Chapter Twenty-Three

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Lorn glanced up sharply from his troubled semi-doze, suddenly alert. There were footsteps in the hall, approaching quickly.

Reflexively, his hand shot out and gripped the edge of the bucket. Its contents truly reeked now, a fetid mixture of vomit and what little urine his dehydrated body could produce. Forcing himself not to gag on the stench, Lorn pulled the bucket into his arms and got shakily to his feet just as the cell door swung open.

There was a young man, tall and lean, dressed in lustrous golden cloth and brass armor. He held a set of manacles in his hands. Flanking him were two ancient figures dressed all in gray. Their beady eyes, set deep in wizened faces, regarded Lorn bailfully.

The young man smiled with cruel amusement. "Come along, M'Lord," he cooed. "It's high-time you paid your respects to your new king."

Lorn's grip on the bucket tightened. "Thesul is no king," he rasped. His legs quivered painfully, tendons and muscles straining to remain upright.  

The gold-clad man chuckled and stepped into the cell. "He's more a king than you ever could be, boy. Now hold out your hands and--"

Lorn screamed and lunged forward, flinging the bucket's contents into the man's face before slamming it against the side of his head. 

The man howled and reeled sideways from the blow, clawing at his eyes as he crashed into the wall. Lorn brandished the bucket,gathered what frail strength his limbs still possessed, and charged the door--but the two grey-clad servants apparently had no interest in barring his path. They hurriedly stepped aside, allowing him to stagger past them and out into the hall. Lorn only had a moment to wonder why before something heavy cracked against his left shoulder. 

He stumbled, crying out in pain and surprise. He tried to turn, to see what had assailed him, but a second blow struck his spine, then the back of his knees, sending him crumpling to the floor. The bucket flew from his hands as he sprawled, skittering across the marble and out of reach. 

"You nasty little beast," a voice growled. Lorn rolled over, squinting blearily up at the dripping, enraged face of the gold-clad mean. He held a brass-tipped cudgel in one fist, and was raising it, ready to strike again. "You filthy whoreson. I would have expected more from one of your lineage, but I suppose what comes from the gutter will always return to it..." 

"Better a gutter than the pit," Lorn gasped. "You and your master aren't fit to lick a sewer clean."

The man's eyes narrowed. "And he told me to be gentle," he sighed, then swung.

The  cudgel smashed into the side of Lorn's head. After that, he wasn't able to think  or  say much for a long while.

___

Kelle Terin stood in the center of the empty stable, head down, shoulders slumped, hands tense at his sides. He breathed slowly, deeply, taking in the warm, earthy scents of hay, leather and horses. The scents of his boyhood. He'd always found them soothing.

Not today. Today, he had watched Matta's corpse lowered into a hole from which she'd never emerge. He'd watched that hole as it was filled in, one shovelfull of damp, clotted black earth at a time. He had stood there on that lonely mound even after the gravediggers left-until he thought, perhaps, that if he remained one moment longer he would go mad.

Now, standing alone in a dim, dusty, disused stable in a neglected corner of the castle's rear courtyard, Terin closed his eyes and tried to recollect something he could not quite describe; a sense of wholeness, or peace. Perhaps he simply wanted to catch hold of some small fragment of his past-a time before he had known what it was to love a slender, proud-eyed woman who now lay at the bottom of a freshly turned grave.

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