Tarm hid in the back room of Birk's flophouse next to the covered corpse. He hoped the River Dogs' leader wouldn't find him here. He'd had a child in his hands to fulfill his part of being part of the gang, but Stiles had foiled his attempt to do what was required of him. Despite the pressing heat of the sealed room, Tarm shivered. He couldn't control his body and stop the shaking. He hadn't known fear and dread like this since he parents had been executed along with the rest of his village under false accusations of treason and plans to assassinate the emperor.

The dead man a few feet away from Tarm exuded a sickly sweet stench, but it wasn't overpowering yet. Tarm didn't know how long he could take sitting next to the corpse, but he had a good hiding place under a pile of filthy blankets. Maybe Birk would leave the flophouse soon. This would allow Tarm to slip away and maybe find Aell and join her side.

At the thought of Aell's protection, Tarm smiled a bit. He had always felt safe with her, but when she'd been shipped off to the arena after being tested as a bladesinger, he felt like he'd been abandoned by her. Even though he knew her choice would have been to avoid the arena's slaughter at all costs, he still felt alone in the world. Once word that the famous Raptor had fought, and won, her hundredth battle in the arena, Tarm knew Aell was free.

He expected her to show up at Winnon's estate the very next day and demand Tarm's freedom as well, but when that never happened, a gloom settled in. As the days stretched to weeks and finally a full year passed, Tarm gave up on ever having his freedom.

When he'd been delivered to the flophouse by two of Winnon's men-at-arms, he figured he'd been given away or sold to a less wealthy merchant. When Birk welcomed Tarm to the River Dogs by throwing a leather mask in his face and then a kick to the gut, Tarm immediately missed the comfort of being a serving boy to Master Winnon.

The door to the backroom creaked open and Tarm didn't have time to hide his face beneath the noisome pile of blankets. Another River Dog peeked in and exclaimed, "There you are! Birk wants a word with you."

When Tarm didn't move, then man stormed into the room and yanked Tarm from beneath the blankets. "Now, boy. Move it."

Tarm tried to twist out of the man's iron grip, but the larger, stronger man didn't relent in dragging Tarm out into the main room of the flophouse.

He said, "Got him, boss. What you want me to do with him?"

Tarm looked around and found the flophouse empty of everyone but the man, Birk, and himself.

Birk waved at the front door. "Get out. I'll handle this cur myself."

The man scuttled out of the door and firmly closed it without hesitation.

A new level of fear washed over Tarm as Birk leaned down. "Boy. You're not worth the gold I paid to add you to my team."

Without another word, Birk rained down blow after blow on Tarm.

The young man wasn't sure how to defend himself other than to feebly cover his face with his arms and curl into a ball.

Birk, on the other hand, was a practiced expert at delivering pain and punishment. More punches and kicks slipped through Tarm's unsteady defenses than he could block. Within seconds sparks of light exploded in his vision, and his entire face became a large mass of pain and suffering.

When Birk finally exhausted himself, he stood up and towered over Tarm's prone form. Brik delivered another kick to Tarm's ribs.

Tarm managed to pull his legs up and catch most of the blow on his knee.

With a scream of rage Birk said, "You had a baby in your hands and someone took it from you? A baby. That would have been perfect! What kind of worthless piece of shite are you that you can't even keep a baby in your hands once you have it?"

Tarm made some quiet noises, but couldn't clearly speak through his busted lips.

Birk's head snapped up. "Quiet. Someone's outside, I think. Get your ass to the bunk room. Come help me if I call."

Pulling himself to his feet, Tarm staggered to the house's front bunk room and closed the door behind him.

Tarm had heard horror stories about slaves being mistreated. While Winnon didn't seem to recognize that his slaves were people, at least he didn't abuse or beat them. If a slave made a grand mistake, they'd vanish from his estate. Tarm never know what happened to those unfortunate souls, but he always assumed they'd been sold off. Winnon wasn't one to throw away anything with a monetary value.

Now that Birk owned Tarm, the young man was scared for his life. It seemed that Birk found life to be disposable. Something to be used, abused, and then thrown away when it was too ragged to be of use. Tarm felt himself reaching that ragged edge, and he wondered when Birk would finally dispose of him.

The terror of death, especially the violent death Birk liked to hand out, took over Tarm's psyche. He shook all over and cried until snot ran down his face. Unsure of what to do, he thought about running away, but he knew that Birk or Winnon or the Blue Masks would capture him before he could find Aell.

No plan came to mind other than his vague notion of running away into the depths of Mesnick. Without something to do or a way to get out, Tarm curled into a pile of stinking blankets and continued to silently cry. In a feeble attempt to hide from the pain and misery of life away from Winnon's estate, Tarm grabbed a few more of the foul blankets and covered himself completely.

A note from jtevans

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About the author


Bio: J.T. Evans writes fantasy and urban fantasy novels. He’ll dabble with sci-fi and horror in short form as well. He is the former president of the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group and Pikes Peak Writers. When not writing, he secures computers at the Day Job, home brews great beers, and plays way too many tabletop games. Despite having his right arm amputated and reattached after a nasty car crash, he types faster than the average bear. The first two novels in his Modern Mythology series GRIFFIN’S FEATHER and VIPER’S BANE are out now. He’s hastily working on more right now.

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