QSFer J.C. Owens has a new MM fantasy book out: Gaven.
When the Masarians attack Gaven’s people, they are defeated and Gaven himself is taken captive by a man claiming to be his father. It turns out his entire life has been a lie, and now his “father” will deliver him into the hands of another man to indoctrinate and train him. Gaven vows he will never shame his people by giving in to the Masarians’ way of loving other men.
But Vlar, the legendary warrior to whom he has been given, has other plans. The blood-drinker is determined to have Gaven and to make him yield utterly…
I woke with a start, gasping as blood ran into my eye, stinging fiercely. I tried to move, tried to bring up a hand to touch the wound but agony stole the breath from my body, and I could only lie there, my senses gradually stirring, remembering horror.
The smell of burned wood filled my nostrils, along with more sinister scents: blood, singed flesh, and the stink of entrails. I managed to turn my head, blinking frantically to clear my sight, and my eyes widened. Blank eyes stared back at me; lips that had smiled only hours before stretched in pained rictus.
Grunting with effort, I managed to roll to my side, almost blacking out as the pain crashed over me in waves. One arm would not move, and the pulsing agony told me it was most probably broken. I worked my way closer then raised my right hand and pressed trembling fingers against the still face.
“Micael…” The word shook with emotion, and I fought back unmanly tears. The skin was cold already, a sign of how long I had been unconscious. I closed eyes that stung with tears instead of blood and fought to retain thought, retain sanity.
Gritting my teeth, I fought back the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me. Grief was for later. Now it was time to return to the defense of our lord. I managed to make it to my knees swaying then blearily saw my sword a short distance away. I half crawled to it, my fingers closing around the hilt with difficulty.
A booted foot smashed down, wrenching the weapon out of my weak grasp and slamming it flat against the ground.
My gaze flew up. I swallowed with difficulty as a sword point came to rest at my throat, the tip pressing into tender flesh.
Cold green eyes met mine through his helm, and I faintly recognized the second in command of the invading force, the very man I had earlier so unwisely engaged in battle, the one who had looked at me with surprise then with something that had bordered on recognition. He had laughed then, and his blow had not been to my body as I would have expected but first to my arm, before clipping me above the ear, sending me into confused darkness–
Now he stood above me, and I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, waiting for the thrust, waiting for blessed death. If he was here, then we had lost…all was lost.
His low laugh made my eyes fly open as the sword was withdrawn.
“Brave boy, just like your father. I expected that.”
I stared at him blankly, cradling my broken arm against my chest, breath heaving with both pain and adrenaline.
I rose on shaking legs, almost fell as my head spun, but steadied myself with sheer determination. Damned if I would show weakness in front of this enemy.
I raised my chin without thought as I faced him, and he laughed again, making me shudder. He seemed quite mad, but then were not all Masarians crazed?
I cast a quick look around us, my jaw clenching as I realized the battle–if it could have been called a battle–was over. Those I saw standing were Masarian; all my comrades lay dead, the toll staggering. Toward the keep itself, the dead lay in piles where they had given their last breath to defend their lord. As for my lord, I saw his blue armor half lying beneath his men and gritted my teeth to forestall the sound of grief that wanted to pass my lips.
I turned eyes dark with hate upon my captor.
A small smile hovered on his lips, and the sword prodded my shoulder, forcing me to turn.
“Walk.” The order was harsh, the sword poking between my shoulder blades. I stumbled ahead, darkness around the edges of my consciousness, jaw clenched against the jarring motion that made red pain flare from the arm. My gorge rose as I stepped over men I had shared feast with last night, men I had lived with all my life. Their eyes stared, bodies stiff in the positions of agony in which they had died. Blood dried upon them, flies already buzzing about their wounds, their faces…. I swallowed hard, scarcely able to form complete thoughts as to how this could have happened, or even why I still lived.
We passed through the shattered gates at last, and I was almost glad; the wind blew the smells away, the breeze cool upon my heated skin. My nausea subsided some small degree, though fear rose in its place. Nowhere could I see a survivor, only the conquerors. They were gathering useable weapons, and in places I could see them bringing out cartloads of possessions from the keep itself. I saw the great bed of my lord and turned away, biting my lip hard, then harder, as it refused to stop shaking.
At last we reached the edge of the Masarian encampment, far beyond the reach of our sling weapons. We passed through the temporary gates, and I shivered with revulsion as the press of Masarian warriors increased. They stared at me with curiosity. Several hurled questions at my captor, but he only answered with grunts that discouraged further conversation and prodded me faster.
My anger grew, part of the shock perhaps, and I desperately wanted to turn and confront him, to precipitate the death that was sure to be the result of this anyway.
“Do not be stupid, pup.” The rumble of his voice chilled me utterly, as though he read my mind. “I would not kill you, and it would only be humiliation. For this time at least, be sensible.”
I flung a crude word at him, bitter bile in my throat, but he only chuckled and steered me toward a large tent at the center of the assembled pavilions. Two guards at the entrance raised their brows at our approach but asked no questions, only held aside the flaps of the tent. I hesitated at the threshold, but a hand pushed me within, so I half stumbled, blind in the sudden dimness. I blinked as my eyes adjusted, aware only of rich carpets beneath my feet, my boots sinking into luxurious thickness.
A man rose from where he had been sitting with several others and leisurely made his way to us. The conversations of the others stopped as they watched his progress, their eyes fastening upon me.
He was tall, this one, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, well balanced on his feet: the epitome of a warrior. Long, dark hair lay in a warrior’s braid down his back. One hand casually lay on the hilt of his sword–a part of him, the long fingers unconsciously caressing the wrapped leather, the ornate metal. His eyes…I swallowed and looked down against my will. This one was leader to the very heart of him; the cold fire in those blue eyes was terrifying in its strength, the vivid coloration making them seem like blue flame.
I fought to retain courage.
“So this is he?” The voice held amusement and a certain amount of anticipation that both confused me and terrified me further. A hand came and lifted my chin, so that I had no choice but to face him.
His eyes searched my face, feature by bloody feature, and I found myself shrinking back away from him, brought up short by the body of my captor.
“I recognized him at the last moment, or you would have had a burial rather than a reunion.” The voice was cool but amused.
The blue eyes flicked to him, a smile curving on the lips. “My thanks, Vlar; I would have been less than pleased had I lost him.”
The sharp gaze returned to me as I struggled to understand their conversation.
“Your name, boy?”
My lips thinned, and I flung up my head defiantly. “It is of no importance. Kill me, and be done.”
One brow rose, the intense eyes narrowing, and I met him look for look, daring him.
Vlar laughed at the shocked looks of the other men. “Blood tells true. If nothing else, he has courage, not much sense but courage all the same.”
The man before me never changed his expression, his fingers slowly tightening until my eyes flickered shut with the pain. “Do not cross me, boy,” he whispered softly. “You will show respect, if never love.”
The words made no sense to me at all. I could only try to endure the pain as best as possible, for I would not ask for mercy. It was well known that the Masarians had none.
“Andar, see to his wounds.” The terrible grip left me, and I opened my eyes to see my tormenter walking back to the table. One of the men there rose and approached me, and I found myself trembling with reaction.
Andar seemed kind enough; he took my shoulder and steered me to a chair. “Sit, boy; let me see that arm.” The note of concern was almost my undoing. The trembling increased, and it was all I could do to make it to the chair. I hesitated when I saw its splendor, and Andar looked at me questioningly.
I waved vaguely at the chair. “I am covered in blood and filth…perhaps the floor…” His look conveyed disbelief, but it seemed important to me somehow not to destroy the chair. It was very beautiful and not for the likes of me.
Vlar appeared with oilskin in hand and draped it over the furniture in question. I sank down on it with a sigh of utter relief. I was not entirely sure how much longer I could have held myself up; my legs seemed frighteningly weak, unable to support me further.
I swallowed a protest as Andar cut my bloodstained shirt from me. It was one of only two I possessed, and it had been a gift from Micael… I thrust that thought aside with haste and focused on Andar’s face as he probed the cut above my ear then my arm. His serious brown eyes rose to mine. “The cut will need stitches, but it is the arm for which I worry. It is a bad break and will have to be set.”
I paled but nodded with grim determination. What must be must be.
He rummaged in an ornate box that one of the servants brought forth and withdrew a thick piece of leather. I took it in shaking fingers and set it between my teeth.
I stiffened as Vlar’s arms came around me from behind, holding the arm out as Andar supported the wrist and forearm. Sweat beaded on my brow, and I could not determine whether it was the product of pain or the touch of my most hated enemy.
“Be brave, little one.” The whisper stirred the hair by my ear, and I shuddered in reaction…just as Andar yanked on the arm. I cried out…or did I only whimper? As I slid limply off the chair and down into Vlar’s arms, I took his smirk with me into darkness…
I woke the second time to disorientation and movement. For the longest time I could not imagine where I was. I stared up into the blue sky, feeling the jolting motion beneath me, unable to gather my thoughts to any degree. In the end it was the pounding headache and restriction of my bound arm that made the memories come.
I sat up with a jerk then, swearing under my breath as my vision spun, and the movement jarred my arm, sending jolts of pain along the nerves. I could not focus on anything but that pain for long moments, then that hated voice came to me, close enough to make me flinch away.
“Awake already? Andar said you would be out for the day.”
My entire body went rigid, intensifying the pain, and I looked at Vlar in frigid silence where he rode beside the cart. Only then did I realize that the army was on the move–and me with it.
I rolled to my knees, looking back along our trail with a kind of desperation, then shot a look at my nemesis. “I have to bury them. You cannot just leave them there…”
He shrugged wide shoulders. “We have left a force to man the fortress. They will bury them, no doubt. Do not worry.”
I stared at him in speechless fury, horrified at the thought of hostile hands carelessly rolling Micael into an unmarked grave. Without further thought I rolled over the side of the cart, hit the dirt, and almost staggered under a horse being ridden by one of the soldiers. The man swore at me as the horse reared and several others shied at my sudden appearance, but I paid attention to none of them. I ducked under the rearing one, narrowly missed getting kicked by two more, then with the dust swirling up and covering my presence, I reached up with my good arm and yanked another rider off his horse before he could even react.
My usual leap was awkward with only one arm, but I managed and laid heels to the horse, praying it was fast. The animal leaped with startled fervor, and I rode into the nearby trees, ignoring the shouts in my wake. I rode bent low to the horse’s neck, clutching the reins with my good hand, cursing the weak grip of the other. Fortunately the animal seemed war-trained and responded as much to heel and voice as to the bit. I wove through the trees at top speed. Often had Micael and I done this very thing in competitive spirit, but that thought brought only pain, not pleasure. I spoke to the horse, and his ears flicked, responding to my encouragement.
We burst through the trees into a clearing, and I urged the animal on until we were flying, barely slowing as we re-entered the trees on the opposite side. I vaguely recognized the area, and when we came upon the road, I turned sharply and urged the horse faster.
The hooves drummed upon the hard-packed surface, and I turned my head to look over my shoulder. No one.
I could scarcely believe that I had made my escape so easily, but I did not dwell upon the thought, only the thought that I must return, do right by all those who had died.
Smoke rose before me in the distance, and I laid hard heels to the horse, for once not caring of an animal’s suffering.
By the time I reached the shattered gates some long time later, the poor thing was heaving for breath, and I drew it to a staggering halt within the damaged walls, both of us choking from the smoke that obscured most everything.
Nearby Masarians clearing away debris stared at me warily, hands on sword hilts, but I ignored them.
I flung a leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground. The animal remained there, head down, foam covering its neck and flanks. I put one hand over my nose, coughing, trying to see far enough to gain knowledge of my surroundings. I stumbled over bodies, gorge rising in my throat, but I sought one in particular, one who had held my love….
I found him at last and sank to my knees at his side, tears rising as I stroked his cheek, managed to close the staring eyes.
I know not how much time passed as I grieved, but at last I rose to my feet, wiping my eyes, and set about trying to find something to dig Micael’s grave. I found little, both from the problem of burning eyes in the smoke and the fact that the place had been stripped bare. I finally came upon a broken shovel by what had been the swine pens, and I staggered back to my friend.
My poor efforts were hampered by both my arm and that I had to stop to cough harshly every few moments. I could only dig from a kneeling position because of the shortness of the broken handle. When at last I had a shallow pit, I carefully rolled Micael into the depression and tried to arrange his body into a more peaceful pose. I covered his face with cloth torn from a nearby body, but even then it took all my remaining strength of will to begin to cover that beloved form with dirt, to admit that it was true, not some sort of horrible nightmare.
When at last I had finished, I lay upon the fresh-turned soil with despair and exhaustion in equal measure.
“Are you done now? Can we continue our travels with less hysteria and more sense from this point?”
I froze then slowly rolled to my back, and I knew that disbelief must be large in my expression.
Vlar leaned against a nearby wall, arms crossed over his broad chest. He met my eyes squarely.
“Did you think to leave my care so easily, young one? I think not. I have waited patiently whilst you did your duty; now it is time to return to the others.”
I looked behind him, but my stolen horse stood alone.
“How…” My mind struggled to make sense…
He shrugged. “I am a fast runner.”
I marked his breathing, even and slow, and knew he had to be lying. I shakily gained my feet and stood facing him, swaying with exhaustion, numb in mind.
“Why? I am nothing to you, can be nothing. I am of no importance whatsoever. You must be mistaken in your taking of me.”
He smiled slightly, and I shuddered and backed away in response.
“Your name is Gaven. You are a bastard child, raised in sufferance by the grace of your lord within the fortress itself. Your mother was the laundress, who died two years ago. You are almost eighteen and proud of the fact that the lord granted you leave to train to be a guard. You started late to the sword but show some natural skill which impressed your lord and made him take notice of you.”
I stared in shock at him, at his perfect knowledge of my life, of me.
“We have kept an eye on you, young Gaven. You are of more importance than you know. You are the son of my lord, the High Commander of the Masarian army.” His grin was tinged with malice. “You are half Masarian, Gaven, one of us.”
I slid slowly to my knees, shaking my head with a kind of numb disbelief. This was all… I closed my eyes, so that darkness rose to enfold me, and I prayed to wake from this nightmare that held me in thrall. Only a nightmare, only a–
He grabbed hold of my good arm and hauled me to my feet. I tried to struggle but gave up in confused exhaustion as it availed me nothing against his strength.
He pulled me beside him out the gates, taking the horse with us, then he turned back, raised a hand and blue fire shot from his fingertips.
And the bodies began to burn in an explosive conflagration that made me flinch back.
He smiled upon my look of stunned disbelief.
“There. They do not need burial now, and the place will be cleansed.”
I stared at him; fear such as I had never known beginning to find root in my numb mind. “What are you?” I whispered finally.
He smiled again, wider this time, and the tips of sharp teeth gleamed in the sun.
“Oh, you will find that out, my boy. You will find out…”