To Save a Life

He crept into the same lookout that he had climbed out of that afternoon, calling out so he didn’t startle the guards, then ordering them to silence.
Dorune reached to take his cloak and Tehveor willingly shrugged out of the damp garment.
“My Prince, are you well?” Dorune asked.
If he was hoping for details about that afternoon, he would be disappointed, but Tehveor nodded. “I am. Have they harmed Decharo?”
Dorune glanced at Daton, who peered from the shadows, lit only by the moonlight. “No,” he answered. “But I fear they will.”
“Do not tell anyone that I am here yet,” Tehveor said. “I want to speak to him and the princess alone. I will not let him die.”
“When I spoke,” Daton said softly, “I was not trying to condemn him. Only explain why you were still here. I wanted to tell him, but they would not allow me to see him.”
Tehveor nodded. “I will tell him. And you will see him again.”
Daton flinched, then nodded. “Thank you.”
He left them, traveling into the darkness, feeling his way along the walls and only hearing faint voices. He closed his eyes, visualizing the layout of the caves as he traveled.
Shannondant’s room was tucked between Gregorn’s and the room where she’d outlined the maps. He let himself into her chamber without knocking, finding the room dimly lit by a candle tucked within a lump of salt hewn from the salt rocks by the shores.
She slept with one arm tucked beneath her cheek, curled onto a pallet of bearskin. As he stepped toward her, Shannondant sat up with a gasp.
Tehveor surged forward to quiet her before she screamed.
“It’s me!” he said.
“Tehveor!” she hissed. She grabbed his arms. “They’re going to kill Decharo!”
“No, they’re not,” Tehveor said. “Master Gregorn said the law allowed me to let him off with a beating.”
“A beating?” She tipped her head toward him, eyeing him with trepidation. “What sort of beating?”
Tehveor swallowed. “Well, it won’t be pleasant. He’ll manage, though, if he’s properly cared for. I cannot come up with any other way to spare him.”
Shannondant hugged her knees to her chest. “If you do not beat him, he will die. But – can you – without killing him?”
“Yes,” Tehveor said. “I’ll try not to hit him in the same place twice. He’ll be sore, but with luck, only bruised.”
Shannondant wiped her face, then blew into her hands. “I should have ordered him to go after you.”
“I’m going to talk to him,” Tehveor said. “Rest if you can.”
“Wait!” She grabbed his arm. “What happened earlier? When you couldn’t move?”
“I stepped into a passageway and the wind hit me so strongly that it extinguished my torch.”
“Inside the caves?” Shannondant asked.
Tehveor nodded. “I started back at once, but I heard a voice. I’ve heard it before, when I was a child, but I couldn’t tell which direction it came from. It told me that I must return to the caverns at once. That I could not proceed further until I was ready to commit to Sentarra and leave Eirlerre for good. But that if I left now, I would draw the king onto a path of destruction.”
“Then he was warning you,” Shannondant whispered. “But he told you to return to the castle? Not to stay here?”
“He told me for now I must be the shield. Later, I will take up the sword.”
“What does that mean?” Shannondant asked.
“I’m not sure,” Tehveor said. “Shannondant.” He eyed the bare floor, then the door. “I am shielding Sentarra from the king’s awareness. But there – at the castle – I’m shielding other people. That is what the masters cannot understand. But the – Fate – said I was weak because I was pursuing the wrong path.”
“He told me that he had halted you so that I could catch up,” Shannondant said. “He also told me that the second princess was coming soon. That she had already begun to protect you, but until she came, I would have to fulfill her role as well.”
Tehveor huffed a breathy laugh. “I wish you could,” he said. “But I must go. Where is Decharo?”
Shannondant frowned. “He’s in the pit. I tried to bring him some water, but he wouldn’t look at me.”
Tehveor nodded once, then pushed to his feet. “He’ll look at me.”
He left her, pausing in the passageways only long enough to let others pass by into oblivion. The rope near the opening of the pit was tied to a bucket, but he lowered it down, then slid hand over hand to the ground.
Decharo’s startled voice faded into shame. He turned his face, closing his eyes, but struggled onto his knees. “Are you harmed, My Prince?”
“No,” Tehveor answered quickly. “I’m fine.”
Decharo brought a trembling fist to his mouth. “Forgive me. I don’t know… I thought if you were fulfilling the legend, Fate would protect you.”
“Fate only protects me in Sentarra, Decharo,” Tehveor whispered. “In Erilerre, if I do not respond to the king’s summons, people are punished. People could die.”
Decharo nodded and his throat bobbed several times. “I never intended to put you in danger. I just want you to be king. Punish me please, but don’t banish me. I’ll do whatever you ask, only let me stay.”
No one had told him?
“Decharo, they’re not talking about banishing you,” Tehveor said.
“I heard them.” Master Skafar said if I could not be trusted, I could not stay. I would rather die in Sentarra, than live away from it.”
Tehveor twisted to sit beside his friend, resting his head against the dirt wall. He took a breath. “Betrayal demands death, Decharo, but I would not let them kill you.”
The pit was dark. He could not see Decharo’s face, but he felt the boy still beside him.
Decharo’s voice came measured. “Then I am to be sent away?”
“No,” Tehveor replied. “I would help you escape and find a new life, but I fear they would search for you as His Majesty would search for me. I don’t think they would trust in Erilerre, knowing the secrets.”
“I would never live in Erilerre,” Decharo said.
The darkness was playing tricks with his eyes, creating splashes of blue, white, and a darker black. Tehveor peered at the top of the pit, searching for the dimmest hint of light. The colors blurred, and he fisted away the building moisture.
“Then what?” Decharo asked.
“The council is coming tomorrow,” Tehveor said. “Other men from another part of Sentarra, I suppose.”
“I know the council,” Decharo said. “Some of men think I’m an imposter because my bloodline cannot be proven.”
“Then some of the men are idiots,” Tehveor said.
“Are the idiots the ones who decide what happens to me?” Decharo asked.
“No,” Tehveor answered. “Since I am not willing to kill you, I…” he faltered, clamping his mouth.
“Tehveor?” Decharo shifted toward him. “You what?”
“Twenty lashes,” Tehveor said. “I don’t know what with.”
The stillness in the pit grew thick, and he held his breath until Decharo pulled in his own.
“What about the Light?”
Tehveor laughed in disbelief. “That’s what you’re worried about?”
“It mustn’t go out.” Decharo’s voice shook. “Well, I supposed I could manage, but I’m not sure.”
“Someone will fill the light for you,” Tehveor said. “It will not go out.”
“I think I can manage,” Decharo whispered.
Tehveor’s throat burned with a raw dryness. “You’ve never been beaten before, have you?”
“Master Skafar thrashed me a few times growing up, but only when I deserved it, but… not like…” His breath shook as he trailed into short gasps. “Do you think? Have you seen it before? How long does it take to heal?”
“It depends on if it’s a whip or a rod,” Tehveor said. “Whether or not it breaks the skin.”
“You know a lot about it,” Decharo said.
“His Majesty has a dungeon,” Tehveor said. “He has a post in the courtyard to punish servants. And he has a rod in his study.”
Why was he saying this? He shook his head, trying to stop the words, but they came out in a harsh whisper, “I don’t know if I can do that to you.”
“Must it be you?” Decharo asked.
Tehveor nodded, then realized he couldn’t be seen. “Yes.”
Silence reigned again before Decharo spoke. “If the council is coming, they will demand much. It is fitting, really. In death, there is only a short suffering and then nothing. But while you live, you live with the shame, the consequences. The regret. If I truly hated someone, I wouldn’t kill them. I’d do something else. Something that would last, something they would have to live with, where every morning they would wake and remember and regret. And I will regret it Tehveor. But I will never betray you again.”
Tehveor swallowed, pushing to his feet. “And I will never beat you again.”
“Tehveor.” Decharo’s voice stopped him as he found the rope once more. “Don’t try and spare me. The council will demand to be appeased. And it is deserved.”
There was too much pressure in his throat to reply. Tehveor fought his way to the surface. If the king woke before he returned, he’d suffer as much as Decharo. He swayed in the darkness, then replied, “Find something to fix your attention on. It helps.” He wasn’t sure if Decharo would understand what he meant, but he spoke again. “I’m calling the council now. I must return soon and there is no reason to draw this out.”
He waited in the dark, feeling bound to an agreement, but it came soberly.
“Yes, My Prince.”
His stomach burned as he returned to Daton and Dorune, summoning them to rouse the council. The law bound him to the punishment, but he had say over when it happened and if anyone protested, they wouldn’t for long.
No one did, but the caves flickered to life as the commotion woke the common workers. The council added several faces he did not know, whose names he did not remember even after they were introduced. Grumpy, perhaps, at being pulled from their sleep after journeying here. A few stared, taking breaths of delight as they glimpsed his eyes. Others eyed his Erish clothing, his youth, with a frown. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to befriend them or convince them of his merit as king.
The face that startled him most was his mother’s. Setta’s chin was set, eyes as grim as any man there.
“I knew you would come tonight,” she whispered.
“But you did not have to,” he said.
“I will not let you face this – or them – alone,” she whispered. And she squeezed his trembling hand.
Every torch lit added a smoky film to the main cavern that held the gathering crowd. Curiosity caused the Sentarrians to linger, with backs pressed against the walls and pleading faces that begged him not to send them away. Or perhaps to spare Decharo. It was hard to tell.
“You’re being foolish, Tehveor,” Skafar said. The man stepped to his left, standing just behind. “Decharo has placed you at the mercy of the Erish king. He has exposed our kingdom to outside discovery. This council has already expressed doubts about your ability to lead. They need to see a king who can carry out justice.”
“I am carrying out justice,” Tehveor said. “If I showed him mercy, I would not be calling this meeting.”
“Then you must carry through with this,” Skafar said. “You cannot change your mind, you cannot hesitate, and you cannot stop.”
“Do not speak to my son that way,” Setta said. “May Fate return to you every ounce of distressed that you have forced upon both of these boys tonight.”
Skafar’s eyes flickered toward her before he looked away. The crowd hushed as Decharo was brought in, hands bound in front, with a guard on both sides. The fire lit the color in his face, but he surveyed his surroundings with more composure than any of the onlookers. Only after he saw Shannondant among the crowd, did his eyes drop and refuse to rise. When the men stopped, he knelt on his own, and only after Tehveor approached, did he see the Decharo tremble.
Tehveor lifted his chin, finding it easier to speak to the frightened faces in the crowd. “Decharo has been found guilty of withholding information that put Sentarra and its people at risk.”
A tear created a clean line through the dirt on Decharo’s cheeks.
“The penalty for treason is death,” Tehveor said. “However, since the motive was not malicious, I have decided to put his life into the hands of Fate. He will receive twenty lashes. Should he heal and live on, we will know that he has been granted Fate’s forgiveness.”
Unrest breathed movement into the crowd. Several faces swung toward the ceiling and dark crevices, as though searching for Fate itself. Eyes widened or shut. Some stood frozen, while others began pressing backward through the crowd, unwilling to watch a beating.
“Gregorn,” Master Skafar called. “You brought the boy here.”
Gregorn stiffened, then squared his shoulders, accepting the unspoken command. Tehveor frowned, but before he released Gregorn from any part in the punishment, Skafar pressed a rod into his hand. Three leather straps braided around the handle and fell loose, swaying freely. Twenty blows, but sixty lashes.
Tehveor glared at the man. “I will not use this.”
“That is what is required,” Skafar said. Then eyed the boy. “You insisted on sparing him. Gregorn had already convinced us to make his death as painless as possible.”
Tehveor glanced back toward Gregorn who cut Decharo’s hands free from the rope, motioning toward a stone slab that usually served as a bench. As Decharo lay across it, Tehveor swallowed and strode across the clearing, holding the strap.
“It must be this?” he demanded, holding it toward the man for verification.
Gregorn scarcely glanced at it, before he nodded. He pulled Decharo’s shirt toward his neck, bearing his unblemished back and shoulders. “I will hold his hands to keep him in place,” he said.
“I will stay down,” Decharo said.
“I know you will try,” Gregorn answered softly. He knelt in front of the rock, taking Decharo’s hands and pulling them taunt.
Tehveor stood, then realized all eyes were on him.
You didn’t know you could hurt someone, did you?” Galaphy sneered. “You’ll find it grows easier with practice.”
His breath shook. He was supposed to bring his people freedom, not harm. But Skafar watched him, then shook his head slowly.
“You must be strong,” Gregorn whispered, though it was hard to tell if he was talking to Tehveor, Decharo, or himself.
Tehveor took a breath, sending the command into his shoulder, his arm, and the straps scraped red lines into Decharo’s back. His stomach churned, but he delivered the second blow before he could fully comprehend the first. Another, and he heard Shannondant sob.
The forth, and Decharo yanked Gregorn against the rock, panting through the fifth and sixth. Something burned its way up Tehveor’s throat, and he blindly delivered the seventh, feeling his own back throb.
Find something to focus on. He kept his eyes on the slab, aiming a bit higher each time, just enough to avoid crisscrossing the lines. He sped his arm, delivering one after another after another until his world consisted only of a strange rhythm of blows and cries. The darkness crept closer like the torches were burning out. His stomach settled, clenching into stone. Numbness crept into his legs, his back, even the arm that continued moving with the same precision he used to obey Galephy when his mind was too terrified to form thoughts.
“Enough, Tehveor,” Gregorn said. “It’s done.”
Tehveor blinked, as shadows around him turned into people, the light warmed the room and flickered off bloody drips that rolled across Decharo’s heaving sides. He dropped the whip, stepping back as Gregorn dropped Decharo’s hands and the boy clutched the stone, heaving heavy breaths.
One of the councilmen caught Tehveor’s eye, sending an approving nod that revived the churning in his stomach. Tehveor stepped back, colliding with his mother, who wrapped her arms around him. “Come away,” she whispered. “You’re finished here. We must return before the king finds that you are gone.”
But Shannondant rushed past them, collapsing beside the slab and reaching to touch Decharo’s face. “It’s over,” she whispered. “It’s all over.”
“I don’t know what happened,” Tehveor said.
“I do,” Setta said. “I saw your face change. You locked yourself away, Tehveor. You’ve done it before.”
Gregorn reached beneath Decharo’s chest to help him straighten, but Decharo sank onto his knees, shaking as he clung to the corner of the stone.
“It’s over. Don’t think about it,” Setta said.
He ignored his mother’s familiar advice, striding to kneel beside Decharo, ignoring the frowns around him.
“I went over, didn’t I?” he asked.
Decharo shook his head, but Shannondant replied, “Only four.”
Four? Tehveor gasped. “I didn’t know… I didn’t mean.”
“It’s alright,” Decharo answered.” I’d take more if I could keep them from you.”
Shannondant nodded, whispering, “Go.”
To the castle. To the king. His other life crowded into his mind, bringing another wave of fear. Tehveor stood, but Shannondant reached to grab his hand. She squeezed it, whispering, and “Thank you.”
Sparing Decharo’s life no longer felt heroic, but Tehveor nodded, stepping away. His legs shook and he wondered if he was once again going against Fate. But Setta reached to steady him until they reached the horses.
“I don’t like what this is turning me into,” Tehveor said.
“I hate this part of Sentarra,” she whispered. “This is why I left.”
Tehveor clutched the reins of the unfamiliar horse. “Can you leave?” he asked.
His mother shook her head. “I thought so. But I don’t anymore. I think all we can do is go forward. Once you become king, this will never happen again.”
It was true and he resolved to become king as quickly as he could manage. But he didn’t feel like a king as the dusk outlined the trees.
“We must ride quickly,” Setta said. She kicked her animal into a gallop without looking behind.
Tehveor glanced toward the caves, worrying about leaving Decharo and somehow relieved he didn’t have to see any more of the suffering. Then he commanded his own horse into a hard run, feeling his heart pound harder with every set of hoof beats. The tunnel blocked the light, leaving them guessing at the time and they hurried on choking on fear. In the tunnel, they parted ways, Tehveor to his room and Setta to a passage that would take her closer to her own chambers.
“Sire!” Thyman panted, holding one hand to his chest as he hobbled toward Tehveor. “Your sister – she is looking for you.”
Tehveor glanced toward the red streaks in the window. “This early?”
“The king sent her,” Thymon gasped.
The king. Tehveor’s heart fell, but he reached for the man’s arms. “Sit down and rest. I’ll find her.”
He wasn’t sure if the servant would obey or not, but he moved to the door without changing, jogging toward Ceslaya’s chambers. She walked through the hallway, her face swinging from side to side as she passed every door.
She saw him and her breath escaped.
“His Ma-je-sty,” she panted.
“Thymon told me,” Tehveor said. “Show me where he is.”
She nodded, relieved not to talk, but she slipped her hand into his and he felt it tremble.
“Has it been long?” he asked.
She nodded.
“Do the others know that he was looking for me?”
She nodded again, turning down one of the staircases. Ceslaya slid as she reached the bottom and he let her tug him down the hallways into the yard before he slowed.
“Are we going to the stables?” he asked.
She nodded.
They’d already buried his horse. Surely he wouldn’t kill another. Ceslaya’s feet slowed as they approached the doors. The yard was empty, the servants finding tasks in other locations. Only a rooster crowed with a careless indifference.
Tehveor pulled her in for a hug. “Go back now. It will be fine.”
Ceslaya stepped back, setting a hand against his face before she clutched the pendant around her neck and stepped back. Her eyes shone with tears, and he whispered again, “Go.”
“Oh, there you are,” Galephy said. He stood in the barn door, holding a blacksmithing rod like he was finishing shoeing a horse. “Where were you this time? Were you struck by another bout of daydreams?”
Tehveor’s mind clawed for the darkness that had enveloped him during Decharo’s punishment, willing the numbness to return. But the ordeal had left him shaky and exhausted. The only scrap of energy came from Ceslaya who stood behind him.
“I asked your sister,” Galephy sneered the last word, smirking toward Ceslaya, “to find you. She looked for some time and failed to return. Poor thing. I nearly punished her before I realized you were not here to tell. I told her I would spare her as long as she brought you the moment that you returned. And here you are. It’s good to know someone has respect for the king’s orders.”
Tehveor stiffened every muscle in his face against reacting; hoping Ceslaya would leave before the king decided to punish him by harming her. To shield his family.
He lifted his chin as Galaphy’s eyes drilled into him. “I told you that you were not to ride anymore,” the man said. “You’re not stupid enough to defy me, so I must believe that you are stupid enough to forget. You seemed to have forgotten a good many things, so I’ll help you. Who am I?”
“My king,” Tehveor answered.
“What are you?”
A prince.
Tehveor swallowed. “A korvier.”
“And what must a korvier to do for a king?”
“Obey him.”
“Good,” Galaphy answered. “And what will happen if he doesn’t obey?”
He wasn’t sure, but when the king’s eyes traveled to the girl behind him, Tehveor swallowed. “I don’t know, My King. I will do as you command.”
Galaphy lifted the rod toward Tehveor. Heat waves rippled the lines of his glove as they radiated from the iron.
“Take the rod,” Galaphy said. “Both hands.”
Ceslaya gasped behind him.
Tehveor froze, feeling the ground dip as Galaphy said, “Obey me.”
And there wasn’t any choice. Not with his sister hovering behind him, not with his mother somewhere in the castle, or the stable hands peering from the stalls. He clenched his hands, then reached up, grabbing the rod. His arms jerked as pain seared all the way to his chest and shoulders. He opened his fingers, feeling his skin sizzle, feeling terror as the rod stuck on its own before gravity ripped it from his skin. The rod clanged as he backed away with it, stumbling backward until Ceslaya grabbed his arms.
He held his hands against his chest, writhing as he dropped to his knees, crumpling and rocking. The king’s boots whisked dewdrops from blades of grass as he passed, leaving Tehveor nearly touching his face to the ground.
“Sire. Sire.”
Tehveor panted as the general, knelt beside him, sloshing him with water from the bucket he set down. He grabbed Tehveor’s hands, plunging them into the cool water.
“Try to breathe,” the man said. “The water will draw out the heat.”
He couldn’t breathe. His lungs had taken a life of their own, filling and releasing without his control or consent.
“The pain is good,” the man whispered. “The places you cannot feel are what stays damaged.”
The pain hurt worse than anything the king had done before and growled between clenched teeth. He couldn’t take up a sword, or anything else for that matter. How would he fulfill the legend if he couldn’t use his hands?
“I don’t know where you are going or why,” the general whispered. “But you do not deserve the things that he does to you.”
Tehveor turned his palms, wincing at the welts. Even beneath the water, they looked like what he’d done to Decharo’s back. A fresh wave of tears thickened his voice when he said, “Today, I think maybe I do.”