Water dripped somewhere. The air was cold and rank with the smell of mold and waste. He lay on hard-packed, cold earth, his body shaking from the cold and the pain in his joints that refused to dull. A torch stood in its niche and the oily flame flickered, sending thick shadows along the slimy walls. What day was it? What month? What season? The donjon had no windows, so there was no sense of time passing. He drifted in and out of a restless slumber, cradling his hands against his chest.
They had broken the bones in his hands. His Uncle Bhar Obeli had used pliers to break the bones. He had screamed until he had passed out, only to be roused by icy water being dumped on his head and shoulders. All through the interrogation and torture, he had prayed out loud to Atana. Every question directed at him had been answered by a prayer. They had strapped him to the walls, pulling his arms so tight, he stood on tiptoes. Then they had used the rack until his screams seemed to seep into the very walls. In other rooms of the donjon, others were being tortured as well, for when he screamed, it was answered by another. The sense of solidarity and brotherhood that filled Belihn for those others being tortured had given him a strength he had not known he possessed.
Bhar had grasped Belihn’s hair and pulled his head back so they could meet gazes.
“Do you want to die, Belihn? Is that it?” his Uncle demanded.
Belihn had smiled with a bravura he had not felt. “Then I’ll become a martyr for the cause, won’t I, Uncle?”
Bhar had gritted his teeth and stalked from the cell.
He had been tortured six times: they had broken his hands, they had dislocated his shoulders, they had burned his stomach and thighs, they had stuck pins under his toenails, they had taunted and teased him, beaten him until he lost all sense. They had left him on the cell floor, naked and bleeding, concussed and dazed. Then he had drifted in and out of consciousness, always the sound of water dripping somewhere, always the agonized screaming of political prisoners. It was as if he were locked in a nightmare. He wondered if he would ever rouse and return to his life.
He lost time. They came and set a bowl of gruel next to him, but he was unable to lift the spoon with his useless fingers. The thought of food made his stomach roil anyway. They gave him water in a mug and he lapped at it like an animal, on his knees, his throat raw from thirst. As he lay there in the oily light from the torch, he prayed to Atana to take him, to lift him beyond this world and set him free. But he remained, counting time by the removal of the expired torch and its replacement with another. He lay on the hard ground and watched the flickering flame as it spit and flared at every drift of a cold breeze.
He wondered if he was going to die down here and never see his mother or siblings again.
He dreamed and woke with a scream lodged in his throat. The torch was low, so he guessed it was late in the day. As he had dreamed, they had brought him more food and water. He rose slowly and went to the mug of water. He lapped at the water until he felt he could swallow without pain. At one point, he had screamed so long that he had tasted blood at the back of his throat.
There was the clatter of keys at the keyhole. The iron door creaked open. There was a gasp and a muttered imprecation.
The world tilted. He was lifted and the pain flared so hot, he gasped and passed out.
He woke to a world moving under him. He could hear creaking, but he was warm and lying on something softer than packed earth. He fell into a troubled sleep once more.
Weeping woke him.
He was warm and on something soft, but the pain still gnawed with jagged teeth at his body. He moaned and strove to open his eyes.
“Be at rest, Belihn. Don’t wake.”
A mug was brought to his parched lips and he drank something bitter and thick. He lay still and listened to the sibilance of whispers. He could tell someone was praying. He wanted to laugh. The Goddess was deaf. Prayers flew into the air and dispersed like so many breezes. Something cool rested against his forehead and he almost sighed, it felt good against his fevered skin. He slept again.
When he woke a second time, someone was wiping his body with a damp cloth. He had no strength to even open his eyes.
“Be at peace, brother,” a soft voice murmured.
Once again, his head was lifted and the thick, bitter drink was forced down his throat. He coughed and made himself swallow. Afterward, he lay in the darkness behind his eyes as the person finished bathing his body. The coolness against his skin felt good. He drifted away again.
When he opened his eyes, he saw he lay on a canopied bed, the curtains drawn back to reveal a dim room. Against the far wall, a fire crackled, adding warmth and a bit of light to the room. It took Belihn a few minutes to realize he lay in his own bed in his mother’s villa. He lifted a hand and found it wrapped tightly in bandages. He tried to make a fist and gasped at the pain. He lowered his hand. The pain in his shoulders had eased and he wondered if the bones had been forced back into alignment. He could not recall.
A door opened and someone carried a tray to the bedside table.
“You’re awake, my son.”
He looked up.
His mother set the tray down and took a seat at the edge of the mattress. She caressed his cheek. “How are you, son?”
He cleared his throat and frowned. She looked pale and thin, her beautiful eyes bruised. “Aya.”
She placed a hand on his forearm. “I am here, my darling boy. Do you still hurt?”
She grimaced. “Once the bones knit, you’ll be able to exercise them, Belihn.” She sighed and blinked her eyes. “However, you will always have a modicum of pain and you may never regain normal strength. So says the healer. I brought empathic healers, child. You screamed as they knit the worst of the damage.”
“I don’t remember that, Aya.”
She smiled at him. “No. We drugged you and the drug made you forget.” She swallowed. “They reset your shoulders and cut away the infection in your stomach and thighs from the burns. You will remain scarred for life.”
“War wounds,” he muttered and swallowed. “Thirsty.”
She reached for a mug of water and lifted his head. He slurped the cool, fresh water.
When she set his head back down on the pile of pillows, he sighed.
“Atana has brought down her judgement on the city-state,” Divita stated hollowly.
He frowned and pushed away the lingering weariness. “What do you mean?”
“Plague,” she hissed. “Plague is ravaging through North Torahn. The city walls are locked. The black flag flies from the ramparts. Word has spread throughout the denizens that you were captured and tortured and that you never stopped praying. The Prei-Serren told the King that if he didn’t release you, the Goddess would bring retribution and sorrow to his clan. The King and the High Priest argued when the King refused to release you. The next day, the plague arrived. The first few sick were all aristocrats. Some of your siblings have come down with the sickness. The King’s advisors demanded your release and I was allowed to bring you here, to the villa. Rage burns through the ranks of the commoners, child. People believe the King committed a sin when he tortured you, his child. There have been protests and calls for change.”
Belihn frowned. “It is too soon.”
She dipped a cloth into the basin of scented water she had brought. Gently, she dabbed the sweat from his forehead, cheeks and neck.
“It is with the Goddess,” she replied. “Already, there are serrens who would like to canonize as a you a saint.”
He barked a laugh and groaned at the pain. “Me? A Saint?”
“You are a symbol now, Belihn,” she said quietly. “A symbol of the King’s fear, the will of the Goddess, and the need for change. Change comes even as plague burns through the city.”
“Aya, what of my sisters and T’arehn?”
“They are here, child. Don’t worry about them. Kilen Sobres is here, too.” She sighed. “T’arehn wanted his friend Aila’h to come, too, but her mother refused to allow her to leave the castle.”
He closed his eyes. “So tired, Mother.”
“Then rest, child. When you wake again, we shall take a walk to strengthen your limbs.”
Two days later, Belihn rose by himself, using his belly muscles to pull himself up to a sitting position. Once in the bathing chamber, he unwrapped his hands and stepped under the bathing room spout, allowing the icy water to tumble down his back and chest. The healer had removed the bandages from around his stomach and thighs and now thick, raised pink scars filled his torso and legs. He touched the raised scars and felt nothing where his finger lingered. He grimaced and reached for the soap. The healers had mended enough of his bones to allow him to grip the soap, even if it brought pain. He washed his body and then lathered his oily, dirty hair. Afterward, he stood under the cold water and allowed the soap to be rinsed away.
Pain made him slow. It took him close to an hour to dress himself and then brush his hair. He used a leather thong to tie it back from his face, for his hands would not allow him to braid his hair. He had not looked in the mirror. For some reason, the idea of looking into a mirror terrified him. He huffed a bitter laugh and shuffled back into the bedroom.
The door to his bedroom opened and Tifa stepped into the room.
“You’re up!” she said.
He bowed. “I couldn’t stand my odor anymore. I bathed. Can you braid my hair, sister-mine?”
“Sit here,” she replied and he took a seat in an armchair facing the crackling fire.
Gently, she brushed and braided his hair, pulling it tight from his face.
“They beat you so hard,” she stated, subdued. “Your eyes were swollen shut.” She trembled. “I never thought I could hate Father, but I do now.”
“I hate him, too,” he said. “Goddess forgive me, if it is a sin!”
“Father committed the sin, not you.”
She leaned over him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
She walked around his chair and knelt before him. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. “The healer said you were almost dead. Your internal organs were bruised and bleeding. It took two empathic healers to bring you from the brink of death!” She reached up and caressed his cheek. “My beloved Belihn! The people are angry at the King and believe the Goddess punishes him for hubris.”
He chuckled. “It begins then. It begins. It begins. It begins.”
He closed his eyes and sobbed. “I felt so alone, Tifa! Every time they broke something in me, I screamed a prayer. It was Uncle Bhar.”
She shivered and her eyes flashed her rage. “He is no uncle to you or me, Belihn.”
“No,” he agreed. “I suppose not.”
She cocked her head. “Now what, Belihn?”
“I will wait. Then I will go where I am needed.”
“And myself and Ilmi and T’arehn and Mother?”
“This is not your war, Tifa. I want you to marry Kilen Sobres and live in peace.”
“There is no peace!” she spat. “If we survive the disease eating through the city-state, then we will have to choose a side, Belihn.”
“I need all of you to leave, to go to Tjish.un or Ynha,” he said. “Once the wall gates are thrown open once more, you will go and reside with Grandmother Oona’s family.”
She shook her head and wiped angrily at a tear. “We will not leave you!”
He took her shoulders and grimaced at the pain in his hands. He shook her gently.
“Listen to me, Tifa. All that matters to me is your safety. Promise me.”
She stubbornly squared her shoulders. “Belihn–“
“Promise me, Tifa! None of this will be worth it, if you are killed.”
She sighed. “Very well. But I think I’ll go to Ynha, where Kilen owns a farm of lirtah.”
He smiled at her and tucked a wayward thread of hair behind her ear. “That’s good, girl. Now, help me walk. I need to speak to Kilen.”
He rose on shaky legs and she wrapped her arm around his waist and slowly walked him out into the wide hallway. A single story home, the villa was a sprawling U shaped house with three wings. The bedrooms and bathing chambers were located in the north wing, while the kitchen and dining rooms were located in the east wing. The south wing contained libraries and sitting rooms. It is here that Tifa led him.
A long time before they made it to the archway that led from the foyer to the west sitting room, Belihn could hear his family in conversation. Their voices were subdued and little laughter was heard.
They paused under the archway.
Divita sat on a loveseat next to Ilmi. They were knitting.
Kilen and his family took up most of the rest of the furniture. He had three brothers, who were all married, and his folks were still alive. Seeing the Sobres family there gave Belihn a measure of joy. They were probably fleeing the plague.
Tifa and Ilmi’s caretakers, Missus Karlen and Oson were there as well, as was Rechel Setin, his mother’s lady-in-waiting. His uncle Tono and his aunt Salita were there, with their respective spouses and their passel of children.
Belihn started and turned his head to where his mother stood.
“Good morning, Aya,” he murmured. “Tifa. I need to sit down.”
The congregation watched in utter silence as he was assisted to an available loveseat. He sat down slowly and closed his eyes against the wave of nausea that washed over him, leaving him weak and damp with sweat. When he opened his eyes, the entire company was staring at him with a mixture of emotions ranging from admiration to concern to horror. He lifted a hand and touched his face.
“You almost died,” Kilen stated blandly. “You look it.”
Belihn huffed a laugh. “I can’t bring myself to look in a mirror.”
“Give it a few days,” his sister’s fiancee advised.
“Yes,” Belihn agreed.
He sighed and ran his gaze over everyone present. “I have a request to make of all of you.”
Divita placed her hands on his shoulders. “Anything, son.”
“Once the gates of the city are open once more, you all need to leave. Go to Ynha. The events will move quickly now and I don’t trust any of you is safe here in Draemin.”
T’arehn frowned and rose. “I’m not going to leave you, Belihn!”
“I am safe as long as you are safe,” Belihn told his brother. “Once you are captured, then my life is precarious indeed.”
“You all can come to my ranch,” Kilen said. “It’s a large house with enough room.”
“Thank you,” Belihn murmured and sat back in the chair.
“Your mother opened her home to us,” Mister Sobres said. “For that we must thank you. We will go where you need us to go, Belihn.”
“Doesn’t my opinion count?” T’arehn asked the room.
“No,” Belihn growled. “You’re fourteen, T’arehn.”
He swallowed against another wave of nausea. Then someone was pressing the lip of a mug to his mouth. He swallowed the water and sighed.
When the nausea passed, he opened his eyes. “I am going to take my mother’s maiden name as my own. The Yllysians wanted me to take an Yllysian surname, but they abandoned me readily enough.”
T’arehn pounded his chest with a fist. “Then I am a Stait as well.”
“As am I,” Ilmi stated and rose.
Belihn smiled at his siblings. “You don’t have to.”
T’arehn shook his head. “If you are exiled, then so am I. So is Ilmi.”
“Yes,” Ilmi agreed.
“I see,” Belihn murmured and smiled at his younger siblings. “Sit everyone, please. Just let me sit here for a few minutes until I feel better.”
Slowly, the conversations began again. Belihn rested his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.
He felt someone settle next to him on the settee.
“Tifa said you wanted to speak with me, Belihn.”
Belihn nodded and opened his eyes. He gazed into Kilen’s hazel eyes. “You must take care of my family in Ynha, Kilen.”
“Surely, you can’t mean to remain behind!” his soon to be law brother gasped.
Belihn shook his head. “I’m in too deep, Kilen. Please. Promise me you’ll take care of the Staits.”
Kilen reached out and placed his hand gently on Belihn’s own. “You have my word, Belihn. Be at ease.”