A bucket of water thrown in Jon’s face brought him back to consciousness with a gasp. A cygard unlocked his manacles and hauled him upright.
“On your feet,” the cygard barked. “I’m not lugging your sorry carcass up those stairs.”
As the cygard dragged Jon from the paddy wagon and onto a loading dock, he caught a glimpse of the castle exterior. The fortress had been designed to intimidate, and a shiver went down Jon’s spine at the sight of the cold and desolate citadel.
The loading dock jutted out from an alcove cut into the side of the structure. Several ragged children with bare heads and dirty feet were working frantically to unload a delivery cart parked nearby, filled with fresh produce and bushels of grain. The overseeing cygard made a sport of cracking his whip at their backsides, chuckling every time a kid cowered. None of the children would meet Jon’s gaze. They were around his sister’s age or younger, and it curdled his blood to see them being abused.
“Stop it,” Jon yelled at the whip-wielding cygard. “Can’t you see they’re moving as fast as they can?”
Although the kids didn’t stop working, they flicked Jon a terrified glance. The overseer brandished his whip at Jon.
“If ye can’t hold yer tongue, you’ll get a taste of leather,” he threatened. “Get the lad out of here, Stig, before I flay him to ribbons.”
The cygard named Stig looped a rope around Jon’s neck and led him up some stairs and into the castle. Jon tried to tell himself his situation was less dire than it appeared. On the plus side, his knapsack was still safely slung on his back and he had the use of his limbs. On the downside, he’d been captured by bad guys and for some reason he couldn’t transport to safety. In addition, if he didn’t manage to escape, he might shortly be separated from one or more of his appendages. He was forced to conclude his predicament was probably just as bad as it seemed, if not more so.
As he was yanked down a large passageway, Jon stumbled past cygards and other castle workers. An uncomfortably familiar cygard suddenly veered in his direction. Jon recognized him right off by his towering height—not to mention the size of the ax hanging from his belt. The supersized cygard blocked Jon’s path, and Stig sighed.
“C’mon, Lyesh,” he said. “I gotta get ’im up to the hearing.”
But Lyesh didn’t move.
“You’re the whelp who gave me a hard time the other day,” he said, jamming a hostile finger into Jon’s chest for emphasis. “I dunno how you gave me the slip, but your luck finally ran out, didn’t it?”
Jon knew a bully when he saw one, and he kept his mouth shut. Unfortunately, his silence seemed to antagonize the cygard even more. When Lyesh snatched his helmet off, Jon discovered why cygards always kept their faces covered. The giant had only one eye set in the middle of his forehead, and his hideous features were covered with lumpy knots of oozing flesh.
Lyesh sneered at Jon’s expression. “What’s the matter, you got a problem with cygards?”
“No, I got a problem with ugly,” Jon retorted before he could stop himself.
All the cygards within earshot howled with laughter.
“Mouthy little brat,” Lyesh said.
“Don’t worry,” Stig said. “He’ll be screaming a different tune after the warlord gets through with him.”
Stig’s sudden jerk of Jon’s rope nearly took him off his feet. With the noose burning his skin, he wasn’t enjoying the tour so far. A few more passageways and a couple of staircases later, he was dragged into a large, open chamber the size and shape of a small church. A floating ball of light at the top of the cathedral ceiling provided steady illumination. Medieval-style weapons, artfully woven tapestries, and large oil paintings covered the walls. Jon couldn’t help but notice several of the paintings were actually quite masterful. Under different circumstances he would have liked to have a closer look.
Various men and women congregated around the chamber in groups, mingling with one another. By their fancy clothes and head coverings, Jon guessed they had plenty of tile. Their conversations, already respectfully low, ceased altogether when he appeared. Several of them swished their robes aside as if he’d soiled them by his presence. Admittedly, he wasn’t at his best.
The focal point of the chamber was an oversized wooden chair, set on a raised platform. Centered in front of a curtained backdrop, the chair was draped in silken fabrics and soft cushions as would suit a throne. The occupant of the chair, however, was an austere and cruelly handsome man. His powerful build and piercing obsidian eyes heightened the aura of danger surrounding him. The simple metal circlet resting on his head designated the man as Warlord Mandral. Jon blanched at the sight of him.
A thin, oily fellow undulated at the warlord’s elbow, eager to be of service. He carried a scroll of parchment and a quill. A skullcap completely covered his hair, if indeed he had any. Jon wouldn’t have been surprised to learn the cap was made from snakeskin.
The crowd parted as Jon was brought forward and lashed to a metal ring permanently set in the stone floor in front of the throne. The ring was one of many, although Jon was the only occupant. Must be a slow day for hearings, he thought.
Mandral rose from his chair and descended the steps. His observant eyes focused on Ophelia right away. “Where did you get that Dragon Clan ring, boy?” he demanded.
“None of your business.”
The congregants gasped, and Jon’s reply earned him a smack on the head from the nearest cygard. Mandral, however, acted as if he hadn’t heard him. He beckoned to the man with the scroll. “Minister Tyrg, what is the charge against this prisoner?”
“Theft,” Tyrg said. His voice sounded almost like the hiss of a snake. “Merchant Moala has filed a claim for the cuff.”
Stig pulled up Jon’s sleeve to reveal the transporter cuff.
“Moala is an accomplished liar. His claim is denied,” Mandral said.
Jon sighed with relief, but his deliverance was short-lived.
“Take the ring and the cuff,” the warlord said. “Then whip the boy for his insolence.”
Ophelia’s eyes remained dull, and Jon was beginning to panic.
Stig caressed his ax. “The ring and cuff cannot be removed.”
Mandral exchanged a sharp glance with Tyrg. “Is this the ancient magic of inseparability?”
Tyrg shook his head in confusion. “A wizard becomes one with his clan ring and transporter cuff, yes. But there are few wizards left, and none of them have apprentices.”
The warlord studied Jon’s features. He tugged Ophelia to confirm the ring would not leave Jon’s finger. “Who are you?”
“No one in particular. I’m not from around here,” Jon replied.
With practiced speed and agility, Mandral unsheathed a thin dagger strapped to his thigh and pointed it at the hollow of Jon’s throat. “That’s not what I asked.”
Jon felt the razor-sharp tip pierce his skin. He had no doubt the blade had meted out its share of death. He gulped. “Jon. Jon Hansen.”
– S.G. Rogers