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Threads of Malice
By Tamara Siler Jones
Random HouseTamara Siler Jones
All right reserved.
Braoin saw strings.
They streamed from somewhere above, dangling before his eyes. Black and shining in reflected firelight, they rustled in the slightest breeze and hung before him, just out of reach.
Not that he could move his hands to try to touch them. He felt like immovable sludge, thick and heavy and still. He lay on his belly, his head balanced upright on his chin, his muscles lax and uncooperative. He blinked and time strung away from him, fading to a dark river.
When he dragged his eyes open again the black strings had disappeared and his view had changed.
His head rested on its side and he stared at his right hand-at least it looked like his right hand, with paint on his knuckles as he remembered, but it lay slumped on a board like a dead slab of meat. Beyond it he saw only shifting darkness. He took a breath, determined to stay awake, and tried to move his fingers. One finger, the smallest, twitched, but the rest remained still.
Goddess, I've never been this drunk, he thought, letting his eyes fall closed again as he tried to think. He remembered eating supper with his aunt's family, but he'd had to leave before sunset, had to get home early because . . .
The dark! His eyes blinked open. His paint-stained right hand and his bare wrist and forearm lay still; there was no reaction when he tried again to move his fingers. He could not lift his head nor move his legs, which hung free beneath his hips. His nude upper body lay chest-down on a hard, scratchy surface, his arms were bare, and his back and shoulders felt cold. Braoin could tell from the breeze on his toes and testicles that he no longer wore his boots, or his pants.
No, no, no! Desperate to move, he forced a twitch through his dead fingers. A spasm gripped his hand, flipping it off the board like a fish out of a bucket.
"Waking, eh," a man's voice whispered from the dark. "Was afeared of that. Quit yer kicking if ye know what's good for ye."
"Let me go, please," Braoin said, his tongue thick. It sounded like "Eh ee ogh, eeh."
A sigh. "Talking ain't gonna make it no better." Fingers gripped Braoin's left ankle, then pain sliced around it, holding it fast, as the man tied him tight.
Braoin pleaded in nonsense syllables while the man moved on to fasten his right foot.
"Shh. He's coming."
Something moved far behind Braoin, something big and lumbering. "Don't talk to it," a second voice said with a low, threatening growl.
A mumbled apology, then Braoin heard steps hurry away.
He heard nothing for a long time, nothing but the rhythmic rush of blood in his ears. Try as he might, he could not move, and he saw only a long length of board leading into the dark.
A thick-bellied man in black robes walked into Braoin's line of sight. He reached down and lifted Braoin's escaped hand, slamming it on the board.
Braoin swallowed and tried to plead, but only terrified guttural whines escaped his throat.
Fat fingers wrapped black twine around the board and Braoin's wrist, holding his hand still and tying it tight. The man muttered a curse then walked toward Braoin's head.
Braoin cried out and tried to shake his head. Please, I'll do anything. I just want to go home.
The man grabbed Braoin's hair and yanked his head, wrenching it upright. "No, please." Braoin scrunched his eyes shut.
"Quiet! We're not allowed to play here." The man moved to the left, tying that hand as well, then he leaned close and whispered, dragging a finger up Braoin's bare arm, "Soon, though. I do so love to play, especially with lads like you. And I have the perfect place. Quiet and . . ." the fingertip moved across his bare shoulders and gouged into his spine as it scratched down toward his buttocks, ". . . private. Just you and me and the dark."
Held tight, Braoin prayed. He looked at the curtain of shining black strings hanging over the dais before him, and noticed slippered feet poking through. "Please," he said in his garbled, dead-tongue voice, raising his eyes and struggling to see the observer sitting above him. "Please let me go. I don't want to die. For Goddess' sake, I'm only seventee-"
The man slipped black twine around Braoin's neck and pulled, wrenching Braoin's head up and back. "Behold the master," he said, tightening the vise around Braoin's throat. "May he judge you worthy."
Braoin saw above the strings, above the slippered feet, until he could see his silent observer: a desiccated, nearly skeletal corpse holding a whip. Its long, dead teeth were gleaming and yellow and it grinned at Braoin while he was dragged into unconsciousness.
Dubric Byerly sat at his desk, his thoughts churning. An open letter lay before him from the mother of a member of the castle staff. After the murders the previous moon, her distraught daughter, the castle's morning cook, had journeyed home to fetch her family. Once there, in the dead of night, she had killed her children, then herself. The grieving grandmother wanted to know what had happened. What had drawn her beloved daughter to such despair. Why her daughter had killed herself. Why her son-in-law had done such terrible things.
These were not questions Dubric could answer.
He settled his mind and wrote a letter of condolence, expressing deep and heartfelt regret for the loss and offering to pay a stipend to ease the financial burden it wrought.
That done, he sealed the letter, set it aside for delivery, then sipped his tea.
The door burst open and Dubric started as Lars ran into the office. Gawky and tall as any lad on the cusp of manhood, Lars had cheeks that were flushed an urgent purple and his straw-colored hair was unkempt and windblown like a tousled halo. He smelled of mud and horse manure.
"Sir! We've received a messenger from the northern reach."
"What is it?" Dubric asked, standing.
Lars held Dubric's gaze. "A murder, sir, at least I believe that's what he's saying. He rode all night and he's terrified."
Not again, Dubric thought, groaning. Gathering his cloak, he followed Lars from the office.
By the time they reached the stables, Dubric had slopped a fair share of mud upon his boots and trousers. Flavin, the stable master, waited outside the door, crushing his hat in his hands. "The lad's nigh about spent," he said. "And his mule . . . I'll do what I can, but I ain't holding out hope, sir. Mules ain't meant to run like that. I've got Goudin walking her, but I can't tend her further 'til she cools."
Dubric nodded grimly and Lars opened the stable door for him.
Dubric's squire, Dien, knelt near an open stall door, holding a filthy, bleeding boy as the lad splattered Dien's boots and the straw on the ground with tendrils of vomit. Dien cradled the boy as if he could protect the lad from the horrors he had come to tell.
Dubric hurried toward them with Lars close behind. "What happened?"
"Not sure yet, sir," Dien said, patting the boy gently on the back as the retching eased. "Eachann hit his head and he's not making much sense. Someone killed, best as I can tell, from the northern reach. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. He's insisting he talk to you."
The stable door opened again and Otlee, Dubric's youngest page, ran through with physician Rolle behind him.
"Fetch him some water," Dubric said to Otlee.
"Yessir!" Otlee bobbed a quick bow and ran out of the stable.
Dubric approached the boy slowly, leaving Rolle plenty of room to work. "How old are you, son?"
The boy winced at the physician's touch. "Thirteen summers, m'lord, give er take. Never paid much 'tention."
"And your name is Eachann?"
"Yessir, I-" He grimaced, lurching away from the physician. "Cripes! Ye ain't gotta kill me, I'm a'ready half there!"
Dubric offered a consoling smile. "You were saying?"
"Geese, m'lord. I tends 'em." The physician touched Eachann's bleeding shoulder and the boy yelped again.
The physician grasped the boy's chin, holding him still while moving a finger in front of the boy's eyes. "As well as a variety of contusions, he has a dislocated shoulder, a broken ulna . . ." the finger dropped and Rolle leaned close to look into his patient's eyes, "and a concussion, apparently." He stood, sighing. "I do believe he will survive questioning, but please, get him bathed and into a warm bed as soon as possible. You have no business keeping him here in a stable."
Rolle gathered his things. "Send a runner to inform me when he's settled so I can set the arm and give him something for the pain. Until then, I leave him to your care."
"Thank you," Dubric said as Rolle walked past.
Wincing, Eachann cradled his broken arm and looked at Dubric. "Yer him, ain't ye? Lord Dubric hisself."
"Yes. What brings a battered goose farmer to my castle?"
Eachann looked up at Dien before returning his pained gaze to Dubric. "The dark, m'lord. T'was the dark."
"That's the same thing he's been telling me," Dien said, drawing his cloak higher over the boy's shoulders. "The fall rattled his brain."
Dubric knelt stiffly before them, his knee resting beside steaming vomit. "Why the dark, Eachann? What happened in the dark?"
"The dark, it took another one," Eachann said. "This time it was one I knew."
Dubric watched the boy's fingers clench into the fine wool of Dien's cloak, crushing it. "What do you mean the dark took another one? Who? Why did you come for me, and not an official messenger?"
"There's another gone, and yesterday they found someone, dead, spit up'n the river near Barrorise. My pa said someone hadta ride, I hadta ride, hadta get to the castle, to tell Lord Dubric about the dark. No matter how scared I was, I hadta tell. We ain't go no one else."
"You said another. How many have been taken by the dark?"
Eachann shuddered. "I dunno. Some. Lots. I hear stories 'bout the dark, how it's taking us, but it ain't never took no one I knew, nor spit one back b'fore."
Dubric rocked back, resting his weight on his heels. "Who was the latest taken?"
"Neighbor. Missus Maeve's boy. Name's Braoin."
Dien paled, holding Eachann closer. "No. Oh, Goddess, no."
Dubric looked at Dien. "You know this Braoin?"
Dien smoothed the boy's blood-stiffened hair. "Yes, sir. He's my wife's cousin, her aunt's son. Good lad, never one to cause trouble. Sarea and the girls have been there a phase helping her folks get ready for the planting festival. I never should have sent them alone."
Dubric stood, gently taking Eachann from Dien. "Lars, gather my things, find Otlee, and get ready to ride. Dien, tell Rolle I am taking Eachann to my suite. Meet me here in half a bell."
His two most trusted men nodded their acceptance and followed Dubric from the stable. As he helped the boy to the castle, the wind picked up. The air smelled like rain.
The gray sky had darkened when four grim riders crossed into the Reach. Spattered with mud and drenched from incessant drizzle, they rode into the village of Stemlow and drew their mounts to the golden warmth of a tavern.
"Otlee, bring the map," Dubric said as he tied his horse.
He entered the tavern first, his nose wrinkling at the stench of cheap tobacco. Farmers and laborers looked up, their suspicious glances taking in his official garments and ready sword. The lone barmaid, a scrawny woman with a pox-scarred face, slopped a drink over her hand as she stared at him, and the barkeep paled before returning to his duties.
Many patrons turned away when Dien's dark bulk filled the doorway. "Guess they don't get many travelers," he muttered.
Dubric pulled back the hood of his cloak. "Likely not. If memory serves, this village is little more than a mark on the map." He led his men to an empty table far from the welcome heat of the fire, maneuvering between groups of grumbling men.
The barmaid followed them with a pitcher of ale and four tankards.
"Tea for the boy, and four bowls of whatever is hot," Dubric said.
"Rabbit an' dumplin's, m'lord," she replied. He nodded and she hurried off, leaving them in peace.
"Let us see where we are." Dubric spread Otlee's map on the table. He looked to Dien. "Your family is in Tormod?"
"A couple of miles north, sir," Dien said. "At Sarea's parents' farm. But her aunt Maeve lives in Falliet."
Dubric tapped both points on the map, Tormod almost due north along a road curving slightly to the northeast, Falliet closer but northwest. "We cannot reach both tonight. The road through Falliet pulls too far west, surely two bells' extra ride."
"Yes, sir." Dien frowned at the map. "Nearly three bells more with two rivers forded along that route. The road through Barrorise and its bridge give a far quicker ride. To Tormod, at least."
Lars wiped ale foam from his lips. "So what do we do?"
"We separate." Dubric returned the map to Otlee. "Dien must see to his family, whereas I must investigate the death without delay."
The barmaid brought Otlee his tea. "Beggin' yer pardon, m'lord, but I overheard ye talkin'. The boys maybe oughta stay here if they can. 'Tis not safe up north."
Dubric noted her thin, worn hands, ragged apron, and earnest worry. "You have heard of the death in Falliet?"
"Pah," she said, rocking back and rubbing her arms as if she felt a sudden chill. " 'Tain't just Falliet, but most all the Reach. Us'n Bendas are the only ones to not lose younguns, far as I know. We hear the stories, m'lord, and keep 'em dear."
Dubric sipped his ale, grateful for the warmth filling his belly. "What stories?"
" 'Tis the towns along the rivers sufferin' so, m'lord. Somethin's happenin' with the dark an' the water. Kiddies disappear in the rain er headin' to the well, an' Goddess knows ain't no child allowed to go fishin' no more, even in broad daylight. Atro the peddler done come through here a phase er two back. He said he saw the dark reach out an' take a boy, an' the boy never even screamed. Was there, then he was gone. 'Tain't safe fer yer boys, m'lord. Not on a rainy night like this."
Lars regarded her over his mug of ale and said nothing.
Excerpted from Threads of Malice by Tamara Siler Jones Excerpted by permission.
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