“I have read your work,” said my master, staring out his great window again, arms pensively behind his back. “It is sincere. It seems the grobi have not shamed themselves with your capture. It seems you truly are who you say you are. This has saved your life,” he observed casually, “which belongs forever to me.”
Ashrik swept my legs from under me with a swift kick to the back of my knees. Two burly hobgoblins grabbed me by the arms, but by now I knew to be utterly limp. The instinct to thrash had been beaten out of me somewhere on the road through the mountains, by thin air and malnourished fatigue. My mind still stung from the terrible gaze of the bull, and swam with the lack of sleep, although I felt greater physical strength than ever before after having eaten so well. I was barely cognisant of the fourth figure who entered the chamber, a slow-moving, bitter-faced dwarf who did not make eye contact with me. The ragged shirt I wore was lifted, and the dwarf plunged an iron brand onto my chest, on the flesh directly above my heart.
The pain was brutal, but in truth, lesser than the torments I had endured in my sleep. I could feel something else surging through the wound, and sure enough, the brand coursed with greenish twists of light, crackling like miniature lightning. I felt a dull throb pulse outwards from the wound, which seared itself shut after the brand was removed, black, raw, but sealed all the same. The pulse remained, slow, steady, like the beating of a second heart.
My master casually stepped towards me and looked intensely at my face. Reader I must stress - I was being assessed as one assesses livestock. He pulled apart my lips with fat gloved fingers, to expose my teeth; he struck me on the knee to test reflexes, dug into my abdomen to assess the health of my organs.
“Ashirk. I use the lessons of husbandry he set down, and I find him wanting. You have made my prize beast sick with your neglect, Ashirk. Exhaustion will make him useless to me.”
The dwarf clutched a pendant on his beard tightly, and the hobgoblin fell to the ground, writing in pain. He was held there for some time longer than seemed healthy, until his cries began to drown out his breath. The dull pulse emanating from my agonising brand quickened, erratic, frantic.
“His heart beats with yours now, grobi! If he is bruised, you will be broken! If he is hungry, you will starve! This is my command! You will protect his life with your own, in all ways, or when he dies… your torment will never end. Now go, and take your lackeys with you.”
The hobgoblins unhanded me warily, skulking back into the shadows nearest the door. Just as with Ashirk, they seemed forbidden to turn their backs or hide their hands. The dwarf who had held the brand remained.
“I will speak with him. He will rest awhile… then you will take him to the menagerie. He begins tonight. The grobi will not harm him, but they will hate him, for his condition will be exalted by comparison. Ashirk will see to them. You I charge with ensuring that the dawi leave him be. He is no stable-slave, Hamazi. He is an artefact of great power, to be kept under lock and key. I expect you to conceal him with all the skill you turned to hiding the Idol of Shubur.”
There was something behind his words. I dared flick my eyes to this Hamazi, who stood in grim passivity. A miniscule ripple of some emotion played across him. I surmised that the Idol was supposed to have been hidden from our master.
Hamazi seemed to make an effort to wear this moment nonchalantly.
“The others shall not know of him, Greatest Lord,” he grumbled. His lips seemed barely to move. “But… the Blessed Ones cannot be watched. I can conceal him well enough, but they will do as they will.”
“I will not hold you responsible for the tongues of the Blessed, beardling. I have spoken with them. They are silent on this matter. It is of great importance to them, though for reasons… other than my own.” Hamazi slowly nodded, looking away.
“I will bring you the idol at once, Greatest Lord,” he said simply.
Our master produced a small ivory figurine from his robes, about the height of a handspan.
“Unnecessary, you wretch. When we next march to war, you will pay the price of it. How high the toll depends on how well you protect the manling. I have taken care of the grobi. The Blessed Ones look set to take care of themselves. The rest is up to you. Now, leave us.”
At the time, I recall a little confusion. What passed between them seemed to me to have no rage, no recrimination. And yet that had clearly been a moment of great failure for Hamazi - exposed as trying to deceive his master, as cruel and merciless as any under the sky. I could not read the ways of these Dawi then as well as I could a decade hence; looking back on this moment, I see the signs I missed. The slow, deliberate nature of Hamazi masked it to me, but that was a dwarf in a blind panic, scuttling away in fear for his very soul. Our master grinned, shaking his head slightly; I saw in him then a look like so many masters faced with the blithering of so many apprentices through eternity. It almost brought a smile to my own face.
“The grobi, that is his heart beating you feel. The bond goes between the two of you but it is far worse for him. You could not kill him if you tried, but if he does die, your heart too will stop. For him, your every moment echoes - reverberates. He cannot hear your thoughts, but your feelings course through him. It is the only way to tame the grobi,” he said, stroking his beard contemplatively, “to engage their self-interest.”
He paused for a moment.
“Well? Speak, manling.”
“I - my lord I know not of what.”
“Do they keep grobi in your lands? I must say it is quite a trial. They are simply the only plentiful resource in these blasted, barren lands. As I read your treatise, I could not help but laugh. ‘How I wish we wrote such things of the grobi’, I thought to myself. Fully half my waking hours are consumed in disciplining them, terrifying them, playing them off against one another. It is a supreme form of husbandry. No magicks can do the work of a firm hand and a sharp mind, eh, beast-keeper?”
I knew I was supposed to reply here, but feared for my life to do so.
“Perhaps not a sorcerer’s magicks, but enchanted artefacts are essential to the breaking and training of the greatest specimens,” I stammered, feeling as though I were in some bizarre guildmeister’s wine-tasting. My master laughed loudly in reply, and I realised how oddly large his bottom lip was.
“You are my enchanted artefact, manling! Your treatise was most enlightening! You will be caring for a sickened predator of sorts. I command you, tell me of the beast-men who plague your lands.”
“T-tell you… what, my lord? It is a wide and varied topic. I wrote much-”
“When a turnskin mutates, what are the signs? How long does the transformation take? What are the possible outcomes? Do some degenerate?”
I felt at once my mind enter the mental space of a guildmaster’s termly examinations. I rattled off facts and details. Beastmen always took the appearance of prey animals; rat-men, though often mistaken for beastkin, bore no relation; despite their appearance, the beasts ate only meat; every turnskin is different - but the broadest categories were the lycanthropic, the maturational, and the spontaneous. Beastmen did not need to be of the same kind to create offspring. Beastmen could not be born to true beasts, even if sired by kin. As we spoke, again and again he showed great interest in the lesser-studied centigors and the vast minotaurs. Given the motifs all around me, it was little surprise that bulls in particular had some special significance to him. The fires of his enquiry were stoked, and the more I spoke to more he wished to hear. I am quite sure I was there for hours.
Suddenly, I heard a dry whisper inside my skull.
Ask him about your dream.
“My lord… if I may, I have had–”
His eyes bulged with obscene rage, and he seemed to swell in stature. Shadows danced around his face in an instant, and the fire in the fireplace flared dangerously.
“Presume nothing, manling!” he spat, beating me across the face. “You answer! I ask!” again and again he rained blows on me. I staggered to the ground. He kicked me sharply in the ribs, and his foot fell with the force of a brick. “I see you, daemon! I see you in his eyes! Face me!”
My master looked wildly about the room, into every shaded corner. The roaring flame from his fireplace seemed to turn with him, twisting wildly in time with his movement.
He heaved with breaths, and as when I first saw him, there was something deflated about his shoulders for a moment. He turned to me and a fire raged in his eyes once more, though I remained motionless in terror.
“Heed no voice in this place but my own, do you understand, manling? I will have your soul beaten into a pair of boots fashioned from your living skin if ever again you heed such whispers. Ask nothing of me if you wish to retain your tongue. Know me. I am Enmerkar, Sorcerer-Lord of Mourngard, beloved of Hashut. A thousand urks burn in my forges nightly, their suffering fuelling engines that will one day reduce your pathetic homeland to a blackened ruin. No voice in your head can surpass me. No hissing whisper is heard in this place but I hear it! No moment of your life will pass that is not as I command! I will hammer your screaming skull into my privy before I answer a question from a slave! To survive in this place, remember only two things. Obey Enmerkar in all things, and heed no whisper. No shadow, no voice, no coiled snake, no carved tablet, lest it be Enmerkar’s instruction.”
I cowered on the ground. Magic - oily, scratching - I could feel it twist around us both. He returned to the desk beside the window.
“My lord. I will do only as you bid,” I begged, remaining still on the ground. He turned away and looked again out the window.
“Hamazi will teach you what little else you must know to survive here. Go now, and prepare. When the fortress sleeps, you visit the Menagerie. There you will… see. Get from my sight.”
It was the first time I had been alone and unguarded since my kidnapping. He simply let me go. I felt unsteady as I approached the door, as though beyond it I would find Hamazi or Ashirk lurking to take me by the shoulder and force-march me elsewhere. But now that I was branded, now that Ashirk and Hamazi’s fates were intertwined with mine, it seemed beneath Enmerkar’s concern where I went or who accompanied me. Escape, I was sure, would be quite impossible - and utterly pointless. To be outside the - fortress? Tower? I knew not exactly what this Mourngard was. Even had I so known, I would need to travel many months westward on foot before I even had any hope of finding so much as a speaker of Reikspiel, let alone help. My master’s sorcery terrified me as badly as the eyes of the bull that haunted my nightmares. I gave no thought to escape; only to survival in the dark and winding corridors of Mourngard…