An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
There was an arm over my waist and a pressure at my back. When I shifted, a damp nose brushed at my shoulder, hesitant.
I said, “Almond.” Unnecessarily, “I’m alive.”
She started crying.
I closed my eyes, suppressing the sigh. Then I forced myself upright and turned to her, gathering her little body into my lap and folding over her, keeping the rain off her. “Where’s Kelu?”
“She’s h-hunting,” Almond said, sniffling. “We n-needed food…”
“Sssh,” I said, resting my head on the top of hers, between the wet ears. Of course there was rain. Of course it was cold. “Sssh.”
“Are we so displeasing?” Almond asked, her voice quavering. “That you would rather die than be served by us?”
What a question. I sighed and tightened my arms around her. “It has nothing to do with you, Almond. Nothing at all.”
“Then… what?” she asked. “Please, Master, let us help you!”
I shook my head and opened my mouth to tell her there was nothing she could do when I saw Kelu’s face. ‘Don’t tell her to leave. She will, weeping all the while.’ I said, “I’m not sure what you can do. Yet. But… you’re warm and something about having you near makes me hurt less. That helps.”
“Is it enough?” she whispered. She looked up at me then, and it was hard, so hard to meet her eyes. They were so innocent, too innocent to be rimmed with tears. “You… you tried to die, Master. And we have been near you all this time.”
“I’ve had a hard few weeks,” I murmured, then pinched the bridge of my nose. A hard life to now would probably be closer to the truth. “And I am in a great deal of pain, Almond. Constant pain.”
“This rain,” she whispered. “It can’t be helping.” She reached for me and tried to fold me into her little arms, as if she could keep my much larger body from exposure. “Let me… let me keep you dry, Master.”
“It’s a little late for that,” I said. When she began to shake, I touched her chin and lifted her face. “A joke, Almond. A joke.”
She sniffled, her eyes crimping. “I just want you to be h-happy.”
“I know,” I said and kissed her on her brow, on the furry space between her eyes. “Thank you.”
As she clung to me I let myself rest against her and thought that they were all I had left, these two creatures. Unfathomably they were devoted to me, after their own fashion. And for all Kelu’s spitfire ferocity and Almond’s quiet grace, neither of them could survive without me, not indefinitely.
I could fall apart, but if I did they would suffer.
“Well, this is pretty,” Kelu said, her body a gray silhouette in the rain. “I missed the cuddling.”
“He’s still here,” Almond said. “Come join me.”
The taller genet tossed a brace of fish on the ground. “So he can throw me off again? I’d rather not. We don’t heal the way elves do, remember?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t in my right mind.”
“I noticed,” she said. “Though for someone not in his right mind you surely did a good job of laying yourself open.”
“I lived,” I said.
“You wouldn’t have if you’d been human,” she said, dropping to the mud beside her catch and beginning to dig into the fish with her claws. “The wrists and elbows… effective but expected. But the legs, that was creative. Good thing you didn’t get too far with that or there would have been no blood left for me to drink.”
“I confess I don’t recall,” I said.
“It was gruesome,” Kelu said, popping a chunk of fish entrails into her mouth and chewing. “There was so much blood everywhere we had to drag you to a new camp. No doubt every predator in the area is sucking on the mud over there.” She cocked a brow at me. “Are you done feeling sorry for yourself?”
I was past offense. “For now,” I said and grinned without humor. “I don’t suppose there’s any cooking that.”
She glanced up at the rain-fretted sky and then at me. “Not unless you can conjure us shelter.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Can I?”
“No,” she said. “Or you’d have done it by now.” She offered me a piece of raw flesh. “Dinner?”
I shook my head. “No, thank you.”
She shrugged. “Fine. Almond?”
Almond squeezed me once more and slid out of my lap to join Kelu at the repast, such as it was. I watched them eat; it stripped their civilized facades from them. They only had rending teeth and ate like dogs, heads tilted and eyes half-closed as they shredded the meat. I wondered as I sat there, hugging my knees, why I felt so sane.
Then I thought to ask, “How long has it been?”
“Since…?” Kelu asked, licking her nose.
“Since I collapsed,” I said.
They looked at one another. “Almost two days, Master,” said Almond.
“And I spent those two days…”
“Thrashing,” Kelu said. “Or unconscious.”
My mind had gone, then. Mercifully. If healing from being beaten had almost destroyed me, than coming back from nearly killing myself…
If I had been out two days, why wasn’t I hungrier? Thirsty? Achy? Instead I felt… numb.
“We’re going to have to walk to the port,” I said.
“Yes,” Kelu said, licking her clawtips. “At least we don’t have to follow your caravan train’s route. They were stopping more places than I would have. If we go straight from here, cross-country, it won’t take us as long.”
“You must be joking,” I said. I was fine now, but the pain would come back.
“If we have to drag you, we’ll do it again,” she said. “You won’t be very pretty at the end of it, but we’ll manage.”
Almond glanced at her, ears akimbo. I shared her misgivings.
“You sleepy?” Kelu asked.
I shook my head.
“Good,” she said. “Because there’s another matter we have to discuss.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
She sat across from me, cross-legged, her hands on her knees. The rain had plastered her hair to her shoulders and her fur to her skin, revealing the frailty of her body. They had muscle, the genets, and Kelu more than Almond, but… nothing could change the slender bone structure, almost childlike. To have such a delicate body with such an unlikely coating of fur and then such fierce and intelligent eyes… the incongruity of it was arresting. I did not know that I liked these elves, but I felt wonder anew at what they had created.
“You can’t go on speaking Lit,” she said. “Human languages are the languages of slaves and servants. You need to start learning Angel’s Gift.”
While languages were not my forte, particularly when compared to the erudition of someone like Chester, I did find them fascinating. “I suppose that’s a good idea. Being able to speak with my hosts would be useful. I don’t know how much you expect me to learn in the time we have, though.”
“As much as you possibly can, and then some,” Kelu said. “If you want to survive.”
I tilted my head. “Hyperbole’s unnecessary, you know. You don’t have to make it sound dire in order to induce me to learn.”
Kelu flicked her ears back. “You think I’m lying? If you walk off that dock without being able to introduce yourself properly to Lady Amoret, she’ll toss you in the kitchens.”
“I’d hardly be of any use to her there,” I said, amused. “I can make toast and tea, but there you find the limits of my cooking abilities.”
“As food,” Kelu said. “Elves feed off of human energy.”
I wasn’t willing to press her on how much of her descriptions were truth and how much of them shaped by her abuse at the hands of her masters. That they were abusive was all I needed to know. “Very well,” I said. “This Angel’s Gift. You’ll teach me?”
She nodded. “And Almond. And we’ll start now. And as much as possible, we won’t speak in your language at all.”
“Let’s start with the word for pain, then,” I said.
Kelu studied me a moment, her eyes narrowed and thoughtful. Then she smiled grimly, with teeth. “Good choice.”
Somehow an appropriate sort of story for Halloween, given how gruesome it has been so far…
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