Two of the boys got on either side of me, grabbed my arms and lifted me to my feet. I suppressed a gag as I caught the smell from their unwashed bodies.
“Get moving lads,” the man said, suddenly sounding almost cheerful. “We have a prize to be redeemed.”
As I got to my feet my head was still spinning. Me? A prize? I was just a boy – what worth would I have to whomever his lordship was?
Leading me from the alley and onto the next street, we began our journey – forming a kind of procession. Two of the boys remained on either side of me. Two of them walked ahead of me, while the man brought up the rear. We’d walk down a street for some distance, then the man would shout out an order and the boys would change course. This pattern continued for some time as I was pushed and pulled along our route.
Although we made steady progress, the journey wasn’t easy for me. Every step was painful as my bare feet trod on the sharp stones covering the streets. Still dizzy from the blows of the man, I occasionally slumped and sagged in the boys’ arms. Whenever our progress seemed too slow, the man would shout angry curses and threats. At each threat, the boys clutched me more firmly and pushed me along faster. At first I kept my head down, but after awhile I forced myself to look up, thus avoiding having to look down at my bloody feet.
As one street led to another and the ringing in my head eased, I started to take a greater interest in my surroundings. I observed that I was being escorted through a very old and decayed section of a town or city. There were buildings all around us, but just like the ones in the alley, they were old and depilated. The streets were dirty and littered with rubbish. Stones and bricks from crumbling facades often hindered our progress. Finally the amount of debris decreased and our pace quickened, but no matter where we went, at least two sets of hands directed and restrained my movement at all times.
After at least thirty minutes of walking, I noticed we were moving into a more populated area of the city as we began to encounter people either walking the streets or sitting on the steps of buildings. Some of the structures looked as if they were being lived in, and I could see that many of the buildings had balconies with even more people sitting on or leaning over them. Laundry hung over rusty railings, and the smell of food wafted from open doorways and windows.
As we encountered more people, we also attracted more attention. Groups of people openly stared at us as we passed. Sometimes a person would point and then whisper to others standing nearby. Many shunned us, or turned their backs. One old woman made a sign as if to ward off an evil spell. A few children followed us, only to be pushed away by one of the boys. I could sense in the faces of those who saw me that there was something about me that was attracting, repulsing, or even scaring them. Although I was still slightly dazed, I was becoming more and more fearful of what lay ahead.
Eventually our journey brought us to an open square in the center of the town. The surface of the square was dirt covered with a light scattering of stones to keep down the dust. At the entrance to the square stood a large bell tower. Within the square was a market, with a number of stalls selling food; although its quality and variety didn’t appear to be very appealing, I could see crowds of people milling about and purchasing provisions.
There were other merchants stationed around the perimeter of the square. I could see that one of the booths sold cloth, but of a rough and coarse quality. Another stall sold clay bowls and pots. One merchant was selling jewelry while another displayed leather belts and straps. Occasionally a beggar could be seen sitting on the cold wet ground – a hand outstretched for coins. Most of them gave the appearance they’d not received much charity from the patrons of the market that day.
Looking about, I noticed a juggler walking through the square tossing four or five balls at a time. He had a bag tied around his neck that I supposed was to encourage people to deposit their coins, but he also appeared to be having a bad day convincing the crowds to part with any spare coin. Once in the square, the man took the lead. Quickly he guided us through the square, roughly pushing aside anyone who stood in his path.
The further we moved into the square, the more attention we attracted. By now, a large group of people surrounded and followed us and I began to hear curses being thrown my way. If I made eye contact with anyone, they would quickly avert their eyes or turn away.
At the far end of the square, opposite the tower, stood a large, imposing building that had an official look about it. Constructed of large granite blocks, it was very old and in poor condition. It was five stories tall, and had a large stone stairway leading up to its entrance. In front of the entrance stood a series of massive granite columns. A large copper dome, green with a thick patina, topped the final story. Our pace quickened and I realized this was our destination.
Drawing closer, I saw a pair of soldiers standing at the bottom of the steps. On a landing at the top of the same tall steps stood a second pair in front of a pair of very large and heavy looking oak doors. All of them wore swords at their sides, and they held pikes with sharp twisted points. The light body armor they wore was a dull and dirty gray. By now the people in the square, had transformed from a small crowd into an angry mob, but the man leading our group forcibly pushed himself past anyone that we encountered.
Once, we in front of the steps, the man approached one of the guards, pulled him aside, and spoke quietly to him. I watched as the large muscular guard bent down to listen. After a moment of brief conversation, the man pointed toward me. The guard looked first to me, then to the man, then once more to me. Speaking quietly to the man, he motioned us up the stairs and we began our ascent, quickly making our way to the entrance of the building.
Halfway up the stairs, a rock fell at my feet and we halted our climb. I turned to the direction from where it came, but couldn’t see who might have thrown it. Turning back and looking down the steps, I glanced up when my eye caught sight of a figure standing on the parapet of the bell tower at the opposite end of the square. It had an unfamiliar outline against the sky, but it was too far away for me to get a good look.
Without warning, a commotion rose up from the crowd. Peering into the mass of bodies in the square I realized they were beginning to swarm toward the stairs. My head started to pound and I began to feel lightheaded as the same strange and sickening feeling I’d experienced during my encounter with the dog washed over me.
I drew in a deep breath as my mind became a swirling mass of emotions and feelings – this time comprised mostly of fear and hatred. I tried to push the feelings from my mind, as I was rushed up the stairs, but then froze as another equally strong set of emotions took their place. These new feelings were not of hatred, but a mixture of concern and strong love. They took me by surprise and seemed to be coming from a direction other than the angry crowd. I looked back to catch a second glimpse of the figure on the tower, but no one was there.
The man shouted angrily at the boys, prodding them to move quickly, and they rapidly propelled me upward toward the entrance of the building. The two guards at the foot of the stairs struggled to hold the crowd back. Reaching the landing, we pushed past the second set of guards who held open the large oaken doors. The boys were so intent on getting me inside that I was pushed through the doorway and into the foyer with such force, I tripped and fell to my knees. Breaking my fall with my hand – the same one I’d scraped earlier. I cried out in pain as I reopened the wound that had clotted over. Lifting up my hand, I cringed when I saw a bloody palm print on the marble floor.
Attempting to control my pain I looked up, to see just where I’d landed and discovered that I was in the rotunda of a once magnificent building. And although the marble floor I’d fallen on was worn and rough, the intricate design created by hundreds of colored marble tiles was still beautiful.
Lifting my head to look at the ceiling I found myself staring directly up into the giant dome high above me. From my position, I could see that each floor opened onto the domed rotunda. All four upper floors spilled out onto this space, creating a large circular atrium. Columns lined the opening on each floor, holding up the ceiling above; a white marble railing ran between each column, creating a balcony from which an observer could look down onto the floor below or up toward the dome that rose overhead.
Tilting my head in order to take in a full view the dome, I became slightly dizzy as I took in its immense size. A circular opening had been cut into the dome – it appeared to have once held a large window. The window was gone and all that remained was a gaping open hole. Looking down I could see that the floor under the opening was wet where rain had fallen through. Earlier, when we emerged into the square, I noticed that the rain had stopped. Now that I was inside the building I could see that the afternoon sun had emerged from behind the clouds and a large shaft of sunlight poured through the hole in the dome, illuminating the interior of the dingy building.
I was roused from my thoughts when the man started to bark orders at the boys, shouting at them to get me to my feet, but at that moment a complement of soldiers surrounded us. Looking up at them, I could see that they were a bit younger than the men standing guard at the entrance of the building. They were tall, and looked strong. They were dressed in uniforms that were a bit finer, and they projected a stern, no-nonsense aura. Before the boys could get to me, one of the guards shouted a command and immediately two of the guards wheeled and blocked the boys’ approach, as the remaining two reached down and lifted me to my feet.
The soldier issuing orders shouted a second command and began to stride briskly down one of the corridors leading away from the rotunda. As he did, the four guards surrounded me and hurried me along trying to catch up to their leader. The man who’d brought me rushed up to the leader loudly protesting, but the commander of the guards cut him off, ordering him to wait in the rotunda. As if not hearing, the man continued to argue with the commander until the officer drew a dagger from the sheath at his waist, held it to the man’s throat and told him he could either wait there, or have his throat slit.
The man’s angry look quickly turned to fear, and he stepped back, but not fast enough because without warning, the commander of the guards shoved him out of the way, sending him sprawling onto the floor. He turned from the fallen man and without looking back, continued down the long hallway while the other soldiers and I followed. After climbing two flights of stairs and proceeding down a second long corridor, we came to the end of our journey – a large double door. The guard in the lead stopped, turned the handle, and pushed it open. He passed through, and the rest of us followed. Once we were all through the doorway, the last man crossing the threshold closed the door behind him.
Looking around, I found myself standing in a large room that may have once been a grand salon. The high ceiling was decorated with elaborate frescos, but I could see they were cracked and faded. In some places, the paint had peeled off the walls so that there was nothing left but the bare plaster. In other spots, even the plaster was gone, exposing the dark red brick beneath it. Lowering my head and looking about, I noticed that along with the soldiers and myself, there were a few other people in the room.
To my right stood a fat middle-aged woman – her arms crossed tightly in front of her chest. She was dressed in a simple brown smock that was covered with a white apron. The cap on her head came down to two strings that were tied under a fat, sagging chin. She examined me with suspicion and when my gaze met hers, she stepped back a pace and cast her eyes to the floor. At her side stood two young boys, barefoot and dressed in simple smocks. They huddled together; I noticed that both of them had wide, unblinking eyes riveted on me.
To my left stood an old man. He was wearing a long black robe that was tied with a rope sash. He also stared at me, but his gaze was far more intense than that of anyone else in the room. As he looked upon me, I noticed he was twisting and wringing his hands. Once the guards and I were situated in the middle of the room the soldiers opened rank, stepping to either side of me, and the old man slowly approached until he was directly in front of me.
“Where do you come from?” he said in a sharp high-pitched voice.
I looked at his pale wrinkled face. His skin was paper-thin and he wore an ugly scowl – a scowl so deep that the creases of his skin folded naturally into a frown. Looking at him, I could tell that the deep downward lines surely must have come from years of wearing such a dour expression.
While he stood silently staring at me, my mind once again opened and a rush of intensely strong emotions pushed on waves of hatred overcame me. Peering into his eyes I was chilled by the raw cruelty flowing from him. A cold sweat erupted on my skin and I felt as if hundreds of slimy bugs were crawling all over me. Quickly closing my eyes, I mustered my strength, and tried with all my might to push the dark feelings from my head. But although my attempt was successful, my stomach churned, imparting a bitter taste to my mouth and I swayed slightly, unsteady on my feet.
“I asked you, where you came from? Answer at once, demon,” he angrily shouted, rousing me from the strange and unsettling feelings my mind was enveloped in. His tone was shriller then before and I involuntarily shivered as its high-pitched, icy resonance cut through me like a knife.
“I don’t know,” I answered, looking down at the floor.
“You don’t know?” he growled, bending down to look into my face. “What kind of answer is that?”
“It’s the only one I have,” I said, staring intently at my bloodied feet. “I woke up in this town. A man and some boys found me and brought me here. I don’t know where I come from, or even my name. I don’t know what this filthy place is called, or even if it has a name.”
“How convenient that you’ve lost your memory,” he rasped, and as impossible as it seemed, the frown on his face grew even more pronounced.
“It’s the truth,” I said lifting my head to look at him without having to stare directly into his eyes.
“As if I’d believe anything you had to say,” he shouted.
I was growing ever more frightened as our conversation continued. Everything about the old man projected evil and I had no doubt that I was in grave danger.
“So this town is filthy? It’s not to your liking? Well, if I can persuade Zakaria to let me properly deal with you, you soon may have a real reason to dislike it, you impudent little monster.”
I lowered my head and stared at the floor, not wanting to look into his eyes, but he would have none of it. Reaching out, he took my chin into his hand and lifted my head until I was looking into his eyes. His skin felt cool and his bony fingers poked into the sides of my cheeks. His teeth were yellow and crooked and the skin on his neck sagged, giving him a lizard-like appearance.
“You will tell me the truth – eventually,” he sneered.
“I am telling you the truth.” I said surprised at the sudden and unexpected defiance in my voice as I was forced to look into his eyes while he clamped his hand around my chin.
“I know of many ways to help you improve your memory – most of them quite painful,” he added with an evil smile.
My heart was racing in my chest and my fear grew palpable as I stared into his eyes. The look he gave me was filled with disgust, and his unblinking gaze made me tremble. I felt like an insect ready to be stepped on.
“Surely your can come up with something better than such a feeble explanation?” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to change it before I force the truth out of you?”
“It is the truth!” I shouted. For although I was scared, I was adamant in letting this vile old man know that I was not a liar.
“Oh, we’ll see what the truth is soon enough, but first you have to be prepared to meet his lordship,” he replied.
Releasing me from his grip, he turned and began to walk away. Pausing, he turned to the woman. “Get him out of those filthy rags, clean him up, and make sure he’s presentable. His lordship is anxious to see the thing, but we need to make sure he gets the maximum effect when he views it.”
Puzzled over his words, I couldn’t understand why he kept referring to me as a thing, instead of the boy I was. I also couldn’t help but shudder at the mention of my upcoming presentation to his lordship, which by this time, I was beginning to surmise, would not be very pleasant. The old man never looked back at me. After conveying his orders to the woman, he continued walking until he got to the door. One of the soldiers opened it, he stepped through it and was gone. After he left, all but one of the soldiers also departed. The remaining man closed the door after they left, then standing at attention, barring any exit from the room. The woman looked cautiously at me. She acted as if she were afraid of me. Then she turned and addressed the boys in a shrill, nervous voice.
“Take him in the other room. Prepare a bath, get him out of those stinking clothes, and make sure he’s clean.”
I’d noticed the boys when I first entered the room, but now took a better look at them. They appeared to be about twelve or thirteen, and a bit shorter then me. One had light brown hair and dark brown eyes; the other had dark black hair and steely blue eyes. Both were pale, and very thin. As soon as the woman finished speaking, the black-haired boy began walking towards an open door to the right of the woman. The brown haired boy approached me, and timidly took my hand as if to lead me on.
“Follow me, my lord,” he said in a quiet and shy voice.
I paused as I looked down at his hand clasping mine. I was about to say something when the women’s voice once again filled the chamber.
“Well, go with them,” she shrieked, “They’ll start you off.”
The first boy continued through the door as the second one, still holding my hand, walked by my side.
The three of us entered the room and stopped. I heard the door slam behind me followed by the sound of a bolt sliding into its hole. The room I found myself in wasn’t as big as the first one, and I couldn’t help but notice the large tub filled with water sitting in the middle of it. In one of the corners was a small stove with a warm fire crackling in its belly and two large pots of water that were madly boiling away on top of it. The brown haired boy released my hand, and stepped back a few paces, casting a look of caution and curiosity upon me.
“My lord, could you please take off your clothing? Or do you require my assistance?”
He looked like a sweet young boy, and I felt sadness and compassion for him. He was so pale and thin. His light brown hair fell down over his forehead and right eye. He had large, dark brown eyes with long delicate eyelashes that gave him a look of profound sadness. I could see that he was probably just a poor underfed and mistreated servant boy. He had been very polite and differential toward me. Even though my circumstances were somewhat precarious, I smiled slightly at him. He looked at me and returned my smile with a small shy one of his own. I could see that the other boy looked remarkably similar.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Luc, my lord.”
He blushed slightly and cast his eyes downward. I looked to the black haired boy who was moving toward a closet that was set into the left wall of the room and began addressing him as well.
“And what’s your name?” I said as I turned in his direction.
“That’s my brother Jon,” Luc interrupted me. “I’m sorry my lord, but he’s deaf and can’t hear a sound.”
“First of all, I’m not anyone’s lord, so you don’t have to call me that, and second, I’m quite able to undress myself.”
In fact, I was already barefoot, and wrapped in the tatters of what might have once been clothing, so it took just seconds before I was out of them and completely naked. I noticed that Jon was rummaging around in the large closet on my left procuring towels, soap and what appeared to be containers of oils, bath salts and perfumes.
“Please my lord, your bath is almost ready,” Luc said, motioning for me to come over to the large tub.
“I told you Luc, I am not a lord. I am just a boy like any….”
At that moment I stopped and froze, speechless. Jon had finished, and was just closing the closet door. It was tall. It looked very heavy, and a large mirror covered its surface. As Jon closed the door, I found I was looking at myself standing naked in the middle of the room. The look on my face matched that of everyone else whom I’d come into contact with – shock and surprise. I turned and stared, then slowly stepped closer to the mirror.
I gazed in disbelief at the image that peered back at me. From every indication I was a fifteen to seventeen year old boy – thin, but certainly not scrawny. My lightly muscled body was firm and slender. Light blond hair cascaded over my eyebrows. My arms and legs were slender but strong. There were some cuts, scrapes and a few bruises on my legs and parts of my body were covered with dirt and mud, and there were some rapidly purpling bruises on my face where I’d been struck earlier, but on the whole, I appeared fit and healthy. My skin was smooth and hairless except for a light downy covering on my lower legs. All in all, I appeared to be a healthy boy in his teenage years – except for the large wings that sprouted from my back and arched above my head.
I looked in disbelief, turning first to the right and then to the left. Placing my back to the mirror, I turned my head over my left shoulder to get a better view. There was no mistaking the large wings. They weren’t just stuck on, but really did emerge from my body. Springing out of each shoulder blade, they arched up and curved slightly over and above my head. Then they swept down to a point, much like a bird’s wing, just below my calves. They were covered with white feathers that seemed a bit dirty or at least dusty, and they had a silver sparkle at the end of each feather that reflected the light.
They were so light and weightless that I could see why, up to this point with all the other distractions of my headache, the dog, the men who brought me here and the evil old man, I hadn’t even felt or noticed them. Now seeing how much an integral part of me they were, I could better understand the pain I’d felt in my back, since I must have been laying on them when I was unconscious in the alley. They were quite large – almost as big as I was. And as I continued to stare at them, I wondered if I could make them work.
First, I concentrated on moving them by thinking about it in my mind, but they wouldn’t budge an inch. Then I lifted my arms, but nothing happened. I hunched my back. I stretched my arms. I even jumped up and down, but to no avail. They hung like lifeless appendages – interesting and beautiful to look at – but worthless. It was like looking at a young male angel, except the young male angel was me!
I also noticed a tattoo on my right upper leg; it was in the shape of three concentric circles. Within the inner circle were three figures: a snake that was biting the tail of an eagle, which was in turn biting the tail of dragon that completed the design by biting the tail of the snake. The three creatures were forever locked, holding onto the tail of the one in front of it and forming a strange kind of ring similar to children at play holding each other’s hands and walking in a circle.
The middle circle was a swirl of decorative calligraphic knots. The outer circle was divided into twelve equal sections. All of these sections were blank except one that was filled with figure of a snake and a symbol made up of swirling lines directly below it that appeared to be some type of writing, but illegible to me. I reached out to touch the face of the boy staring back at me, but my fingers were greeted by the cold hardness of the mirror.
I must have been in shock as I stood quietly taking in what I saw, so much so that I didn’t notice when Luc came up to me and took me by the hand. He led me to the bath, and between he and Jon, they got me into the tub. They bathed me, but I don’t remember much of the experience, since of my mind kept drifting off as I tried to grasp who I was, what I was, and how I’d gotten this way. Unfortunately, I simply had no memories to answer any of these questions.
I do remember worrying about getting my wings wet, but before I knew it I was in the bath and the boys were scrubbing me with brushes and washcloths. The water was scented with a sweet smelling fragrance, and I saw a greenish-colored oil floating on the surface of the water. My wings wouldn’t allow me to sit, but as I stood the boys did an efficient job of bathing me.
Jon took my bloody hand in his and carefully cleaned the wound. At first it stung – just as my bruised and bloodied feet had when I’d first stepped into the warm water – but as soon as he finished washing it, he took some cream from a jar sitting nearby. As he gently rubbed it on my palm the pain disappeared, and for the first time in hours, I no longer felt the sharp, painful wound. Luc approached again, holding something that looked like a watering can, and sprinkled warm soapy water on my wings. I could feel its soothing warmth as it was poured over each wing. Jon occasionally refreshed the cooling water with hot water from the stove to keep the bath warm and its soothing warmth certainly felt good. It was refreshing to be clean, and soak some of the soreness from my body.
The only distressing part of the experience was when the fat lady entered. She’d walked up behind me and before I knew it, snatched the amulet from my neck. I tried to grab it, but before I could she was stuffing it into her apron pocket. I sensed it was important, but I was powerless to do anything about it.
Luc, who’d been scrubbing my feet, got up and tried to intervene, but before I realized what was happening, she delivered a swift and strong slap with the back of her hand to the young boy’s face, sending him sprawling across the floor. Suddenly anger surged up in me as I saw Luc flat on his back, a large red welt forming on his right cheek. I stepped out of the bath, barely noticing the cold that came from leaving the soothing, hot water. As water dripped off of my body, creating puddles on the floor, I turned and locked my eyes on the woman. Staring intently at her, anger boiled up inside me. She gasped, and began to grow pale. She took a few staggering steps backward and started to shake. Her eyes became wild, and a few drops of blood dripped from the right nostril of her ugly, flat nose.
The moment was interrupted when Luc, who had gotten to his feet, grabbed my hand. With my steady gaze broken, the woman stopped shaking and swayed slightly as if to regain her balance. She wiped her bloody nose with the back of her hand. When she was finally recomposed, she gave me a look of fear mixed with hatred.
“You stinking little devil,” she shrieked, “I hope they burn you at the stake.”
Turning quickly on her heels she hurried from the room, but not before screaming at the boys and ordering them to quickly finish with me, or they’d find their backs at the end of her switch. After she left, the boys quickly finished up. Since I was already out of the tub, they began to dry my body with soft fluffy towels, scented with rose petals.
As they toweled me off, I felt a shiver as a strong spasm raced down my back and my wings fluttered, shaking off the water that clung to them; I was immediately reminded of birds flapping their wings to shake off water, after seeking shelter from the rain. At first we were all surprised, but then Jon began giggling as the tiny droplets of water splashed on his face, and I gave him a smile.
When I was completely dry, the boys gave me loose, white cotton shorts to wear as an undergarment. Presenting me with a robe that was open in the back, I stepped into it, and put my arms through the sleeves. It fastened with a series of clasps that secured the garment around my wings without restricting them. Luc brought me a pair of leather sandals that I slipped on my feet. Satisfied that I was clean and properly dressed, Luc and Jon picked up my old clothes and the wet towels, along with the other accessories of the bath, and quickly left the room. For the first time since I’d awakened, I found myself alone.
Walking back to the mirror, I was still shocked to see the wings arching up over my head, but I was also amazed to see how good I really looked. I was clean and scrubbed. My hair, still falling slightly over my eyebrows, was light blond and had a healthy sheen. The fabric of my robe was blue with tiny gold stars spaced evenly over the fabric. Its iridescent blue was a perfect match to the blue in my eyes. It came all the way down to my ankles with only my sandal-clad feet showing. I had a golden rope-like sash tied around my waist that matched the gold trim around the robes neck and sleeves.
I also got a better look at my wings – MY wings. I was really beginning to think of them as mine. Looking closer, I noticed that while they were a beautiful snowy white color, every individual feather had an iridescent, silvery coloring along each edge and tip. The dirt and my initial shock had caused me to overlook just how beautiful they really were, but now that I was clean I could see that they had a bright sheen that really sparkled when caught by the light. Whenever I moved, they appeared to burn with silver colored fire. I couldn’t help feeling a little pride in my appearance. ‘I may be an oddity, but at least I’m an attractive one!’ I softly giggled to myself at the thought, and for a brief moment I forgot my plight.
Absorbed in my appearance, I failed to notice when the soldier who’d been left behind to stand guard opened the door and walked up behind me. I jumped at his unexpected grip on my shoulder. Without a word, he escorted me from the bathroom and back to the room where I’d encountered the old man. He continued pulling me along until we reached the door. Opening it without relinquishing his grip on me, he led me out into the hall. Once there, we were joined by the other four soldiers who’d brought me here. Just as they’d done before, the soldiers closed ranks around me, and we began walking down the long hallway. I could only guess that we were headed to meet His Lordship. As that thought sank into my brain, I felt a chill race through me as I wondered who this mysterious person might be, and just how much danger I might encounter.