Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 39

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An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 39

      I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the cold stone floor. I had to rise. I had to escape this place. And I had to get Almond away from them. And yes, even broken Kelu. Perhaps I could take them home with me, keep them safe from the depredations of elves forever.
      I tried to stand and fell. Just so simple: my body refused to function. Sprawled on the ground, I remembered that part of my plan had been to find someone to heal me. I couldn’t imagine any elf ever consenting to do something beneficent, but I also found myself forced to admit that I was becoming an invalid faster than I’d planned, faster than even I’d dreamed in my cruelest nightmares.
      God, I couldn’t afford to be this weak. Not here.
      By the time Kelu returned I had used the wall to drag myself upright and was leaning heavily against it. Seeing her made me glad… but seeing Almond…
      “What did they do to you?” I hissed.
      She bowed her head, embarrassed. “It is nothing, Master.”
      “What did they do to you!”
      “Later,” Kelu said, dragging my attention away from the macabre embrace of the bandages wrapping the smaller genet’s torso. “We have to go now.”
      “Very well,” I said, and took my first step. My heel landed, the shock traveled up to my ankle and… it was if my leg wanted to continue through the stirrup of bone and muscle. Kelu tried to catch me but she only arrested my fall. She snarled. “Almond! Get his other side.”
      The smaller genet set her shoulder under my armpit and the two of them together managed to bolster me. But I was weeping again, with frustration and the sheer brilliance of the pain, so blinding.
      “What happened to you, Master?” Almond asked, her voice twisted with worry. “You smell so wrong.”
      “I don’t know,” I said, panting and trying to help them but it was hard, so hard to coordinate my limbs. “They touched me, they ripped me open and now it’s bad, it’s very bad.”
      “You smell like agony,” Almond said softly. “Like screaming.”
      “Screaming… why, yes, I do seem to recall screaming,” I said. Mordant humor was all I had left.
      “Sssh,” Kelu said. “Just concentrate. We have to get you to the stables.”
      I wondered what poor souls they kept in stables, if they kept humans in kennels. I feared to ask, and it needed too much of my effort to remain conscious. Whatever they’d done, whatever they’d taken from me, it made my body worse. I felt as if I were grinding my bones to powder and my muscles were tearing apart. My sweat dampened their arms where they propped me up. The hall we traversed stretched on toward infinity… like a nightmare, as difficult to apprehend, like swimming through an abysm and smells and the disgusting sound of my own panting.
      “Not far now, Master,” Almond whispered, and perhaps she licked my cheek.
      A cool breeze… we were outside? It smelled like storms. Blindly I sought the sea. I could feel it pounding against my skin as if I had become the strand.
      “This way,” Kelu said, tugging me, and I realized I’d been straining toward it.
      I strangled my protest and let her guide me until we passed a threshold and I found the light warm and dim. I squinted into the real and found a long row of stalls, lit by lanterns and dense with sepia shadows. The musty warmth of the place felt good, felt right. Dry and full of living things.
      “There are… horses here?” I asked.
      “What did you expect?” Kelu said.
      I managed a twisted smile. “Some sentient race forced into eternal servitude on hands and knees.”
      She flashed her teeth at me. “You’re learning.”
      Almond flattened her ears.
      I remembered an important point then. “I can’t ride horses.”
      “Then it’s good we’re not stealing a horse,” Kelu said, disappearing into the maw of the shadows, the black ones at the end of the corridor. I waited, leaning heavily on Almond.
      Eyes first out of that dark. Giant eyes, bright as embers. Visceral memory: alchemical fires burning, talons, the hiss of a phantom, ancient anger. I backed away, stumbling.
      “No, no, Master,” Almond said, grabbing my arm. “It’s just a drake, it won’t harm you.”
      The shadows drained off the rest of the animal as it stepped toward me, a creature as tall as a draft horse but sleek and hard as a greyhound and scaled like a serpent. It extended its narrow, pointed head toward me, those cabochon eyes focused on mine.
      “Give it your hand,” Almond whispered.
      I extended my aching arm, palm up. It lowered its head, nostrils flared; its breath when it blew on my skin was hot, hot and dry, like the draft off a fire. I didn’t realize until a long tress tumbled over its head to tickle my wrist that it had a black mane to complement its two swept-back horns.
      “At least it likes you,” Kelu said, throwing a saddle over its back. She had to stand on her toes to reach over it.
      “A… a drake?” I said, looking at Almond. “Like a dragon?”
      “It’s not a dragon,” she said. “These are rare riding beasts, Master. Fit only for kings and princes.”
      “Should we be stealing something so rarified?” I asked. “Won’t they notice?”
      “We don’t have a choice,” Kelu said, tugging the girth taut. “We have to make the best time possible. This is the fastest thing in the stable, and it’s also the only thing that’s not going to balk at the smell of me or Almond.”
      “Still—” I began, and then… it stretched its long neck out and pressed its smooth cheek against mine.
      A sense of well-being flooded me, so intense I froze. It chafed its face against my cheek, against my neck, took a step forward until it could press its chest against mine. Shocked, I put both my arms around its muscled neck, my fingers tangling in that soft, long mane as it snuffed at my back.
      Both genets were staring at me. I wanted to protest that I hadn’t planned any of this, but… God, it was such a warm animal, and it felt good, good to touch it. So I gave up and buried my face in its hair.
      “It knows him,” Kelu said, sounding shaken.
      “Of course,” Almond said. “He’s the prince.”
      Kelu said, “Ah… rrr. Yes. Come on, Morgan, get on.”
      She wanted me to pull myself onto an animal this tall when I could barely walk. I laughed, weakly, bitterly.
      “Try, Master,” Almond said, petting my shoulder. “We’ll help.”
      “Just hurry,” Kelu growled.
      I drew in a deep breath of the drake’s scent: musty and musky and spiced, the sweat of snakes and predators touched with sparks. I steadied myself on the creature’s body, moving to its side, and there confronted the saddle. I reached for the pommel and managed to lock my fingers around it and then closed my eyes and heaved myself upward.
      And I almost made it.
      I fell, the genets lunged for me, and the drake… swerved under me. I found the saddle beneath my chest and blinked at the tooling on its leather edge. Very elegant. How had I gotten here?
      Without warning, Kelu shoved her shoulder into my backside, pushing me up into the saddle. Almond steadied me and the taller genet pulled my leg over the back of the drake, which had folded itself beneath me, tucked neatly on the ground like a sphinx.
      “At least it’s cooperating,” Kelu said. “There.”
      “Do we need a bridle?” Almond asked, hesitant.
      “Yes,” Kelu said. “I’ll get that. You get up behind him. We have to hurry. Someone might want to take a midnight ride.”
      I held onto the saddle. So many things going on around me and I felt like the master of none of it. It was humiliating. But… the drake beneath me was warm and very alive. I almost wished the saddle away, so I could feel its smooth skin against my legs.
      “All right,” Kelu said, throwing the reins over the creature’s long neck and pulling herself into the saddle in front of me. “Let’s go!”
      The moment I’d been dreading… the moment we actually moved. Every time I’d ever been on a horse had been an agony of jarred muscles and white pain shot straight up the column of my spine. I closed my eyes and braced myself for it.
      Muscles glided beneath my legs, growing hot enough to feel through the fabric of my pants. Startled, I opened my eyes to find the drake standing, and as I gaped it took its first few steps.
      “Does it even have bones?” I asked.

***

Moving on from the ugly stuff, we get to something nice. This is the source of what will end up the cover image of this book:

The Mount of Kings and Priests

Unless I figure out something cooler, and honestly, how likely is that!


  1. DRAGON FTW!!!

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