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Manas’ eyes widened, and he brushed his free hand lightly over his belt, where the flask was hooked next to his dagger. “Has this ever happened before?” he asked.
“Never,” Lilavati said. She felt sick as she watched a boy no older than Kavi have his intestines torn out of his body and placed in his hands by a burly fighter even bigger than Ludger. “Can we please leave this place? I do not know how much longer I can conceal the worst of my reactions.”
“We’re leaving right now,” Manas said. “Ludger, are you certain you know where we’re going?”
Ludger gave him a frustrated look. “You’d know it too, Great Lord, if you’d let me teach you to read maps.”
“Perhaps I’ll let you do that this time, old friend,” Manas said. He held up his hand and the entire group moved out. Lilavati barely concealed a whimper as the sounds of the servants and guards mixed with the specters of the past to create a cacophony of fear in her mind.
Manas kept as close to her as he dared as they rode, talking to her as they went. Though she couldn’t track the conversation for more than a few seconds, she was grateful he was helping her conceal her disorientation. Finally the worst of it passed as they got away from the battlefield.
Something Manas said finally registered long enough for her to form a thought around it. “You say it is going to take a month or more to travel to Phiri Hu?” she asked.
Manas smiled, a look of relief in his cat like eyes. “It is, depending on the roads.”
“And how often we have to stop for the Great Lady’s shadowy assassin,” someone muttered.
Manas heard it as well as she did. He turned in the saddle. “If you would do your jobs and make sure she wasn’t harmed, we wouldn’t have to worry about that. Now focus and do what I pay you for.”
“Do not be so harsh on them, my amber eyed lord,” Lilavati said. “As I told you, they do not know me. I am the oddity they have been forced to admit into their number. They will learn to accept me. Or not. It must be their choice.”
Manas eyed her steadily. “You believe quite firmly in choice, don’t you?”
“Yes I do,” Lilavati said. “I did not have to accept you. My father would have been very angry, and I’d have died at his hands the night we met, but I could have chosen that fate. Truthfully, that did not cross my mind in the slightest until much later. I was too intrigued by why you would pay so high a price for someone considered so ugly by her people, and even by her own family.”
“I heard of you, my dark scholar, because of that description. I chose to approach you because of it. Your father spoke of your intelligence in a pitying voice as if it was a burden you were forced to bear rather than something to be valued,” Manas said.
“Because it is, among my people,” Lilavati said. “A woman should be beautiful, accomplished in the womanly graces, and talented in one thing our society considers appropriate. I was taught all that I needed to be to serve a husband well, but my intelligence was never spoken of when my father attempted to find me a suitor. It was not considered a virtue to be praised.”
“In my lands, an intelligent woman is an asset to her husband,” Manas said. “It’s why my sister was such a highly sought after prospective bride. She very nearly married the prince of our kingdom.” A dark look crossed Manas’ face. “I’m glad she didn’t, but there are days where I wonder if she should have.”
“Did some ill fortune come of her refusal of his suit?” Lilavati asked.
“Yes, and it isn’t something I’m going to discuss on the road,” Manas said. “You’ll have to wait until we reach Phiri Hu.”
“Why do you keep me ignorant of something that does affect me, for I know it is the reason I am locked away at night,” Lilavati said.
“What has Sieglinde told you?” Manas asked.
“Nothing, as you bade her,” Lilavati said.
“Then nothing is what you’re going to get from me,” Manas said.
Lilavati bit back her shriek as they came upon a gruesome scene. Men and women torn apart, as if by some great beast. Blood splattered stone and grass. It turned the river waters red. “What in the name of the Thousand happened in this place?” she whispered, her eyes locked on the horror.
“What do you see?” Manas asked. She described it in as much detail as she thought he could bear. “I’ve heard nothing of a tale of such carnage here. I’ll have to ask around, see if anyone else knows any tales from these lands.” He frowned. “You haven’t heard of anything like this either?”
“What place is this?” Lilavati asked. “I do not know where I am, other than outside my home.”
“Ludger, where are we?” Manas asked, raising his voice to check in with the sorcerer.
“The same place we were not that long ago, Great Lord,” Ludger said.
“The name, Ludger,” Manas said, irritation obvious in his voice. “Lilavati wishes to know where we are specifically.”
“We are at the Dragon’s Barrow, Great Lord,” Ludger said. “Does she know what that is?”
Lilavati bit back a sob and nodded. “I know the story of this place,” she said. “I will tell it to you after we pass it, when I am not so sickened by what I see.” She kept her voice soft, so it would be barely audible above the sounds of marching feet and pounding hooves.
Manas nodded. “I want to know, because what you described doesn’t sound natural.”
to be continued…