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Knife Tip, the Wrathlen
WATER. WHAT KILAI would not give for a mouthful of water. The hunger left him weak, the stomach cramps made him writhe, but it was the thirst that was killing him. His mouth was drier than dust, his tongue felt too large and his head was pounding, pounding, pounding. It hurt to open his eyes, so he kept them shut, with his arms curled about his head. The fire in his wounds was a bleak counterpoint to the relentless thirst.
He felt weak, drained, feeble and useless. Even the scratches across his ribs failed to raise any interest. The first day he woke he’d used the scraps of his shirt to bandage them, stopping the blood that had flowed after he tore the cloth from the scabs. His breeches were plastered to his legs too, but he left them untouched. If he had wounds there he couldn’t feel them. They didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was alive… and wished he was dead.
The thumping wasn’t just in his head as he lay miserably in his tiny cell. It came from above, with the heat. The roar of bellows, shouts in a language he was only vaguely familiar with, the clank and thunder of hammers on metal, all informed him that he was below a forge. And he wasn’t alone in the cells, though none shared his. Groans, curses and prayers drifted around him, barely audible over the daily din.
At night it was a different story. At least for the first few days.
Then the captives had been full of plans, talk of revenge, escape and victory. But now, how ever many days later, with no food or water and pitiful amounts of rest, they were all beaten and dying.
The floor was wooden, sanded and sealed like the hull of all skyships. Yet it creaked and moaned with motion, tiny cracks and crevices letting insidious chills in from outside. Once it had made him shiver, but as he descended into a delirium of fever and thirst, he was grateful for the tiny respites.
A prisoner. He was a prisoner. On a skyship. A pirate skyship, no doubt drifting above the Wrathlen. And he was here, when the last thing he remembered was Cirrus falling.
Cirrus. It was the only word, the only thought, the only name that could divert Kilai’s attention from the torment of his thirst. Yet like everything else in this gods-forsaken place, it was a question, a desire and a need he had no answer for. He remembered falling, then nothing until he woke. Was it three days ago? Four? Five? Had he been unconscious or insensible for longer than a day? His fevers came and went, leaving him none the wiser and all the weaker.
Cirrus. His parched lips formed the word, but his throat was too raw to force the word out. It hurt to breathe. But he thought of her constantly and worried. Was she dead? Should he hope she was, since the alternative was that she was being held too. She would never have left him by choice, not when he’d been taken. The wounds on his arms and sides testified to the sharp claws that had carried him here, but they gave no clues to his miryhl’s fate. Only the emptiness inside hinted at what might have become of her.
Poor Cirrus. He longed to see her, yet at the same time he hoped she wasn’t being held. Even if that meant she was dead. Better dead than imprisoned. No miryhl was meant to be kept permanently inside, permanently grounded. And no Rider was meant to be neglected like this. Why take prisoners only to let them die in the hold? It made no sense. Before he could form any reasons for it all, the fever swept back in and burned his thoughts away.
* * * * *
“WHERE ARE THEY?” Admiral Akavia’s strident tone was punctuated by a crack as she backhanded the prisoner across the face.
The man stared at her through blackened eyes, his lip already swollen from previous blows. Blood bubbled from his mouth and he spat a tooth onto her boot. She kicked him in the chest. When he hit the deck, his head thumped at an unnatural angle and he didn’t move. Akavia growled at her crew about clean up and waste disposal. The ill-fated Rider was dragged away, the bloody smear he left behind efficiently swabbed off, even before the pyreflies started shrieking at their feast.
Standing to one side, beneath the shade of his kaz-naghkt guards’ wings, Yullik watched the show. Despite new Rider prisoners being constantly brought in, as easy to catch as butterflies fresh from the chrysalis, this was the third prisoner the captain had interrogated and disposed of in as many days. Yet she had learned nothing. Perhaps Akavia’s methods weren’t the most effective.
Question, followed by a blow, followed by another blow if the question wasn’t answered. A show of disrespect earned a kick, an insult another blow, a lie a slash from her belt knife. She wasn’t the most patient woman in the world and she had the temper of a pyrefly. Ruthless too. Was it any wonder she was the admiral of the Wrathlen fleet?
She sat atop the rotting carcasses of her enemies, ruling her disparate crews with whip, tongue and knife. She was as widely feared as she was admired. Yullik found her amusing.
“They are useless,” she complained, cleaning her knife after its latest outing, when she’d carved her initials on the prisoner’s chest. “They know nothing. It is a waste of time. Send your guards to scout.” She glared at the kaz-naghkt pair standing over him, their leathery wings fully extended to protect him from the sun. More than six-and-a-half foot tall when fully upright, their presence overpowered the admiral, who was far from a small woman. Their talons were sharper than any knife she might tuck in her belt and they had more in one hand than she could ever hold. Their teeth protruded below their short upper lips and their wing spurs glinted, always armed, always ready.
Yet Akavia was not frightened. He had to respect the woman for that. The rest of the Wrathlen cowered and cringed around his kaz-naghkt. They watched them constantly, always wary, fingering their weapons. The kaz-naghkt ignored them, because he ordered them to, but he knew his guards were hungry. He could hear their stomachs growling every time a prisoner was dragged away and pools of salvia steamed upon the deck.
He would feed them later. For now Yullik wanted them to stand imperiously behind him, protecting him from the sun, even as their wings crisped and burned from the exposure.
When he said nothing to Akavia’s complaints, she scowled but didn’t dare glower at him. His kaz-naghkt might not disturb her – but he did. Which was a relief. He would hate to be losing his touch. And to think, he didn’t even carry weapons anymore. He’d been practising his smile and his charm, just for her. He knew how to make a woman feel appreciated.
“We should send scouts to find them,” Akavia repeated, uncomfortable with the silence.
She frowned and darted a glance at his eyes, just for a heartbeat before she looked away. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips and she glowered at the kaz-naghkt again. “We are missing our chance. There will be but few watching. We should destroy them before more arrive. The prisoners are useless. They never talk.”
“Let them come,” Yullik ordered, because she was starting to whine. The trouble with the Wrathlen was that, despite their numbers, depravities and ferocity, they were used to losing. They did the same thing every year, going out and causing enough damage to ensure their reputation continued, but they were always beaten in the end. Whipped like the curs they were and sent scuttling back to their rocks, tails between their legs. Living on the edge of the world, clinging to their pitiful lives because they were worth nothing more.
Yullik was not used to losing and did not intend to learn how. Which meant it was time to teach the Wrathlen how to win. “Fetch another one.”
Akavia’s eyebrows rose as she stared at his shoulder. “What is the point? They have nothing to tell. You have seen this.” She wrinkled her nose, glanced around to ensure her crew weren’t eavesdropping – they were too busy avoiding the kaz-naghkt – and leant in close. “I only do it to entertain the crew and feed the pyreflies. It is the only value these prisoners have.”
“Bring one up,” he commanded as if she hadn’t spoken.
Pursing her lips to stifle her displeasure, she snapped her fingers at a crewman. “Fetch another,” she ordered, and the man hurried off. “Though why, I do not know. Waste of meat, since the ‘flies have eaten.”
He said nothing, just stood in his shade and waited. Until the new Rider was dragged onto the deck, skin sunken and tight with dehydration, eyes glazed with fever, body punctured by the marks of pyrefly talons. Yullik stepped forward.
When Akavia raised her hand to begin the interrogation in her usual way, he seized her wrist. “This one is mine.”
She stepped aside without a word and the Rider looked up from his position on his knees.
Yullik hunkered down in front of him, lifted his chin with his forefinger and smiled. “Good day, friend,” he murmured, extending the fingers of his right hand across the man’s throat until his skin began to tingle. “Would you like something to drink?”
The fever-glow faded from the man’s eyes and his cracked lips parted, the splits healing with a twitch of Yullik’s finger. The Rider licked his lips and swallowed hard. “Water,” he begged.
Yullik didn’t even have to look away as a flask was dangled beside him. He uncorked it and put it to the man’s lips, who guzzled gratefully. When the Rider was done his skin had lost the tight look and the worst of his cuts were gone. His bruises had faded, his lacerations had scabs and his eyes were clear.
“Look at me, friend,” Yullik commanded, and the man obeyed, helpless to resist.
Locking gazes with those innocent brown eyes, he smiled and cupped the Rider’s chin with both hands. “What is your name?”
“Cynek,” was the whispered reply, as though dragged from down deep against the speaker’s will. Yullik felt the Rider fighting his gaze, but the man was too weak, too tired, too defeated.
“Cynek,” Yullik echoed, savouring the cadences of his name. Owning it. “Speak to me, Cynek, tell me what I want to know.”
“No…” It was a minor rebellion, a desperate plea. “Rumma.”
“Ah.” Yullik smiled again, his eyes probing the Rider’s gaze, digging into his mind and searching for clues to the man before him. “Yes. Rumma. Talk to me, Cynek, and I will reunite you with your miryhl. Is that what you want?”
“Rumma,” Cynek repeated, almost dreamily, and Yullik took that as assent.
“Then it will be so. By the time you have told me all you know, he will be waiting for you. Now, Cynek, where are the others?”
In the end it was as easy as spinning wool into thread – simple, in the right hands. He drew the answers from his subject, one by one, with no resistance as long as he kept moving forward, kept pushing and left the Rider no time to think. With his mind focused on Rumma, Cynek stood no chance. Even in his prime the man was no match for Yullik, though his task was made easier since the man was injured, starved and half-crazed with thirst. He did so like it when things were made easier for him. Some people relished a challenge: Yullik preferred to win.
And so, when he was done and Cynek had told all he could, Yullik let him go and smiled. “You have been helpful, friend. Most helpful indeed.”
No longer held by Yullik’s hands or probing gaze, awareness crept back into Cynek’s eyes. With it came the realisation of what he had done, what he had revealed, the depth of his betrayal. He looked terrified, disgusted and defeated all at once.
“What have I done?” Cynek whispered, closing his eyes and shuddering. “Oh, Rumma, what have I done?”
Bending until his lips rested against the Rider’s ear, Yullik whispered, “Your duty, soldier. Now have your reward.”
At his nod, the taller of his kaz-naghkt guards plunged its talons into Cynek’s chest, slowly clenching its fist before ripping free. Blood spurted as the kaz-naghkt pair howled with glee, catching the body before it touched the deck and tearing it to frenzied shreds.
Yullik turned away, satisfied that the man was dead. His reward had been given. All the prisoners’ miryhls had been killed rather than captured, so Cynek would be with his precious Rumma again soon.
Tomorrow Yullik would lead the Wrathlen fleet to sweep up the rest of the Rider remains and lie in wait for the reinforcements he knew would follow.
Then he would call in the rest of his kaz-naghkt and set a course for the true prize in this campaign: Aquila.
Sunday’s update has a cliffhanger ending. It’s only a wee one, but I thought I’d set my warning out early this time since I forgot on the last one.
Thanks for reading!