Dragon Blood Chapter 1

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Hurog #2

Genres: Fantasy , Science Fiction


It takes many years of hard work and dedication to produce a competent torturer. Young men just don't want to take the time to learn the craft.

-  Lioth of Edelbreck, Royal Torturer

"It's just like skinning a rabbit," the old man said to his grandson. There was strength in his grip that belied the age on his face as his sharp knife removed another sliver of flesh from Tisala's finger.

"I've never skinned a rabbit alive." The boy looked ill, like a newly blooded recruit, thought Tisala.

The old man lost all patience with him. "Don't be an idiot. Now watch."

The next move of the knife forced Tisala's attention back to her body. Eventually she would tell the old man what he wanted to know, but if she could wait long enough, they could trust none of what she said. But she'd only been there something under two days and already her body ached and her mind flinched away from what had been done to her.

"What do you know about Alizon's rabble, little girl? Tell me and I can quit hurting you," he crooned as his knife worked its magic. "I don't like hurting little girls, but you are hiding something our king needs to know. A brother shouldn't try to hurt his own kin. What Alizon is doing is wrong and you know it. All you need to do is tell me who's helping him and I can stop."

She didn't fear death, not even death by torture. Death was a constant companion in the battlefield, as often a friend as an enemy. Betrayal, though, betrayal was truly frightening. Best she die fast, before she could hurt someone she cared about. She'd bide her time and see if she could use her tongue as a goad to make the torturer slip. Someone had once told her that her tongue was her most formidable weapon, and it was one they hadn't taken from her.

"How can you do this all day?" asked the boy passionately. "Grandfather, cannot the mages make a person talk?"

The old man snorted. "The mages can make a person say anything the mages want him to, but they can't get real information from magic. Good information comes only from men like me. We save lives on the battlefield, give our king his victories."

"Why are you doing this one here, instead of in the castle?" Bravado, not curiosity, sparked his question. Tisala could tell that he knew the answer already.

"For secrecy." The old man's voice trembled, betrayed by age.

The boy sneered. "Because if his precious nobles knew what we did here to a noble woman, they'd join Alizon's rebellion. Torturing a weak woman is filthy work, unworthy of the king's torturer. He'll get rid of you, too, Grandfather, when you're done here."

Quite likely, thought Tisala.

"I do what I am told, boy. I am the king's man." The old man was so agitated, he slipped with the knife and blood cascaded down her arm and over his hand.

The boy looked at the mess, swallowed hard, then turned and ran, shutting the heavy wooden door behind him, leaving the old man distracted from his work, cursing the mother that raised her boy to be weak and foolish.

Tisala almost couldn't believe the old master was so stupid, but he continued to look at the door with the knife in his blood-slick grip - so near to her hand, held only by his inattentive clasp. Tisala never waited for second chances.

She twisted her wrist, breaking his grip, and then drove her shoulder forward. She caught the hand that held the knife and used it to slice the old man's throat.

Tied to the bench she lay on, she couldn't slow the old man's body down as it fell, nor move out of the way of the blood gushing from his ruined throat. But she held on to his hand with her own, damaged and bleeding though it was. Once the body hung limply, she slowly shifted her grip from his hand to the knife.

For a terrible moment, she thought the knife was going to slip from her weak grasp, and she'd be stuck tied to the table. But when the old man's arm slid away, the knife was still clutched desperately in her hand.

The knife, small but sharp, cut through the ropes as easily as it had sliced through her skin. Her body moved sluggishly, stiff from being tied too long, and weak from shock and the indignities visited upon it. She ignored her aches as best she could, and she found a bit of rag to wrap around her hand.

No one ran in to investigate the sound the body had made. Hope rose a notch higher as Tisala weighed her chances.

The boy had said they were not in the castle, but she knew better than to trust anything she heard in a place like this. Still, if it were not true, then she might as well slit her own throat now. She was hardly in any shape to walk unnoticed through the royal halls. Maybe the boy had been right.

The hope of escape made her fumble with the crude bandaging on her hand.

Where could she go? She had to make the right decisions but her thoughts flowed like mud.

She had friends here in Estian who would hide her.

If someone followed her tracks through the city - very possible in the condition she was in - she would be sentencing her friends to death.

She couldn't afford to run home to Callis in Oranstone on her own. If she went home now, she'd be signing her father's death warrant. Their public estrangement, ostensibly because she was tired of her father abiding by his oaths of loyalty to the king, was the only thing that kept her father out of Jakoven's cells. If he saw what Jakoven's man had done to her, he'd start a war on his own - and the time was not right yet.

She pulled herself back to the immediate situation. Think, Tisala, think. Five Kingdoms under Jakoven's rule, surely there is someplace to hide.

Outside of the city, Tallven was firmly in the hands of the High King Jakoven, whose family name it bore. Tallven was all grasslands, no mountains to hide in. To the south was Oranstone, where she couldn't go because of her father.

East was Avinhelle, and she had acquaintances there, but four years ago Avinhellish lords had conspired to betray the Kingdoms. Caught and humbled by fines and hangings, the remaining lords would hand her over as soon as they realized who she was in hopes of demonstrating their loyalty to the king.

West was Seaford, but she didn't know many people there. Seaforders were sailors and they explored the oceans, leaving politics to land-bound folk.

North ... Shavigmen were coldhearted savages. She remembered seeing a troop of Shavigmen when she was a very young child, their pale hair strung out behind them as they charged down upon a hapless village on their monstrous horses. Remembered the cries of terror of her countrymen. "Shavig," they called. "Shavig." Shavig. She shivered.

"Barbarian?" laughed Ward, pushing his exotically pale hair out of his eyes. "Tisala, we're stubborn, obnoxious, and coarse. But we're hardly barbarians. We even cook our food ... if it's convenient."

Ward of Hurog. She had a sudden vivid image of him the last time she'd seen him, his sword red with Vorsag blood. He was strong, strong enough to stand up to King Jakoven if need be. Moreover he was not involved in the king's half brother Alizon's rebellion. He lived in a keep on the coast, not too far from the Tallvenish border. Surely she could find it.

Better yet, she had information for him - a payment of sorts for helping her. She slipped on the old man's shoes to protect her feet and took his cloak off the wall. She would have taken his clothing as well, but death had released more than just blood. Wrapping the cloak around her nakedness, she decided she could steal clothing before she left the city.

She opened the door and climbed up a long flight of stairs to another door. She opened it, too, expecting to find a hall or another room, but there was fresh night air and a set of stone steps that led up into a tidy alley.

The guard who stood in front of the door didn't even turn around, his eyes scanning the rooftops and the shadows.

"He'll learn, Master Edelbreck. Boys grow up," he said in the flat, nasal tones of an Estian native.

He didn't live long enough to understand that it hadn't been the torturer who'd opened the door behind him. The knife was very sharp, and Tisala took the guard's belt and sheath to carry it. His knife was crude, an eating utensil rather than a weapon and she left it on the ground beside the body. Leaving the sword was a more difficult decision. She longed for the reassurance of its weight, but in Tallven, only armsmen and nobles carried swords.

Swordless, Tisala disappeared into the maze of Estian, leaving no trail for the king's men to follow.