Story written and directed by Dio (thats me!). Please note that all actors in this presentation are over the age of 21, irrelevant of their ages on paper and no people were hurt in the actual production *grin*. Also note this is FANTASY, something I dreamed up, swords and sorcery and slaves and...well you get the picture. So if you were looking for one of those "hot boy moves in next store" randy fuck stories, move along!

Please also note that although this section is void of graphic sex (no...don't leave...really it'll get better I swear!! ^_^) there is a bit of violence and bloodshed...but I'm assuming we're all mature enough to handle death right?

By reading this story you are agreeing that you are of legal age to read erotic material in your country/city/state and that you will NOT reproduce/copy/change/post this story anywhere else UNLESS you e-mail me AND I give you permission! Thanks!

Grey Eyed Justice -- Book One

Chapter 1 -- Icy Northern Slope

The city of Portios Pass lay at the base of a great mountain, the grey ghost. The mountain belonged to a chain of mounts called the `finest four' as they were named long past. They were four of the largest and tallest mountains, located on the four corners of the Thiian Empire. Their mere presence, it was said, was testament and tribute to the Empire's glory.

The grey ghost itself was a mystery. Not a path up its jagged slopes, dotted with gnarled and pointy rocks, could be found and no serious climbing attempts had ever been made, for a wispy mist hangs over the mountain whether the season be warm or cold--preventing even the sharpest of eyes from glimpsing its spiralling and thorny peak dreamt of by starry eyed gazers.

The borders between the Thiian Empire and its neighbours were almost always seething nests of violence. Patrols from both sides would wander over and cause havoc before being chased out by a large and angry army. Of course, none of the countries neighbouring the Thiian Empire had remotely enough strength to strike into the heart of the Empire, for that matter dealing with the Empire's `patrols' caused them enough grief that made thinking about an invasion almost laughable.

Of course, the Emperor of the Thiian Empire, one Vernulus Crokhower III was well aware of this fact. He was also aware that he had but snap his fingers and the border countries would be swept away by a tide of his soldiers--yet he stayed his hand. It was easy enough to conquer a people, but once you conquered them bureaucrats had this nasty habit of strangling him with ridiculous concepts of `rights' and the obligation he had to protect them because they were now his people. His solution was a simple one. Don't conquer them, just keep abusing them from afar.

If they weren't his people, they were fair game.

The success of the Thiian Empire was partially due to its large, and utterly inexpensive workforce. The workforce at first was composed of criminals and convicts. But as the Thiian Empire settled into its current borders, they started to accumulate a large quantity of slaves. These slaves essentially became the backbone of the new Thiian Empire. Slave markets were set up and businesses flourished. Slaves became a part of the lives of almost ever citizen in the Thiian Empire. Whether they were gladiators in great arenas, bed-slaves in brothels, or simply `the old hunched bearded guy' who cleans out the privy; Slaves had earned an important place in society. The only thing that kept the slaves, who numbered close to a quarter of the Thiian Empire's population from revolting was the threat of strong magic and retaliation from the vast Thiian army.

The city of Portios Pass had flourished when slave trading became essential to the survival and high living standards of its citizens. The buttresses of a huge fortress loomed over the large town--guarding its broad parks and terraces, cobble stone streets and walkways. The city of Portios Pass, sheltered beneath the shadow of the grey ghost, was a man-made paradise. Poor and homeless were quickly removed from the city in an effort to keep the city sparkling. Portios Pass was yet another tribute to the Empire's glory.

Oddly enough, none of the city's glorious history or gleaming streets and smiling people mattered one bit to Rory. Who at the moment was feeling rather helpless and sad as he stared up at the misty peaks of the mountain far in the distance. He just couldn't quite bring himself to accept his fate. Of all the things he had imagined himself doing, being a slave was certainly not one of them.

He sat disconsolately; his shoulders slumped and head in his hands on a bench. A clean and shiny iron bracelet connected his wrist to the bench by way of a thin looking iron chain. A precaution so that he wouldn't get it in his mind to run while his overseer was off somewhere doing something-or-rather--he hadn't told Rory where he was going. The bench he sat on was thankfully under a tall tree whose name he could not place, but provided plenty of shade from the afternoon sun with its tall branches covered with wide, leathery leaves that stretched towards the sky in adoration.

If Rory thought the mountain and the trees strange, they were nothing compared to the people. Couples strolling in the park gave him no more than a single glance. Children smiled and waved at him, as if it was a common sight to see a boy chained to a park bench in the middle of their afternoon stroll. A small girl no more than seven or eight years old had even come over and given him a small cutting of lavender. She presented it smiling broadly to him, and said that it went well with his hair.

Rory stared down at the cutting clenched in his right hand, contrasting harshly with the metal that encircled his wrist. He didn't even bother to laugh when he realised that the purple flower in no way matched, or went well with his startling orange-red hair, but then, he was still trying to figure out what exactly had happened to him.

It was only a few days ago that he had been trying to decide on a plan of action on how best to gain the attraction of a certain girl he fancied while he tended the family's herd of wild horses. To the north, where Rory lived, it was common practice to have herds of wild horses. They were raised and sold at market, and it was considered to be a proud occupation, one his family had done for generations.

Idly, Rory wondered what had become of all his family's horses. One moment he had been watching the twenty odd horses drink from a fresh spring but he must have dozed off lulled by the sweet whispers of running water, for when he awoke it was to the warning whinnies of the horses as they scattered into the trees. Rory found himself frozen as pounding hoofs of a different sort topped the rise in the small gully. It was unthinkable, having Thiian soldier penetrate so far north. His hometown of Faywerth was at least six days travel from the border, yet there the troops were, burnished light plate mail gleaming in the sun as they descended upon Rory shouting gleefully.

After futilely attempting to escape, Rory had been tackled and unceremoniously trussed and thrown onto the back of a huge bear of a man, who he was forced to ride behind for the rest of their trek. He remembered the conversation he had with the man vividly. There was not much else to do but talk while riding for a week, and the man had been so happy, he had even seemed polite to his prisoner--if bland and unhelpful.

Rory rubbed his bottom in memory of the painful ride across the plains. Even for someone who rode as much as he did, the trip had been a blistering experience--one he was not eager to repeat. They arrived in Portios Pass two days ago and he had been passed onto the local government slave guild who assigned him an overseer--a fat man with rosy cheeks and a bowl of hair who went by the name of Jorb. After showing Rory a bit of the city, the rotund man had locked him to the cursed bench and departed with an eager gleam in his small beady eyes.

So here Rory sat...waiting. Wondering what exactly everyone was so happy about when they saw him. His overseer had rubbed his bloated hands together gleefully, a smile plastered on his wet lips. The soldiers that had originally captured him had looked for all the world that their wildest dreams had come true for each and every one of them. In his life, Rory had never felt so out of place as he did sitting on the bench.

He had always pictured slaves being whipped as they pushed unbearably heavy blocks of stone up steep slopes. But so far, they hadn't really done much of anything to him except solder a damnable iron bracelet onto his wrist, so he could be attached to objects to ensure he would not escape. Rory wondered bitterly if the passer-by's in the park would find it at all odd if he suddenly got down on his haunches and started scratching his ear with his foot...and maybe throw in a bark or two for good measure. At least then he'd really be acting the part.

Back at headquarters, or `the compound' as his overseer had referred to it as. He had been given a simple brown tunic and shoes to wear, of local styling. Even so, he still felt out of place among the people who walked the park. They were a myriad of colours, ranging from soft greens and yellows to harsh reds and orange, all competing with each other to attract the most eyes. He felt like they might mistake him for a tree if he stopped moving for too long.

A tugging on his arm brought Rory's mind back to the present. The child who had given him the lavender had returned. Her eyes shined with undampened enthusiasm as she held out another flower in her hands. Rory swapped a strained smile for her broad grin. She held a Daisy this time from the looks of it; its bright yellow petals wouldn't look out of place on many of the outrageous dresses worn by some of the ladies.

"For you!" she squeaked eagerly, thrusting the flower into his left hand. Rory reluctantly took the flower and mumbled a polite thank you. She hopped up onto the bench beside him. Undeterred by Rory's apparent lack of enthusiasm she started talking, swinging her legs as she did so.

"I've never seen red hair before. I wish I had red hair. Or is it orange? Either way I think it's pretty." She smiled again. Rory felt like sighing. "I'm Disel." She said suddenly, almost as an afterthought. She then waited impatiently swinging her legs on the bench.

Rory did sigh this time. It wasn't this girl's fault that he was here he supposed. "I'm Rory." Disel looked up as he spoke, her smile almost splitting her face in two.

"You have a funny accent." She said, giggling slightly, "I guess that's `cause you're not from around here are you? I wish I could talk like that. Papa said you looked lonely, but that's not why I came over to talk to you." She said as a statement of fact. "I really liked your hair!"

If she was expecting a reply she didn't wait long, before she had quite finished she had started up again. Dio had never met a little girl as forward as this one...nor one who talked so much.

"Do all the people from where you come from have dark spots on their faces like that?" she asked, pointing at his face.

Rory hadn't been feeling like smiling much lately, but he couldn't prevent the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards regardless of his determination to be as miserable as possible. "No, they don't. And they're called `freckles' not spots."

Disel's eyes went wide and she started swinging her legs again excitedly, "I wish I had fregles." She giggled again as she said the word, like he had made it funny on purpose.

For the first time in a week, Rory smiled genuinely. "Listen...I think you look just fine without freckles. Here..." he tucked the daisy behind her ear and looped the stem into the braids that ran from her forehead all the way down to her shoulders. Disel squealed with laughter. She hopped off the bench and made a beeline for the large fountain in the middle of the small clearing. She came back having examined her new ornament, her cheeks all rosy.

"Pretty! Thank you." Her eyes brightened even more, if that were possible, when they alighted on something behind him. "Daddy! Look what the boy made for me." She said, turning her head a bit so the large daisy was clearly visible tucked behind her ear.

A deep appreciative chuckle startled Rory, he glanced back to discover a man looming over him. His robes a startling black, unusual considering the riot of colours the other walkers were wearing. The man must move like a cat, Rory thought to himself. He hadn't made a sound before he let loose that chuckle. Rory didn't know whether to be scared or impressed.

The man circled the bench so the sun wouldn't blare into his eyes, instead, Rory was forced to look into the sun as he spoke. "I suppose from the chain you're newly caught?" the man's voice had a distinct ring to it that sounded vaguely familiar to Rory, but he couldn't quite place.

The chain Rory was attached to jingled as he shifted his arm, suddenly uncomfortable now that the man had drawn attention to it. "I suppose I am." Disel had apparently lost interest and started to wander off to the fountain. The man however, stayed. He turned to watch his daughter chase after a particularly large butterfly, who had mistaken the little girl's dress for a flower--much to her delight.

"Its rare to see a Northman in chains...much less unattended. Where did your caretaker go?"

Rory didn't quite know how to respond. He didn't want to get in trouble with his caretaker if he wasn't supposed to tell, but Rory had always been told the truth is better than a lie. So that's exactly what he did, told the man the truth. "Left me here a couple hours ago. Needed to `attend some business' I think he said."

The man sighed and sat down heavily beside him. "Ha! Most likely he's off getting his pleasure with the local whore house. Slave detail is considered the most laid back position--let me guess, your caretaker is Jorb?"

Rory couldn't quite remember the man's name, even though he had been told. There was just something about the fat man that made Rory want to forget about him as soon as he had left. Rory shrugged his shoulders, "I don't remember." He said truthfully.

"Mmm...fat man...balding on top like this," he made a sort of bowl shape with his hands, "rancid breath..."

"That's him," Rory replied, smiling slightly.

The man unhooked a leather canteen from his belt and tossed it to Rory. It sloshed delightfully as he caught it. The man grumbled something before he spoke, "Bloody git... Anyways, he should have left you with some water or something, seeing how it's the middle of the afternoon."

Rory gaped for a moment and covered it quickly as he took a long drought from the canteen. He hadn't realised how thirsty he had become from being out in the sun so long, even if he was partially shaded.

The man stood abruptly. "My daughter is wandering off...if you'll excuse me." He said, inclining his head slightly, "it was nice meeting you. Keep the canteen, I'll get it back someday I'm sure."

Rory watched the man's retreating back, his cloak dangling limply behind him. It was all very confusing. Rory had always thought slaves were supposed to be beaten and abused. But a nobleman bowing his head? And pleased to have gained a slave's acquaintance? It was all very confusing. After trying to warp his head around the concept for a bit Rory decided that it wasn't worth thinking about any longer. The people of the Thiian Empire weren't only powerful. They were absolutely stark raving mad!

He kept testing the chain lazily, hoping it would have a moment of weakness. He had no luck of course. The thin rope-like chain was incredibly strong. After a few minutes Rory sighed and gave up.

"Flowers are nice but...what I wouldn't give for a big sledge right about now." Rory muttered to himself. He would have to mention it to the caretaker of the park someday for his foolish oversight.

The sun was just beginning to set when a shadow interrupted his view of the spectacular red streamer-like clouds that littered the sky above the trees. "Enjoying the sun are we boy?" Jorb had finally returned. His face was flushed and held an enormous grin from ear to ear.

"I see you enjoyed yourself." Rory was finding it very hard not to flinch away from the man. The way his shirt was messily tucked into his pants told Rory all he needed to know.

"That I did, that I did!" he chuckled again, his many chins wobbling. Rory got the vague impression he was no longer talking to a man, but an oversized turkey. "Well we had best be off, got to get you ready for tonight." He said, detaching the chain from the bench with a clever twist and flick of his flabby wrist. Rory's eyes widened with surprise, he hadn't been allowed to watch when Jorb had put it on the first time, the man had obviously forgotten this time. Rory didn't say anything as he stood, rubbing his bottom surreptitiously as he did.

"Tonight?" he asked, trying not to let his curiosity be heard.

"The auction of course! It shall be a grand party. We can't have you show up in such flimsy and--dare I say--dreary rags." He paused and rubbed his hands together and sent a slant-eyed glance Rory's way. "I hope you like crowds."

* * *

"I look, like a fool." Rory stated as he looked himself up and down in the mirror. The two maids that had nabbed him once they returned to `the compound' as it was lovingly named, had hustled him off into a clean, small, but cramped room and proceeded to dunk him in a freezing bath and scrub him until his skin started turning pink. Worse, his skin had gotten tender from being out in the sun so long and it stung, badly.

Then, just when he thought they were finished, and he could relax in the thick towel they had provided, they stuffed him into dark blue trousers and a light blue shirt. Both made of some sort of soft material that had a quiet sheen to it. He had never had a nice shirt like this one in his life. Fortunately they had rejected another outfit that had had lace on the sleeves. He had at least some dignity left.

"What was wrong with my other clothes?" he asked indignantly.

One of the maids huffed, and gently slapped one of his hands that had strayed to his collar, trying to make it just a little looser. "Everyone will be dressed like this boy. In fact you shall be the least outrageously dressed at the auction I have no doubt. You'll look plain, but at least you won't look dull." She shook her head, not bothering to hide her distain for the boy's crazy notion of dressing in brown. "Besides, I think you look smashing. You'll be the prize of the night."

Her last words sobered him. It was galling, a slap in the face. He was a slave now. To be bought and sold an animal. Ever since he had been taken he had not cried, he had even tried not to be sad. It was his mother's words that he treasured to this very day. She had always said that a person needed to take each day one step at a time and find the joy in each of those steps, no matter how tough it may be--because there is joy, somewhere. It was hiding in the cracks and crevices, waiting to be found. All you had to do is look.

In truth, Rory was tired of looking. All he had to be thankful for was that he hadn't been beaten. In fact everyone was being quite polite to him considering his circumstances. But he missed his family terribly. It was a huge gaping emptiness inside of him. His mother and his father and his three sisters could never be replaced so easily.

Jorb walked in sometime later, his rotund mass squashed into a surprisingly dull set of black trousers and grey shirt, decorated lavishly with lace. He looked Rory up and down before he pronounced his satisfaction and threw the maid a shining silver coin.

"Follow." Was all he said to Rory before he squeezed through the small doorway and out into the hall, pulling Rory behind him like some mongrel he found off the street. Other men dressed in a similar fashion to Jorb passed in the hall, with fancifully dressed men and women in tow. He was by far the youngest of the slaves he caught sight of. And the only one who had orange hair, he noted soberly. Obviously not many slaves were taken from the North. That was reason enough for Rory to feel some sense of pride for his land well up inside him. Northland bowed to no one.

What had he been doing? Going where they wanted him to go like some lost puppy. Doing exactly what they told him to do. It suddenly rankled as he walked down the corridor, trailing Jorb who held the chain loosely tucked under one arm, watching the other slaves trail their overseers with their eyes focused on the ground. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach. There was no way he would ever become like them. Never. Not even if it meant he would have to die. Better dead than a mindless slave. Never. He would look for joy, but on his terms.

* * *

"And next up on our agenda-" the thin reedy man up on the podium, bedecked by a tall, pouffy hat that marked him as the maitre-d, paused to consult his clipboard. "Ah yes! A slave recently picked up on a raid in Dunmoroh. Hayleh is maybe twenty-five--we can't be sure of course, she can't speak a word of English." He paused again as the amphitheatre tittered with laughter. Not the sort Rory heard at the local taverns back home...that was more of a roaring laughter. This laughter was more a hesitant and proper laughter. The sort of polite, condescending laughter only snotty nobles could ever manage to pull off.

Enjoying the crowd's reaction, the maitre continued his description, looking rather pleased with himself--a slick smile never far from his lips.

Rory shivered. He was off to one side of the podium, half-hidden by the bright red curtain. From his vantage point the crowd was a sea of clashing colours. Most of the patrons wore masks of some sort. Even the maitre-d wore a half mask--pure white to contrast his black silk shirt and grey trousers. And there wasn't an empty seat in the theatre! It felt like the gladiator fights he watched back a family outing of some sort.

Heyleh, the slave up on the stage looked absolutely terrified. She was dressed modestly in a long green robe strangled by white lace. She might have been pretty if the blood ever returned to her face. She was so pale Rory started to think she might faint soon. He wondered if all the fat nobles who had laid claim to the front seats would laugh at that as well. The thought made him scowl.

"One hundred thousand going thrice!" the maitre-d yelled in good humour. "Sold! To Lord Albert Schrauss for one hundred thousand golden eagles." A short dumpy sort of man stood up in the crowd, his dog mask couldn't hide the huge smile on his face as he went to claim his prize. "I can guess what sort of lessons he has planned!" the maitre-d said, catching sight of the man's smile. Laughter rang sour in Rory's ears.

Once the monetary exchange had occurred, and the hall had once again started to echo with impatient mutterings, the maitre-d finally stood up and held up his hands for silence. Rory's stomach clenched painfully. "My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen. I realise you've waited a lengthy period of time, and you must all have flat bottoms by now." Half-hearted laughter at that, "but all that waiting has not been in vain! Our final item is unique to Portios! Recently taken on an expedition deep into Northland territory he goes by the name Rory--age sixteen. But, any description I give won't do justice--come on then," he said beckoning in Rory's direction.

Rory planted his feet firmly. He had the sudden urge to stick out his tongue at the maitre-d. The man wasn't even funny. Rory's thoughts of rebellion died as he felt two huge brutish hands grab his shoulders and force him out on stage. He was marched briskly to the podium by the gaoler and left to fend off the sea of suddenly predatory eyes. Rory felt his ears burn. He felt like some sort of exotic animal on display for the masses.

Should I stand on my hands and bark?

The podium was arranged just in front and to one side of the maitre-d. So Rory couldn't see the man without turning. Under all those eyes he didn't think he could move one inch without someone prodding him along. He suddenly understood how Heyleh must have felt. All those eyes grabbed him and held him fast better than any chain or rope ever could. It would be a mercy Rory decided, if he just fainted right here and now. He didn't of course. The maitre was speaking again. His voice seemed so far away.

"Well then...considering he has pure Nordland blood, he's young and handsome lad, not to mention he knows English," the maitre paused obviously for some laughter. When no-one bit he continued, sounding only slightly disgruntled, "Hrmph...I'm also told he's an expert on horses of all sort--one of the Bern'alad." Rory started at the mention of his trade in the Nordland tongue. He looked back at the maitre and earned a sharp frown. "Taking all that into account, I think we'll start the bidding at ten thousand golden eagles!"

Rory's eyes boggled. He didn't have an inkling of what a golden eagle was worth--but it sure sounded like a lot. Ten thousand of them even more so. Who would ever want to pay money for a boy who only wanted to tend horses?


A woman in the front row, her mask a pretty songbird jumped to her feet. "Thirty thousand!"

"Fourty!" a voice yelled from the back row.

"Eighty." Another called, a deep resonating barritone.

All Rory could do was stand quietly as the bids started mounting, and reflect again how absolutely flaming mad all these people were. Rory thought they'd be more sane if they all stood up at this exact moment and started a singing and dancing rendition of `I'm a little Teapot'--actions and all.

Voices were clamouring for the maitre's attention now as he tried to keep up with the bids. His eyes were wide under his mask and he had to pause to lick his lips more than once, probably already planning exactly what he was going to do with the money he was to get from Rory's sale.

"Six hundred thousand!" the woman who had spoken second yelled, dragging Rory's mind back into the present.


Then grumbling as the other bidders sat down. Rory tried to yawn in order to cover a gasp. She was absolutely nutters. Over the edge. No-one was worth that much gold. No-one.

The bird-lady was smiling triumphantly, apparently not aware of the small fortune she had just thrown away in order to purchase Rory. A mere boy who had red-hair and didn't think he was all that special. She smirked at him, his stomach clenched unpleasantly. Something about the look in her eyes...

"One-million golden eagles." A new voice said quietly. A familiar voice. But it couldn't be...

The maitre-d choked, he coughed noisily trying to cover his surprise at the new unexpected bidder, "One-million from the Lord of Iyre, hand of the Emperor." Rory searched the crowd with his eyes, but he couldn't find the owner of the voice.

The bird-lady had clenched her hands angrily when the voice overturned her bid and she looked like she wanted to bid some more until a hand pulled her back into her seat. Her neighbour whispered something to her ear. She shook her head, got up and left, stalking up the aisle to the door, her flared dress swishing this way and that.

It wasn't until the maitre declared Rory sold for one million golden eagles and the bidder stood up did Rory recognise the voice. It was the man who had given him the canteen.

Disel waved up at him, beaming happily as the gathered audience applauded the sale loudly. A drooping daisy was still tucked behind the little girl's ear. Relief flooded through Rory. But one thing that the maitre had said niggled at his memory.

Hand of the Emperor? What had Rory gotten himself thrown into?

Chapter 2 -- Hunting Ground

Over the jagged peaks of the Iron Mountains the West Wind flew until it dropped into the hidden valleys below, still lush from winter's runoff and spring's untold promises. Onwards it travelled gaining speed and ferocity as it skimmed the banks of the great Beritham River-- whistling its tuneless song as the waves danced mindlessly into shore's mud and ship's hull alike. Undaunted, still forwards it traveled, sweeping across the flat plains of Derm, stretching its callous fingers in a vain attempt to erode the already thirsty plains until dirt and sand alike were born upwards with the wind's mindless ebb and flow.

The wind was a curse some said, but the people of the Dermith plains were a hardy people. None but the strongest of will, or those with nothing else to lose made their home purposefully on the sparse plains. Though it was technically still a part of the Thiian Empire, it paid no taxes and spoke no oaths to any Emperor alive or dead.

Plants not dug into ditches where water could flow would simply wither and be swept up into the blinding wind, already filled with the dust that coated everything in a sickly red-orange.

The town of Jenkin's Crossing was the only town left on the plains, a place for fools and felons it was said. The decent hardworking folk had long since abandoned it in the years following the great drought. It was a place frequented by those in society looking for a place to hide, away from prying eyes and awkward questions. So when twenty weary looking travelers, their cloaks shimmering with a combination of sweat and dust rode into the outskirts of town, none but the most curious gave them but a glance. Anonymous travelers were a common sight in the town, although a large group of them was a rather unusual event. Still, those that took one look didn't stop to take another, from past experience the people knew never to meddle in the business of others. Those that did had a nasty habit of disappearing, never to be seen from again. Thus, the town had a sort of unwritten code. It was a good way to stay alive.

From atop his dust covered dapple stallion, Jaden grimaced at the bitter taste in his mouth. The foul dust riddled the air, it hung as a massless cloud over the plains, blanketing everything. Without the mask that covered his mouth and nose he would be undoubtedly coughing as much as some of the locals. His party had been travelling for several weeks, following a trail that had led them too and fro across the plains before finally leading them into this godforsaken shit-hole of a town. If it could really be called a town at that--Jaden still hadn't made up his mind. In his eyes it was simply a gathering of tents and shacks all hastily thrown together by the same bleary eyed artist who decided that everything in this bloody town was going to be red.

His eyes, squinting from the sun's glare, flicked from the shabby and tattered sea of tents before them to the scantily clad speckled roofs of tiled huts beyond. His snort made the dust coating his faceguard and hood dance and slide off his head. There was only one word to describe a place such as this.

"Pathetic," he growled aloud, regretting it the moment the word passed from his mouth. Somehow the dust managed to sneak into his hood no matter how tightly it was tied. Worse, once into his mouth it turned into mud and in order to spit he would be forced to take off the face-guard, and there lies the problem. As soon as it gets taken off even more dust would get inside his hood. And mud does taste horrible indeed, but Jaden was rather attached to being able to breathe without breaking into a wracking fit of coughs.

The man beside him sat in an identical cloak atop what used to be a black gelding, turned and grunted in agreement. "Brings new meaning to the word slum I think," the man's bear like voice rumbled through the open air. Jaden had long ago discovered that was his sergeant's best attempt at whispering. The huge man looked absurd atop a horse, his huge bulk made it seem as though he rode some sort of pony, much less a fully trained warhorse. Of course, no one would ever say that aloud. Jaden pitied anyone who ever got on Sergeant Bernweld's bad side. He had heard the man once chew out a rather young soldier who had forgotten to polish his boots before an inspection. The poor man had been blubbering before Jaden had intervened on his behalf.

Bern was at the moment trying to look everywhere at once, keeping at least one eye on every dark alleyway and passer-by.

The gentle thumping of hard metal on earth caught Jaden's attention; a third man on a horse had joined them. Jaden was forced to turn his entire head to see the newcomer as he spoke. "If this is indeed where he came, we're more than likely find him dead than still breathin'." The newcomer said airily, his eyes narrowed impossibly thin. "Seedy lot methinks."

Jaden turned back just in time to catch Sergeant Bernweld's huge dark eyes rolling towards the sky, barely visible above his deep black hood and red dust-guard. But before the man could chew out the junior officer, Jaden decided to intervene.

"I doubt the likes of our quarry will fall to the likes of any of these rats." He scowled at several of the men he was referring to, their backs hunched and eyes down-turned; they walked as if the party of twenty or so horsemen didn't even exist in the middle of the quiet street. They certainly knew how to mind their own business at that.

Jaden couldn't tell if Fernald ever thought before he spoke, or whether his thinly veiled sarcasm ever broke through the man's thick skull. Regardless, his answer sounded neither hurt nor embarrassed, simply his usual witless self. "Your orders, Sir?"

Jaden suppressed a wince. He hated when the man called him Sir. Fernald has been the only man in his squad to call him sir and it drove him to distraction. Ever since the fool man had started it, it had caught on like wildfire with the other men again. It had taken him almost a year to stamp it out of Bernweld. But then again, the man had probably stopped more out of pity than from the request. Jaden supposed he was the youngest man to have ever been commissioned as an officer at the age of seventeen. He felt it ridiculous to have men nearly twice his age call him Sir. It had always had a mocking lilt to it.

Bernweld had been waiting for his junior to ask another question and he pounced his voice roaring. "I'll bloody give you orders you little-"

Jaden coughed once interrupting what had begun to sound like one of the sergeant's famous tirades. Bernweld's shout had emptied the street rather abruptly as passer-bys suddenly discovered they had urgent business elsewhere.

Jaden glared for a moment at each of them, Bernweld knuckled his forehead while Fernald simply stared back, perhaps unaware that his stupidity caused so many problems. Jaden felt like rolling his eyes himself.

"Spread the men into pairs. I think it will be better if we don't travel as a large group; the locals are skittish enough as it is. Get your men in position around the streets here. Hopefully we can drive our quarry eastwards and out of the city with our mere presence. If we still don't pick up his trail by the time we meet by those buildings there," he motioned his gloved hand to point off into the distance at the solitary two-storied building in the entire town, "We'll re-group and try to pick up some gossip at the local establishments or if all else fails, harp on some of the locals."

"An excellent plan Sir." Fernald voice sounded slightly breathless, probably in awe that someone had strung so many words together at once. Bernweld however, was another story. His stony silence could have meant anything as he fiddled with the reigns of his horse.

"You don't approve?"

Jaden had the distinct impression that behind that mask the giant held a frown on his face. "Not disapprove mind you, jus' have a bad feeling is all. Don't care for this town one bit."

Jaden was glad for the mask covering his face as it split into a grin. Had the older man seen it he would have been red with indignation. Jaden always found Bern's unexpected concern to be a source of humour. The man had been trying to act like an estranged father...or perhaps an uncle ever since Jaden had assumed command of the 7th patrol squadron, never telling him exactly what he might be doing wrong but certainly suggesting it. A hard man, but a loyal one. The huge brute of a man was nothing like what a first impression would ever reveal. Underneath his thick skin was a tender-hearted and thoughtful soldier.

The sergeant growled as he glanced back at Jaden. He must have caught sight of the smile from Jaden's eyes for he wrenched the reigns of his horse so hard the horse very nearly wheeled in a complete circle. Jaden had to bite his lip in order to keep from chuckling.

Catching movement out of the corner of his eyes, Jaden thought once about telling Fernald to knock off whatever he was doing and go help Bernweld, but upon closer inspection Fernald was furiously attempting to brush the dust off of his cloak with his gloved hands--already covered in the red-orange dust. By the sounds coming from the man's mouth Jaden could tell the man wasn't having much success. Jaden shook his head.

Why would I not be surprised if a clown suddenly appeared juggling balls, then I could be the only lieutenant to ever make the claim of having led a patrol and a circus at the same time.

Bitter thoughts to go with the bitter taste of mud.

It took Bernweld only moments to relay the orders. The seventeen other men, not including Bernweld, Fernald or himself, were familiar with the drill having gone through similar exercises in the past ten or so towns. They took off in pairs, knocking unwary hunched figures out of the way as they careened off down side-streets with hungry looks in their eyes.

Jaden understood how his men felt. He had heard them all too often over the campfire. The quicker they find the deserter, the quicker they would all see home again. Home--a place far, far away from all this cursed dust. He hadn't seen his little sister in ages, he wondered how tall she was now. She had been only seven when he left six-months ago on his tour of duty. She would be eight by now. Had she grown at all, Jaden wondered. The thought of her smile brought a pang of longing. How he missed home.

Before he knew it Jaden was alone with Sergeant Bernweld. With a nod to his superior the Sergeant moved off in the lead. Leave it to Bernweld to watch over Jaden--the man was worse sometimes than a nagging mother. Although his mother could never so surely wield a sword...a rolling pin or a crochet needle might be a different story though. Muttering to himself ruefully Jaden reluctantly nudged his horse to follow.

The tide of bodies in the street thickened as they progressed inwards. The people here were a might more sociable. Their angry shouts filled the streets and naked steel flashed more than once in the afternoon sun. The tents that had sprouted out of almost every clear patch of land near the outskirts thinned but became progressively larger until they were replaced completely by permanent red-clay shacks which marked the inner city limits.

Passer-by's eyed the two men on horse askance. It was obvious that the horses themselves were what caught people's eyes. No-one else seemed to be riding any sort of animals. Carts filled with goods were drawn by bestial looking men, their bare skin covered with the red dust and tattoos of various colourful designs. Locals, Bernweld revealed after following his gaze. Most of the decent sized carts had twice as many men guarding them--stout cudgels knocking men who failed to get out of their way with proper haste. Young boys trailed the horses, whispering to themselves as they moved as a cautious group together. Bernweld explained when Jaden inquired that they moved in groups to avoid being kidnapped and sold. No honour among thieves.

Jaden's mount, Faraday as he was named after the great explorer, snorted, spraying dust into Jaden's field of view. Not that it mattered really. There was so much dust in the air anyhow it was a miracle these people could breathe without the masks that he and his men wore. They made up for the lack of masks by spitting every few steps.

Jaden was forced to rein his mount in when Bernweld stopped suddenly as a cart trundled across their path from a side street. This cart was being pulled by a strange beast that Jaden had never seen in his life. A short four legged thing was the best description that came to mind. It was a wonder how its legs supported such a large head decked with curling horns. The driver of the wagon gave a start as his eyes met with Jadens'. The man jerked on reigns and with a great moan from the beast of burden, the cart shuddered to a halt.

Shouted curses from various figures didn't seem to faze him as he stared at Jaden and Bernweld, his eyes wide with--surprise perhaps? Jaden wasn't sure.

Bernweld pulled back his cloak enough to reveal the short sword he wore around his belt. He growled at the driver. "Move along old man." The unspoken threat hung in the air between them. The driver paled as he clutched the reigns tightly in his fists.

"What's the bloody hold up Olin?" a rather large head popped out of the covered wagon, his jowls flapping. The newcomer's tiny black pupils danced from his driver to Bernweld to finally land on Jaden.

"Your driver Sir seems to have stopped in the middle of the road for some strange reason. My companion here was simply asking him to move." Jaden kept his voice level he thought, but the man suddenly looked considering at him. Perhaps he hadn't hidden the impatience in his voice well enough. Jaden's hands itched to loosen the bastard sword which was slung in a hidden sheath beneath his cloak on his back. He mustn't be too obvious.

The man heaved himself out of his wagon and landed with a thump on the cracked clay. "Ahhh beggin' your pardon fine Sirs, he stopped because I'm on the lookout for fine gentlemen such as yourselves. Allow me to introduce myself." He pulled a kerchief out of one of his many pockets to mop his extensive forehead before flourishing a bow. Well, a half-bow at most. It was a miracle that such a fat man could bow at all. "I am Pellivar G'negthros, but a humble trader out of Varush. Alas I have fallen under hard times upon reaching this glorious city. My men deserted me and now I fear to make my way back out of this city through the wastes. I fear we will not make it back to the empire alive." He paused to catch his breath, spitting out some red clay before mopping his forehead hesitantly.

It was hard to tell from his vantage point, but Bernweld looked to be eyeing the man suspiciously. The trader started shuffling his feet under their combined glares, his kerchief was no longer wiping sweat off his forehead but putting more on. He turned to Bernweld, stepping forwards hesitantly he made as if to grab the man's boot but his sergeant deftly let his horse dance out of reach.

"We're not interested trader. Seek hired help elsewhere." Bernweld nearly shouted at the poor man, making him stumble back towards his wagon.

"'re truly my last hope if you will only listen--" he stammered, ringing his kerchief in vain. Jaden's eyes were drawn inexplicably to the wagon again then back to the driver who looked about to have a heart attack. Warning bells were clamouring inside Jaden's head, demanding his attention. A ghost would certainly be the only thing whiter.

"He said we're not interested," Jaden spoke up, "But you stir something within me Sir. You make me suspicious."

"S...suspicious... but good sir!" the merchant pleaded, his voice taking on an oddly desperate tone. "I am but a very h...humble trader-"

Jaden ignored the man and continued. "Suspicious because you walk freely around in this town yet no one seems to bother you, even without your guards. Suspicious because though you are beset by hooligans on every side, you worry and cringe over the thought of travelling through the waste without escort where the chances of you actually meeting even a single bandit are less than that of a bolt of lightning striking me out of the clear sky at this very instant."

The trader seemed to slump with every word that came out of Jaden's mouth, he wrung his hands nervously as Jaden paused in his tirade to survey the wagon. "You have me all wrong...that is to say, good Sirs I am offended--rather, that you would accuse me..." he trailed off, turning as white as his driver had moments ago when Bernweld grasped his sword hilt firmly in his hand.

Jaden hadn't finished, his eyes held the trader fast. "Suspicious because...I do not like the looks of your eyes." The trader blanched and made to grab hold of the tarp covering his wagon for support but the tarp very nearly flew off as armed men burst from their hiding place inside the wagon, swarming towards the two mounted men screaming curses.


Jaden's short sword at his waist was only a second late to clear his scabbard, pale blue tempered steel glinting through the mire. He cleaved the nearest head cleanly from its torso before the man could even bring his rusty mace to bear.

Me and my biiig mouth. Jaden's arm rose and fell as it got to work flooding the street with crimson.

Chapter 3 -- Dawn and Dusk

The carriage shook and rattled as it slowly but surely made its way down one of the many broad, tree-lined avenues of Portios. Rory had to clench his teeth to stop them from rattling in sync with the covered cabin that shook with every small rock its spoked wheels seemed to find. And find them the wheels did--every single bloody one of them.

"Alright there boy?" the hand of the emperor asked. Beneath his generous white moustache his lips were down-turned with--displeasure? Concern? It was impossible to tell. Little Disel was happily oblivious to Rory's discomfort. She was still beaming and swinging her legs jovially from the seat opposite her father. She had been overjoyed when her father had bought Rory.

Rory was forced to unclench his teeth in order to respond to the man. He was still dressed in a black cloak, but now that Rory was in such close proximity to the man, green robes embroidered with gold threads were clearly visible. The Hand of the King: Sir Edmund Worchester, lord of Iyre--whatever or wherever that was.

"F...fine...uhh Sir." Rory managed between jolts, wishing with all his heart to be anywhere other than this bouncing, jolting, noisy carriage. He had never seen a carriage in his life. Up North there were no paved roads like this one. And even if any Northman had wanted a carriage, the snow made owning one simply a ludicrous idea.

"Ah, I insist you call me Edmund. At least while we're in private like this. Hmm?" he raised his eyebrows at Rory's surprise, "Oh in public you may address me and Sir...but it sounds very silly in private. Doesn't it darling?" he turned towards his daughter, who only paused long enough to giggle before resuming her leg swinging, her heels thumping against the soft cedar of the seat. She hadn't met Rory's eyes once since the slave auction, he wondered if it meant anything. Probably.

The other occupant of the ornate carriage had no such compunction, in fact he was having a rather tough time keeping his eyes in his sockets, such were they bulging. Jorb, his protruding stomach bouncing in time to the carriage's repetitive up and down motion, eyes were wide with surprise. " Lord? Do you think that's wise? He is only a slave after all." His eyes flicked to Rory for a moment, his lips twitching as though they longed to curl into a sneer had the hand of the King not also been present in the cramped cabin. "He might get some ideas about...his status. If you see what I mean."

"I do not," Sir Edmund's voice was hard when he turned his grey eyes to consider the overseer. "I don't recall asking for your opinion on the matter Jorb Overseer."

" must understand. This one hasn't even been broken in yet. He might yet get it in his head to escape...or worse!" he said, spittle flicking his lips in consternation, "He might try to harm my lord or his family. He's Bern'alad after all...dangerous people! That's why I'm here." Jorb said, slapping his large stomach for effect. He looked rather proud of himself, most likely because he was talking to the hand of the Emperor.

Sir Edmund's eyes turned to Rory, who tried to swallow and found his mouth rather dry. Sir Edmund held Rory in his gaze for a moment before he snorted. "He won't harm anyone. I'd stake my life on it. Will you boy?"

Rory shrugged, causing his chains to rattle ominously. "No sir," he said, trying not to flinch as he stared into eyes that were doing an excellent impression of steel.

"There," Sir Edmund said, "Now that that's settled, we come to the next matter-"

But Jorb interrupted before he could finish, his face had gone all red and this time he really did sneer. "You'll trust the word of a Northman?" he said, making Northman sound like some sort of mental disorder. "I'd keep him in chains until I've broken him in nice and proper were I you."

A look from Sir Edmund was all it took to shut the fat man up. Rory was certain Sir Edmund's frown was one of displeasure now. "I am not accustomed to be interrupted when I speak Overseer." He said, emphasising Jorb's title coldly. "It is because he's a Northman that I will take him at his word; although you probably wouldn't understand Overseer, never having been to the North."

"I-I'm sorry...forgive me-" Jorb paled as he realised how far he had overstepped his bounds.

"'ve been to the North?" Rory suddenly found his voice, ignoring the scathing glare Jorb shot him as his voice carried over the other man's. Instead of being angry, Sir Edmund smiled slightly and fingered his moustache.

"Ah, yes indeed. I was--but that was before the wars broke out." He lost his smile when he spoke. "But that's a story for another time and another place--one for an occasion without the stench of animals."

The way Sir Edmund had said animals so offhand made Jorb almost miss the reference. It wasn't until Rory smirked in his direction that he picked up on the reference to his rather...sweaty armpits. When he realised that Sir Edmund was talking about him he turned an outrageous shade of red and lowered his eyes quickly to the wagon floor. Disel just giggled some more and shot a secretive smile Rory's way. Strange Girl.

Sir Edmund snorted in disgust. His fist curled and he hammered on the roof of the carriage twice. The carriage shuddered to a halt, nearly throwing Rory off his seat since he couldn't use his hands quite properly to grip the wall.

" lord?" Jorb managed, his face had lost all its blood. He pulled of a rather convincing impression of a sheet, Rory decided.

"Now that it comes to it, I think this farce has gone on long enough. Out Overseer. Get out of my carriage. I let you ride just for pretences, but enough is enough." He shoved the small door open. "Hurry up now, I'm late for an appointment. And for goodness sake take those bloody chains off the boy."

Jorb's jowls opened and closed several times silently. It looked like he was going to protest several times but kept thinking better of it. He slumped into his seat when Sir Edmunds gaze would not yield. Rory couldn't help flashing Jorb a smile of triumph. His white face turned to regard Rory with a look of utter loathing. Break me indeed. I hope you rot somewhere unpleasant, Rory thought to himself.

"I'm rapidly losing my patience Overseer. Or shall I report you?" Sir Edmund said, tilting his head slightly as he said it. Get out or I get you fired. Rory just couldn't resist. He had seen Jorb unlock the chain earlier. He hoped the wristlets opened in the same manner. They were impossible to open unless you knew exactly how to twist and flick your wrists. Just like...that!

The cuffs slipped from Rory's wrists and clattered to the floor. Rory couldn't decide what was more satisfying: The sharp intake of Jorb's breath, or the look on his face after he realised what had happened.

"" he stuttered incoherently.

"Now means now Overseer." Sir Edmund snapped. Jorb paled even further, if that were possible. He hastily grabbed the chains and squeezed his bulk out of the cabin--trying his best to give Rory a look that promised retribution. As soon as his body cleared the doorway Sir Edmund slammed the door shut without even a glance for the Overseer and pounded his fist again on the roof. The carriage trundled into its rough motion once again.

They traveled in silence for a fair bit--letting the creaking of the wagon serenade them--before Rory could work up the courage to speak.

"You... you'll really take me at my word...Sir?" he added belatedly. Rory could scarcely believe his good fortune. To think that this man--an important man to be sure judging from the auction--would put any amount of trust in him was unbelievable. There must be a catch...somewhere.

Sir Edmund looked up and smiled. "I told you before, I'm quite familiar with Northlanders strange obsession with honour. If you say you won't harm us, or try to escape then I'll take you at your word." He paused, "I do have your word on it do I not?"

Rory was jounced unceremoniously as the wagon hit some sort of hole, giving him time to think. It was strange to think this man knew anything about the traditions of the North. He had always been brought up to believe the people of the Thiian Empire were heartless and ignorant. But then, he had always thought slaves were badly mistreated--exactly the opposite of what was happening to him. Talking to Sir Edmund--it was almost like talking with any man from the North. There was this aura...something that told anyone who cared to look that this was a man of his word. It was his eyes, Rory finally decided. He had never met anyone with such strong looking grey eyes. This was a man who truly did what he said he would do. A man of integrity. Put orange hair on him and he might be mistaken for a man from the North.

Rory tried not to grimace, but he wasn't sure how successful he was. If he gave his word he would have to keep it. He squirmed for a moment with indecision...but what choice did he really have? Either he gave the oath and was given a sort of freedom, or he refused and would be denied freedom completely. "You have my word Sir" he said at last, quietly.

Sir Edmund smiled, a smile that reached even his eyes, creasing the skin around them. "Good then...and for the last time, stop calling me Sir. You make me feel much older than I'd like to be." He said, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. Rory could only nod weakly before he continued. "But what I'd really like to know you managed to figure out how to undo those bracelets by yourself. I could've sworn Jorb was just telling me how they were the latest technology...impossible to undo if you're a slave."

Rory felt his face flush, regretting undoing the chain in front of Sir Edmund. "I...well..." what could he say to that? "The truth is I saw how Jorb undid the chain in the park. I figured the bracelets worked the same way." He said fiercely, it was suddenly important that Sir Edmund not feel ill towards him. To his surprise, the elder man was chuckling to himself.

"I'll have to remember the look on Jorb's face. Brilliant." He chuckled some more then glanced down at the lonely iron bracelet that had been soldered onto his wrist when he had been first caught. "First thing we'll do is get that off you. I'll have Jinx take a look, he's my blacksmith."

"Daddy are we home yet?" a small voice whined.

"Nearly flower, be patient."

Disel pouted, then with a grin she scooted sideways to tug on Rory's arm. "When we get home, you have to come visit my room. You have to promise!"

Home. No...Rory's home was far the north. It could be worse, Rory supposed. He could have been sold to the Bird lady, that hulking tub with the grin Rory wasn't all too sure he liked. Who knew what he'd be doing right now had she bought him instead. Certainly not chuckling about a fat man in the company of a gentleman and his little girl; that much Rory was sure.

"Sure," he said, trying to inject a little energy he certainly did not feel into his voice.

Gods but he missed his home.

* * *

Dusk had fallen. The streets of Jenkin's Crossing were mostly empty now, aside from the many bodies Jaden imagined were still lying there. Jaden dared to sigh with relief. A shifting beside him revealed the presence of Sergeant Bernweld, in the darkness a bright slash of red could be seen slowly dribbling blood down his gaunt features.

The attic they found themselves in was cramped. Jaden and the Sergeant were crammed into the low-ceilinged room covered with sawdust. And Jaden had been sure he would finally get away from dust by hiding inside--It became apparent that it didn't really matter where you were. Everything was dusty, and inside smelled like unwashed bodies--a foul stench.

"We should see to your wound Sergeant." Jaden whispered. The Sergeant just grunted.

"A scratch. Quiet, I think I hear something," he said, pressing his ear to the floor, his features set in concentration. Jaden refrained from retorting by pure will. It was a scratch at that, just one that bled a lot.

It had been a moment where Jaden's stomach had left him as those mercenaries poured out of the wagon. Luckily, the men that had come pouring out received a surprise of their own in kind. Not only Jaden and the Sergeant's blade come to their rescue, but other unknown men had drawn weapons and started cutting into the small force--then they started cutting each other apart until the street was one giant free-for-all and the gutters were running red with blood. There were no sides, just mayhem. It was in the confusion that they had slipped off--it was also in the confusion that Bernweld had been injured. He had a rather embarrassing run-in with a rolling-pin, wielded by a woman none-too pleased to be jostled by a `pig-headed bear' as she had identified Bernweld.

Jaden pressed his own ear to the dusty floor. Through it two muffled voices could be heard arguing with each other. One was yelling while the other seemed to be holding his voice neutral. Jaden quickly gave up trying to distinguish what they were arguing about. He snorted and turned back to Bernweld.

"Well? What do you hear?"

The older man grunted and pulled his ear up from the ground, wiping blood off his forehead with an already stained kerchief as he did. "It's them."

"You're sure?" Jaden said, shifting his weight so as to regain some semblance of feeling in his right leg. "There can't be any more mistakes, not when my men are scattered like they are."

The corners of the Sergeant's mouth twitched. "I'm sure Sir. It's him." Jaden didn't bother to ask whose voice his voice was. That was obvious, it was their quarry.

Indicating that Bernweld should take the lead, the two men, their black cloaks stained a bright orange, dropped down the hatch onto the second floor of the ragged old Inn. In front of them stretched the second floor balcony which open up to the main floor and commons area. As they neared the open railing and stairway the shouting voice finally became intelligible.

"...told you! It was them. I had to let them attack. What else was I to do!? Sit and be bullied, made a fool? Think you I am a fool? You would be wrong. I..."

There was a quick chilling sound of a sword being drawn followed by a sickening squelching sound and a thump. So much for the trader.

"Sir...Sir...wait" Bernweld was hissing, but Jaden just grinned. It had to be him, the traitor. The end of this long journey was nearing...and Jaden had just run out of patience. He dodged out of Bernweld's grasp and lightly jumped over the second floor railing, landing with a soft thump on the befouled tavern floor. He rose steadily ovserving his surroundings carefully for a trap. Tables were strewn about, some on their sides other splintered where bodies had been flung physically through them. And there he was, wiping his long bastard sword calmly on the trader's ornate robes. SIVIG.

Sivig's black on black eyes flickered up in surprise at the cloaked apparition. The man's lips compressed in a grimace, "Are they sending children now to do the dirty work?" His voice was hoarse as if having shouted too much. Perhaps that was another remnant of the curse that had left his eyes all black.

Jaden quickly took in two bodies in black cloaks that were lying still, half-propped up in one corner of the messy room. His temper flared, one of the men's faceguard had fallen. He recognized the thin face as Fernald's, his chest opened at the seams as if gutted like an animal. Anger, white hot burned in his chest. Fernald had been the most annoying self-centred nitwit this side of the mountains...but he had been under his command. Jaden unwound his cowl slowly and let his faceguard drop, revealing sweaty raven black hair plastered atop his pale, unmarked face. Jaden returned the man's black gaze--a strange remnant of some magical curse--with his own piercing dark grey eyes. Making the sign of challenge with a flick of his wrist and spread fingers Jaden spoke contemptibly.

"You've sunk to a new low if you need to hide in a place like this trash. This may be wasted, but I suppose formalities should be observed:" Jaden spat, his spittle orange from the mud. "Blood traitor and deserter, surrender or be cut down where you stand."

Sivig was laughing, his skin tightening around his thin, ravaged face. Even the pockmarks on his face looked like little scowling mouths. "Do you know who I am boy?" He brought his sword edge up to his forehead in mock salute, "I am Sivig, a blademaster of the sixth tier. You are a great fool if you think you can kill me alone with that toothpick at your side."

"He is NOT alone," Bernweld's thunderous voice rose as he reached the bottom of the stairs behind Sivig unnoticed and declared himself. "I am Sergeant Willhelm Bernweld of the seventh patrol squad and swordsman of the fifth tier-"

Jaden scowled and barked, "Stay out of this Sergeant! I challenge you Sivig of the sixth, Sergeant you will second us!"

Sivig had started to face the new threat when Jaden spoke. He laughed suddenly, "A duel? With a child? Why should I?"

"I would have thought that even a traitorous mongrel like you would seek honour. Let the gods judge us as they will."

Sivig's eyes narrowed suddenly, "And if I win?"

"You shall go free." Jaden said simply.

Bernweld had gone visibly pale, he thought only briefly about arguing before realising it would have been futile. He marched past Sivig to stand to one side. He knew all to well the look on Jaden's face--he had only seen it twice--and that was twice too many. "Very well," Bernweld grunted quickly, dreading what was to happen next. "Present yourselves and your arms."

Sivig the challenged stepped forwards first, his dry lips split in a great smile. "Sivig the sixth presenting," he saluted with his sword again, "the sword bloodlust." He whipped his sword downwards so it pointed at the floor, slightly raised in front of him.

Jaden stepped forwards hurriedly, not wanting to waste time he pulled the cloak the rest of the way off his back. The expression on Sivig's face was almost worth the trouble. The cloak fell to the ground noiselessly, revealing Jaden's armour and the hidden sword strapped to his back. On the chest of his almost weightless red-black breastplate were seven white swords, crossed in battle. "I am Jaden swordfighter, of the seventh tier." he said with the traditional challenge, from his back he drew his sword, it gleamed silver with a taint of red in the dim light. "Wielder of Dusk and Captain of the 7th patrol. In the name of the Emperor I would have justice. DRAW!"

Sivig was quick to recover, he snarled wordlessly and rushed, his long legs covered the distance quickly, his arms taut, he swung his sword smoothly. Jaden sidestepped, deflecting the swordsman with a quick flick of his wrists. That was no attack worthy of a sixth! Jaden watched half-amused as Sivig stumbled over a broken chair that had lain hidden behind Jaden. With a flash Jaden struck upwards at cinq, his sword slowing only briefly as it cut through Sivig's sword-arm.

"Yield?" Bernweld said none too hurriedly, knowing Jaden would never stop now. Sivig screamed then as blood poured from his severed limb, spattering floor and opponent alike. Without emotion Jaden stepped forward and sliced through the man's neck cleanly, silencing his pitiful cry. Then, after the body had toppled with a wet splat, as an act of the utmost contempt Jaden wiped his sword on a dry patch of Sivig's pants.

"Justice served." Jaden said then turned to glance at the two slumped figures in the corner again and sighed, then slammed his sword back into its sheath. "He must have had help...Sivig of the sixth should have actually been something like `Sivig of the third'. But to have been able to kill Fernald...I must be a horrible Captain."

Bernweld shuddered and slowly relaxed as Jaden sheathed Dusk. Sivig had been lucky, Bernweld reflected. The last man who had made Jaden draw Dusk in anger had lived for four cruel days after the duel before he had been granted the gift of mercy.

"What should we do?"

Abruptly, the young captain's manner changed. Jaden bent and detached Sivig's sword from the severed limb. He turned to Bernweld and grinned looking much like a puppy seeking praise, a strange vision of innocence tainted by Sivig's blood which matted his hair and dribbled from his chin as it ran down his pale sharp features. "Home now, I think; we should report what we found out here to my father. Besides, I can't wait to see my sister again."

Bern didn't bother to ask about the two dead soldiers...he knew Jaden had already forgotten them.

Grey Eyed Justice -- End of Book One

Dio's Corner

Thanks for reading! I hope you're looking forward to Book Two as much as I am! Please stay tuned as Rory and Jaden (hee heez) meet for the first time! Oh, and look forward to meeting Rev, the cute little sexy swordsman that could. I know Rory's looking forward to it (winks...nudge nudge).

I love getting comments by the way! This is my first submitted written story so don't be shy, step right up! E-mail me with thoughts, suggestions, ideas, criticism or improvements...anything! Well...maybe not anything. Don't send me nude photos of yourself in briefs. But I hope to hear from you! Even if you just wanna say hi, or it's as simple as: "Hey I read your story and I semi-sorta-liked-it-in-a-very-vague-and-undescriptive-kinda-way."

I'll be sure to e-mail you back no matter what, OK? I'm of the opinion that if you take some time for me, it's respectful that I do the same for you!

Hugz to you all!