Gregyr had always pictured pain as a technicolour monster before now; a nebulous, swirling thing of crimson, or a fang-filled midnight blue, migraine flashes of neon, or thick, clumpy nauseous yellow—but now he had a tasted true pain and he knew he’d been wrong. The world outside was bright and colourful. The pain trapped inside him was a beast of black and white: throbbing, oily darkness and blinding ice—nothing in between.
Open your eyes.
He opened them.
Marda stared down at him, a vibrant tangle of golden hair falling in front of those endless eyes in the gloom. His stomach clenched as it always did. Even now she can captivate me with a glance.
Even now? That was a strange thought and he didn’t know where it came from. He had only known Marda a few years. She had only come to stay with her uncle three years ago. Was that so very long to title ‘even now’?
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said, smiling. There was concern crinkling in those eyes. She was always so beautiful.
There was something strange about Marda’s voice. It seemed almost as if it were harmonising with itself—as if layer upon layers of Mardas were all speaking in symphony.
Gregyr tried to sit up but the world blurred and he had to slump back again. The pain growled louder through him, baring its fangs in his chest, setting his veins aflame.
“What happened?” His voice was higher than usual when he spoke, and when he reached up towards his throat wonderingly, he found his hand smoother and plumper than before.
He tried to focus on it, staring at the palm he held up before his eyes and then shook his head. No, there is nothing wrong with my hand. It is the same hand it has always been. Callused from sword practice in my Warden’s keep, dirty from climbing trees outside the castle walls…So why could he picture it leaner, more wrinkled, scarred and hardened? It seemed almost forty years too young, and yet he could not tell why.
Perhaps I hit my head too hard when I fell? That would account for the pain, after all.
“Don’t you remember, Gregyr?” Marda asked, concern lingering in her voice. He squinted at her again. Once more, there seemed something wrong with her voice, echoing, melodious, almost as if it were trying to hypnotise him.
Something is wrong here.
You’re over-reacting, Gregyr. Calm down.
Gregyr calmed down.
“I don’t remember much,” he confessed. “I feel…strange. Have I been ill?”
“Poor Gregyr, my poor, brave, gallant hero,” she cooed, her fingers brushing away thick clumps of hair from his face, and Gregyr felt his pulse pounding. She had never spoken to him like this before.
“Well, you had never rescued me from a horde of traitors and my own treacherous uncle, before.” She smiled. “Do you not remember our flight through the wyvern tunnels last night?”
Last night? Had that only been a night ago? It felt like a lifetime had passed since they had fled…and yet, the memory was still fresh and raw. Those rough burrows drilled through the rock and earth by the mighty wyvern beasts, ridged and hollow, lit only by the phosphorescent glow of the far smaller flamewyrms…the panic and the secret, guilty pleasure at the touch of her hand…the flight through the moonlit night…the hiding in the hollow under the tree, huddled together, body to body for warmth and protection. Perhaps it was only a few hours ago after all.
Gregyr looked blearily around and the mists seemed to lift from his murky vision, exposing the cramped, mulched hollow they hid within, gnarled around with thick tree roots and moss. He frowned.
“I thought you left,” he said slowly. “I thought when I woke up you were gone…”
“How could that be true? I’m still here, aren’t I? And you’ve only just awoken. It must have been a nightmare that you had. I wouldn’t leave you, Gregyr, not after all you did for me.”
Again, the feeling of wrongness increased, but he could not place his finger upon what was off.
I wish Dryvus was here. He would know what was going on.
He paused again. That thought had arrived unbidden in his head, and he didn’t know where it had come from. He didn’t know any men called ‘Dryvus’. He felt panic starting to creep up his throat now.
Someone or something is messing with my head. They must be. Either that or I am going mad.
You hit your head very hard when you were fleeing. It has confused you.
His head throbbed with pain immediately, as if it had only just remembered to ache. He reached tentatively for it with his fingertips and winced as they grazed against a lump sprouting through the thick hair.
“Poor Gregyr,” Marda whispered again. “Let me kiss it better.”
Before he even knew what was happening she was upon him, her fingers reaching for his collar pulling him up towards her, her lips pressing firmly against his own, urgent, hungry, desperate—just as he had always imagined it in all his teenaged dreams. The smell of her, rose-water, clung to her skin, clung to his skin, just as it had that afternoon that he had been poisoned.
Gregyr jerked back immediately as images—nightmares—memories—flashed through his mind with the scent. Another kiss, gossamer light, between a much older, but no less foolish Gregyr and an older but equally enchanting Marda. A whisper of betrayal. The cup, filled with cloyingly sweet iris wine to hide the taste of the poison.
That was nothing but a nightmare. Forget about it. You are awake now.
The image immediately dissolved in his mind, as insubstantial as morning dew, but the edge of suspicion did not.
Marda pouted at him, trying to tug his mouth back to hers, but Gregyr pulled away.
“What’s wrong? I thought you loved me.”
I did. I do.
“I hit my head, like you said. I’m just feeling a little dizzy and unwell. Forgive me, Lady Marda.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Gregyr.” She smiled at him again, the same enchanting smile.
Marda never smiles at me like that. She never even looks at me.
“I look at you, Gregyr. Just never when you are looking at me. Youths are foolish that way.” Her fingers walked up his chest slowly, delicately, and he felt his blood stirring again, washing away the mistrust clinging the shadowy corners of his mind. “You are all I have left now, Gregyr. The only one I can trust.”
She is saying my name a lot. That means something…every time she did he felt a slight shiver running through his body, as if she was inching her way further and further within him, her grip on his heart tightening like a noose. He frowned, knowing it was important, but his mind would not cooperate. Something at the back of his head was shouting at him, mutely screeching something about dark-magics, but the words were blurry and drowning beneath the throbbing pain still assailing him, and the sweet summer scent of Marda so close.
“Swear yourself to me, Gregyr,” she said. “Swear yourself to my service as a loyal knight, my one true companion, and I will make you my prince when I retake my father’s throne.”
Swear yourself to me.
The words obediently formed themselves on Gregyr’s lips, but, again, he hesitated.
Never trust magic. It is a cruel and fickle master. The warning echoed through his head in Dryvus’ grim tones, freezing the words in his throat.
Dryvus, again? Who is this Dryvus?
“Who is Dryvus? Well now, Gregyr, I’m offended. I hoped it would take more than a knock on the head for you to forget me!”
Gregyr blinked at the round, cheerful man sitting on the edge of his bed. Gregyr whirled around, staring at the sunlit room around him. The light streamed in through the open shutters, bringing with the salty tang of the harbour air, the distant call of gulls screeching through the endlessly blue summer skies. Sweat prickled on Gregyr’s brow and he clutched at the blanket tucked tightly over his legs.
“Where’s Marda? Where is she? She was just here!”
Dryvus—his friend, his mentor, his boss—well-dressed and well-fed, shook his head with a condescending laugh. He was a young man, scarcely twenty, already beginning to form his empire, the empire Gregyr helped him win. Would help him win. Had helped him win?
Gregyr frowned at him, but Dryvus just handed him a cup of ale.
“Here, drink this. You look like you could use it. It’s hardly the first time you’ve dreamt about that woman, is it? What’s it going to take to get her out of your head, Gregyr? It’s been years now, let her go.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Gregyr said slowly. The cup in his hand felt solid enough. He could feel the cold kiss of metal under his fingertips. He squeezed it tightly, wondering if it would turn into mist beneath his touch, but it felt reassuringly solid.
“Our last scheme went south,” Dryvus admitted with a rueful grimace. “Scarcely got you away from the guardsmen in time, Gregyr. You got wounded in our rather hasty exeunt. I thought you weren’t going to make it this time, but you’re a stubborn one. You always pull through. And we’ve been through worse scrapes than this.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Gregyr grumbled. “You’re not the one in pain. Every inch of me feels like it has been run over by a cart. Ten carts—and the horses pulling them.”
Dryvus laughed again.
“Drink up then, it will make you feel better.”
Gregyr obediently raised the cup to his lips, but he was too tired to drink it. He let it slump again, wearily.
“Come on, Gregyr, you don’t think I’m poisoning you, do you? You trust me, don’t you?” Again, every time Dryvus said his name, that tightening feeling increased—the need to obey, the desire to obey, to please, to earn the respect of the man he respected.
“Of course I trust you, Dryvus. Why wouldn’t I, after all we’ve been through? We need you. Things haven’t been the same since you—” died. He froze, the words arranging themselves on his larynx stuttering out in horror. Since you died. You’re dead.
The image of Dryvus’ body, older, rounder, more weathered, came into his mind. That permanent cheery smile lost in the slack gaping mouth of death as his corpse had cooled and stiffened on the laying out table. The anger and the grief, as his crew—his friends, no, his family—had mourned his abrupt passing, and how empty and hollow their shared home, the underground lair of the Rat’s Nest, had been ever since.
Dryvus, this Dryvus—living, laughing, solid—smirked in the calm afternoon sunlight.
“I never took you for the joking type before, Gregyr. I thought I was the funny one.”
What a silly joke to make.
Gregyr laughed weakly, but he didn’t take his gaze off of Dryvus.
“All joking aside, Gregyr, I have something I need to discuss with you,” Dryvus said, leaning forwards.
“I’ve been thinking about expanding our efforts. This latest job, it would have been a lot easier if we had had a bigger crew.”
Gregyr nodded. It had been hard when it was just the two of them. They had been able to outsource some jobs that needed doing, of course, but it was far better to have a crew you could trust implicitly. It was exhausting worrying about whether you were going to be betrayed all the time.
“Exactly, trust implicitly, I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Dryvus beamed at him. “I’ve found this lovely little hole in the ground, bit of a dump now, but we could pour some money into it, Gregyr, we could make it nice and we could make it our base. I was thinking of calling it the Rat’s Nest, what do you think?”
Gregyr was nodding before he realised what he was doing. He felt himself relaxing a bit. This is better. This is how it was supposed to go.
There had been something off about Marda kissing him, that hadn’t happened, wouldn’t happen, of course that was just a fantasy—but Dryvus dreaming big, pulling them all together, that light of enthusiasm flaring in his eyes—yes, that was right.
“If we get a muscleman or two, perhaps a sneakthief, a honeypot, a whisperer, a forger, we could set ourselves up with a proper gang. We could make the big time, Gregyr.”
Gregyr. Gregyr. Gregyr. The word seemed to echo.
“Sounds good,” Gregyr said, rubbing a hand across his aching chest. The pain still thrummed there like a vibrato, distracting him.
“The only thing is, we’ll need to know we can trust the people in our crew,” Dryvus said slowly, shaking his head with a frown as some problem occurred to him. Gregyr felt himself frowning along too in sympathy. Dryvus clicked his fingers.
“I know! We’ll get them to swear allegiance to us.”
Swear yourself to me.
“Swear allegiance?” Gregyr muttered, the frown only growing in place. “That seems…are you sure? That didn’t happen. You don’t believe…didn’t believe…”
“It’s easy. Here, we’ll swear to each other. I’ll swear loyalty to you and you swear to me. You go first, Gregyr.”
Swear yourself to me.
No. Dryvus would never ask that of me.
Panic crescendoed through him, and he sat up straighter, the pain making him dizzy. He gritted his teeth and tried not to scream.
“Who are you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Gregyr,” Dryvus laughed, and that horrible, weighty, drowning sensation increased, the tightening around his chest bulging until every breath seemed like a gasp.
“Who are you?”
“It’s me, it’s—”
Dryvus dissolved in front of his face and Gregyr found he was lying on his back before a flickering fireplace, covered in dirty blankets, half naked. Pulsating pools of black magic tear-dropped against his skin, and beside him knelt a tall, thin, ice-white woman he did not trust at all.
“—me,” she said. “Dae the Dark. I’m saving your life.”
Gregyr groaned, a long thin reedy sound that came out hollow in his aching, rasping chest. He raised a hand to his brow unsteadily to wipe the sweat away and saw to his relief it was the right age, wrinkled, weathered, callused and bruised. Dirt still lingered under his broad, square nails as it had when he was a youth, but, yes, this was how he had remembered it.
“Saving my life?”
“You’ve been poisoned, Gregyr. You were betrayed by the woman you loved, Lady Marda. You were found in the corpse canal and brought to me. You are on the brink of death.”
He believed her. He certainly felt like it. He looked down at the black ink-like pools throbbing on his skin, hundreds of little dots growing and swirling and humming against his flesh, as the poison seeped out of his pores, rising to the surface. Each of them seemed to burn.
“I’ve tried my best, Gregyr, but only dark-magic can save you now.” Her melodic voice was strained, exhaustion echoing in her cloudy white eyes. “You cannot give in. Your friends, your crew—your family—need you still. They cannot lose you, too. Not so soon after they lost Dryvus. You must keep fighting, Gregyr.”
“You must do whatever it takes, Gregyr.”
“You must swear yourself to me.”
“I wi—” he hesitated. “No.”
“You must,” she was speaking in desperation now. The thick, rotting scent he always associated with the dark-witch grew thicker. The world around him grew darker as the shadows crept forwards to claim him. “Your soul is fading. Swear it to me and I can bring you back. I am trying to save your life. They need you, Gregyr. You said you would fight for them. You said you would be there for them. They need you. Swear yourself to me.”
“Swear yourself to me.”
Her voice was growing louder now, brighter, all-consuming, until he almost thought it was coming from inside him, from inside his chest, as if it might burst out through his skin, in talons and claws and teeth.
Swear Yourself To Me.
No. I do not know who you are, but I know you were not Marda, and I know you were not Dryvus and I do not think you are Dae either. And I will never swear myself to someone I cannot see. No.
The pain increased until it haloed around him, drowning him in its hurricane fury, but Gregyr was calm in the eye of it all. He knew he was dreaming now, and he knew how to wake up at last. He smiled.
And he opened his eyes.