The Hurogmeten stared into the fire, his best hunting hounds lying at his feet, a plain brass goblet in his hand with a splash of wine he sipped at to ease his body and thoughts.
He was in need of easing, great need. The undying creatures of the North had been harrying the farmers, the terror becoming a worse blight than the saltcreep that ruined the once lush fields to the South. As if the Gods decided that it were not enough to burden his shoulders - there had also been a half-dozen attempts to end his life in the past month alone. Poisons in his meals, damaged done to his horse’s saddle and reigns, even a falling chandelier. He no longer felt safe enough to leave Hurog Keep – where the Keep itself could foil the assassinations. Hopefully, after this night, those piss poor attempts would cease, as he had sent the Keep’s ghost to deal with the root of the problem.
“It is done, master,” came the familiar, young voice of the ghost.
The Hurogmeten glanced into the shadowed corner from where the voice emanated, spying the youth after a moment. His pale, fine boned face barely visible in the low light; even his vivid eyes were dimmed. “Come closer. Let me see.”
There was a moment of hesitation before he stepped forwards into the light. He was of average height and slender build, eternally trapped in the juncture of child and adult. His clothes were dark but the blood on them was still fresh enough to gleam like black opals in the firelight. His hands glistened with the viscous fluid, a single heavy drip falling onto the deerskin rug.
“Good. I am pleased.” The Hurogmeter’s hands came together slowly, the fingers on his left hand caressing a heavy ring on his right. The ghost tensed and gasped, his violet eyes springing wide open as sensation rushed through him. “Come here, Oreg. Give me your hand.”
The youth’s stance screamed that he would rather do anything but obey, yet he had no choice. There was a fine tremble in his legs as he stepped forth, picking his way between dogs legs and tails. He extended one hand, fingers half-curled. He flinched when the man took hold of his wrist and twisted it too and fro to better appreciate the light reflecting off the blood.
“Did you make it last?” the Hurogmeten murmured after a moment.
“Yes, master,” the youth replied just as quietly, eyes fixed on the hand holding him.
“Did he scream?”
“Loud and long, though none heard him.”
“Did he weep?”
“At the end. He pleaded.”
The Hurogmeten’s face was contorted with a monstrous glee and hunger. “What? Tell me his words.” His hand tightened, bruising pale skin and grinding delicate bone.
Oreg drew a shuddering breath and spoke in a monotone. “Gods, make it stop, stop, stop it, please, anything,” He pause when his master leant forwards and licked the blood, but went on, “ I’ll make you bleed, I’ll kill you, you miserable – no, no, no, no, no more, anything, everything, what is it, just stop it –”
The fire and the snuffles of the sleeping dogs were the only sounds for a handful of moments. The Hurogmeten frowned. “I didn’t tell you to stop. What else did he say?”
The ghost blinked slowly. “Nothing else. He died.”
Oreg’s tone was perfectly level, his expression blank of all emotion, but there was something smug about him. He had obeyed his master’s command – but had rebelled at the same time by not drawing it out.
The man snarled, “I think you must enjoy punishment.” He released the ghost’s hand with a furious jerk and stood up – Oreg retreating out of reach just as fast. “Don’t think you can melt away, boy. Take off your shirt, hands on the wall. NOW!”
The roar echoed in the darkness, the icy power of the rind crackling over him, piecing his bones and booming in his mind. He felt the command in the weight of the stone, in the hollow air, in the deep dark of the earth, and he had to obey, had to, had to –
Hard, cold stone bit his palms. Frigid winter air gnawed his bare skin. He shivered with anticipation, waiting to hear his master move behind him, the whistle of a horsewhip or the low cruel hiss of a hot iron, bruising grip and teeth that tore. He flinched when a different voice, feminine and sleep-slurred, came from across the room.
“Oreg? Ward, wake up. I think Oreg’s…”
There was a deep rousing breath and a rustle of bedding and hurriedly donned undergarments. “Oreg, it’s all right. You’re safe. Look at me, Oreg. Please, will you look at me?”
He knew that voice. He turned slowly, eyes huge. The huge-bodied man was moving closer, slow and cautious. For a second it was his father standing there, huge and bursting with dragon-born magic. Then, it wasn’t. It was someone else.
“Do you know me?” the man asked, his slow voice low and calm.
He didn’t, but the answer tumbled from his lips without pause. “Ward?” Something tight in his chest relaxed a little, and he could breath a little easier. Ward wouldn’t hurt him. He wouldn’t let anyone else hurt him.
“Yes, it’s me. Come and sit by the fire, Oreg, you’re shivering.”
It was an order, a gentle one but still a command – yet he didn’t feel the magic compel him. He obeyed anyway, his steps stiff and jerky.
When he sat, Ward knelt, still keeping his distance. “Do you want to talk about it?”
A question, and option. Oreg tried to read how he should answer from Ward’s face. “I thought… I felt… I had to obey,” he whispered hopelessly, failing to find the right words. “I felt the ring, the order…”
“I freed you, Oreg. You don’t have to obey anyone any longer. Remember?” His blonde hair was ruddy in the firelight, his dark eyes gentle and patient. Oreg couldn’t remember how many times he had tested that patience with his ‘funny turns’ but it always held firm.
He lifted a hand to the base of his skull and touched the place Ward had driven the dagger. He sighed. “Not freed from my nightmares, it seems. Why don’t you try it again, my lord?”
Ward looked stunned, but it was Tisala who spoke from the bed, sharp with alarm. “That’s not funny, Oreg.”
“Sorry,” he whispered, feeling wretched. “I’m sorry. I’ll g-”
“No you won’t!” Tisala kicked free of the bedding and stood up. Both Ward and Oreg stared as she strode across the room, her nakedness unapologetic. Oreg twitched when she lifted a hand, leaning away from her but she clucked her tongue and waited, hand outstretched. “If you go now, you’re going to huddle in some cold, dark corner and gnaw your thumb off from fretting or fall back into memories. Stay.”
“Stay?” Oreg echoed, his throat tight.
Tis nodded once. “Lie in bed with us. We can talk, we can listen, we can remind you you’re not dreaming. It helps. It helps me when I… when I don’t remember how I got free.”
Oreg looked to Ward, his eyebrows high with confusion. “What do you think of me crawling into your bed next to your wife?”
“I like it a damn sight better than your idea of me sticking another knife in your head,” came the slow reply. Oreg could tell Ward was trying to sound casual or even amused, but he just sounded tired and wounded.
Guilt squirmed in his chest. He tore his gaze from Wards and gave a small nod before lifting his hand and taking hers.