He didn’t like what he saw. The reeve was a nondescript looking Fae with brown hair, light brown eyes and a broad chin that didn’t do his bloodline any honors. Niro had always thought all Fae were supposed to be ethereal, beautiful creatures who never got old, bald or fat, but this one definitely didn’t fit his preconceptions. Well, he wasn’t fat per se, but heavy-set and pasty. ‘Reeve Firon Wilmoor of Nancarrow’ he was called, which meant he was somehow nobility in Fae society. And at this moment, the noble reeve Wilmoor was interestedly rummaging through Niro’s belongings.
“A mimiky talisman? How did a young miscreant like you ever manage to steal something as precious as this?” A long wisp of brown hair hung into his aristocratic and still somehow mediocre face as he held up the small trinket by its leather band. He had the same hair color as Niro, but on that Fae it looked like horse dung.
The first time Niro had said something, it had been a string of swear words and curses, and the guard had kicked him twice. His kidneys still pulsed with electric pain now and then, so he had done his best to shut up from then on. Now that he was being asked a question though, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to answer. His whole body hurt, from the bloody soles of his feet to the crusted laceration cutting through his right brow, and his head was still spinning from thirst. The ever-increasing, dry burn in his veins probably was also the reason why he felt numb and distant, strangely fearless and disconnected. He was simply too tired and exhausted to panic anymore.
The female Fae suddenly grabbed his hair and pulled his head back sharply. “You were asked a question, maggot. Answer the reeve or I will make you wish you had.”
Niro gasped through clenched teeth. The pull on his hair made him contract muscles in his back that sent new shock waves of pain through his body, strong enough to shake him out of his numbness for a few moments. There was no way he could tell them the truth, not if he wanted to survive. He had seen already what the nightmares did to human nobility, and he could very well imagine what they would do to royalty, no matter their age. At the same time he had to say something, anything to stop them from hurting him. He wasn’t used to pain, not even after four months on the street, and he didn’t want them to break him. He would spill the truth, and then he’d be dead.
“I—, I stole it from a dead nobleman, sir,” Niro finally stuttered, trying to keep his breaths shallow, “He lay in the bushes near the east gate, six weeks ago. I didn’t even know what it was called, I swear!” He actually had seen a dead man in the king’s colors lying in the bushes outside the gates, but he hadn’t gone anywhere near the cadaver. It had been night and the moon had been hidden behind clouds, and every child knew you didn’t stroll around at such nights, or the nightgigers would eat you. A corpse was a feast for those dark creatures, and a sure place to end up as a dessert for them.
Wilmoor gawked at him in the way only the Fae could: one eyebrow raised, one eye slitted, one corner of his mouth pulled towards the ear in an impossible angle, like a monumental smirk to hide his surprise in. He set the talisman back onto the table carefully, then he leaned back into his cushioned seat and folded his hands. “Are you telling me you have been creeping around here for six weeks, alone, without being detected?” he asked incredulously, almost laughing at the idea.
Niro bit his trembling lower lip. “Four months,” he corrected hesitantly, confused by the reeve’s reaction.
Wilmoor’s barking laugh made him jump and hiss with pain, but at least the guard finally let go of his hair. “You untruthful little braggart, you! I would have believed six weeks, but you had to go over the top!” he jeered, slapping the table in his mirth. He looked almost handsome when he smiled, but there was a nasty glitter in his brown eyes that ruined everything.
“But it’s the truth! I’ve been on the streets since the crown prince of Tetharion was thrown from the tower of the sun,” Niro protested, although he was unsure why he felt the need to make them buy into his story. It felt somehow important, somehow incredibly significant to make them believe what he was saying. He’d had a front row seat to the death of his cousin, and there was no way he’d ever forget any detail from that day, be it small or big. It had been the day his mother had died, the day his father had helped the Earl of Trimeadows flee the city, the day the great exodus of humans from Tetharion had started, and the day he’d been forced to live on the streets as an orphan.
Why would that gods-be-damned Fae question his words?
“Well then, let’s inspect your words for the truth within, shall we?” Wilmoor sneered, leaning forward with a dark expression on his face. There was no humor left, no good will, no mirth, only cold calculation and disgust. “Have you heard the tales of the Ailill oaths and what happens to oathbreakers?”
Niro nodded, although shakily. He had heard tales about the horrific magic banes that killed those who broke the word they had given a Fae, but he was only a child who didn’t understand the whole magnitude of such things. To his young human mind, lies were only bad if they hurt someone, and if you were caught at it. Gods, he even had trouble understanding that ‘Ailill’ was the Fae word for their own people, and magic was a concept he only knew from trinkets like the mimikry talisman. It simply was beyond his grasp.
“Good,” the reeve said, sneering at him. “You will now speak an oath before the Lord and Lady, professing how long you have hidden in the city, so the magic of the land may lay its bane on your lying tongue. Then we will be done with this charade, and I will be able to go back to my business.”
The guard behind Niro hissed in surprise and tensed up enough to make her armor clink softly.
Niro himself kept his gaze fixed on the Fae behind the desk. He didn’t miss the cruel glee dancing through the eyes of the man as he waited for Niro’s reaction to what amounted to a cruel, vindictive trap he had no way to avoid.
When the young boy’s voice broke it, even the guard jumped a bit. “So, how do I do this oath thing?” he asked, chewing his lip steadily.
“Sire, don’t—” the guard interceded, but fell silent under the threatening stare and booming voice of the reeve.
“Hold your tongue, woman. He will speak his oath of his own free will, without being coerced or threatened into it, just like the codex requires it. Won’t you?”
Niro shrank under the icy glare of the reeve, although the movement hurt him badly enough to regret it instantly. “Yes, sir. I want to prove I’m telling the truth,” he whispered, swallowing dryly. Gods, he was so thirsty! “So how do I speak an oath?”
Wilmoor seemed to have found pleasure in his little game. “You profess to the Lord and Lady what you want to speak the oath over, that is all,” he explained with a wicked grin, settling deeper into his seat.
That sounds easy enough. Licking his dry lips, Niro thought about how to best say what he wanted to say, then he cleared his throat harshly. Maybe they would finally give him some unpolluted water if he was done with this.
“In the name of the Lord and the Lady,” whoever those people are, “I swear that I have been in the city the last four months, and I only left it a few times to walk the battlefields nearby for plunder. This is the truth.”
Again, thick silence settled. The air seemed to become heavier, colder, and a soft breeze tickled through the flames of the chandelier above them, but nothing else happened.
Well, nothing except for the increasing paleness on the reeve’s face, and his look of utter shock. “That can’t be true. It mustn’t be, how can it? Four months… Look how scrawny you are, what did you live off, rat corpses? And what did you— what did he drink? We poisoned all the wells except the ones we secured for ourselves,” he rambled, and all the calm and triumph were blown away.
Niro didn’t answer, and this time, nobody expected him to. The guard left his side to walk closer to the reeve’s table, and moments later they were immersed in a hushed, but nonetheless harsh conversation.
Only bits and pieces of it drifted over to Niro, who by this point felt dizzy, tired and hollow. The world around his line of sight started to become gray and blurry, and the need to sleep slowly took over his mind as the two Fae kept talking. He didn’t hear the resolution the reeve came to in the end, at that point he was already passed out and in a dreamless sleep.