Herio awoke to the sound of busy wee toenails scuffling along a corky ridge of bark overhead as a tiny chickadee searched for hibernating grubs. The cloudless dawn sky above was already turning blue. At the sound of a metallic clink from a link of his shackles, the bird chipped and flitted away. He jerked, giving a furious scratch at the fleas which infested the tattered unicorn blanket which Sergeant Dunvel had resentfully shoved at him. It was still far too cold to do without it. Jays called.
“Wake up cachu ci!” barked Dunvel as he kicked him in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
He cried out in pain as he struggled to get his breath. He sat up, drawing his shackles tight around the trunk of the small maple he had straddled all night.
At once, Dunvel had a knife at his throat. “There, cachu ci,” he said, tossing the keys into the leaves by his shackles. “Undo ’em. And if ye do anything quick at all, I’ll haul your stinkin’ red head to Niarg in a bag.”
Herio stretched out his arms, mindful of the blade at his Adam’s apple. He had to try several times to unlock the shackles, since his hands were trembling convulsively and Dunvel simply refused to let him lean forward. The blade stank fiercely of raw egg and foul spit. Wave after wave of white-hot fear surged through him as he fumbled. He could picture his own throat being cut. He could picture himself somehow grappling away the knife and running Dunvel through. Somehow he would manage to stay alive because someday he would get Dunvel for this, after he got Brutus for killing his little brother.
At last he was astride his unicorn, a small dappled cyflymder-Dúlish cross. The thought of spurring it and dashing away through the timber had died the moment he saw how both mounts were already tethered together. He watched Dunvel champing open-mouthed at the last of the travel rations like some kind of dog. His stomach gnawed and he looked away.
“Hey cachu ci!” barked Dunvel. “Want some? Hey! Don’t you look away! Do you want some?”
Herio looked but made no reply.
“You’d better answer me ‘fore I come over there an’ make you. Are you hungry?”
“Herio nodded ever so slightly.
“Well, ye ain’t gettin’ any ’cause this is the last, last little bit,” he said with beady-eyed merriment as he came up close to chew. He wiped his hands first on his breeches and then in the leaves, as he belched loud enough for it to echo amongst the trees. He began untying reins. “We’ll reach Castle Niarg in less than an hour, I’d reckon,” he said with a grunt, as he threw his leg over his ponderous ceffyl arfog unicorn. “Now, ye’d best be rememberin’ what the captain said, or else a lot more of your stinkin’ Ash Forkers are goin’ ‘o swing.” He roared with laughter and smacked Herio’s unicorn on the rump, making it rear and roll its eyes before spurring his own mount off through the leaves.
Herio stared straight ahead, tears streaming down his cheeks, watching his unicorn’s ears turn this way and that, as Dunvel went to great lengths to describe how his little red-haired brother had kicked and kicked and turned blue as he died. At last the castle loomed before them, ending the ordeal.
Dunvel smoothed and straightened his black sash with its embroidered blood red hourglass and grinned a toothy grin as they rode up to the gate. “You remember why you’re here, cachu ci,” he said.
Herio kept his eyes forward and gave a curt nod only to show that he had heard.
“Halt, right there!” hollered the guard from the embrasure above the portcullis.
“Ha,” thought Herio at the sight of the look which flickered across Dunvel’s face, though not a twitch of expression managed to surface on his own.
“What business has one bearing an escutcheon such as yours doing here, sir?” echoed the guard.
“We have an urgent message for your king!” hollered Dunvel.
“Urgent? And who might this urgent message be from?”
“Are you blind, man?” cried Dunvel. “It ought to be obvious!”
“We are right well credited by this tottering sack of hog dung, wearing the black sash and red hourglass of sorcery and treachery, if by the mere sight of him he fancies that we can read his mind!” called out Captain Bernard as he stepped beside the guard. “Unfortunately, since he’s so frightfully ugly that it would be impossible to read his mind, we must assume that his bloated head merely makes him forget his place in a country not his own! So be it! I’ll let His Majesty know at once! In the meantime, though, you’d best stay exactly where you are, since I’ve ordered a score of long bowmen to loose arrows if they see you move at all!”
Ch. 47, Stone Heart
Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps