Shatterwing: Dragon Wine 1
The Prison Vineyard
Salinda trod the mud tracks of the vineyard, inhaling air that was fresh and damp from the previous night’s rain, dispelling the ever-present smell of sulphur for a time. As the sun notched a little higher over the mountains, the humidity levels rose, making sweat bead on her upper lip and her dress cling uncomfortably to her legs. In the distance, dragons rode the thermals, hunting for prey above the barren plains. A reminder that the Fire Ranges, the geothermal wastes and the dragons served well to imprison them all in the vineyard.
Coming up on the winery building that bordered the staging area, she hid in the shadows and watched as a new prisoner arrived. A gray burden beast whined soulfully as it clawed forward, dragging the wooden cart free of the muddy track. A sudden jerk threw the new prisoner off balance and onto the side railing. Two guards stepped forward, lifted the latch on the cart’s rear gate and stepped back as the man tipped himself into the mud.
Ange, the one-eyed guard, stood with hands on hips. “Come on, yer ’ighness. Git up ’n’ view yer new princedom.”
Salinda clamped down on her revulsion. Next to the Inspector, Ange was the worst of the vile creatures that passed for guards in this place.
The cut of the prisoner’s chamois breeches and embroidered shirt confirmed he was a royal rebel, one from the many dynastic houses overthrown when rebellion erupted, who then in turn became a rebel. On climbing to his feet, the fair-skinned man spat into Ange’s weathered brown face. The guard wiped his cheek with a grime-covered hand, looked at his palm in apparent surprize and lashed out with a savage backhander, sending the young man sprawling unconscious into the muck.
Ange’s pot belly jostled as he laughed, only pausing when the guard prodded the inert prisoner in the ribs with the toe of his boot. “That’ll teach ya, scum.”
Curiosity drew Salinda out into the open. Hearing heavy steps behind her, she realized she’d been noticed by the guards and offered little resistance when they dragged her forward. They shoved her down into the pungent mud near the rebel, where she saw the newcomer’s bewildered face as he came to. He was young, barely an adult. It had been a while since she’d seen such innocence.
A cloud of smoke hit her in the face and her gaze slid to a smelting fire. Chains lay in a disordered pile, along with some tools propped up against the fence. She shuddered once, remembering her first day when the chains had been fitted. “Stupid whore,” Ange growled at her. The rest of the guards laughed and flung curse words at her while she pulled herself up into a squat, indifferent to the mud that clung to her faded and patched pink dress. Tossing her loose braid over her shoulder, she smiled when she caught the young man’s eye.
“Welcome, friend,” she said huskily, lifting her shoulder invitingly for the benefit of the guards. It served her well that they thought her a whore, and a defective one at that.
At the sound of familiar, rhythmic footsteps, she knelt hastily in the dirt and cast her head and eyes down, surreptitiously keeping the Inspector and the guards in view.
“Inspector,” Ange said, dragging his hat off his head to worry it with nervous fingers. The other guards followed suit, grabbing their various dented and rusty helmets from their bowed heads.
The lithe Inspector shot a piercing glance in her direction. “Why is she here?”
Salinda flinched. Ange started. “Her helpmate be dead so we be giv’n Poxy Sal to show the new prisoner the … er … ropes. Tau’t it’d please ya, Inspector,” Ange said, bobbing his head vigorously. “Ya ’pproved it jus’ t’other day.”
“Ah, yes. I remember. She was all alone out there on the rim. Good.” The Inspector focused his gaze on the new prisoner and slowly and deliberately peeled off his clean, beige gloves. “Prisoner Brill of Duval?”
“Yes,” Brill answered as he climbed to his feet and stood unsteadily. His face was swollen around the eyes and jaw. Old bruises lingered, with streaks of purple and yellow staining his pale skin, traces of his interrogation.
“Kin, I think,” the Inspector said, slapping a glove against his immaculate breeches before sliding it to join the other at his belt. “But I am not as stupid as you.”
Brill blinked and then with slightly hooded eyes examined the Inspector’s face, perhaps looking for signs of his noble heritage.
The Inspector smiled thinly. “I am a Karonen of Bristling Flat. My mother was your cousin.”
Brill looked ready to smile. But Salinda, still kneeling, warned him with a wide-eyed look of alarm. His gaze shifted toward her, catching her signal, and he kept his mouth shut.
“Good,” the Inspector said with a slow nod. “Don’t think family connections will help you here. Your father’s foolish altruism died with him. Thankfully, all trace of his Highland Confederacy was obliterated.”
Salinda saw Brill’s fist clench and worried that he might protest. But the young man remained silent, his anger betrayed only by his heightened color.
“I understand you are here because you trusted unwisely.” Throwing his head back, the Inspector barked out a laugh. “You’ve learned too late never to trust another, especially with your life.” The Inspector paced by the fire, five steps up and five steps back, his gray eyes intent. All was silent except for his even footfalls. He stopped suddenly and gestured with both arms to the surrounding vineyard, like a shrug. “We make dragon wine here.” He turned again and began to walk away, only to return and halt abruptly in front of the rebel, almost nose to nose. Then he rasped out, “You will learn that dragon wine is all there is.”
Salinda watched the Inspector, the clenching and unclenching of his hands, the pink flush turning livid on his neck. She had no idea why this particular rebel angered him more than any other, but she sensed trouble and climbed to her feet.
“Yes, Inspector—dragon wine is all there is,” Salinda blurted out, bringing the Inspector’s attention to her. Breathing hard, she realized she was being reckless, but something about the lad, some gut feeling made her do it, made her draw the Inspector’s malice to her and save him from some small part of it.
The Inspector lunged, backhanding her. She fell backward and lay on the ground, dazed. Looming over her, he said hoarsely, “I’m not talking to you, whore!”
Behind her, the guards guffawed and called her a slut and a stupid moll. Brill stood still, dumbfounded, and then when he had collected himself, she saw his gaze shift left and right, measuring up his chances of escape. Salinda worried that he might intervene, making matters worse. Luckily, he didn’t.
Blood leaked from her mouth, and she wiped at it as she sat up—a small cut, nothing more. After climbing to her feet, she faced the Inspector, keeping her expression impassive. The mud would dry and brush out of her hair. No harm done. There, she thought as she jutted her chin out slightly, no need to fear him.
Turning to Brill, who stood immobile, the Inspector’s face creased with a grin. “Good, good. No heroics from you, as I expected. You’re the lazy, self-centered, minuscule prince you always were, living off the suffering of others.”
The punch to the gut took Brill by surprize and doubled him up. The kick to the ribs that followed when he was down winded him painfully. He was barely aware when Salinda helped him to his feet. Her hand steadied him as he lurched, keeping his eye on the guards and the Inspector.
“Chain him and set them to work.” The Inspector pushed an indolent guard out of his way and marched off.
Ange headed for the fire and grabbed a length of chain. Caressing it, he grunted out a command. “Fust, bring the prisoner. The rest of ya, git.”
The remaining guards drifted away sulkily into the vines or wandered off in the direction of the village. Fust shoved Brill toward Ange from behind and then kicked the rebel’s leg forward for the ankle manacle. The memory of her chaining returned to Salinda, as acrid as the smoke. The emotion, the utter desolation welled up inside her. She had to breathe through it—push the images, the feelings, away.
Brill screwed up his face as he leaned away from the heat of the soldering iron.
“I’m called Salinda.”
Brill nodded and then tensed his face when the hot iron was brought back for his wrist. After tugging on the chains to test them, the two guards stood back. When she saw the metal anklets, the memories surged back. It was long ago and she was free of them now, an earned privilege, but her ankle still bore the mottled, white scars.
“I said git.” Ange waved smoke away from his face and the second guard, Fust, heaved a fluid, chesty cough before spitting a glob of green-tinged mucus at her feet.
Ignoring it, she caught the boy’s eye again. “Come, I will teach you what you need to know to survive here.”
Brill’s face was slack with surprize, and it took a moment for him to register what she had said. “What? … I am Prince Brill, late of …”
A thump across his ear sent him reeling. “Save yer ’igh talk ’til later. She’s a poxy whore … nuttin’ else. Ya know—tavern slut. Don’t go puttin’ yer rod in there or it’ll drop off. She’s diseased.” Ange spat at her and walked off, rubbing his groin. If any prisoner was still abed, they would suffer Ange’s attentions that morning.
Brill moaned slightly, once again claiming her notice. Salinda put her hand under his elbow to support him. He lifted his wrist, testing the heavy weight of chain linking it to his ankle.
“The chains are more for show, you know. Walking is possible once you learn how to manage the weight.”
He gaped at her in disbelief while flexing his bicep.
“It’s true. There’s no point in preventing you from working, is there? They hinder rather than prevent escape. It’s all in the mind—don’t let it get to you.”
Closing his mouth, he nodded and cast a look around him, the dark shadows beneath his eyes a telling sign of his despair. He leaned on her and then gradually worked out a rhythm with the chain, looping the slack over his arm so he could walk. A chained prisoner couldn’t run from a dragon on the plains, nor could one climb down the side of Crawlers Gorge, even if they found a way to it through the maze of mud pits, boiling pools of water and hidden steam vents. The road was guarded by more than the Inspector’s men. Fear and degradation created worse prisons; they entrapped minds.
As they passed in front of Fust, he glared at them with red-rimmed eyes.
“Move,” he yelled after them. “Or I’ll chain ya together ’n’ make ya dragon fodder.”