praise and encouragement. The army had grown and advanced, almost unimpeded by the puny forces sent against it.

The Overworld had no great monarch to unite it. The land was split between many nobles, barons and lords, petty kings and princes, each guarding their demesnes with jealous fervour. Each had called upon their people for an army, but none had raised one large enough to do more than delay Bane on his march. The battles had been mere entertainment. A distraction from his true purpose, though he did enjoy them. As some nobles had fallen, so others had fled, removing themselves and their armies from his path. Now they marched through empty lands, but he would catch up with the people when they reached the sea, for then there would be no escape.

Bane thought about the headaches again. He was sure that they had been caused by the things he had been made to eat and drink in the Underworld. As a young boy, foul black concoctions had been forced down his throat while he gagged, writhing in the grip of demons. His skin had erupted in sores and pustules shortly after, and at one point, all his hair had fallen out. It had grown back, thicker and blacker than before, but he had been angry. For the most part, his tormentors had ignored his childish tantrums, or sniggered at them. Demands to see his father had been denied, and when he had complained to the Black Lord, he had found an unsympathetic ear. His power was now as great as the Black Lord's, and he was free to walk the earth, which his father was not until Bane destroyed the wards. First he had to find them, however, and so far he had not come across any sign that they even existed.

As the headache ebbed to a more bearable level, he rose and walked outside, glancing irritably at the sun, which rose in golden glory, a point of hot white light that stabbed at his eyes. He was still not used to its brightness; he preferred the dim, warm caverns of the Underworld, lit by the inner fire's lurid glow. Why his father wished to conquer this awful place was beyond him; he just wanted to go home. He found the sun too bright, the nights too cold, and revolting water had fallen from the sky until he had learnt to control the weather. Banishing the clouds, however, brought out the sun in renewed fury. Gathering the fleecy white puffballs to block out the hated sun inevitably led to a drenching. Either way, he could not win, and now rarely bothered to interfere with the weather other than to deflect gathering storms.

Bane strolled through the camp, ignoring the creatures that scrambled from his path, engrossed in his thoughts. The killing was satisfying, he had to admit; never had there been so many victims. The ones brought to the Underworld had died far too quickly, some before they could be tortured. As he walked past a clump of trees, his eyes were drawn to a group of dark creatures around a fire. They sheltered from the sun in the trees' dimness, hating the bright light even more than he did. He found their misshapen forms repugnant, yet they were the most powerful of all his followers. They were steeped in the dark power that they found in the huge cavern, which led into the descending tunnel to the Underworld.

They were unable to open the World Gate through which he had emerged. The power had twisted them even beyond their original grotesque shapes, yet each breed retained a semblance of their former design. They came in a variety of species, and kept to their bands. Grims, wights and vampires generally avoided the larger nasties, night crawlers, grotesques and weirds. No two were exactly alike, some being more twisted than others, but their deformities did not seem to hamper them. Many boasted bat wings, but few could actually fly. They carried no weapons other than the claws, fangs or spines with which they had been born, and although they had been shaped by the dark power, none could wield it. They growled as they watched him pass, their eyes glowing in the firelight.

Arriving at the place where his mount was tethered, he watched as trolls tossed meat to it, keeping well clear of its teeth and talons. The lesser red dragon turned baleful yellow eyes upon its master, snapping its jaws in his direction. Armed with a formidable array of teeth, claws and spines, a dragon, even a small red like this one, was a fearsome beast. It was flightless, but equipped with powerful legs and a sinuous body that could move with remarkable speed.

Although not a fire breather, it was comfortable to ride, and it was also the only Overworld animal that would not be killed by his touch, he had discovered. When first he had come across a horse, he had attempted to ride it, but the beast had gone into a foaming frenzy and collapsed. Irked by this, Bane had banished all horses from his army, forcing the men to march. He had captured a dragon instead, and was well pleased with it. Not only was it able to survive his touch, but any who ventured too close to it would die, which suited Bane perfectly.

Its chains clanked as it lunged at its handlers, snapping at them as they tossed the meat. It preferred live prey, and would have rather have eaten live troll than dead human. Feeding it was no problem; a few humans were killed every day. Dragons did not usually feed that often. They spent most of their time in slothful basking, but this one, ridden daily, needed a great deal of food. When enough of the wards had been broken, he would be able to summon a Demon Steed, but until then, the dragon would suffice.

As Bane approached, it cowered away, tugging at the chains. He smiled, enjoying his power. Everything was afraid of him, and he liked that. No one had dared to touch him since he had mastered the dark power in the Underworld four years ago. Then an air demon, Yangarra, had tried to torment him by sucking the air from his lungs and sniggering as he gasped; the kind of cruel trick that it had played on him for years. A burst of dark fire had burnt it to ash. He had suffered the headache afterwards, and his father's wrath, but it had been worth it. His father had not dared to punish him.

Bane picked up the cruel headgear that allowed him to control the dragon. Vicious spikes were attached to a thin chain bridle that gouged the beast's muzzle whenever Bane jerked on the reins. He pulled it onto the cowering beast's head and fastened it so that it could not be shaken off. The trolls shuffled away as he threw the thick woolly skin over the animal's back and mounted. The dragon writhed beneath him, hurt by his touch. He prodded it with a sharp metal goad, making it lurch forward into its smooth flowing run with a resentful hiss.

The army followed him through the next valley and into a town at its far end. A few aged livestock and an old man who died of fright when he saw the first troll, inhabited it. Although expected, Bane found the Overworld people's cowardice annoying. It robbed him of his daily entertainment. The troops took some enjoyment in setting the village alight, but Bane found little satisfaction in that.

Leaving the town to burn, he led them down the road a few leagues before he stopped and turned to survey them with narrowed eyes, searching for a bold look or a defiant air among them. If he could find fault with one of them, he could devise a painful punishment for his amusement. The men cowered, giving him no excuse for such an action, and he snorted in annoyance. If he tortured one of them for no reason, they would leave, and he did not relish the prospect of doing everything himself. He turned and led them onwards. There had to be some old, weak, sick or injured stragglers that could provide sport for the evening.

By the end of the day, a group of trolls had found one child lost in the woods, but had torn him apart in their eagerness. When Bane found out about this, he had them whipped for cheating him of his evening's entertainment. That provided some small measure of the amusement he craved, although it was not as satisfying as torturing an innocent. He was tempted to scry, but that used the dark power, and would bring back the headache.

Bane's mood had turned ugly by the time they camped for the night, and he kicked Mord when the troll brought his supper. The food, a reddish concoction sent from the Underworld, was his only sustenance. He pondered it as he ate, ignoring its bitter taste. As an Underworld creature, Overworld food would be poison to him, his father had said. The Black Lord was naturally concerned for the health of his son, although Bane was unsure how Overworld food could poison him when he was so powerful. His father seldom explained things to him, however. He simply expected obedience.

Like making Bane hate women. He must have had a reason, but he had never told Bane what it was. Instead, he had filled his son's head with terrible stories about witches and evil women since he had been old enough to understand them. Then, when Bane was fifteen, the Black Lord had captured a pretty young girl and brought her to the Underworld. The girl had begged Bane for mercy, since he was the only creature there who even resembled a human. Every time he had looked at her, his father had grown angry, accusing him of weakness and sentiment. At first, he had been fascinated by her, but his father's mockery and the demons' baiting had made him hate the girl, and his father had ordered him to kill her.

Up here, he had come across many women, and found that they died as easily as men, and none lived up to the stories his father had told him. Not even the healers in the abbeys. They had been the easiest to kill, for they did not even try to flee. He never doubted his father, but many things had confused him over the years.

Like all the painful ceremonies that he had been forced to undergo, which the Black Lord had told him were to give him the ability to wield the dark power. They had cut him, collected his blood, mixed it with potions and fed it to him. Bane had vomited for days, and his father had railed at his weakness. This had confused him, for no one else in the Underworld had blood, and no one else underwent the ceremonies but him. When he had questioned his father, the Black Lord explained that he had been created a certain way, so that he could go to the Overworld and break the wards.

Bane flung the empty bowl out of the tent and lay down, stretching out on the hard cot. His lithe, powerful physique was also a gift from the Black Lord. Bane had undergone years of forced labour; useless, strenuous tasks that made his body bulge in odd places. True, he was strong, but he had hated the labour. He had broken rocks and dug new tunnels, which his father could create with a flick of his hand, while the demons watched and sniggered as he sweated. That had stopped when he mastered the dark power. He smiled. His father had been pleased with him when at last he had been able to wield the power. After he had destroyed Yangarra, the demons ceased to torment him, and life had been good. Still pondering, he fell asleep.

Mirra dug in the vegetable garden, taking care not to harm any of the fat earthworms that she found there. In two days, she had seen no one. That did not surprise her, although she had expected some wounded soldiers and was disappointed that none had come her way. The deer came at her call, but seemed more nervous than usual. They stayed only long enough to snatch the sweet bread that she gave them before vanishing into the woods once more.

Birds answered the call of spring, and raised their chicks in scruffy nests and tree holes, filling the woodland with their lilting song. Her only patient had been a starling with a broken wing. A mere moment's work, although still satisfying. The squirrels brought her nuts, and a badger left tender roots outside her door each night as tokens of their friendship. For someone who had grown up in a crowded abbey, however, the peaceful forest was a lonely place.

Mirra looked up at a flash of movement among the trees, hope brightening her eyes. A young hind limped from the woods, her eyes wide and fearful, and Mirra hurried over to her. The deer trembled and panted as Mirra examined her, and the animal's pain tingled through her. Mirra gasped when she found the black arrow that protruded from the doe's haunch, and raised a hand to her mouth in shock. The infliction of such pain upon an innocent animal horrified her, and she realised that the actual purpose of the shaft was to kill the hind. She had never heard of such a thing, since the healers ate no meat. She could not fathom the reason for killing such a beautiful creature.

Mirra still had much to learn about the world, however, so she put aside her dismay for now, certain that some logical explanation would be forthcoming in the future. Her healing power flowed as she pulled the arrow painlessly from the wound, which closed without a scar. The doe nuzzled her, then trotted away, ears twitching. Mirra returned to her garden, humming. She enjoyed helping humans and animals; it filled her with a warm glow.

The birds ceased their carolling, and strident warning calls rang out. A flock of wood pigeons that had been feeding in the glade flapped for the safety of the trees. A squirrel chittered a warning and vanished into its hole in the spreading oak tree beside the garden. Mirra looked up again as a misshapen man emerged from the trees, followed by three others. Black eyes darted in their wizened, nut-brown faces. Hairy ears protruded at right angles to their heads, and bulbous noses overhung their slack-lipped mouths. Worn clothes, soiled with mud, hung ill-fitting on pot-bellied bodies. Each carried a small recurve bow and a quiver of arrows on his back.

The four gnomes stopped and stared at her, apparently surprised to encounter a healer in these woods. Mirra rubbed the warm earth from her hands as she rose to her feet, and brushed self-consciously at her robe, embarrassed to be found in such a state of disarray.

Hiding her dirty hands behind her back, she smiled. "You are welcome here. Do you require healing?"

One gnome stepped towards her, leering, but another held him back and growled, "Let's not act like trolls, Snort."

Eager for some company, she said, "Would you like some tea?"

"Uh, narr, we ain't thirsty." The first gnome shuffled his feet.

"You all look very well."

"Huh? Oh, yah, we are." He sniggered. "But you won't be fer long."

Her smile widened at his ignorance. "Healers do not fall ill."

Mirra studied them, fascinated. Gnomes were a timid, secular people who stayed mostly in their vast warrens, usually found in hillsides, where they dwelt in tight-knit communities. They were renowned for thieving, mostly sheep or chicken rustling, and farmers cursed them, but rarely caught them in the clumsy traps they set. Gnomes were cunning, if not particularly clever. They usually moved in groups of five or six, and always carried bows and knives. This was a rare and welcome opportunity for her to learn a little about them, and enjoy some company too.

"How may I help you?" she inquired.

The foremost gnome fidgeted and glanced at his friends. "Uh, well, you're coming with us. The boss will want to see you." His friends sniggered, nudging each other, and one muttered, "That's fer sure."

"Of course." Mirra was delighted. She had never heard of gnomes seeking help from a healer. "Take me there."

To her surprise, they gripped her arms and hustled her into the woods, heading back the way they had come. She wondered if gnomes always sought to aid their guests' locomotion in this way, or whether they thought she needed help for some reason.

"You are very kind, but I can manage on my own." When they ignored her, she asked, "Where are you from? I have not seen anyone for two days. It is nice to meet someone at last. Do you live around here?"

The lead gnome grunted. "Not exactly."

"Yuh, we just moved in," another sniggered.

"Good!" Mirra was becoming a little breathless as they hurried her along. "Is your ... er, boss very sick?"

"Sick! Nah, not on yer -"

"Yah, he is." The lead gnome cuffed his companion. "Shurrup, Snort."

Snort whined, and Mirra shot him a sympathetic look, wondering why they should be so confused as to whether or not the boss was sick. Surely that was why they had sought her out? Or had they merely stumbled across her in a stroke of good fortune? She concentrated on keeping up with the rather gruelling pace that they set without tripping over roots or being bashed by low branches, which the gnomes did not notice, being only three feet tall.

Soon they reached the edge of the forest, where the trees gave way to a rolling meadow that had once been dotted with wild flowers. Now a sea of men, gnomes, trolls and all manner of darkfolk covered the trampled grassland from this forest to the next, several leagues away. Mirra estimated that there were several tens of thousands of men, more than she had ever seen gathered in one place. Most of them rested on the ground, some were engaged in cooking, or cleaning weapons, others talked, gambled or slept. They all seemed to favour a dull brown or black garb, and many wore rusted armour. A low mutter of male voices filled the balmy air, and a haze of blue smoke hung over the scene.

"Goodness!" she exclaimed, "This is an army! Ellese told me that there was a war. I am glad you found me. You must have injured men, I suppose?"

The gnome shot her a disbelieving look, his wizened face creased with confusion. They trundled her into the midst of the horde, and shouts of surprise and delight greeted her arrival. The gnomes growled and pushed away those who ventured too close or tried to grab her, and a procession formed in her wake. Mirra was surprised to see every race of darkfolk represented. Usually they were reclusive, and rarely seen by normal people.

Dirty, unshaven men swaggered among them, leering at her, their rank stench thickening the air. She fought the urge to hold a hand over her nose and smiled at them. When she came to man who lay on the ground, a bloody bandage around his leg, she stopped. His pain called out to her, and she slipped from the gnomes' grip to kneel beside him. At her touch the wound healed, and the man stared at her, then the gnomes grabbed her and trundled her away.

They led her to a leather tent in the middle of the camp, which had an untrampled area around it. The crowd of muttering soldiers followed, and formed a wide circle around the tent. A troll who stood at the door ducked inside, and reappeared quickly. Considering the huge stature and massive strength of the black-haired sub-human, she was surprised by his darting eyes and fearful demeanour. The yellow tusks that curved up from his lower jaw pulled his face into a glum expression.

"Is this where your sick boss is?" Mirra started forward, but the gnomes held her back.

"Wait!" the leader said, looking nervous.

Mirra glanced at the crowd behind her. No healers accompanied this army, and the men's glares were distinctly hostile. She raised a hand to fondle her silver necklet, trying to calm her pounding heart by assuring herself that even enemy troops would need a healer's services.
Mirra looked around as a man stepped from the tent. Her heart contracted painfully as her gaze met his, and she gasped. A thick mane of jet hair framed the face of a demon crossed with an angel. His alabaster skin, which appeared never to have seen the sun, lay taut over sculpted features. Fine brows angled up sharply above long-lashed eyes of blue as vivid as a flame's bright heart. His straight, narrow nose that might have been sculpted by an artist striving for perfection in a godly form. His only flaw was a slightly thin-lipped mouth twisted in a contemptuous sneer.

The contrast in his face amazed and fascinated her. His deep widow's peak and slanted brows gave him a demonic, evil look, while his skin and eyes made him resemble a fallen angel. Lines of strain and anger furrowed the skin between his brows, and his eyes were bloodshot. The layered wings of glossy hair fell to his broad shoulders, and matched the ankle-length black cloak that hung from them.

Flame-like patterns of fine gold embroidery decorated the front of his shirt, and silver-studded leather wrist guards encircled his forearms. Mirra sensed the pain radiating from him, echoed in his tormented eyes, and was surprised when the gnomes scuttled away, apparently afraid of him. His aura of power did not daunt her; healers were trained to be unaffected by such things, since even kings and queens must seek their help at times. His obvious need of her help calmed her fears, and she smiled as she stepped forward to offer her services in the manner in which she had been trained.

"May the goddess bless you, and her power heal you through me."

His cold eyes never left her face as he spoke in a soft, menacing voice. "I doubt that, little girl."

Mirra laughed, and he winced as it hurt his ears. "I am certain that whatever your illness is, I can help you."

"You were not brought here to help me."

Mirra stepped closer, which seemed to surprise him, for his brows rose a fraction. "But I can stop your pain."

"Really." His eyes glinted.

Mirra reached up to touch his brow. His skin was cool and satin smooth. He regarded her flatly, his eyes filled with cruel anticipation. She snatched her hand away and rubbed it as she retreated a step, uncertain. Her healing seemed to bounce off him as if a wall blocked it. She sensed a strangeness deep within him, which confused her. It was as if a barrier lived just under his skin, and spurned her healing.

His lips twisted into a sneering smile. "Your magic will not work on me, witch, my father made certain of that. I am so glad you could join us today. Sport has been hard to come by lately, and I have missed it." He raised his head to address the soldiers behind her. "Take her and bind her!"

As he stepped back, many hands grabbed her and dragged her towards a large, upright rock. The strange turn of events confused and alarmed her. The tall man followed, his shadowy cloak flaring to reveal a crimson lining.

The men bound her to the rock with rough ropes, forcing her to stand with her back pressed against it. She looked around for the black-clad man, who watched her, and wondered what they were going to do. Surely they would not harm a healer? When she was lashed to the stone, he walked closer. The men sidled back, and he stopped before her, his eyes icy with contempt.

"Now you will see what I do with witches."

"I am not a witch. I am a healer."

"Do not talk back, witch."

The man pulled a black-bladed dagger from his belt, and she watched him with vague disquiet. He fingered the blade, his eyes raking her as if pondering his next move, then he raised the weapon and drew it down her cheek in a swift motion. Mirra gasped in surprise. The cut healed instantly, without a drop of blood escaping. His eyes narrowed, and he peered at her cheek, then at the dagger. He cut her again, deeper, with the same result. Frowning, he turned and held out a hand to the men behind him, who shrank from it.

"Give me a brand."

A man yanked a piece of burning wood from the nearest fire and thrust it into her would-be tormentor's hand, and he swung back to her. He pressed it to her cheek, but her power healed the burn and blocked the pain. The smell of charring flesh sickened her, but she knew from childhood escapades that any injury she received healed instantly. Perhaps he was ensuring that she really was a healer, she thought. He removed the brand and scowled at her.

"So, the little witch has real magic."

"I am a healer."

"Silence!" His hand cracked across her cheek, snapping her head around. She gazed at him, wondering what she had done to anger him. He was a little flushed, and his brows almost met over his nose. Mirra gasped in amazemnt as his vivid eyes turned black, and he raised his hands. She sensed a surge of strange, evil power. Black flames arced from his fingers and crawled over her with loathsome shadows. Her stomach churned, and she swallowed the sour sting of bile. Apart from the terrible nausea, the fire only tingled where it touched.

He snarled and unleashed a lash that drove her back against the rock, causing her healing to flare in response. The crowd retreat with moans of fear, and Mirra flinched from the terrible power that he wielded. Lowering his hands, he let the black fire die. The darkness drained from his eyes as he glared at her.

"What are you?"

Mirra sagged, relieved that the sickness had vanished with the fire. "A healer."

He swung away, his face thunderous. "I will not waste my power on a puling witch-maid. Make my father happy!" he roared at the crowd. "Torture her! We want to hear her scream!" He strode away, his back stiff with fury.

The horde closed in on her, and many dirty hands reached out to hurt her. They cut the ropes and pulled her into their midst. She yelped as knives slashed her robe and sliced her flesh in bloodless cuts that closed without a trace. Clubs smashed her fingers and snapped her arms and legs. She was beaten, pummelled, thrown down and stomped on, spat on, urinated on. They rolled her in the dirt, broke her ribs with kicks, pierced her eyes with daggers and thrust burning brands into her skin. They tore out her hair in tufts and slashed it off with knives, forced excrement into her mouth and stabbed swords through her gut. The injuries healed instantly and painlessly, but their severity caused her skin to glow with the golden power. Through it all, she gave only an occasional grunt when they knocked the wind out of her.

When they withdrew, she was smeared with muck, her hair gone, but for tattered clumps, her robe in rags, and a bad taste in her mouth. She looked up at them with sad reproach, two tears escaping to trickle down her cheeks as she fingered the filthy ruin of her hair. The gnomes who had captured her dragged her to her feet and hauled her to their master's tent. The troll ducked inside for a moment, and Mirra pulled together the tattered remnants of her robe in a rather vain attempt at modesty, since there was hardly enough cloth left to cover her.
The black-clad man emerged and surveyed her with a grim expression. Pain radiated from him, and she longed to heal him.

"Is this the best you could do?" he roared at the gnomes, who scuttled away, to stop at a safe distance. "I want her dead! Are you so useless that you cannot kill a simpering maiden? All you have done is dirty her and cut her hair!" He clasped his brow, wincing, then turned to the troll who cowered next to the door. "Where is my damned potion?"

The troll held out the cup that he had been clutching, and the man snatched it from him.

"Do not drink that!" Mirra cried.

He glared at her, his lip curling. "Why not?"

"It is bad for you!"

He stared at her in undisguised amazement. "Why should you care?"

"Of course I care. I am a healer."

"You are mad." He tossed back the liquid and threw the cup aside. "Tie her up!" he ordered the gnomes. "I see that I will have to deal with her myself. Make sure the ropes are rough and tight, I want her to suffer!" His icy gaze raked her. "Perhaps she will afford better entertainment than I thought, since she does not die so easily."

They dragged her to the forest's edge and bound her to a tree, the ropes cutting into her skin. She sagged in her bonds, wondering what was in store for her next. The situation made no sense. She had done nothing to earn the wrath of the strange, handsome man, yet he wanted her dead.

No comments: