The Taurin Chronicles
Pigs and grease. Connor’s senses were heightened and channeled. He focused on finding a man with rings. Pigs and grease.
Wicked laughter and the pained cries of brutalized women echoed around Connor when he reined in at the door of the brothel. He jumped off his horse and kicked open the door, his sword already drawn. Women screamed and men stood with daggers in hand. One ran toward Connor. Connor drove a dagger into the man’s chest. He looked around the common room. “Which of you bastards wears the rings?”
The slovenly brothel owner Connor had seen earlier cowered and cried out. He gestured to a room. Connor kicked the door open. The odors of stale bodies and dirty chamber pots threatened to gag him. From the tangle of naked legs and buttocks, a greasy man with a greasy brown beard looked up. “What—” But Connor grasped him around the neck and knocked him to the floor before he could finish.
The man tried to scramble to his feet. He was a big man, tall and well-muscled, but he had indulged in too much drink and too many whores to be a match for Connor. “Fuck—who are you?”
“Vengeance,” Connor said. He twisted his hand into the man’s hair and dragged him to the main room. “This bastard likes to beat women.” One hand around the man’s throat kept him on his knees.
The Morrag swelled inside Connor, controlled and sweet, begging him for blood. He hurt the girl. He’s killed others, the Morrag whispered. Connor’s fingers gripped tight around the man’s windpipe. Pinpricks of blood appeared near his fingernails as the man choked and gagged. He’s raped them and beaten them to death. Claw him. Rake him open, raven. He deserves death.
A low growling snarl came from somewhere inside Connor’s chest. “You think it’s fun? You like hearing them scream, beg for mercy?” He brought the hilt of his sword down across the man’s cheekbone. Bone cracked and blood splattered. “How does it feel, jackass? How do you like being the victim?”
The man yelped. “She was just a whore! I paid—”
Connor brought his hand across the other side of the man’s mouth, cracking his lip open. “Now you look just like her. Except she will heal. You won’t have time to.” He picked up the man’s hand and cut it off. With the man’s howls hanging in the air, Connor kicked him to the ground and silenced him with one broad stroke down the center of his body.
Claw him. Rake him open.
He twisted his sword and pulled up bowels from the man’s belly. They hung from his sword in a grizzly stink of waste. “Any more of you feel like beating up a woman tonight?” Frightened whimpers answered him. “Any of you women want to leave, now’s the chance.” He threw the severed hand down on the ground. “Use his rings to buy your freedom. It’s the least he could do for you. And if any one of you decides to get your ‘property’ back, know that what I just did to him was merciful.” He flung the entrails into the center of the room. The stench of the dead man’s belly and bowels filled the air. “You’ve been warned. Next time, it won’t be quick. It’ll be slow, painful, and humiliating, and I’ll stick your carcasses to the ground for the birds.”
He turned to the owner of the brothel. The man quailed under his gaze. Connor pointed at him with the befouled sword. “Give me your money purse.” The man hesitated. Connor leapt at him, grabbed his hand, and held the sword over his wrist. “Your purse, jackass.”
The man yelped and pulled his money purse from his belt.
“You, the blond in red,” Connor said, and a woman near the door stopped, shaking, fear on her face. He threw her the purse. “Take the others with you.” She caught the purse, swallowed hard, and signaled to the others. They ran for the door, one of them carrying the severed hand with the rings.
Connor looked back at the owner. “If I ever hear that you’ve bought a woman or kept one here against her will again, I will be back to cut you apart one piece at a time for every coin you’ve earned off the backs of these women.” The man’s face paled. Connor’s sword point drifted down. “We’ll start with the parts you hold most dear.”
Death and fear filled the room. Grim satisfaction hovered at the edges of his awareness, and his breathing started to slow. He retrieved his dagger from the first man he’d killed and returned to his horse to gallop back to the camp.
By the time he arrived, the Morrag was satisfied. He’d quelled the need. He was rank with sweat and covered in blood and bits of body, but he didn’t care. He’d embraced the raven, and it hadn’t been like before. It was sweet and powerful. It was justice.
When he got back to camp, Mairead stood, an arrow nocked and pointed at him. Kenna slept. Mairead lowered the bow when she saw him. She set it down and ran to him as he dismounted. Her eyes were tight and red-rimmed, but her jaw was set in a stubborn line. She crossed her arms. “Are you satisfied?”
“It needed to be done.” His voice seemed far off, as if heard through a canyon. From the depths of the Morrag’s lair.
“Two. One who attacked me, and one who attacked her.
“Is that it? Are you hers now—the Morrag’s?” Her voice cracked on the Morrag’s name.
“How do you know?”
He pointed to his head. “I never told her yes. She won’t take me until I tell her yes.”
The fire hissed behind her. “Then it will always be like this?” She waved a hand at the horse. “You dashing off to slaughter someone when you can’t fight it anymore?”
“He deserved to die.”
Her voice rose, tinged with righteous anger. “You don’t get to judge that. You are not Alshada.” She swiped her eyes and turned away. “We’ll take her home, and then I want you to find someone else to guard me. I can’t do this anymore.”
Gods, no. I can’t— He reached out to take her arm. “Mairead, wait.”
She turned back. Tears spilled over. “You will always leave,” she whispered. “You left your people, your name, your mother, even Aine. You can blame the mark or the Morrag or just your foolishness, but you will always leave.”
Her tears glistened in the firelight, and Connor put his hands on her cheeks to wipe them away. “I don’t want to leave.”
She closed her eyes and whimpered. “Please don’t say that.”
He tipped her head up to his and slid one arm around her waist. The Morrag faded to a distant echo in the furthest part of his spirit. “I need you.”
Her hands pushed against his chest in one weak attempt to walk away, but then she slid them up around his neck and pulled his head down to kiss him.
He pulled her against him, aching to feel skin against skin, desperate to keep her close. I need this woman—by the spirits, I need this woman. After death, her kiss gave him life. His hands tightened on her body.
Mairead mumbled “no” between kisses. She wrenched out of his arms. “No.” She turned away, and her hand went to her mouth as she started to walk back to the fire.
“No.” She shook her head. She held her hand out to keep him away. He stepped toward her, but she turned and held him at arm’s length. “I can’t, Connor.”
“Mairead, I want you. I need you. Please, don’t walk away.”
“Do you love me?”
Time paused. Aine had asked him that same question once. With Aine, he didn’t know. With Mairead, he knew—without hesitation—the truth. The question hung between them, waiting for acknowledgement. The fire crackled, keeping random time. The horse stood close, panting. Mairead’s brilliant green eyes demanded honesty, commitment, everything she deserved—more than he could offer. I do love you. He wanted to say it, but the words stopped in his throat. Desire warred with what he knew was true—that whatever else she had done to change him, he was still ravenmarked. He would still leave. “I don’t know.”
She nodded and swallowed hard. Her voice cracked again when she spoke. “I don’t want less than your whole heart.” She went to her blanket and sat down, drew her knees to her chin, and stared into the fire.
Emptiness rushed into the gap where the Morrag had been. Connor returned to his horse and slumped against it, drawing up slow, even breaths until he felt steady again. You will always leave, she’d said. He couldn’t deny it. In a numb daze, he unsaddled his horse, rubbed him down, and gave him water. He walked to the edge of the ravine and wrapped their camp in braids of air to hide their scent.
For the first night in eight years, the Morrag folded her wings and fell silent.
When the meal was done, Mairead let out a long sigh that turned into a wide yawn. She covered her mouth with one hand. “Forgive me. The journey was very long, and your home is so warm and comfortable. I need to sleep, I think.”
Aerwyth frowned. “But the fires—the people will be expecting you.”
“Mother, the traitha has had a long journey,” Gareth started.
Mairead glanced at Connor. He’d barely eaten, but he had managed several cups of beer. While he’d attempted some polite conversation, it was obvious that the whispers of the Morrag teased the edges of his control. His whole body was ridged and tense. “You should be abed as well,” she said to him.
“I couldn’t sleep right now.”
“Will you go out there? To the fires?”
“Then I will as well. Just let me wash up.”
Aerwyth stood and gestured down a long hall. “Come. I’ll help you find a Faltian dress.”
Gareth stood. “Phinneas, Ulfrich, I’ll show you to my hut. You may wash up there.” The other men stood and followed him into the city.
Aerwyth showed Mairead to a small room appointed with a thick, soft mat atop a narrow cot, furs, woolen blankets, a small stand with a comb and scented water in a pitcher, and several woven baskets filled with clothes. “The women helped bring all of these things for you, traitha,” Aerwyth said. She opened a small chest and pulled out a soft blue linen dress edged with colorful floral embroidery. “This was one of my dresses before I birthed babies. Perhaps you might wear it?”
Mairead smiled. “I’d be honored.” She took off her boots and started to unbind her hair.
“Your other tribesman—Ulfrich. Are you joined with him?” Aerwyth asked.
Mairead hesitated. These people still expect me to marry one of their men. How do I answer that? “He and I are very close, but we are not wed.”
“Hmm.” She held out the dress for Mairead. “That’s for the best, then.”
“An outlander, and from one of the outland tribes, no less?” She shook her head. “Such a man would not suit our Deliverer. A servant would be a better match for you, traitha.”
What would you say if you knew of the ravenmark? She smiled. “Thank you for the dress. I’ll be out in a few moments.”
She found Connor and Phinneas outside the hut with Gareth. The fires in the center of the city leapt higher, dancing over Connor’s face and highlighting the darkness there. He seemed to come back to himself when he saw her, though, and he bowed. “You look beautiful, Mairead,” he said, lifting her hand to his lips in a courtly gesture.
The dress hugged her bodice and flared just below her knees. The embroidered edges bore the runes and marks of tribal life, and along the sleeves and neckline Aerwyth had sewn small white flowers joined by entwined green vines. Mairead’s boots met the dress where it ended, so her legs were still covered, but she had to fight back the old training of the sayada that said she was dressed immodestly. “This is far more comfortable for me than silks and samites,” she said. “Braiding my hair and looping it up every day and dressing in all that finery? I couldn’t do that for long.”
Gareth held out an arm. “Come. Let me introduce you.” He hesitated and turned to Connor. “With your permission, of course.”
Connor inclined his head, so Mairead took Gareth’s arm and followed him to the fires. The dancing to celebrate the creation of the world had started, and young men and women were leaping, twirling, and spinning in pairs and foursomes all around the flames.
Gareth found Trypp, who sat with his arm around a woman with a single long, red braid and freckles. The woman held a babe at her breast. “Traitha,” Trypp said. He gestured to the woman. “My wife, Wytha, and our son.”
“Alsh—the One Hand’s blessings on him,” Mairead said.
Wytha cupped her son’s head of red-blond curls. “Thank you.”
Gareth gestured to more men and women, and the names flew quickly by as Mairead met and bowed and laughed at the good-natured ribbing the men gave Gareth. The unmarried men didn’t stay with the group for long. Within moments of meeting Mairead, they scattered to find young maidens to dance with.
Connor fidgeted nearby, his hand twitching on his sword. “I’m going for a walk,” he told her.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I promise.” He turned toward the outskirts of the city.
Mairead nudged Phinneas. “Follow him.”
“Yes, my lady.” The eunuch melted into shadows after Connor.
Mairead turned back to see that Gareth’s eyes had fallen on a blonde girl near the fire. She spoke with her friends, all of them laughing and smiling, until one by one the girls paired off with warriors. The girl glanced in Gareth’s direction, colored, and turned away. Gareth twisted his cup of oiska in his hands.
Mairead leaned toward him. “You should dance with her.”
“You are certain?
“I’ll just enjoy watching for now.”
He smiled, tossed back the rest of his oiska, and went to the girl’s side. She smiled and took his hand. They fell into one of the circles and started to dance.
The seven parts of the dance would go on for hours, repeating as needed until the couples were tired. The separation of light from dark was the first part, and the women represented the light. Gareth stepped in and pulled his partner tight against him to symbolize the darkness and light as one. She followed Gareth’s lead. Their feet moved in time to the slow drumbeat. She kept her eyes fixed on his as he led her around the fire.
Mairead found herself tapping her feet. She’d performed the seven stories before, but only with women at the sayada. They had walked through the stories of creation together, but it was ritual—story, remembrance of when Alshada shaped and molded the earth in his hands.
Now, watching Gareth and the other couples, Mairead understood the dance in a new way. It was sensual and exciting. As the drumbeat became more complex, the steps did as well, and the women stepped farther and farther from the men to symbolize the separation of light and dark. Gareth spun his partner close in to his body, his mouth hovering next to hers for the span of a breath, and then she spun away to another warrior’s arms. When she returned to Gareth’s arms, he leaned close and whispered to her, and she tilted her head and grinned at him.
Mairead looked away from Gareth and his partner and walked past some of the other fires. One couple paid only cursory attention to the dance forms, reluctant to allow any space between them. Another couple slowed and exited the circle, sliding away from the revelers into the shadows, the young man’s hand planted firmly on the girl’s backside. Even older couples were retreating to huts. Just watching the couples made Mairead long for Connor.
She turned. Gareth and Trypp approached. “Where are your ladies?”
“With the baby,” Gareth said. “You are looking for Ulfrich?”
“Yes. Phinneas said he would follow him, but I fear he’s very troubled by this night.”
“We thought the same,” Trypp said. “There’s something different about this Faltian—something unsettled.”
They walked through the city until they reached the edge, near the wall, and then started to walk the perimeter. Gareth stopped suddenly. He drew his sword. “Traitha, get behind me.”
Mairead gasped. “Connor,” she whispered.
Connor stood facing the city, sword drawn, with only the eunuch between himself and the entire Catspaw clan. “Mairead,” he said, his voice a low croak. “It’s time for cleansing.”
The creatures were upon them—massive dark beasts that brought the low hum with them as they descended on the town. Townspeople ran for cover in shops, homes, barns—whatever was closest—but not before the beasts found several easy targets in the streets. They dove, talons sinking deep into the flesh of innocent people. Screams rose up to replace the hum of wings in Braedan’s ears, and he roared his anger in response.
“Sire, no!” Malcolm called, but Braedan was already running toward the guard quarters with the rest of Dylan’s men, all of them donning helmets and drawing swords as they went. On the wall, archers aimed and fired repeatedly, but few arrows hit the mark as the winds blew them off course.
The beasts rose and circled again as Braedan emerged on the street. He stopped at the first body he came to—a man, the flesh of his back exposed to reveal black rot around the wound. “What are they?” he shouted to Malcolm.
“Don’t know—Ferimin? I thought they were a myth!”
“Nothing is a myth anymore!” Braedan swore and ran to the middle of the street. “Your fight is with me!” he shouted, raising his sword over his head and waving his arms. “Leave these people alone—fight me, you bastards!”
And then, to his surprise, one of them landed and shimmered. The big blond warrior gave him a twisted, foul grin, and Braedan swallowed hard. “Gods,” he whispered. “Matthias.”
The former guard gave him a mocking bow. “How long has it been? I trust you’ve treated my intended well.”
Anger swelled in Braedan’s throat. “Igraine is not your intended. You tried to rape her. She didn’t even know your name.”
“She will. Eventually.” He lifted his face and whistled, and the black birds rose above the town to hover. “You are right, of course. The fight is with you, not with these people. But are you willing? Would you let me strike you down now if I swore to spare the town?”
Gods—Alshada—deliver us from evil. Braedan’s mind grasped, reached, clawed for some prayer, some remembered words that might reach the heavens and bring aid. Alshada, save us. “How would I know you were telling the truth? How could I be certain you wouldn’t destroy this town anyway—or destroy all of Taura—once I was gone?”
Matthias laughed. There was a mania about it that chilled Braedan’s core. “Of course you don’t. That’s the risk.” He whistled again, and one of the creatures dove and snatched up an archer from the wall. The man’s screams faded as the creature rose higher and higher, carrying him in his talons the entire time. “Say the word, and I will bring him back down,” Matthias said. “Sacrifice yourself, and he comes back to earth in one piece.”
Behind Matthias, Malcolm crept through shadows, inching closer to the creature while attempting to remain undetected. Braedan forced himself to focus on Matthias’ face. “Bring him down first, and then we can talk,” Braedan said.
“You would not lay down your life for these people who have sheltered you, given you sanctuary for these many weeks, even when their very lives were threatened by the woman you brought with you?”
“I would lay down my life for any of them, for all of them,” Braedan shouted. “I would sacrifice myself for this country or her people. But I won’t do it without assurances.”
Matthias laughed again. “Very well.” He whistled.
The screaming grew louder and louder once again, and then Braedan realized what was happening. “No!” he screamed, but it was too late.
The archer’s body hit the ground next to Braedan with a noise that threatened to turn Braedan’s stomach inside out.
Braedan’s voice rose above the din of screams, shouts, horror at the deaths in the town. He swung his blade up over his head. “Fight me, you son of a bitch,” he shouted. “Now—fight me and leave these people alone!”
Matthias drew a sword and crouched, ready for the fight. He whistled again, and Braedan felt the birds gather around. “Kill the guard,” Matthias said. “This pretender is mine.”
Too late, Braedan saw one of the birds fall hard on Malcolm. His guard screamed once in agony and then fell silent.
Alshada, no—NO! Braedan swung and met Matthias’ swing with a clang. All around, the birds dove and attacked and flew back into the sky with fresh prey—women, children, men, no one was too big or too small. Braedan had to force back the terror of the sight to fight Matthias. “Leave them, you bastard!”
The creature in front of him only laughed and struck again.
Braedan focused on the beast, sensing the help that came from the estate house in the form of guards, archers, and even Haldor Dylan himself. The duke ran toward the melee with sword drawn, roaring his defiance. One of the creatures dove toward him, and he swung at the beast’s leg, cutting through feather, skin, bone. The Ferimin screeched and fell, and Dylan cut its head off before turning to face another one.
Matthias swung again, and Braedan turned his attention back to the big blond warrior. He blocked the sword. “Why here? Why this town?”
Matthias sneered. “Do you think disposing of one of Nahma’s favorites would be taken lightly?”
Revenge for Aldora’s death. Alshada deliver us… Braedan’s blood ran cold. He fought, parried, swung, pushed back against the creature before him. “I thought there were wards—”
“The wards are gone. You killed them. And now Taura is vulnerable, and those who deserve to take her will rule her in your stead.”
White hot anger burned in Braedan’s belly at that. “You will not!” he shouted. He redoubled his efforts, swinging again and again as he drove Matthias back, back toward a wall.
But the mad guard only laughed harder. He’s letting me win, Braedan thought, but he couldn’t force himself to work out why Matthias would let him win, nor could he stop. He drove back harder, swinging, the clang and clamor of swords and blades all around him drowning out anything else.
Matthias parried a blow, knocking Braedan’s sword from his hand, and used the momentum of turning back toward Braedan to catch the king in the chest with his broad shoulder. Braedan’s head reeled and buzzed as the blow forced air out of his lungs. He struggled for breath as Matthias pinned him against a wall. He let go long enough to turn, grab Braedan’s tunic, and push Braedan back against the wall, his face only inches from Braedan’s. “You thought you could defy history, magic, the gods, the world you can’t see,” he whispered. “You thought you were smarter, stronger, than the forces you defy.” He drew a long blade and held it up in front of Braedan’s face. “You were wrong.”
A flash of light, and a man with a burn-ravaged face appeared next to Matthias. “No—don’t kill him—you’ll—”
It took a moment for Braedan to even realize what had happened. Then his tunic turned warm, wet, and his body went limp, and Matthias stepped back. Braedan tried to move, tried to control his arms, hands, legs, but he couldn’t gain purchase. He fell on the cobblestones, unable to speak, unable to hold any thought but that he could not save Igraine, could not save the town, could not save Taura… Igraine, my love…
The burned man screamed. “You fool! The wards—”
“I don’t care about wards,” Matthias said. Pain twisted his face, but he crouched next to Braedan and hissed through gritted teeth. “Don’t worry about your princess. I’ll be sure she is well cared for.” He shimmered into the form of the black beast and flew away.
And then Haldor Dylan was there at his side. “Oh, lad,” he whispered. “Oh laddie, hold on, nae.
But Braedan couldn’t feel anything, couldn’t speak. He tried to blink away the encroaching darkness. “Town…” he managed to croak. He coughed, tried to draw breath, couldn’t… He tasted the blood, felt the foam in his mouth….
“’Tis well, lad. We killed some of them. The rest flew away. I canna say why.”
Braedan tried to nod, but couldn’t. “C-cold…”
“Hang on, lad. Hang on. The boys are coming.”
But Dylan’s voice faded, and the town faded…