WHISPERS OF WAR
The Ilvannian Chronicles Book Three
I killed an innocent woman.
The blood pounding in my ears drowned out the catcalls and jeers from the audience. My chest rose and fell with ragged breaths. I spat blood on the dirt as I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, my eyes never leaving my opponents. With deadliness apparent in their moves, the tigresses circled me, stalking me like the predators they were. A low growl rumbled from their throats almost in unison, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
The odds weren’t in my favour.
My only chance of survival lay in outsmarting them, but how do you outsmart a beast that’s ten times as fast, as strong, and as agile? My chances were slim indeed. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. One of the ginormous cats came pelting my way, paws pounding the ground in a deathly beat. I was running before I made the conscious decision to do so, casting about to look for an elevated position.
How stupid do you think they are?
One of the metal gates that had kept the tigresses confined loomed in the distance like a gaping maw of death, but it was my only chance. I pushed down to gain momentum, just an inch more with every step, pumping my arms to be that little bit faster. The stitches in my side were nothing compared to the pain in my chest, but unless I wanted to be dinner, I had to keep moving. I didn’t dare look back.
I knew what I’d be seeing.
Nevertheless, the sudden impact from my left came as a surprise. My sword clattered from my hand as the encounter sent me sprawling into the dirt. Ignoring the pain in my side, I scrambled to my feet and resumed running, straining my ears to listen. One of the beasts was behind me, the other somewhere to my right, their growls testimony to the imminent danger I was in. I’d soon realised Kehran was crazy—I’d been mistaken in downplaying his insanity. This was nothing but a game to him.
The fury coursing through me fuelled my determination, adding a strength to my legs I didn’t know I still had. Only a few more steps until I reached the gate. The growls behind me turned deeper, more vicious, and I knew like by some deeper instinct I had perhaps the count of five heartbeats before they were on me. Just as the tigresses made to pounce, I jumped at the gate, slamming my chest hard against the iron bars. It knocked all the air from my lungs, and I hung there, clinging on for dear life while regaining my senses. I scrambled up without looking down, going as high as the structure of the herrât allowed me.
At least I can fall to my death now, too.
The gate rattled underneath the felines’ assault, jarring me with every collision until they tired of it and made themselves comfortable. I stuck my legs through the bars and hooked my feet behind the rungs. It wasn’t the most ideal position to be in, but it was better than the alternative. As I clamped a hand around the most recent injury, it came back bloodied.
What’s a few more scars for the collection?
Keeping one hand on the injury, putting as much pressure on it as I had the strength for, I surveyed my surroundings. There was no chance of going up—the arc around the gate was too deep for that, the walls too high to scale and too smooth to climb. My only way out of here was down. I held onto one of the rungs and twisted in my makeshift seat, hissing at the fierce sting above my hip. One of the tigresses had lain down, paws folded as if she were waiting. The other was pacing up and down beneath me.
Going down isn’t the problem. Going down and staying alive is.
I needed to distract them, but I had no idea how, and I was running out of strength fast. A sudden rattling noise alerted me, and I realised with horror that they were pulling up the gates. The only mercy was that the gates were heavy, and they were pulled up manually. As quickly as I could, I unhooked my feet and scrambled from my sitting position. My hands were slippery, which made clambering down problematic. I risked a glance at the felines, both of whom were now pacing rapidly, giant heads turned up.
My chest tightened as irate anger began to pulse deep inside of me, fighting its way up. In a moment of clarity, I remembered the dagger in my boot. I climbed down to the last iron bar, estimating the distance between myself and the feline below me. Without taking my eyes from it, I slipped the dagger into my hand, holding it tight.
I can do this.
As I dove, my other hand wrapped around the hilt of the dagger, too. One of the tigresses jumped to meet me. My ears roared. My heart pounded. All I had eyes for was the predator below me. When we collided, everything was silent for a heartbeat—the crowd, the feline, the world. I sensed rather than saw the dagger hit its mark and plunge deep into her neck. I felt the roar starting in her stomach and going through marrow and bone as it left her muzzle.
She roared in pain.
In the momentary confusion, I let go of the dagger, rolled out of harm’s way, and to my feet. Ignoring the throbbing sensation underneath my ribs, I started running to the sword I’d dropped after one of them had jumped me. With every step I took, the pain increased as my strength decreased. I pushed forward, cursing myself in Ilvannian and Zihrin alike. The sound of thunder was fast approaching, and I realised then it was a furious feline bound and determined to make dinner out of me.
My sword lay only a few feet away.
The hairs on my neck prickled as if I was being watched. Obviously, everyone was watching me, but this felt different. It felt like a warm blanket on a dark, wintry night. A shudder went through me, and as it did, the pain dissipated, and a renewed burst of energy shot through me.
It was the last push I needed.
I skidded to my knees, grabbed the sword from the ground, and by instinct, turned on my back, holding up the weapon in defence. The second tigress speared herself on the blade. With a hard pull, I yanked my sword up, cutting the feline open. Blood and guts oozed on top of me, coating me in whatever the tigress had digested. I shuddered at the thought. The feline fell on top of me as it died growling and huffing. I tried to push it off me, but the strength I’d had before melted away, as did the comforting presence I was now sure I’d felt.
There was no response, of course, but it couldn’t have been anyone else. Sheer effort of will had me push the carcass off me. With a grunt, I pulled my sword from its chest and looked around for the other feline. It lay on its side near the gate, still breathing from the looks of it, but judging by its whimpers, it was in pain. Instead of putting it out of its misery, I turned to Kehran on his balcony, my eyes briefly resting on the man sitting next to him.
Elay was watching me intently.
The Akyn had risen to his feet, gold attire flashing in the sunlight. My vision was blurry, but I wasn’t sure if it was because the sun made my eyes water, or because of the amount of blood I’d lost. Either way, he’d better decide what he wanted with me before my body would do it for him. If he turned his back, I was dead. If he bowed, it meant I’d earned his respect and would live another day.
He took a long time deciding.
Bow already, grissin.
I pushed the tip of my sword into the dirt and leaned on it, clenching my jaw at the sheer agony that was my waist now that the adrenaline had dissipated. Tremors started in my legs and built up until I was shaking all over. It wouldn’t be long before shock would set in, if I remembered Soren’s lessons correctly.
Where are you when I need you?
Above, on the balcony, Kehran bowed.
I dropped to my knees, gulping in lungs full of air while trying to hold on to my awareness. The crowd burst into a cacophony of cheers and yells I didn’t care to make out. Instead, my focus turned to the severed foot lying a few feet away from me, an arm even farther. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the mangled corpse I knew was there.
A woman—I’d guessed her not much older than myself—had been brought into the herrât with me, and before we’d even made it to the centre, she’d soiled herself. The difference between us had been astounding. She’d been a warm summer’s day—I a cold winter’s night. I only had to watch her hold the sword to know she’d never held one before, let alone had any idea how to wield it.
I had refused to fight her.
Kehran had sent in the tigresses.
Although I had tried to get her to run to safety, the sight of the predators had paralysed her, and between one heartbeat and the next, the felines had pounced on her, tearing her to shreds. Her screams still echoed in my head.
Despite refusing to fight her, I had killed her.
Sick to my stomach from the memory and faint from the loss of blood, I barely managed to get to my feet. I looked up at the balcony one more time. Kehran was reclining on his throne, accompanied by a handful of courtiers and servants. Elay had made himself scarce. With a light nod, I acknowledged Kehran. Under the deafening shouts of the crowd, I left the herrât, one hand covering the wound, the other barely holding on to the sword. The only way I would leave this place without a weapon was if I were dead.
Once in the cool sanctity of the tunnels, I slumped against the wall, sliding down until I was sitting. I would have collapsed had two hands on my shoulders not arrested my fall. A hiss escaped my lips as the world tilted into a more upright position. Looking up, a pair of emerald eyes twinkled in what little light there was in the tunnel.
“Elay,” I murmured.
“Mìthri,” he said softly. “You did it.”
“No,” I whispered. “We did it.”