Prologue: The Prisoner
Damion rubbed the dull ache of age from his hands. Countless years wielding a sword had strengthened his tendons and muscles, but time had worn them down, replacing power with chronic pain. Closing his eyes, Damion dreamed of his youth. Battle and victory marked most of his memories, but darker images tainted his successes, reminding him of his one great failure.
The one that haunted his dreams.
He took a steadying breath and opened his eyes before the pain in his head could build. Not today, he thought. My will is my own. Shifting his gaze to the unfurled parchment before him, Damion bid his mind to focus on something else. He traced a smudged line with a gnarled finger, following the inked border declaring this land belonged to him. The map’s boundaries had changed countless times over the years, but the land remained the same. Sadly, he knew that his lifetime of achievements and sacrifices only amounted to a faded map. In the beginning, it wasn’t ambition that drove him to carve an empire, as historians now taught. Something else had compelled him. Something he wished to forget.
A knock on his study door intruded on his memories. At his call, the door swung inward, admitting the captain of his personal guard.
“What is it?”
“It’s your grandson, sire.” Aivas ran shaking fingers through his gray-streaked hair. “He’s been talking with the prisoner again.”
Fighting the sudden tightness in his chest, Damion gripped the table’s edge for support, but cold anger seeped into his voice. “Who let my grandson into the dungeon? I forbade anyone to visit the prisoner, especially him.”
“I don’t know, your Majesty.”
“Take me to him.” Damion drew his purple robe about him, suddenly cold. “Take me to my fallen grandson.”
Damion followed Aivas down the winding stairway to the nethermost region of the keep. Soon, the dungeon’s metal-studded wooden doors loomed before them. One hung partially open, but beyond wailed a soul being ripped from its shell. This battle should’ve been finished long ago. Before founding my empire, I should’ve finished this.
Squeezing through the doorway, Damion staggered at the sight of his nightmares made reality. Two armored guards fought to restrain a young boy of seven years, and were failing. The soul-wrenching cry tore from the boy’s throat as he kicked and lashed out.
The soft, mocking laughter drifting from the tunnel’s end lit a fire in Damion’s gut. Drawing himself to a regal height, his voice boomed, “Leir!” It was the same voice he had used to rally soldiers on untold battlefields. The same voice that united the splintered tribes to stand against the onrushing tide from the Underworld. The same voice that later forged an empire. He was Damion, the warrior, the warlord, the emperor. To hear his voice was to obey.
At the sound of his name, the boy’s spasm ceased and he slowly turned his head toward his grandfather. Saliva dripped from his chin and red circles dulled his eyes. His chest rose and fell rapidly as breath labored in and out of his slack mouth. His disheveled hair resembled the hackles of a cur. With his arms outstretched between the guards, Leir stared at his grandfather from beneath his angry brows.
“What are you doing here?” Only the boy’s glare offered any sort of answer. Damion struggled to keep the pain in his heart from reaching his face. “You were talking to the prisoner again.”
“That’s not his name!” Leir shouted, a crazed look entering his eyes. “His name is...”
Stepping closer, Damion cut off the boy’s words. “No! That name is forbidden! No one is to mention it again,” he seethed. “Ever.”
A mischievous smile spread across Leir’s lips. “His name is...”
Damion clenched Leir’s jaw with a wrinkled hand. “I won’t be defied, not by my own blood. Don’t speak that name again. Do you hear me, boy?”
Leir smiled again before spitting in his grandfather’s face. Insane laughter masked in a child’s voice filled the tunnel while Damion wiped his face on his silk sleeve. “Take him back to his chambers and lock him inside.” Leir resumed struggling as the guards dragged him toward the dungeon exit. When one guard stepped too close, Leir sank his teeth into the man’s hand. The guard yelped and released Leir. A swift kick to the other guard’s shin freed Leir from human bondage. He bolted down the passage, maniacal screams trailing his flight.
Though the boy disappeared into the tunnel’s darkness, Damion followed the flapping sound of running feet, not waiting for the guards scrambling for a torch. The thought of killing the prisoner entered his mind, but the familiar pain stabbed his head, staggering him. He forced the agony aside and cursed himself for forgetting. Avias and the guards caught up with a torch. Damion waved away their concern and started after Leir again.
The passage changed as they descended, transitioning from hewn stone to natural cave. The bouncing torchlight caught the sharp protrusions along the walls and floor, flinging sharp shadows ahead of them. Damion cursed each rock that jabbed through his soft-soled shoes but kept running.
A large metal disc appeared from the darkness, throwing back a dull reflection. Soon, the torchlight illuminated the entire cell door that sealed the cave. A massive hinge was imbedded into one wall and an intricate lock mechanism in the other. Only the small barred window offered a glimpse inside.
They found Leir hanging from the bars, struggling to hold his head even with the window. As they approached, the boy’s strength gave out and he collapsed weeping to the dirt floor. At Avias’ order, the guards seized Leir and began dragging him back toward the dungeon entrance. Damion took a steadying breath and faced the prison door.
Through the blackness beyond the bars, piercing yellow eyes appeared. Damion moved to block that demon gaze from his grandson. Avias stepped to his side, though the captain kept behind him, holding out a dagger. “Put the knife away,” Damion hissed. “It’ll do you no good here.”
A rumbling yet musical voice flowed from behind the bars. “How refined you look, horselord. Dress you now in fancy silk, but I remember a man riding down from the hills with nothing but untanned leathers and a barbarian’s lust.” The voice paused to consider the boy being dragged away. “Why treat your grandson so? He only came for a little conversation.”
“Don’t mock me.”
“I grew bored mocking you long ago. So I decided to try something younger.”
“Get out of his mind!” Damion choked back the emotion from his voice. “He’s an innocent child.”
“He doesn’t sound very innocent.”
Sounds of the struggling guards drifted from down the passage mingled with curses spewed in a twisted child’s voice.
“Why do you do this?” Damion pleaded.
“Why? ” The word morphed into a chilling roar.
Damion clapped his hands over his ears and dropped to one knee. Avias fell beside him, shaking. The torch rolled in the dust and sputtered out, letting the darkness envelop them. The faint light at the dungeon entrance could not alleviate the oppressive gloom. After what seemed an eternity, the roar subsided and Avias’ spasm quivered to a halt. Damion lowered his trembling hands, lifting his gaze to the cell door. The only things visible in the darkness were those piercing, glowing eyes. They weaved back and forth as the prisoner paced from side to side like a caged animal, feral yet unbroken.
The prisoner spoke again, all jeering pretense gone. “You imprison me for over forty years. You took me from my people, broke me before them, and bound me like a beast to your throne to spit in my face. Yet still your feeble mind wonders why?”
Then the familiar pain returned, searing agony behind Damion’s eyes. “Stop!” he screamed. “Get out!” He clenched his eyes closed and concentrated, as the witch had taught him. Concentrate. Slowly, the pain ebbed away until only its memory remained. Spent, he rested his throbbing forehead against the cold stone. Only his heavy breathing disturbed the silence.
The mocking voice returned. “I’ll long outlive you, horselord. When your name is nothing more than legend, I’ll break free to do as I will with your descendents.”
Damion trembled as the prophetic echo drifted away up the tunnel. He reached a hand to the captain lying next to him. The brave heart beat no longer, though Avias still clutched his impotent dagger.
After a moment, Damion found his courage and rose to his feet. He forced himself to meet the prisoner’s seething gaze shining bright in the darkness. “You’re wrong,” he said finally. “You’ll never leave this cell. Even if you outlive me, you’ll remain confined underground. Even an immortal must fear eternal incarceration.” Damion tried dragging the dead captain away. After stumbling several times from the effort, he abandoned his old friend and staggered toward the distant light of the dungeon’s entrance. “It’s your name that will be forgotten, not mine,” he called over his shoulder. Tripping in the darkness, Damion nearly fell before regaining his balance. “I’ll seal this cave and you’ll rot in the darkness where you were formed.” He turned back to the yellow pin points in the distance and shouted, “Your bones will be found someday and men will wonder what monstrosity bore such a misshapen frame.” Only silence answered.
Panting, Damion whispered, “My dreams will be my own again.”
When he reached the faint light beyond the doors, the prisoner’s voice drifted up from the depths. “I’ll be found, horselord. It’ll be one of your kin that ushers in my glory once more. Then I’ll dig up your bones, if the worms haven’t devoured them, and place them about the foot of my throne. Your skull will be my chalice.”
Damion slammed the door on the derisive laughter. He jammed his knife’s point into the keyhole and snapped off the blade. The broken lock wasn’t enough, he decided. Middle of the night or no, the tunnel would be sealed immediately. He took the torch from its stand and ascended the stairs as fast as his old knees allowed. Determination carried him past the pain to the courtyard above.
He nearly crossed the inner bailey, when he heard sounds of a chase behind him. Turning, he saw two guards run down the stairway leading to the dungeon. Recognition hit him after they disappeared from view. The same guards who were escorting Leir.
Calling for the watch, Damion hurried back to the stairs, nearly tumbling down the steps in his haste. When he reached the sealed doors, he saw the two guards standing to the side, silently watching Leir weep in the dirt. His fingertips bled freely, further staining his soiled clothes. The gouges in the oak door dripped crimson. Damion touched the guard’s shoulder, startling him with a jump. The emperor quietly asked them to return Leir to his chambers.
This time, Leir didn’t resist. Defeated, he hung like a limp doll while they carried him away. Leir’s crazed empty eyes stared at the door over the guard’s shoulder. Sick with pity and fear, Damion watched his grandson until he passed from sight.
After a moment, Damion leaned down to examine the bloody gouges in the door, wondering what could have caused such madness in his grandson. The answer came as a desperate plea from the top of the stairwell, as Leir called out to his new master. At the mere sound of the prisoner’s name, pain exploded in Damion’s head and he fell to his knees. Damion was unsure whether the laughter he heard was real or in his mind.
Copyright © 2012 by Stuart A. Etter. All rights reserved.
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