The heat of the sun against my skin is a distant sensation, so faint it could almost be a figment of my imagination. Closer is the jolting of cart over every bump in the road. Melody's orders were most precise, “Deliver him as quickly as possible. Let the Lady Ava see him for herself.”
I'm bleeding again. The rough wood has torn and scraped the newly formed scabs from my back; hot blood trickles down my torso, soaking the torn shirt. But even that does not seem real when compared to the fire still eating into the side of my face.
Blisters were formed when the brand touched and torn open as it was pulled away. Pus pours freely, streaming down my neck and mixing with the blood already staining my collar.
Pain; it is a weak word that cannot be applied to the raging fury of the mark permanently etched into my skin. Even agony falls short of the mark.
A faint moan leaves me; I try to roll sideways again, but all I can manage is a slight jerk sideways. There is no choice, but to continue as I am. Continue with this horrible, haunting thing pressed against my body in a poignant reminder of my guilt. That pain is one that pierces through the rest of the agonized fire pulsing in my veins.
My eyes flicker open for a moment. Dark green branches form a tunnel through which only faint flickers of light manage to slip through as the wagon trundles on down the road. And a man-...
The man walking by the side of the wagon- I know him.
His face is masked, a heavy black cloth pulled up over his nose, but there is still some undefinable quality that spurs my sluggish memory. He moves with the silent grace of a cat, not walking, but prowling. His eyes are also like that of a feline. Honeyed brown irises that see everything around him but always seem to be focused inward. Who is he?
I push the thought away and reach out desperately for rest. It envelopes me slowly. Even wrapped in its embrace, I can still feel each pulse of agony, every rut in the road tearing another wound wide-open. But I don't wake up.
A deep sense of cold invades my dreams; I shiver beneath the rough sack they threw over me for a covering. At the same time, the heat eating into my face spreads until my entire body burns with a relentless flame.
A hard jerk throws my body against the side of the cart. I force my eyes open and glance dully around.
We've stopped. The leaning trees no longer stream past in silent files, and the horrible rocking motion from the cart is gone. Gentle rays from the sun shine gently down, partially blinding me. I squint back at it and stir restlessly underneath the scratchy bag; this means something. The sun being here means something.
Not a stop for the night. The answer rises from somewhere deep within, a part of me that can still think through the thick fog of fever. Since the sun is still high enough to shine directly down on me, this cannot be a stop to prepare camp. We have arrived.
“A herald from the Lady Melody Stygian to Lady Ava Melodic, pretender to the throne of Eskil!” Piercing in the warm air, the call seems to hover for a brief moment over the entire clearing. “Do any of the present rabble have the authority to speak with me?”
“Speak your message, Herald, if you will,” a curt voice responds, “but be brief, and if possible, keep a civil tongue in your head.”
I struggle to sit up, but only manage a weak flopping motion on the rough boards. I don't know that voice; young, but filled with confidence.
“Have you the authority to hear my message?” A touch of scorn sullies the tone, and I can hear the sneer. “Has the Lady Melodic only babes freshly weaned from their mother's care to fill her higher ranks?”
“The title of herald gives you leave to deliver messages without fear of violence,” the same young man responds calmly. “You do not possess the right to lay insu-”
“Thank you, my Lord,” the ringing voice of a woman cuts him off. “I am here, Herald, to take your message. Deliver it, or by the holy city, I shall not stay the hands of my men.”
I suck in a deep breath, and the cloud of the fever dissipates silently. That voice-... I would know it anywhere.
“Lady Ava Melodic,” the herald begins, “I bring greetings from your cousin, the lady Melody Stygian.”
“They have been expressed,” She responds dryly. “What else?”
“I bring a gift, my Lady. A gift, and a return of something that was taken by mistake.”
Two men appear at the back of the cart and haul the coffin out. As they move out of the way, two more appear directly behind them. One yanks the sack off my body, and they drag me towards them.
My feet hit the ground; I start to crumble, but they catch me. Roughly, they pull the bloodstained shirt over my head. All of the scabs come with it, ripping open every wound. Through the rising delirium, I feel the sensation of warm rivulets of blood streaming down my back again.
Each man takes an arm and slings it over their shoulders. My head hangs forward, and my feet drag behind as they walk.
“Here is the gift, my Lady,” the herald exclaims as the sound of the coffin being dropped reverberates through the clearing. There is no mistaking the triumph in his voice. “It long belonged to her, but the Lady Melody Stygian has seen fit to grant it to you.”
They drop me. My hands go out automatically, but I crumple face-down on the ground without the strength needed to catch myself. Gravel mixed in with the fine top layer of silt bites deeply into my bare torso.
“-is the return.”
Gathering what little energy I have left, I force my head up a little. My eyes raise and touch the dusty brown leather of her boots. A little higher, and they have reached her tunic. Straining, I try to send them still higher, but they drop back to the dirt as my body once again flattens.
“Explain.” Her voice is flat and without any apparent signs of emotion, but I know she is holding herself rigidly under control.
“The Lady Melody always thought that what you see before you belong to her, and so she reclaimed her property. She now finds that it is, in reality, yours, and so she begs your pardon and has sent it back.”
“You may tell the Lady Melody Stygian,” Ava responds quietly, “that I understand. And I swear now, before you and these others present, that she shall have cause to curse the day she thought to implement Master Ward in her jest.”
“Now,” and her voice darkens even more, “Get you and these men out of my woods. If your face is seen again within my territory, the herald's office shall not save you from the noose.”
He does not respond, but my ears faintly pick up the sound of his boots scraping against the ground as he makes a hasty retreat. A moment later, orders to depart sail through the air.
“You two,” Ava snaps curtly. “Take his arms, gently. Help him up and get him on a horse with someone. We must get him back to camp.”
Again there are hands pulling at my shoulders, but now they are not harsh. They drape my arms over their shoulders and begin to turn away...
“Ava,” I murmur. My lips are cracked, my tongue swollen from long thirst; the word comes out as a weak whisper. Swallowing, I try again. “Ava.”
“Stellen?” Her legs appear in my vision, clad in her normal black leather pants with the green tunic ending mid-thigh.
One last desperate effort, and I manage to lift my head and look her in the face. Her brown eyes widen in sudden horror. She steps forward, hand reaching upwards towards the weeping burn that the right side of my face has become. It pulls back at the last moment.
I try to summon a smile, but it creases the welts and causes another flash of pain. Unable to fight any longer, I lean forward and lay my head on Ava's shoulder.
The last thing I feel as the darkness takes me is her hands softly stroking my black hair. But though her touch is gentle, I can feel her slim body trembling. “Oh, Stellen. Stellen, what has she done to you?”