Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty
Queen of the Kulldis

“Santon!” the woman screamed.

Bree stared at the stage dumbly. Santon… dead? Could it…

Was he really… Dead?

Bree stood frozen in shock.

The slave woman pushed her way through the crowd.

The slave woman… Something about the slave woman…

She was supposed to do something for…

Her.

Save her.

For Santon.

Bree’s eyes widened.

Oh, gods.

No.

Bree came to her senses and dashed off after the slave woman. She reached out an arm and grabbed her.

The slave woman whirled on her and struck her across the face with her palm. “You shouldn’t have left him!”

Bree gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on the woman’s arm. “He wanted me to save you! I promised him!”

“You should have saved him!”

“I trusted him!” she shouted. Trusted him? Santon? What was she saying? Had she really trusted him? To do what? To live? Against Kardswann? Bree’s thoughts were reeling, but her mouth seemed content without it. “I trusted his judgement! I trusted him to live! And I trusted that you were more important, if he didn’t!”

Back on stage, Kardswann yelled. Bree and the slave woman turned to him.

The woman frowned and then yanked her arm from Bree’s grip. Bree regarded the angry woman before her and then looked back up to the stage, where Kardswann postured and posed above Santon. Bree gritted her teeth and pushed her way through the crowd.

“I challenge Kardswann of the Kulldis tribe!” she yelled loudly.

The crowd parted before her. She strode purposefully to the stage and ascended the steps. The slave woman followed her.

“No. I challenge Kardswann of the Kulldis tribe!” the woman yelled.

Kardswann smiled. “And so his bitches take the stage?”

Yipping laughter erupted from the crowd.

Bree gritted her teeth and held her blade before her. “Surrender or die.”

Kardswann laughed.

Bree lunged forward, slicing sideways with her scimitar. She struck his armour, but slashed again, quickly, for his neck.

He could have dodged. He could have parried. Hell, he could have shrugged and caused her blade to go off course. But, he didn’t.

Instead, Kardswann’s eyes went blank, and then utterly terrified.

He stood stone still and watched as Bree’s scimitar sliced his head clean off.

Bree screamed in triumph and anger and hatred.

The head fell to the stage with a thump and rolled off onto the floor.

It was silent.

Bree watched as a delicate hand – Kelestair’s – subtly let go of Kardswann’s ankle. Kardswann’s body loosened, and then fell to the ground.

Kelestair strode up onto the stage and raised his arms to the crowd. “Kardswann’s time is over! Bow down to Bree! Queen of the Kulldis!”

A bark sounded from above. Bree looked up and saw Ugruk yelling down at Kelestair. Kelestair yelled something back. Then Undrella pitched in.

Bree couldn’t understand what they were saying. The barks and yips of the gnoll tongue made as little sense to her as a dog’s bark or a bird’s call. She turned and walked over, slowly, to Santon’s body.

The slave woman cradled his head in her lap. His blood pooled around them, turning her green robes to a reddish brown. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Bree stepped forward once, twice. She stopped. Perhaps she should leave his lover to mourn over him… Perhaps she should…

Her eyes left the woman and fell on Santon. He was so pale. So still.

Bree blinked once, and then screwed her eyes shut. She threw herself to the ground beside him without a care for the slave woman. Santon was her friend. Like the brother she had never had. And now he was gone. Bree dropped her head onto his chest and wept in great heaving sobs.

Below her, his chest moved.

Bree raised her head in shock. She placed her hand upon his chest and slowly, weakly, it moved up and then down in a shaking desperate breath.

By the light of the Starstone! Santon was alive!

Bree tore open Santon’s shirt, ripped off her buckler and placed her bare hand upon his chest.

“Hey!” the slave woman shrieked. “Get your hands off my brother you dirty – “

“Quiet!” Bree hissed. “Beloved Lord,” she prayed loudly. “In your name, please, I beseech you! Save this man, lend him your luck! It is by his guidance I have come to do your will today. Please, please! Save him!”

An overwhelming surge of sensation entered Bree almost immediately. It was so much! Too much! She couldn’t hold it all. She couldn’t use it all…

No! She would have to! Santon needed it all…

And more!

Bree screamed as the power pulsed from her hands and into Santon’s chest. Still, she called on more, opening herself up to the revels of her Lord until she was filled to bursting. A conduit straight to Santon, from the divine. She was a funnel. A vessel. A tool.

She belonged to Cayden Cailean.

She was his.

A favoured soul.

Beneath her hands, Santon shuddered. Bree smiled and let go.

But the voices didn’t stop. The liquor of the gods still flowed down her throat. The cheers and the bawdy songs still rang in her ears. The room spun. She raised a hand to her head.

A voice as sweet as honey and smooth as silk sang. He nodded at her and handed her a drink. His voice left the chorus’ and he spoke to her.

And then the room was spinning. She was stumbling. Letting go. She couldn’t hold it. It was too much.

The man with the honeyed voice was speaking. Smiling. Laughing. He was proud of her. His favoured soul. And then he was gone and Bree was vomiting on a bloody stage surrounded by a pack of stinking gnolls.

Beside her, Santon heaved onto the floor. The slave girl patted his back as if she had done it a thousand times before. Bree didn’t mind in the least.

Santon was alive and Bree couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that she was somehow – is somehow… something more. Something treasured.

Through the vomit and tears and bleeding wounds Bree smiled.

And then she heaved her breakfast onto the floor.

A hand clapped her on the back. “Perhaps a bit more practice, Bree.”

Dumbly, Bree nodded.

Santon laughed.

After a few moments, Bree rose on her shaking feet.

Ugruk lay dead, upon the stage, his skin horribly rotten and black. Kardswann’s headless corpse lay beside him. Kelestair was shouting something to the crowd. The gnolls yipped back in before turning and filing out of the Battle Market.

Bree looked on, confused. “What’s going on?” she croaked.

Kelestair turned to her slowly. His eyes glimmered as they never had before. The corners of his mouth turned up into a smile. He was happy. Joyous, almost.

“This could not have worked out any better, Bree. And all because of you.”

Bree’s eyes widened. “I don’t understand.”

“You saved Santon, you killed Kardswann and you now control a tribe of gnolls.”

“I do?”

Kelestair smiled. Actually smiled. “Yes, Bree. You do.”

Bree shook her head. “They just left.”

“They left to find you tribute.”

“Tribute? Kelestair! Why didn’t you stop them! Gnolls kill for tribute! And raid and – “

“They go to kill the Dust Digger in your name. The beast that lives in the Pesh fields.”

Bree’s eyes widened.

“You are their Queen, Bree. And you ascended in quite a memorable manner. They seek to make an offer to you, like no other. And so they hunt the Dust Digger.”

“But they’ll die.”

“Yes, they will. And they might even take the Dust Digger with them.”

“But I -“

“They fear you, Bree, and they know you have no love of slavers. They will bring the Dust Digger down to earn your favour and forgiveness, or they will die.”

Bree paused. Somewhere along the way the smile had slipped from Kelestair’s face. What had happened? Had she upset him? And what had made him so happy?

“Do I anger you so?” Bree asked. Oh, gods! Why had she asked that?

Kelesteir’s eyes widened imperceptibly.

“You were so happy a moment ago and I… I just thought, maybe you…”

He tilted the corners of his mouth down slightly.

“I was just so rude to you when we first met, so I understand if you dislike me – “

Kelestair smoothed his clothing out and looked away. “I was relieved to see you and Santon safe,” he said in a tight, clipped voice. “Our odds today were not very good, and to see our day end so well, and with no loss of life, I was… pleased. Immensely pleased.”

Bree smiled and blushed. “Oh, I’m so sorry to… I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or anything, Kelestair! I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Kelestair regarded her with his red eyes. “It is nothing. I realize I am not the most…” he paused, searching for the right word. “…candid with my feelings. It is a habit I am finding hard to break.”

Bree shook her head. “No. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your feelings to yourself. I shouldn’t pry. Sometimes I just… I act. Recklessly. Without thinking.”

Kelestair tilted the corners of his lips up slightly. “So I have noticed. I admit, I thought you as good as dead when you challenged Kardswann.”

“Yes, that was foolish, wasn’t it?”

Kelesteir nodded. “Thank the gods you are alright.”

Bree laughed. “Thank you, you mean!”

The corners of his mouth twitched and then, impossibly, he smiled. Brightly. “Yes. Well. I may have helped.”

Bree laughed. “May have?”

“Yes. Well. Did help.”

“What did you do to him, anyway?”

Kelestair’s mouth returned to its usual stern line. “I blinded him.”

“By touching his ankle? You blinded him?”

“Yes. A handy spell.”

“I’ll say so. Scary, though. I couldn’t imagine being blind.”

Kelesteir shifted uncomfortably. “Come, my Queen,” he said after a moment. “Let us see how your subjects fare.”

Bree frowned. “Do we have to?”

“That depends if you trust your subjects to act in your best interests outside of your sight.”

Bree paled. “Let’s go.”

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