Pain of Love Part Two- II

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“Can you do it?” Raven asked the question pleadingly. “We have travelled so far and I owe him so much.”

The old hag they had travelled so far to see just stood there and let Raven plead her case. Long moments passed and Grayne felt he could actually hear her dying. The sound he heard may have only been the creaking sound that emitted from her withered form. Aside from that, the room was silent.

The woman finished contemplating and her words seemed to creak out of her. “Raven, I can do it, that’s not the question. The question is; can he survive the process?” She breathed the words and they hung in the air like swamp air- toxic and heavy.

Though the woman’s eyes had lost their luster perhaps decades ago, Raven looked into them with the seriousness of stone. She said, “If there is any man alive who can, it is this one.”

Grayne stepped forward and also met the ancient woman’s stern gaze. His eye narrowed as he examined the hag. With sudden forcefulness he pulled Raven out of the grass thatched hut. He leaned over and in hushed but forceful tones said, “This…”, he struggled for the word, “…woman is veritably ancient!” In response to the look that came upon Raven’s pristine face, he said, “I know you said she is a miracle worker, but I don’t know…”

From the hut, the crone breathed, “I may be old, but my ears are as keen as any bird of prey.”

“It’s her eyes I’m worried about,” Grayne mumbled.

“Grayne, please! I know it sounds hard to believe, but I have seen her handiwork before. She can save your jaw!”

Grayne looked skeptical. “You’ve seen her replace teeth in someone’s jaw before?”

Raven lowered her head and spoke at the ground, a response Grayne had become accustomed to in the months since they had escaped the torture chamber of Farzan. “Well, no; only the reverse.”

Grayne was about to grab her and run as fast and as far as possible away from this place when suddenly the hag was beside him. She made no creaking as she sneaked up beside Grayne, but her putrid breath hit him like a fist of rotting foods. He wondered how this woman whose mouth smelled like dead things could perform a procedure on his own mouth.

“Grayne, though I have never done the procedure before, I have seen it done. Not with actual teeth, mind you, but with Dragoncalc, a stone that has the same hardness and structure as real teeth,” the hag spoke at Grayne.

He looked down at the woman, who was more than a foot shorter than her and shook his head in silent acceptance. After all, he could not present himself to Summer, the woman he loved, in his current condition. After a deep breath, he asked, “What can I offer you in payment? We have a few gold Stags, but perhaps I can…” Grayne looked at the hut for chores he could perform, but it seemed in good working order. The roof, though made of grass and sticks seemed strong and the wooden walls seemed in good repair.

She looked at him and with a smile that had two more teeth than Grayne’s said, “I am an old woman, and it has been years since I have known the tender touch of a man. Though I am old, I do have needs.” The words lingered in the air with fetidness.

Grayne staggered back from the impact of her statement. Though he had faced many terrors over the years that had hardened his mind making him effectively fearless, terror struck him in the gut and his stomach flipped.

The old hag began to cackle! “You should see your face. Don’t worry, Grayne. I wouldn’t fuck you for all the crowns in all of the Lannisters’ vaults.” She turned and walked back into her hut breathing a final cloud over her shoulder, “You’re too ugly!”

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Pain of Love- Part Two- I

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Grayne woke with a start. He threw off the blankets that covered him and struggled to stand. A pale-skinned woman with curly black hair stood from the chair by the fireplace and rushed over to him.

“Grayne, you need to take it easy,” she said urging him to return to the bed.

“Who are you?! Where am I?” he demanded from a crouched position. He looked ready to spring and his single good eye scoured the room. He acted like a wild cornered animal although he was still emaciated and could barely stand. In fact, he looked as if he might topple.

The black-haired woman spoke in a soothing voice. “Grayne, we are at the Cardinal’s Roost, an inn in the town of Falnook. We left Farzan and the Citadel weeks ago. I am Raven. Do you remember me?”

Her words seemed to take the fight out of him and Grayne fell backwards onto the bed. “Yes, I do remember.” He put his hand over his damaged eye and felt a patch covering the grisly opening. He struggled to remember and said, “I am so very tired.”

“You have been asleep for twelve hours,” Raven said as she moved over to the table near the door. She brought a tray and set it on the edge of the bed. “I have apples and milk.” She held out an apple segment for him to take. “I didn’t think you’d want bread,” she said lowering her eyes bashfully.

Grayne snatched the apple piece from her hand and ate it voraciously. “Go slowly,” she warned. “You will make yourself sick. You need time to adjust.” She handed him another piece of apple and took the knife from the tray and began to cut more segments.

Grayne ate the second piece more slowly, but he still eyed her suspiciously, like a wild animal, as though she might take the apple away from him. She handed him another piece and began to pour milk from a pitcher into a metal cup. As she handed it to him, she asked, “Who’s Summer?”

Grayne’s eyes narrowed. He threw the cup full of milk aside and it splashed onto the wooden floor. With strength borne of anger he grabbed Raven by her black hair. She screamed and he took up the apple knife and placed it against her neck. A line of red trickled down her porcelain neck.

Desperately she cried out, “You said her name in your sleep. Please, I meant nothing by the question.”

He let out a guttural noise from his toothless maw. “What is this? Is this a trick?” Years of physical, emotional and psychological torture left him with the belief that even this could be part of Farzan’s cruelty. “Answer me, or by The Seven I will cut your pretty throat without a second thought!”

“Grayne! No, this is no trick! Farzan is imprisoned by your house.” Grayne tensed up at hearing Farzan’s name. “I swear to you, I only want to help you.”

“Why?!” he asked as the blade pushed deeper into the flesh of her neck.

“I…I,” she stammered. “I want to repay you for what I have done to you. For the years you lost. For…for my role in..” she trailed off.

“I don’t need your help!” he shouted as he pushed himself off her while still holding the blade at his side. “I don’t want your help,” he said just above a whisper.

“Grayne, I will do anything to save you. Please, you have to trust me.”

He turned back, and in a flash was back upon her. “I have to?” he asked with a pink gummy smile. His single grey eye bore into her skull before he pushed her away.

“On the table there is a small leather bag. Please look in it,” she said short of breath.

Grayne looked at her for long moments, searching her face for a clue as to her motives. Finally, he rose off her and moved unsteadily to the desk. He lifted the brown leather bag and looked back at her. The bag was light. He expected it to be filled with coin, perhaps a consolation for her participation in the years of torture he withstood. He looked at the bag and back at her.

She looked down at the floor as she said, “Go ahead. Open it.”

Grayne pulled the bag open and peered inside. He squinted as he looked for several long moments, trying to comprehend what was inside. “Is this a joke?” He threw the bag at her, but Raven did nothing to defend herself from it. She simply let it hit her in the face. The brown bag flopped onto the floor and its contents spilled out onto the oval rug underneath her.

Splayed across the floor were thirty-two teeth.

Pain of Love 10 (End Part 1)

Grayne heard the distant sound of horns and wondered if they were part of his dreams. He dismissed the idea, because he rarely slept deeply enough to dream.

He remained still and listened.

Again he heard them. His muscles were weak and his body was bruised and mangled, but his ears were sharper than they ever were. He spent most of his days listening to the sounds beyond his prison and imagining the forms those sounds belonged to.

He listened for the return of Farzan.

Minutes passed and several times he heard the sound of booted footsteps running outside his prison. He remained lying on the floor, listening to the thrum of troop movements, feeling their unified booted footsteps passing on all levels of the keep he had been a prisoner within for almost five years. He felt a feeling he had not felt for as long as he could remember.

He felt hope.

That hope suddenly washed away as the heavy wooden door to the ten-foot chamber he lived in opened with a clang. Farzan entered the chamber with a rapid clack of his heavy boots. In a flash of motion, Farzan stood above the withered form of Grayne with a blade at his neck.

“You win, Grayne. I know not how you have survived all these years, much less resisted giving me the one thing I wanted from you. Troops from your family house are here and it is likely that they will take the keep. That is why I have decided to kill you.”

From the stone floor, Grayne looked up at his torturer. Though he lacked the strength to resist the sword-wielding man standing over him, his one deep blue eye continued its defiance. The other was milky white and bore a deep scar from the top of his right cheek across his eye and to his forehead.

Grayne’s toothless smile grinned up at Farzan. His ghastly mouth and grotesque eye seemed to mock his torturer. “You almost had me. I was planning on saying your lover’s name later this evening,” Grayne mocked him. “Let’s make a deal. If you can hold the keep until the Hour of the Wolf, I will say his name.”

Farzan was not amused. “You won the game, northerner.” The black-bearded masochist prepared to thrust his blade into Grayne’s exposed throat. Grayne did not resist. He could not stand much less defend himself.

Grayne’s lethargy turned to action and he suddenly yelled, “No!” Suddenly a hooded figure was upon Farzan, but he sidestepped and managed to avoid a fatal strike. Instead, the blade jutted out of his left breast. Blood poured from the wound as he pulled himself from the blade and his attacker.

Stumbling away, he dropped his sword and turned to see the hooded form of his female assistant. She was defenseless, but he was too stunned to attack her. He just stood there as soldiers entered the room.

Three men of house Marbrand entered the torture chamber with blades barred. One pointed his sword at the robed woman and another prevented Farzan from fleeing. The final warrior approached the beaten form of Grayne and started to cut him down. His sword wouldn’t cut the thick chains, so he began to look for keys.

In seconds, the soldier found the keys and freed Grayne. He slid off the torture rack and the soldier struggled to keep him upright.

“Why, Grayne? Why did you save him?” the hooded woman asked.

Grayne answered her with a question of his own, “What’s your name?”

“Raven.”

“Raven, this man’s life is mine to take. I will kill him in time.”

The soldier that freed Grayne unsheathed his dagger and held it out to Grayne. “Go ahead.”

Grayne looked for long moments at the man who had tortured him for years. He stared with his one good eye at the now-powerless Farzan and slowly shook his head. “No. Not like this. One day, when we are both at full strength.” He smiled a horrible toothless smile and said, “I need him to fight back.”

Pain of Love 9

“Wake up, my love. Happy nameday!”

Grayne propped himself up on one arm as his three children stormed into the bedroom and leapt onto the mattress stuffed with goose feathers. The two black-haired boys wrestled with their father as the youngest girl, his red-haired daughter, smiled by the foot of the bed.

He looked past the battle and standing there, hair aflame in the sunlight was Summer, his devoted and beautiful wife. “Boys, boys, let your father eat his breakfast!” She shooed the boys away and presented Grayne a tray overflowing with meats and breads. “I will be back with juice and beer.”

“Thank you. Thank you, all,” he said wrapping his arms around both boys. “It all looks so delicious! It’s a good thing, because I’m famished!”

 

Grayne awoke with a start. He was curled-up and shivering on the stone floor, and as usual, naked. His unkempt brown hair was shoulder-length. His skin had a yellowish hue, a combination of lack of sunlight and a lack of nutrition. The deficiency of appropriate foodstuffs was evident in his frail frame. The once heavily-muscled, young man in the prime of his life and in peak physical condition now looked like a man three times his actual age.

He never slept well and was prone to frequent interruptions of his sleep pattern. He awoke to a noise and was instantly on alert. The sound of a key in the heavy and rusting iron lock of his metal prison cell roused him from his fitful rest. His eyes squinted at the light originating from the lanterns that seemed suspended in mid -air. As his eyes adjusted, he made out the shadowy forms of the armed and armored guards. His eyes opened wide in surprise at the figure behind the soldiers. Farzan’s boots made a clacking sound with which Grayne was all-too familiar.

“Farzan-the-Mighty! Long time no see, old friend,” Grayne cackled trying to stand.

One of the guards ended his attempt to rise with a kick to the jaw that rattled his teeth and sent him crashing into the stone corner with a thump.

Farzan strode past the guards and stood before Grayne’s crumpled form. “Every time I return from the field I half-expect you to be dead.” He crouched down in front of the naked bruised man, his leather armor creaking as he moved. “However, I am pleased to see you alive. It means our fun is not at an end.” He motioned to the soldiers and they picked up the naked prisoner roughly. Grayne mumbled something and Farzan urged him to speak louder.

Grayne struggled to speak. “I said, I would like to see the manager of this inn, the service is terrible.” He smiled a crooked smile as the soldiers strapped him to the cold steel table that was already stained with his own blood.

“I grow tired of this,” growled Farzan.

“Then why don’t you let me go?” Grayne asked. “We will call it even. Months of torture as payment for the death of whats-his-name…Rodderick!”

Then he saw her. She walked into the cell quietly enough and hidden by the shadowy illumination of the lanterns resting on the floor. He knew not her name and had seen little of her form beneath the dark hooded robes. He had caught glimpses, and his brain filled in the gap for what his eyes could not see.

She strode quickly and quietly, and stopped beside Farzan. Grayne saw she carried something metal, and before she lifted the lid, he smelled what was inside the metal serving tray. The enticing smell of cooked goose wafted from the metal lid and he almost lost consciousness.

Farzan said, “Smells good, doesn’t it? I am giving you a choice, old friend.” Farzan punched the last word with a sarcastic blow and held out a small metal item. At first Grayne thought it was a dagger, but upon further inspection saw it was a dental tool, a small metal item used to pull a rotten tooth from its socket. As a child, he had been a victim of a tool similar to the one before him, and the memory of the shooting pain it brought caused him to close his eyes tightly.

“You have three choices. You may stay here in this cell and continue with your diet of toilet water every other day and moldy bread twice a week.” Farzan paced dramatically. “Or, you may have a bite of this succulent goose,” he said with a flourish and the robed woman lifted the lid to reveal the fresh cooked goose. Grayne gazed wide-eyed and the scent overwhelmed him and he began to drool.

Farzan turned back to Grayne suddenly, and said, “But, the food comes with a price. For each bite, I will take one of your teeth.” Farzan raised the dental tool. “Or,” the torturer took a deep breath before continuing, “You can say his name and I will grant you the sweet release of death!”

The robed woman coughed quietly as Farzan’s words lingered in the air with the smell of spiced cooked goose and dried blood. Seconds passed as Farzan waited for an answer.

Grayne mumbled something.

Farzan punched Grayne in the forehead. He leaned in so his face was almost touching Grayne’s. “Speak up, boy! What shall it be? Delicious cooked goose?” Farzan paused and then he said, “Or death?”

Long moments passed as Farzan breathed heavily on Grayne. “I’m sorry. It’s been a while since I was this close to a man. The last one was a bit lower. He had my sword and scabbard in his mouth, if you catch my meaning. What was his name?”

Farzan reeled back in fury as the soldiers rushed forward. “Hold him tight, men. Keep his mouth open.” Before Farzan went to work brutally extracting Grayne’s teeth, he whispered, “You could have had goose.”

Grayne closed his eyes tightly as his mind drifted to his imaginary family. Though his illusory reflections distracted his mind, they did not eliminate the pain of the removal of each and every one of his teeth.

Pain of Love 8

Grayne swung under the scorching rays of the summer sun. His body hung limply at the end of rusting chains supported by cruel hooks that had days ago stopped hurting. He felt only a buzzing numbness as he slipped in and out of conciousness.

At first, his prayers to the Seven were verbal, but now were silent as his voice was too dry for words. He had prayed for escape and bloody retribution, but now he silently wished for the strength to survive to be with his beloved Summer again. The image of her soft hair and smile kept him alive, the memory of her gave him the mental strength to endure.

Even the peasants that had enjoyed the public brutality he had been sujected to had long ago lost interest as his screams had faded away.

Grayne suddenly became aware of a fluttering and a weight upon his right shoulder. He turned his head until he could see a black raven perched on his shoulder with his left eye. The vision of a flail impacting the right side of his face was the last memory he had with that eye. He only felt discomfort from the area his eye once was as the dead eye was exposed to the elements without even an eyelid to protect it.

The raven cawed at him. Grayne tried to shake the bird off but was reminded painfully of his situation as the sharp hooks dug deeper into his infected flesh.

“Go away. Scat!” Grayne commanded the black bird. Though ravens were routinely used to send messages between men rich enough to afford such beasts, he suspected this was an ordinary wild crow.

He believed, that is, until it spoke.

” Whatcha doin’, Grayne?” the bird asked.

Grayne hissed at it, trying to frighten it to flight. “Well, that’s a fine howdyado,” it responded.

He knew he was having a fever dream, but the raven looked and sounded real enough. The legends spoke of ravens being the messangers of the gods, but they only sent ill omens and he didn’t believe in such childlish stories. “You’re not real. Now go away and let me die in peace.”

“Fuck all that!” it said flapping its wings but remaining on his shoulder. “You ain’t gonna die. What about Summer?”

“She’s better off without me.”

The raven turned its head away from Grayne and said, “That’s the truth. She’s a fine piece of meat, she’ll find a new man with no trouble. Especially with how you look.” The raven turned back and shrieked in alarm. “Ye Gods, man. What’s wrong with your eye?!”

Grayne said nothing.

“Looks painful. It is, isn’t it?” The raven bobbed up and down with excitement. “It’s all pusy and WHEW does it stink!” It scrutinized the eye with a diecerning vision. “Yeah, that’s got to go.”

With his good eye, Grayne saw the raven open and close its beak as it moved closer to his face. “No. Don’t!” he shouted.

“It’s got to go.”

Grayne screamed as the raven pulled the dead eye from its socket like a worm from the ground. Peasants slowly returned with grim humour to watch and laugh as the raven tugged on his infected eye until it was torn free. They clapped as the raven flew away with its grisly prize, leaving Grayne sobbing and moaning with renewed agony.

A Boy and His Weren

An Alternity story starring Tuk and Geo

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Arcady, the Fra’al pilot said as he looked up from his breakfast. “How did an eight-year-old human boy and a bloodthirsty Weren become such close friends?”

Tuk, the gargantuan Weren raised one eyebrow and looked up at Arcady, slowing his rapid ingestion of a plateful of less-than-cooked meat. A thread of food hung from one of Tuk’s tusks. Arcady tried not to snicker. “Uh, ya got something there,” he said thrusting a thin finger at one of Tuk’s larger teeth. Tuk grunted and pulled the offending piece of meat from his tooth and ate it.

“I am not eight years old. You forget, while I appear eight, I have only been alive for thirty months.” Geo didn’t look up from his data pad. The food on his plate remained uneaten and his juice had barely been sipped.

“Right,” said the Fra’al pilot, remembering that Geo was a genetic construct who possessed uncanny and incalculable intelligence and agility. “Tuck, care to fill me in on this no-doubt riveting origin story?”

“Okay,” the bestial Weren mumbled with a mouthful of food.

 

“Would you knock that shit off?!” roared Gunny. The human leapt to his feet in anger and stormed over to where the boy was scraping the stone walls of the shared prison cell with another smaller piece of stone. Gunny waved his arms frantically at the symbols the boy had scrawled on the wall. The etchings filled an entire ten-foot section of wall with seemingly meaningless symbols, numbers and calculations. “What are you doing?! You’re driving me crazy!”

“There is no reason for my work to suffer during my incarceration,” said the boy without halting his scrawling.

Gunny pushed the boy hard from behind. He slammed hard into the wall and crumpled to the floor, dropping his stone carving implement. “Knock it off!”

“Hey!” roared a gravelly voice from the other side of the cell. Gunny and the fifteen other prisoners turned to see an enormous Weren striding toward the boy and the aggressive man. The Weren stood almost seven-feet tall and his thick muscled frame was covered in bristly grey fur.

Gunny put his hands up at shoulder level with his palms flat in a gesture of non-hostility. “Tuk, I don’t want no trouble, but this kid needs to take a break. Right?” Gunny looked to the other prisoners for confirmation. All he received from the other tired and frightened men were blank stares.

“You okay?” Tuk asked, helping the boy to his feet. The boy nodded and stood slowly. When the boy was standing without assistance, Tuk turned back to Gunny and said, “C’mon, man. We’re all under a lot of stress and the kid is trying to deal with it the only way he knows how. You know, with math,” Tuk tried to muster a smile, but his bottom teeth jutting out caused his smile to make him look even more terrifying than he already was. “Now, say you’re sorry.”

Gunny grumbled out an apology and shuffled his way back to where he was sitting. Tuk turned to the boy and saw he had resumed his calculations. “That’s a fine thank you,” Tuk said to the boy.

“What should I be thanking you for?”

“I just saved your butt.”

“I could have handled him.”

“Ha!”

“You disbelieve me? I understand. If it were a matter of age or size, this man would have the advantage.” Geo dropped the stone and strode over to where Gunny was sitting. “Stand up,” he said. Gunny laughed and stood up. “Now, attack me.”

“What? I’m not gonna…no,” he responded looking at Tuk sheepishly.

“One-One-Five-Nine,” the boy stated as if that statement would mean something to the burly alien.

“Huh?”

“This man is right-handed and none too intelligent,” Gunny scowled at the boy’s analysis. “He has survived any physical conflicts up to this point by sheer size and not through formal training.” The boy, who looked no more than seven years of age grasped Gunny’s right wrist. “One. He will attack me with his right hand,” the boy held Gunny’s right wrist up, indicating that his right arm was indeed number one.

“Let go.”

The boy let Gunny’s arm fall. “One-one. I will use my right hand to catch his wrist and use his forward momentum and mass to throw him…five… into the metal bed spine-first paralyzing or killing him-Nine.” Gunny laughed loud and pointedly and the boy said, “Even though I have told him what I will do to him, he lacks the basic intelligence to alter his mode of attack.”

Tuk smiled and asked, “Can you do it without breaking his spine?”

“Of course.”

Gunny roared, balled his right hand into a fist and swung it downward at the boy’s face. In response to the clumsy attack, he snapped his head back and in the same movement grasped Gunny’s wrist in his right hand. In a fluid move, almost too fast for anybody watching to comprehend, much less Gunny, the boy yanked the man’s arm across his own body. With a twist and a bend the seven year-old boy flipped the much larger man back-first into the metal bed. There was a sickening crunch and a pitiful whine from Gunny and silence.

A prisoner checked his vitals and confirmed, “He’s dead.”

The men in the cell exploded fearful into conversations and mutterings.

Tuk looked down at the boy and said with a mixture of annoyance and awe “I thought you said you wouldn’t kill him?”

“No, you asked me if I could do it without breaking his spine. I confirmed I was able to do so,” said the boy, resuming his work on the wall.

“You Weren, you’re up,” a guard shouted through the bars to Tuk. The distant cheers of spectators of the arena could be heard behind the guard. “You can pick your partner,” the guard said.

“Hey, kid, what’s your name?” asked the four-hundred pound Weren of the seven year old human.

“Geo.”

“I pick him,” said Tuk to the guard. “I pick Geo.”

 

Arcady blanched at Tuk’s story of violence. “That’s sweet.”

“I like this kid,” said Tuk, placing his gigantic paw on the Geo’s shoulder. “I feel like he’s come a long way.”

“And I feel you have become better at iterating the meaning behind your statements and questions,” Geo said, seemingly to his data pad. His Weren father-figure guffawed in response.

“You guys are a perfect match,” said Arcady wiping his mouth and leaving the two to their breakfast. “Perfect.” he mumbled as he walked away.

Pain of Love 7

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Grayne swayed at the end of jagged hooks, and as he slipped in and out of consciousness, the event that brought him to this moment tore through his mind like the hooks ripped into his flesh. He remembered the soldiers that pushed him into the large officer’s tent. A table and chairs, a bed and even a large bathtub adorned the spacious tent. Croget’s head and shoulders were visible in the bathtub which made sloshing sounds as he moved. The room smelled damp and of jasmine,

He was shirtless and his back and chest were adorned with many red lash marks.

Croget stood up and water flowed from his naked body as he stood there. Grayne looked at the young man with contempt for he had no signs of wounds or scars one would normally gain during military training or the accomplished service of an active knight. In fact, Croget’s lean form showed no sign of having done any manual labor in his entire life. He looked not unlike a twelve-year-old boy with a man’s height.

With his effeminate lisp the man-boy said, “How rude of me. Let me hide my shame.” And with that he stepped behind a semi-transparent partition that had the darkened shapes of trees painted on it. Grayne could still see the Croget’s silhouette as he put on a robe. Croget took extra time behind the barrier grooming himself, and as he did so, Grayne sprang into action.

In one fluid move he swept his handcuffed arms under his legs. With more range of motion he was able to pick at his skin on his shoulder where a sharp wound had healed leaving a jagged bump and  raised scab. Grayne could see Croget through the vanity veil and seemed to be shaving his chest with straight razor. Croget said loudly, “I think good grooming is important, don’t you?” Grayne gritted his teeth as he pulled the metal out from under the skin on his shoulder. He clutched the metal piece in the palm of his hand. Blood was flowing from his shoulder and he swung his feet up over the metal links that restrained his hands as Croget emerged from the transparent barrier.

Croget approached Grayne slowly and deliberately. Each one of his steps looked dramatic, if not pathetic, due to his boy-like features. As Croget came closer he noticed the trickle of blood coming from Grayne’s shoulder. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “What have they done to you?”

Croget brought over a towel and pressed it against Grayne’s bloody shoulder. Croget gasped again as he saw the lashes on his back and chest. He leaned in close and Grayne could feel his captor brush his lips against his back. Grayne cringed as Croget breathed hot breath into his ear and said, “I’m sorry they did this to you.”

Croget moved around in front of Grayne and traced his finger along his chest before walking away. Grayne unclasped his hand and began to work the very simple metal lockpick into the keyhole of his restraints. He feared the job would be impossible without being able to see the lock, but he was desperate.

With his back to Grayne he picked up a sword that the wounded northerner had not noticed before. Croget swung the blade through the air in a few practice swings. Grayne could hear the rapier slicing through the air. “You may be wondering how I came to such a high military rank at such a young age. I’m not just a pretty face,” Croget teased. “I am one of the finest swordsmen in Westeros, if not the known world,” he bragged. “I also studied military tactics and history under some of the finest minds.’

Grayne worked as fast as he could while trying to keep the metal scraping from making any noise. Every scrape sounded like an alarm of metal pots and pans falling off a high shelf, to his ears.

Keep talking, fop’, he thought.

Grayne held his breath as Croget turned and walked toward him. “Would you like to see my blade?” Croget asked with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his lips as he paced.

“Yes, sir,” Grayne feigned interest and respect with two words.

Croget held out the rapier in front of Grayne for inspection. “I cannot tell you how much it cost,” he said with a smile. “Trust me, it was significant.” Grayne saw more jewels on the basket-hilt rapier than he had ever seen in his life.

“Do you like it?” Croget asked.

Grayne paused as he worked on the lock. The tumbler was quite complex. There were in fact two, so while he held one down he bent the metal pick in half and worked on the other. “It is quite fine,”

“I so wish you could see me use it!”

‘I bet you’re fast,” Grayne said and with a satisfying click the manacles fell off his wrists. Suddenly Grayne was on his feet and closing the distance between him and his enemy. Croget was stunned and before he could raise his blade or scream for the guards, Grayne had his hands around his neck. Croget let out a tiny shrill screech that was not unlike a bat. “Not fast enough,” he said. Grayne was sure the guards had heard, but he kept on squeezing the life out of Croget. The fop’s face turned bright red as his mouth tried to pull air into his lungs.

As he anticipated, guards stormed into the officer’s tent with swords drawn. Grayne spun to face them as the last gasps of life slipped from Croget’s throat. With a final gurgle, he expired.

“He’s killed Lieutenant Croget!” one of the guards yelled, cleverly describing the situation. Grayne pushed the dead man’s form into the two guards and bent down to pick up the fine rapier that Croget was moments before showing to Grayne. As they struggled to steady the body and lower it to the ground respectfully, the young northern warrior sliced a long gash in the tent’s fabric, and without hesitation he jumped through the opening and into the camp.

Shouts of alarm emitted from the tent as the two guards shook off their confusion. Grayne used the cover of darkness to hide, but the structures were few and far between. He moved between the officers’ tents without being seen and was moving his way toward the fenced-in area for horses as the encampment erupted in activity. He could hear the rapid double clang of the camp bell followed by several seconds of furious noise. Soldiers huddled around campfires were on their feet and arming themselves.

“Halt,” shouted a voice behind him, but he did not turn or slow to acknowledge it. He did increase his pace to an all-out sprint.

An unarmed soldier appeared out of the darkness and grabbed Grayne around the waist and lifted him off his feet. He brought the basket hilt of the fine sword down on the back of the soldier’s head. Before the man could force Grayne to the ground, he was unconscious and lying face-down in the dirt.

Grayne took a moment to compose himself and get his bearings when he heard the rapid beat of hooves. He turned and saw a horse and rider in full gallop bearing down on him. The rider was swinging a spiked flail alongside the giant horse, and before he could raise his sword in defense or leap aside, the horse and rider were upon him. The last image he saw was the rider bringing the flail down upon him in an overhead strike. His world went black as the flail slammed down upon the right side of his face.

With a gasp, he awakened from his fevered dream. He still hung from the metal hooks as the sun beat down upon him. A teenage boy with a basket of apples stood staring at the wounded soldier. Grayne would have salavated if he had any spit left as the boy took and apple out of his basket and crunched into the delicious red flesh. The boy continued to stare at Grayne as he munched away. “What happened to your eye?” he asked.

Overhead, Grayne saw a black crow descend in a slow circle. It let out a shrill screech as it floated in a downward spiral, occasionally blotting out the sun with its onyx feathers.