Lady Kahla led Lahn outside.
“Unlike many villas in this area, ours is a working villa,” she said as she led him down the cobblestone path between the rows of vines. “This berry is called ithalten. It makes potent wines used during Kamaran. Bala berries can be used to make lighter wines for Anajs and Dibasj. Bala berry wines don’t warm the blood like Ithalten does.”
“You seem to know your wines,” Lahn murmured as he paused to pick one of the ithalten berries. He popped into his mouth and was rewarded with an intense tart sweetness. His mouth flooded with saliva and he coughed. “I see why it makes such strong wines.”
She chuckled and patted his hand. “You didn’t give me a chance to warn you.”
He picked another and gave her a lopsided grin as he popped it into his mouth. “I’m developing a taste for strong flavors.”
“Spoken like a true southerner,” she said and led him further down the rows of vines.
“You know, I ate fairly bland food at the monastery,” he said into their easy silence.
“I applaud your faith, your Highness, but I don’t understand what compels a young man to join a monastery at 15.”
“My father was going to marry me off to a cousin and I didn’t feel like getting married at 15. Joining the military would not have stopped my marriage, but a monk takes an oath of celibacy. My father would have had quite the fight on his hand if he had forced me back home.”
“Yet you have agreed to marry now.”
He shrugged. “They strong armed the AiSer of the monastery. Besides, I was not given an option
“I see,” she said. “Neither was Kah’len given an option. Are you atoliy, your Highness, if you don’t mind my asking.”
He was shocked that a woman would ask him such a thing, but he was quickly losing his shame around this family. He wasn’t sure that was a good thing.
“I am atoliy. At least, I think I am, which is why I couldn’t consent to marrying Uha. I wouldn’t have been able to make her happy. I already resented her deeply, even though she was not the orchestrator of our marriage.”
“I see,” she said. “And can you make by brother happy, your Highness?”
“I can try, Lady Kahla, although I will be honest with you: the idea of breaking my celibacy fills me with unease.”
She shrugged.“That is nothing that a young woman does not experience. Our virginity is our greatest asset, sometimes commanding steep prices. On our wedding night, we know we will be changed forever. But we survive, don’t we? You may find that you more than survive. You may find you thrive under my brother’s hands.”
He blushed and ducked his head. “You speak rather frankly, my lady.”
“I don’t mince words, your Highness. My mother taught me to be straightforward and honest.”
He patted her hand. “It is a good thing. One knows where one stands with you.”
“And will you?” she asked.
“Pardon? Will I what?”
“Will you try to make my brother happy?”
“I promise to try, my lady.”
“Thank you then,” she said. “Look.”
They rounded a corner and there, in the middle of a field, stood a gazebo. The children and a young woman were under the gazebo ceiling, while several guards stood around them at attention.
“I don’t like that they are so far from the main house,” she said and released his arm, walking ahead of him.
“Tisa!” she called as she walked, and the young woman turned to face her mistress.
In that moment, two of the guards turned and rushed at Lahn, swords drawn. Lahn unsheathed his sword and parted his legs. A woman screamed but Lahn had no opportunity to figure out who before the guards were attacking him. Lahn fought with all his might, wondering if the other guards were making an attempt onLady Kahla and the children. One of the guards lunged and Lahn spun, deflecting the sword, although the tip cut through his tunic and bit deeply into hiswaist. He grunted. The guard gave him a mirthless grin and lunged again. Lahn felt the sticky wetness of blood on his skin. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he fended off both guards. Eventually they would wear him down, so he sought a way to end this and quickly. He bent and pulled the knife from his boot and fought two handed. That seemed to throw the guards off for a few seconds, but they quickly recovered and renewed their efforts.
Lahn got the impression they were meant to kill him, not wound him, and that he more than likely was fighting for his life. He was tiring, having spent the last year working on scientific experiments rather than on martial training. He stumbled and one of the guards lunged. Lahn threw himself on the ground and rolled, coming gracelessly to his feet again. The guard cursed, turned and bolted, the other following close behind.
“Capture them!” Lahn heard the Warlord’s command. “Get them alive or it’s your hide!”
Lahn looked toward the gazebo and saw that both young women and the children were safe, surrounded by guards. Two of the guards took off after the assassins through the rows of vines.
Kah’len ran to where Lahn stood hunched over, gulping for air. His tunic was plastered to his back and side from sweat and blood.
“Are you alright, your Highness?” Kah’len demanded and helped Lahn to straighten up.
Lahn winced as the movement pulled on his wound.
Kah’len looked at the blood and scowled. “Come inside, your Highness. The healer will look at you.”
Lahn stumbled and Kah’len caught him.
“What is it?” Kah’len asked. “It’s not that deep a wound.”
Lahn’s mouth felt numb. His entire body began to thrum with a bone deep ache. His throat felt parched and he could taste something sickly sweet.
“Tell me what the matter is,” Kah’len demanded.
Lahn stared at the Warlord as he fought to get the words through the numbness stealing through his entire body. He collapsed into Kah’len’s arms.
“Lahn, your Highness,” Kah’len pleaded.
“P-poison,” Lahn muttered and swallowed thickly. His mouth tasted of blood.
The last thing Lahn heard was Kah’len’s sobbed curse.
There was so much pain and the taste of blood was thick and sticky in his mouth. When he opened his eyes, he lay on a wide grass field with the sky like an ocean above him. His nerve ends were on fire. The pain drove him to sit up. He looked down on himself and he noticed he was naked, his cock strong and proud against his stomach. He had a deep gash on the left side of his body, the lips of the wound filled with sharp teeth. He rose to his feet and swayed a moment before he found his balance once more. He began to walk, although he saw nothing in any direction. The grass field emptied into the horizons before and behind him. Not even a copse of trees relieved the monotony of the scenery.
He heard a howl and gazed down. The mouth that was his wound gnashed and howled again.
“That is your god,” a voice said.
Lahn startled and looked up. “Who is there?”
The air shimmered and a figure began to appear. He saw it was a woman, tall as a building, with fierce gray eyes and long dark hair worn loose. She was so beautiful, it hurt to look upon her.
“What did you say?” Lahn demanded, feeling sick to his stomach.
“Your wound is your god,” she said in a beautiful voice.
He looked down at the wound. It growled and gnashed its needle-like teeth.
“Shut up, bitch!” the wound hissed.
The woman laughed. “You are nothing, Poa, but the wound on a child.”
Lahn looked at the woman. “You are…who are you?”
“You know who I am,” she said and there was a flash of light.
In the next moment, she wore armor so bright, it was like staring at the light of a sun. On her shield rose a rearing tash-tash.
“I am the Goddess of this world and your god is an imposter and interloper,” she said. “Turn away from the dark deity and towards the light, Lahn Obeli, or your soul will be lost.”
“Shut up!” the wound howled.
It emitted rage and hatred. Every time it spoke, it tore deeper into Lahn and he faltered, almost falling several times.
“Accept my blessing, child of darkness, and your soul will be free.”
He looke daway from the heart of pain and into her compassionate gaze. Where once she had worn battle armor, she now wore a long, flowing dress and her beautiful breasts were bear.
“You–” he whispered and swallowed. “You are Atana.”
The wound wailed inconsolably. “Do not become blinded by the light! Pain is the only way, Lahn Obeli.”
Lahn thought of the times he flagellated his back and the heights of ecstasy he had reached.
“Yes,” the wound purred. “Remember what I give you.”
“Darkness and pain for an eternity,” she said.
Lahn looked at her and saw an old woman, still eerily beautiful, with snow white hair and clear gray eyes.
“The Deity of Darkness can only offer you a limited after life,” she continued, smiling kindly at him. In his chest, his heart broke.
“No! Temptress!” the wound shrieked in rage. “Deceiver.”
“That is your name,” the Goddess chastised. She looked at Lahn. “Take my hand, Lahn, and I will heal you. Your god is waiting for you to die. Give your heart to me and I shall release you into life once more. Through me you will understand the unfathomable. Through me you will know the incomprehensible. Through me you will touch the core of the universe itself. Look around you. This is Poa’s realm, Lahn. Your body and this emptiness. Do you want to spend an eternity here, when you can be reborn?”
The pain in his side flared so hot, Lahn cried out and fell to his knees.
“You are mine, little nothing!” the wound spat. “Give over and die already, you weakling.”
Lahn raised his head and looked at the Goddess. She stood before him, slender as a blade of grass, and small like a child. She took three steps and held her hand out to him.
“Take my hand, Lahn. I have work for you.”
He took her hand and the wound tore deeper. He cried out but did not let go of her cool, slender hand.
“Rise and walk with me,” she said. “We will leave this world behind us.”
They began to walk and, as they walked, the grass field dissolved and a forest then stood in its stead. Animals watched from afar, curious and innocent.
“I rule many worlds, Lahn Obeli,” she said in his mind. “In many guises. I am the force of creation, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden. I have need of you, child. You must return to Audesei and kill the Prei Serren of North Torahn. One who is untainted by darkness must lead my Church. My teachings are being twisted beyond recognition. Child, will you do this?”
She looked up at him with a cherub’s face and smiled. “Take the sword up and cut through the cancer that reigns at the hand of Prei Serren Kaelo Ys’teis. Use the Warlord to destroy all who stand in my way. You are my priest now, Lahn Obeli. Do you understand?”
“Listen to my counsel when you pray. I will whisper to you, so you must learn to listen to me. Dance to ecstasy and I will take up your spirit and lift you high.”
He bowed to her.
“Close your eyes now, child,” she said softly. “Lay on the ground and listen to the life around you. It will teach you to find your world again.”
He closed his eyes.
He heard screaming in the distance. The pain engulfed him like sharp teeth tearing through him. He could smell death, feel its fetid, sickly wind on his face. He turned away.
“He wakes,” someone said.
Lahn clawed his way to consciousness. He opened his eyes with great difficulty. His head and body weighed a ton and when he tried to turn to the left and right, he found he could only stare at the underside of the canopy of the bed. He worked his mouth, but he was so parched he doubted he would be able to part his lips without tearing the skin. Someone sat nearby. A damp cloth was rubbed gently along his mouth. After a few minutes, he found he could open his mouth.
“Thirsty,” he croaked.
Someone raised his head and fed him sweet, cool water. He groaned and sipped the water past his aching throat. It was like swallowing glass.
“Drink itall,” someone said. “You are dangerously dehydrated, your Highness. I know it hurts, but drink it all.”
He did as he was asked, although, after a time, the water tasted of blood, too. When he was done, his head was carefully set back on the pillow and the man who had fed him the water rose.
“I’ll be right back, your Highness.”
He followed the young man with his eyes until the young man stepped out into the hall, returning in a few minutes, with Kah’len.
Kah’len hurried to the bedside and took a seat at the edge of the mattress. He picked up Lahn’s hand.
“You wake at last,” Kah’len murmured and rubbed his hand with both of his. “You gave us quite the scare.”
“H-” Lahn frowned and cleared his painful throat. “How long?”
“You’ve been unconscious for three days, your Highness,” Kah’len said. “You were poisoned.”
Lahn reached his free hand to the wound. It was wrapped in a bandage. He vividly recalled the mouth and shuddered.
Kah’len placed the palm of his hand on Lahn’s forehead. “Your fever has broken at last.”
Lahn sighed and closed his eyes. “So tired.”
“Rest then,” the Warlord said. “I’ll be nearby if you need me.”