Death's acrid stench clung to the air around Varan. The sickly rot of infection bubbled up, oozing from his shoulder. There was nothing he could do chained to the stone wall with a guard at the door. Arrow splinters trapped in his flesh were killing him slowly.
His death should have been swift on the battlefield, but instead he was ambushed while he bathed. He'd cut down seven men before the poisoned arrow made him too weak to lift his ax. The poison wasn't lethal, unfortunately. Its purpose was to render him unconscious for interrogation.
His sire, the famous Conqueror of Brundan, must be laughing from the afterlife. Even shame failed to give Varan the strength to rise or curse his luck aloud.
Infection ravaged his mind and body. Time blurred and he no longer knew how long he'd been held prisoner. He was a minotaur. A Bullman. He was stronger than any human could hope to become, but the illness made his limbs too heavy to lift rendering the chains moot. He was the Joranaham Chieftain reduced to groaning his displeasure on a putrid stone floor. He wanted to laugh, but a hoarse croaking passed his dry throat. He sounded more bull than man. An animal.
Sensing the guard's presence looming over him, Varan croaked his indignation. Surely they didn't wish to torture him more. If he were a coward and wanted to surrender Bullman secrets he was too weak to speak them. It was a small comfort that he'd never break and betray his people to the human invaders. He was a Bullman and he'd die with his honor.
A sharp pain to his chest made him flinch. Another round of whipping then, but it was difficult to open his eyes. He tried, if only to glare at his captors.
"Tell us where the reserve supplies are," a man demanded, his voice higher pitched than any minotaur's. Human.
They'd grown persistent in the nonsense about a supposed supply reserve. Foolish humans. Minotaurs would never lump all their resources in one place.
Varan had spent much of his lucid time wondering how the humans came by the false information. Was it official misinformation, or merely a lie another prisoner spouted to earn a reprieve from the whip? He debated adding to the lie, but to what end? His people could not take advantage of misinformation he passed along if they weren't aware of it. He could do more harm than good if he erred, and he didn't trust his fevered thoughts.
"Are they in Banglese? Chank? Where do they hide the supplies?" The voice sounded distant, muffled as though under water.
"Never," Varan wheezed in Bullish.
"What?" Another slash of the whip caught Varan's face and a shudder tore through him. "Speak, cow!"
"In your mother, ape," Varan whispered in their human tongue. A sharp pain to his head sent the world reeling and his belly roiling. As he succumbed to unconsciousness he hoped he never woke.
Wobbling blindly down dark winding stairs, Elspeth clutched the stack of supplies tighter to prevent loose bandages from escaping. Sharp cries of terror and pain echoed from the dungeon's lower levels.
"Hurry, Miss Lettir," the guard said gruffly.
If the man would merely carry an item or two she could see the damp stairs and move faster. She bit her tongue and continued in silence. A dungeon guard was selected based on bad hygiene and cruelty, she was certain. She didn't want to be on the receiving end of his ire while alone in a dungeon and no one could decipher her screams from that of a prisoner.
"Here," the guard called.
Elspeth craned her neck to see a black hallway and carefully stepped inside.
The guard moved ahead, torch in hand casting macabre shadows. Shuffling her feet, she hurried and followed him. The guard placed the torch in a holder on the wall and opened the bolt locking the door. The door screeched as it swung open.
"Well?" he said.
Unease crept over her as she stood before the inky blackness of the cavernous cell. Prisoners were not known for being friendly and the guard expected her to stumble into the cell without a care. Shuffling her supplies she inched closer.
The stench of defecation burned her throat and stung her eyes. Beneath the smell of unwashed beast and excrement was the familiar scent of a slow dying. Infection. The prisoner was likely harmless for the time being then.
She peered inside the cell to see a massive lump on the floor and sucked in a sharp breath. It was minotaur, not a man. The creature was almost as big as the cell itself! Dear lord, what was she going to do for it?
"I'm only trained as a nurse and cannot work miracles," she said, hoping the guard hadn't heard the squeak in her voice. If the minotaur was being interrogated he was a Bullman. Rumor said they were sworn to kill all humans upon joining the ranks.
"The royal advisor commanded you tend the prisoner while we wait for a physician. To refuse is treason." The guard grinned, likely imagining her being drawn and quartered by the executioner.
"I'm not my mother." She swallowed. "I cannot promise the Bullman will survive." The minotaur smelled well into his grave.
The guard's scarred face transformed into a menacing scowl. "It has information the crown wants and he must be alive to give it."
She hesitated though she'd surmised the guard's explanation. There was no other reason for dungeon guards to escort her, upon threat of treason charges, to tend a prisoner. The thought of a Bullman prisoner hadn't entered her mind. She'd assumed he was a criminal. A human.
"The adviser will not be pleased if it dies too soon." The guard's warning was clear. She would be the one suffering for the failure.
"I will need more linens and clean water then." She glanced at the cell. "A clean room and cot to tend him."
His brows narrowed. "Prisoners stay in their cells."
She straightened her spine and lifted her chin as she remembered her mother often doing to get her way. "I'd hate for the reason important information is lost be due to an uncooperative guard."
That brought him up short for a moment, but then his hesitation passed. Sneering, the guard motioned her into the cell. "Best see to the task then."
She nearly swallowed her tongue when the heavy bolt locked her inside.
She crept around the lump shackled to the wall with four thick chains. Hoping they weren't ruined in the filth, she set down her supplies. She tucked the fresh bandages in her apron pocket and lit several candles, illuminating the dark beast.
He was massive and heavily muscled from horn to hoof with at least 300 pounds on him. His fist was almost as large as her head and curved ivory horns as long as her arm. If he had the strength to lift his head he'd gore her to death easily in the small enclosure.
He hadn't stirred, which didn't bode well for his survival. Elspeth bit back her fear and examined the festering wound in the beast's shoulder. Someone had tended it, but now the stitches were torn and the opening leaked foul pus.
Gagging, she prodded the angry red flesh. An arrow wound, she recognized. They were common for soldiers and whoever removed it probably hadn't removed the splinters. She saw no rotting yet and could spare the arm for now.
The minotaur's skin felt impossibly hot and his fine fur was matted down and encrusted with grime. He couldn't stay in the cell. She had been bluffing, expecting the guard to at least bring her boiled water, but the slim chance for survival laid in moving the minotaur to a clean cot.
She was trained, but she never possessed her mother's skill or instinct that made her The Great Healer. Wealthy traders, generals, and even kings sought out her mother for her healing skill right until her death at the second battle of Brundan. Her mother was killed in the minotaur's slaughter that claimed hundreds of human men, women and children.
Was this warrior part of the invasion force, the ones who murdered her mother? Perhaps he was a page, or an unseasoned soldier since he showed no signs of advanced age and the battle had been more than a decade earlier.
It mattered little. She would tend the wounded, enemy or not, because that was what her mother taught her to do. No minotaur would ruin her mother's legacy.
Varan smelled lavender. Beneath the foul stench he smelled her, Chintan, the spirit healer come to ease his suffering at last. He tried to greet her, but his limbs refused to move and his voice lay trapped in his throat.
Her voice was sharp, demanding, and he wondered what he'd done to displease the healer.
A guard's voice, angry and human, argued with Chintan. Varan tried to warn her. The humans were treacherous and violators of women. She must flee for her own life and leave him behind.
Groaning, he gathered the last of his strength and heaved himself upright. Struggling to open his eyes, the visions before him blurred into shadows. He shoved at where he thought the guard stood, coming in contact with a stone wall instead. Unable to best the guard, he clutched Chintan to his side, feeling her soft female form in his hands.
He forced the Bullish words from his raw throat. "Run, go!"
"It's all right. It's all right, rest," she stammered, her voice a soft contrast against her demands to the guard. Her ethereal hands stroked his face.
Chintan spoke in a human language. The wrongness of it registered, but the reasoning eluded him. "Run," he insisted.
He pushed at her, using the last of his strength. The world slipped away again along with his hope for her escape. Humans would not let the incarnate of Chintan escape alive, not after The Great Healer was murdered at Brundan.
Caught between battle nightmares and waking, Varan struggled beneath the surface. He was being moved, his wound screaming in agony as he was dragged along the floor by his hooves.
Then he was submerged in icy water, the cold easing the incessant heat torturing him. He struggled, certain the humans were interrogating him with more drowning. Chintan spoke to him, easing him with her siren's voice and tiny hands. She had not abandoned him.
He was moved again, though not dragged, carried by a dozen or more human hands. Impossibly, it hurt more sending fire racing through his blood from the torn wound and chipping at his will. Relief came when he fell unconscious.
When next he woke he was on a fur before a crackling fire. Chintan was there, whispering in his ear and petting the crown of his head.
"I'm going to tend the wound now. It will hurt a great deal, but you must remain still," her voice was commanding, hovering over him like a guardian spirit.
"Bullman. Soldier." He tried to tap his chest, but his arm refused to budge. He would endure the pain.
"Don't fight it. Let sleep take you," she whispered as her fingers prodded the wound.
He smelled her close to his face, felt her clean skin brush against him. Beneath the healing herbs and soap laid her earthy female scent. He would remember the scent and cherish it in this life and the afterlife.
"I'm very sorry about this." Chintan took a deep breath.
Fire spread from his shoulder. He roared and darkness relieved him.