Song Of Souls

an excerpt

Chapter One

His head bowed against the rain, Lark made his way down the deserted alley. His breath formed steam before him, and on each inhale, the air chilled his throat and spread the cold further through his body. He lifted his head, trying to peek out from under his hood, but the rain blew into his face, his eyes, and blurred his sight. He'd traveled this route many times, knew every dip and uneven cobble in the alley, so he didn't need to see the way, only needed to check for objects that might be in his path...and for danger.

Fear was spreading through the poorer streets and alleys of Forest's End and beginning to touch the merchant district. In the tavern where he was singing and playing his lute, he overhead that a young woman had been attacked not far from there. She survived, but was cut badly on her face several times and might be permanently scarred, depending on how good the witch was who she'd been taken to. While performing, he'd caught other murmurs of slayings, three in the last fortnight. Death was far from uncommon in the poor quarter, but killing wasn't the usual means by which it came.

A hard gust of wind pushed against him. Lark slowed his strides rather than fight it. Icy crystals of snow assaulted him, sneaking under his hood to sting his face. He shivered, his hold on Ghost tightening. The white cat was tucked in his arms beneath his cloak, providing him some warmth and more comfort.

He'd stayed too long at the tavern. He realized it as he was doing it, but with every song he sang, more coin dropped into his lute's case. The people seemed to need the cheer of his voice and song, and that, combined with how freely the coin flowed, made it so he hadn't wanted to stop. Only when the tavern began emptying with others wanting to beat the weather to their homes, did he pack up his lute, collect Ghost, and leave to return to his rented room.

Unfortunately for him, his room was deep in the poor quarter and he was only nearing the edge of it now. He could've rented a room in the merchant's district where he was playing, since he still had plenty of gold left from the king's reward for assisting Torran and Bryson in Dragon's Landing, but he was trying to save it, as he was with all the coin he earned. Maybe if he could save enough, he would be able to convince Zain to stop trading lives for coins and begin a life with him.

Lark tried to stave off the hurt tightening in his chest, but it was stronger than him. It always was when he thought of Zain.

He trudged forward, his head lowered from more than the weather. Was it foolish of him to keep his heart and hopes on Zain? Aye, it was. Even knowing that, he couldn't seem to turn his attention and affection elsewhere. Deep inside, he felt Zain was the one he was meant for. If only he could believe Zain felt the same way about him.

When they were in the capital, he thought they were entering a new stage in their relationship. It was the longest they'd ever spent together continuously, every day, every night. In Dragon's Landing, he felt he was finally seeing the true Zain, the man who existed beneath the assassin's cloak. One who for all he did wrong, had his own code of morals, honor, and justice that was ultimately good. And he loved him, so much.

He returned Zain's affections more than he ever had. On the night of Prince Anson's coronation ball, when Zain led him to their bedchamber, laid him down, kissed him, pleasured him with his hands and mouth, he nearly gave all of his body to him. He stopped himself, though. While he was certain the time in Dragon's Landing was also Zain's longest of not killing for pay, he needed to know Zain was fully giving up the assassin's life before giving himself to him.

It turned out he'd made the correct decision. They'd hardly returned home to Forest's End before Zain rode out on an assignment...and returned with an angry spirit trailing him.

Lark closed his eyes as he walked, more from the ache in his heart than the wind, rain, and snow. What did he need to do to get Zain to stop? Zain continued to feed him the excuse of saving coin for them to have a comfortable life together. He didn't believe it any longer. What he believed was, Zain enjoyed what he did too much to stop and he loved it more than him.

Lark pulled in a shaky deep breath. The cold air froze his throat, and he coughed, wishing he was closer to his room, under warm blankets, and, as pointless as it was to want it, he wished for Zain beside him. But his man in black was gone again on another assignment, a knife in the shadows, silent and swift in dealing out death.

"An awful nasty night for a pretty lass like you to be out."

Lark snapped his head up, scanning the dark street for the source of the male voice. Five men crowded a nearby doorway under an overhang.

One of them knocked another on the chest with the back of his hand. "That's no lass, you nit."

The other spoke again, and Lark recognized his voice as the first speaker. "Ah, but he's pretty enough to be one. That's well enough for me."

Harsh laughter from the group filled the street.

Cold fear rushed through Lark. He wasn't like Zain, Bryson, Torran, Karrick, Aleric, or even Garrett, who were skilled fighters, whether with swords, fists, or magic. He'd never been much of a fighter and the only weapon he had on him to defend himself was a small dagger. Five ruffians against a minstrel. He knew where he'd place his coin if he were to bet on that fight.

Lark spun around, rushing back the way he'd come. Footsteps pounded after him. Holding Ghost tight, he broke into a run. He slipped on the rain and snow-slicked cobbles, one leg wrenching out and twisting. A strong hand grabbed his cloak, yanking him back.

Lark let out a startled cry. Already off balance, he slipped backward. "Let me go!"

Two of the men clamped onto his arms. Lark squeezed Ghost to his chest, trying to not drop her.

The first who'd spoken, the one he assumed must be the leader, stepped in front of him with the other three. "No, no. Not yet, poppet. We haven't had any fun yet." He reached toward Ghost. "Aw, and look at this, lads. He's got himself a little friend. One that's wearing what looks to be a damn fine jewel."

The blue topaz and silver necklace around Ghost's neck shone even in the most minimal light. The brilliant azure of the stone matched the white cat's eyes. Ghost crouched in Lark's arms, flattening her ears and letting out a hiss. She struck out with a paw, the silver cuff on her leg, a gift from Bryson to match her lifespan to Lark's and increase their ability to communicate, flashed in the dark.

Lark loosened his hold on Ghost to let her run, but he was too late.

The man snatched Ghost by the scruff of her neck, ripping her out of Lark's arms. Ghost cried out in pain, swinging as the man dangled her in the air.

Lark lunged toward the man, held back by the two wretches gripping him. "You're hurting her! Let her go!"

The man swung Ghost back and forth. "If I let her go, do you give your word to play nice with me and my mates?"

"I..." His attacker twisted Ghost's fur and skin in his hand. Her pain-filled cry tore through Lark. He jumped forward again, trying to get closer to her. "Whatever you want! I'll give you anything! Just let her go!"

The man held Ghost up before him, contemplating her. "No, I'm having a change of mind. I think me and my mates will be able to handle you well enough, with or without your cooperation."

One of the others called out, "It'll be more fun if he doesn't!"

Their laughter deafened Lark. He gazed at Ghost, warm tears trailing down his cheeks. He softened his voice. "Please, let her go. Don't hurt her."

"How sweet is that, lads? Listen to him beg for--"

Ghost lashed out with a fierce hiss. She twisted in the man's hand, her claws raking across his face. Shouting, the man dropped her, covering his face with both hands. Ghost landed on her feet, pausing to look up at Lark.

Throwing himself forward, pulling against the men's hold on him, Lark shouted, "Run! Go, Ghost! Run!"

The white cat darted forward. One of the gang dove at her. She sprang out of his reach and shot around the legs of the others, racing up the alley.

Lark jerked his head around, watching her disappear into the darkness. Relief spread through him. She was safe. No matter what happened to him, he could gain comfort in knowing she got away.

Fingers clenched in a fist around his hair, tearing his head back. Lark met the leader's dark gaze, rage scrunching the man's brutish face. Across his attacker's cheek and nose, thin scratches seeped blood. The man twisted Lark's hair. "I'm going to take what your demon cat did to me out on you!"

Lark pushed his pain aside, looking into the man's eyes with all the loathing he could summon. "You got less than you deserved!"

Lark saw the hit coming, but all he could do was close his eyes. His head snapped hard to the left. Pain burned across his cheek and the tang of blood washed over his tongue.

"Get him on the ground!"

The two men holding him shoved him forward. Lark stumbled, still dazed from the hit. He didn't get to recover. Something hard, a fist, a boot, slammed into the middle of his back. He flew forward, crashing facedown to the cobbles. White light sparked behind his eyes. The force of the fall knocked the wind from his body. He struggled to take a breath, his mind screaming for him to move, to get up and run, to fight.

Someone yanked and tugged at his lute case lying across his back and lifted him slightly off the ground.

"Let's see what he's got here."

Lark summoned his strength and tried to twist away. "I've got coin. Take it if you want. But leave me my lute. It's not worth anything."

The leader ripped the lute's case over Lark's head. He pulled out a dagger, slicing through the lacing. "It's worth something to you, isn't it?"

Lark didn't answer. He knew he didn't have to. It was obvious the lute meant so very much to him.

The man pulled the lute free, tossing the case to one of the others. "Check it for coin."

Another of the men pinched Lark's ear, one of the silver earrings, between his thumb and forefinger. "Let's not forget these."

"We'll get those after we finish up with him." The leader looked at Lark with a lecherous sneer. "I like the look of them on him." He held up the lute. Even in the darkness and freezing rain, its white wood body seemed to glow, the silver lining capturing the smallest light and reflecting it. "Now this looks a mite more than worthless."

Panic rose in Lark. He pushed off the ground, reaching for his lute. "Don't--"

Two of the men jumped forward, catching him.

The leader flipped the lute, grabbing hold of its neck. "I do agree most of it's worthless, but for that silver. And there's only one way to get it out." He swung the lute toward a nearby building.

"No!" Lark surged forward, knowing he couldn't save his precious instrument. He watched, helpless, as it met the stone of the building, shattering, white chips of wood spraying through the air. He cried out as if physically hit, and it felt as painful to him. He sagged forward, only held up by the men gripping his arms. Tears ran freely from his eyes.

The leader sauntered closer to him. "There we go. That took the fight out of him."

Lark snapped his head up, his pain shifting to anger. Having no other defense or means to fight, he spit at the leader. The man flinched as the saliva hit him under the eye. The rage Lark had seen in his attacker before paled to what he saw overcoming the man's face.

Grabbing Lark by the front of his tunic, the leader yanked him out of his fellows' arms. He spun Lark, throwing him to the ground. Lark landed on his side, his cheek scraping across the cobbles. The hard toe of a boot slammed into his stomach. He curled onto his side, trying to block with his arm, only to have his forearm smashed with another kick.

Lark folded into a tighter ball, but he couldn't make himself small enough. His back, his legs, his arms, kicks assaulted him, laughter and insults rang through his ears. The pain, it stole so much of his breath, he couldn't cry out. It took hold of his mind, filled his body.

One thought, one image, broke through. Zain.

If Zain was with him, this wouldn't be happening. Zain would fight for him. Protect him. Keep him safe.

But Zain wasn't there. He was alone, as he so often was, and it might be how he would die.

"Enough! Hold up, lads! I want him breathing." A rough laugh followed the words. "For a little while, yet."

Hands snatched hold of him again, forcing Lark out of his protected position and onto his back. Two men kneeled on his arms. Another sat on his thighs, making it so he couldn't kick.

The leader stood over him and ran his thumb along the long blade of a knife. "Now we'll start the fun."

Lark opened his eyes, his right one already beginning to swell. Only the endless black of the sky stretched above him.

No. Not like this. He wasn't ready to die, and he didn't want his life to end in this way. There was so much more for him to do, so many things Zain. He needed his man in black now more than ever.

Lark called upon the last of his strength. He writhed and pulled against the men holding him down. They were strong. So much stronger and bigger than him. Once again, their laughter surrounded him.

His tears ran out the corners of his eyes and into his hair. Desperation filled him. He took as deep of a breath as he could and shouted, "Zain!"

A fist pummeled his cheek, and a voice shouted near his head, hot, rank breath in his ear and on his face. "You think anyone's coming to help you? No one's going to help you! You're ours until we don't want you anymore!"

His attacker was right, but calling for Zain was all he could do and simply saying Zain's name gave him a burst of strength. Not enough to fight off the men. Only enough to let him close his eyes and hope to live through the night.