Once We Were Kings Online - Ian Alexander Page 0,1

Shikar razor-stars at Oreus, Timea and Cerbeas.

The first struck and lodged itself into Oreus' forehead. He let out a roar and fell to the ground, convulsing and howling in pain.

The second caught Timea in the leg just as he began to transform. He cried out and fell to one side, trembling and foaming.

The third grazed Cerbeas just as he completed his equine transformation and flew from the slaughter and bounded clear over the stone wall.

Unhampered by the fetters of a human body, the impostor flew up and looked for him. But to her dismay the night did not betray her quarry. Even from this vantage point high above the courtyard, she could not see him, though he had galloped into the night in the form of a mighty stallion.

It mattered not. Cerberas had been grazed. If he survived, it would not be for long. She would simply report that the mission was prosperous. And this would more than suffice, unless her master condescended to having the bodies counted.

Alighting on the Great Table of the Ancients, the impostor smiled with satisfaction. The only remaining testament to their existence would be the carcasses, whatever had not yet been picked apart by vultures.

CHAPTER ONE

Six Months Prior

In the blackest of nights, a fortnight before the seventeenth birthday of a slave named Render, the moon, full and blood-red glared down upon Talen Wood, a ways from the Citadel walls of Valdshire Tor. Three boys bent upon nothing good approached the lad as he lay down, trying to sleep. Render’s master—last seen with his beard bathed in drivel—reclined in his chair, a drunken stupor barely veiling his cherry-nosed countenance.

Outside the damp broom closet better known as Render's room, in that fetid cottage in which he and his master dwelled, one of the boys tapped furtively on the wall.

"Render. Hssst! Render."

"What? Who's there?" So poor was his vision he could barely see the fingers before his face, for the sands of slumber had encrusted his eyes.

"Come on, Render. Are you going join us or not?" He recognized the voice of Kaine, his elder brother. He too was a slave belonging to an old master on the other side of Talen Wood. Some two years his senior, Kaine led this band of mongrels who, despite all their capers, had always eluded capture. They were the closest thing to a family he had.

Atop the ledge of the window sat a black cat, not unlike the one he had seen a day or two prior. It ceased licking its paw and washing its face. With turquoise eyes, it stared straight into Render's. Throughout Render's life, black cats appeared frequently, though he had never been able to take one as a pet. The cat looked over to Kaine and his companions, then back at Render. It leapt down from the ledge, almost daring Render to follow.

Kaine appeared in the window and grinned. "Coming or not, Rend?"

"After last time? I shouldn't go anywhere with you again." But something about that cat drew Render's curiosity. The way it regarded him, as if it knew of something interesting, an adventure or a pirate's chest full of gold and trinkets. Perhaps a magical sword.

Render stole past his snoring master and out the door.

"Come now, you old tortoise," said Kaine, the oldest of the boys. He stood at least a head taller than Render. Kaine brushed his fire-red hair out of his eyes, smiled and slapped a heavy hand onto Render's shoulder. "Hungry?"

"Do birds fly?" Render's master afforded him but one meal each day, though he toiled without respite in his stables and fields and barnyard from the rising of the sun till dusk.

"Well, they're hungry." Kaine tossed a glance to Folen and Stewan, the twins. When they faced each other, they looked like reflections. Beneath the dirt lay bespeckled cheeks which in the daylight took the hue of apples. This more than betrayed their tender age of eight years.

How diverse a band.

Yet one thing bound them in common. They were orphans, all of them. And all of them slaves.

Searing pain like a branding iron scathed Render's back when he stretched his arms to yawn. Wounds from yesterday's lashing reopened. He winced and groaned but dared not reach back to touch it. "You'd better go on without me," he said. "If Bobbington catches me..."

"On then," Kaine said, raising up fistful of tree branches fashioned into spears. "I heard dinner grunting by the stream."

Render's eyes opened wider, though it brought no clearer vision in the gloom. "You