Still as I record it in memory
On the third day by Pounce’s reckoning, we had company. I had waited to see if they would plant someone else with me, in case a spy could get any information from me, so I wasn’t surprised by the new arrival.
“I wouldn’t be in yer shoes if ye had ’em,” one guard said as they heaved a big cove in an undyed linen tunic and breeches into the cell. “Them mages upstairs is all beggin’ my lord for yer blood. Seemingly they can do all manner of wicked things wiv it! Still, a last night with your lass—enjoy while ye can!”
“At least till they start bleedin’ yez,” his partner said.
The shape raised his head. It was Farmer, tangled hair, black eye, bloody nose, bruised face, and all. He was a surprise, and a glad one. And they were utter dolts if they thought we would say anything of interest to them.
But how did common jailors know that I cared for Farmer beyond the bonds of a Hunting team?
“Doesn’t it matter to you that they want to use those ‘manner of wicked things’ to kill the king and queen?” Farmer asked the guards.
There was a crack of crude laughter as the guards slammed and locked the door. “If’n it’ll get my lord out of the castle and livin’ in Corus, they might kill every king and queen wiv our blessin’!” cried the one who’d spoken first. “Anything to take my lord’s attention off us!” The other one hushed him and they went chuckling down the hall.
“Luck has nothing to do with it, Pounce,” Farmer replied calmly. “They’re under orders not to beat me. Their masters believe they have other ways to get at any information I might have.”
I believed him, of course, but I still waited until they were out of hearing before I got up from my bench to help Farmer to his feet. I’d meant to get him to the other bench, but his ideas were different from mine. He wrapped both arms around me, but let go swiftly when I yelped. “What have they done to you?” he asked, turning my face this way and that in the light of the cell window.
“Not nearly what they should have done, if they were cell Dogs at Jane Street,” I replied, inspecting his face and mauled hands. His fingers weren’t broken, but it looked as if they’d had a try at his nails, and lost. “I’ve been wondering why they haven’t done that to me. Not that I’m ungrateful,” I added hastily.
Farmer made a face. “I’m not as hurt as I look,” he whispered. “I feel bad, but not as bad as I could. If they really try to hurt us with the rack, the ugly parts of the thumbscrews, or the boot, our minds crack first. We lose our hold on our power. Then our brains are useless, so our answers can’t be trusted. Magical torture works a little longer, but their powerful mages seem to be very busy. The great mages did strip what Gift of mine they could before they left me to a lesser mage. That one got nothing from me.”
“Gods be thanked,” I murmured.
“I’d hold my thanks, were I you, sweetheart,” he said, pulling me against his chest. “I believe they’ve put us together so when they try me next, they’ll give you what they’d like to give me. That’s why they’re giving us a night together, to make it worse.” He kissed the top of my head. “If they torture you, I doubt I’d even be able to stand the first turn of the rack or the screw. And I’ve a feeling they’ll have a mage with strong truth spells, which ruins any plan to lie I could make.”
I tried to laugh. “That sounds unpleasant, I have to say.”
“We’ll think of something.” This time he held me carefully while kissing me in a most satisfying way. I returned the kiss with as much strength as I dared out of consideration for both of our lumps.
When I looked at him again there were tears in his eyes. “I thought they’d taken you off to kill you,” he said when we stopped for a breath.
“It’s all right,” I whispered. “We’re alive now. That’s what matters.”
He rested a finger on my lips. “Beka, dear one, hush. I can’t stand it. You are so brave, you’re strong—”
“Stop that,” I interrupted him, partly because I wondered how it would feel if I gave his lower lip a little nip. I’d managed some of my torture by thinking of the parts of him I wanted to kiss, and now that I had the chance, he wanted to talk!
“And you hate to hear good things about yourself, it drives me mad.” He gave me another good, long kiss, and then he said, “I’ve kept quiet because it’s been such a short time, though it seems far, far longer.”
“It does,” I said, wrapping my legs around him and trying to hoist myself so they were wrapped around his waist. That was too painful for both of us, so he sat on a bench and pulled me onto his lap. Then, with most of him around me, and me around a good bit of him, I was content to hold him. I rested my head on his shoulder and listened to his voice rumble in his chest.
“I know you just buried your betrothed,” he began, but I shook my head.
“I should have ended it months ago, when it got ugly,” I told him. “You don’t shout or hit or throw things, do you?”
“No. None of those. Well, I shout sometimes, but not at lovers. I walk my anger off. Beka, I do love you.”
I thought my heart was going to hammer itself clean out of my chest. “You’re sure, you’re certain?”
He kissed me. “I have never been more sure of anything but my Gift. Do you love me?”
I kissed his ear. “I love you,” I said to his shoulder. “Though you’re enough to drive a mot mad.”
He turned my face up to his with a gentle hand. I looked into his eyes. “But you’re like no one I’ve driven mad before,” he said with a smile that made my belly go all warm and liquid. “Either you scold me and it’s over, or you roll your eyes. Have you thought that when this is done you’ll have nothing more to do with me?”
I had thought so many things, but never that. “Why?” I asked. “I’m feared you’ll go back to Blue Harbor and that will be the end of it, but nothing more to do with you? When you make me laugh with your silliness?”
“You hardly ever laugh,” he said truthfully.
She has her own way of doing it, inside, Pounce told him. She laughs with you all the time. Not at you. With you. You have to catch her by surprise to get her to laugh out loud.
“As you would know better than anyone,” Farmer told the cat.
“It’s not just the laughing,” I explained. “You’re kind even to the lowest folk. You cook supper and shoo away bugs when plenty of mages turn their noses up at such humble stuff. I would hate to leave Corus, but if you ask it, I would.” Let’s plan for the future, I thought. Right now we still have one.
Farmer kissed me so very softly. “Don’t worry. I am not so attached to Blue Harbor. I will come with you.” To Pounce he said, “You are a welcome sight, my friend.”
I can’t spirit any of you out of here, Pounce warned him. Don’t even ask. This place, this time, is the crux. Perhaps you cannot hear all Chaos howling around us, but I can.
“I don’t want to be spirited out, and I’ll wager neither does Beka,” Farmer said. “We have work yet to do.”
“Marry me,” I said, his words running like fire in my blood. “If we get out of this, marry me. What you just said, who you are—if we weren’t meant to wed, I don’t know who is. Marry me.”
He kissed me hard and long. “You only needed to ask once,” he whispered when he was done. “I was getting tired of waiting to ask myself.”
Well, that’s done, Pounce said with satisfaction. I made a rude gesture at him.
Farmer grinned. “And no one is going to torture my dear girl again,” he said in my ear. “We are going to show them what happens when you defy the law and the gods alike.”
I went weak in my knees to hear so bold a statement from my man, but my practical nature had something to say. “You haven’t any magic,” I protested. “You said they took it when they gave you the Question. Even before that the mages wrapped their spells around you so you couldn’t get at any more.”
He gave me the warmest, sweetest smile I had ever seen on a man’s face, and stood, though we both winced and groaned when he set me back on the cold bench alone. Then he said, “Sweetheart, never listen to what my enemies say. They’re very confused people. I know they are because I’ve spent years making them that way.” He undid the closing on his breeches. “One thing niggles at me. Who knew we were getting close, you and I? Close enough that the enemy thought they could torture you to break me?”
“Shh!” I ordered. “We are not canoodling right now, not when the guards can hear!”
He chuckled. “No, no. There is a silencing spell here—not mine.”
Mine, Pounce said. A cat’s spell the gods won’t even notice. It’s little enough, but it’s something.
“My thanks,” Farmer told him with a bow. To me Farmer said, “The gods know I want to love you, but when we do, it’ll be someplace curst better than this.” He glanced at Pounce. “And more private, even with favors given.” Pounce washed a paw. “No, Beka,” Farmer went on, “I need to retrieve something.” He pointed to the piss bucket. “If you want to use that, you’d best do so now. I may take a while.” He stripped himself of his breeches.
I’m no gently raised maiden, but the thought of sharing a room while he emptied his bowels nearabout made me cringe. I reminded myself that we’d shared forests when both of us had the same errand. Surely this was not—much—different. I used the bucket while Farmer turned away, then did my own staring at the ceiling when he passed me clad only in his tunic. Even from the corner of my eye I could see huge red and purple bruises on his well-muscled thighs. They looked so bad I couldn’t even enjoy the glimpse of his legs.
Had he sommat inside him? “Didn’t they look up your bum?” They hadn’t done mine, the lazy loobies.
“What about when they gave you the Question? What did you do then?” I asked. It was a matter of professional curiosity now. “You’ve got sommat tucked away, haven’t you?”
“I left it in my cell, on the ceiling. Wrapped it in cobweb like a nursery spider—well, a big one. Folk never look at the ceiling anyway. Did they look in your bum, or in your coyne?” I shook my head. “Sloppy, these conspirators,” he said. “You could have a weapon in either place. A strangling cord at the very least.”
I flinched at the thought. I had tried it. “They tickle. And it’s hard to run long distances with things in your soft spots.”
Farmer laughed. “And you’re dangerous enough on your own. But truly, Beka, how do these people plan to rule a country when they can’t even do a rightful search?” There was a wince in his voice. What did he have in there? “It’s enough to make a cove go off and live in the wilderness like Mistress Cassine.”
“If that cove is thinking of being a Dog’s lover, he might want to reconsider either the lover or the wilderness,” I said.
He grunted and said, “Too many bears and mountain lions out in the wild. Trees rustle all of the time. And you have to walk miles for decent bread or cheese. I can’t make—ahh!”
“Farmer?” I asked, alarmed yet afraid to turn around.
“It didn’t feel so big before!” he cried. “Ha! Finally!”
I will clean that for you, Pounce said. I heard the sounds of a tiny rainstorm.
“Isn’t that still more meddling?” I asked.
Hardly, Pounce replied. Cats are forever washing things. I have just done a little more than most.
I heard a happy sigh. Farmer said, “It’s fine now, Pounce.”
“Rats take to the sewers to escape the Dogs,” I snapped, “so that’s where we must go to catch them. I don’t have to like it!”
Farmer walked around me, a white thing in his hand. It looked like a wax turd. Just the thought of retrieving such an item from my arse made my tripes knot. “How long have you—” I asked, waving my hand at it.
“Every day since the raiders attacked our campsite,” he told me. “I took it out at night. Always kept it on me, though, until we came here.” He set it on a bench and donned his breeches. Once he was clothed, he picked the thing up and patted a spot beside him. “So what’s this about sewers?”
I told him about the Hunt that earned me the nickname Bloodhound in Port Caynn and, later, Corus. As I spoke, Farmer began to peel the white wax away from whatever lay inside it. It was backed with muslin strips, so once Farmer had worried a strip away, he could grip the muslin and begin to unwrap the contents of the thing.
Pounce sat in front of us, watching. He was blinking constantly as Farmer revealed something in blue silk.
Blue? the cat asked, leaning forward in interest. Not red, or orange?
“For maturity, and stability,” Farmer replied. “Beka, go on. This Dale fellow, do you see him anymore?”
I smiled at him. “Only once in a while, and only as friends. Pounce, what is wrong with your eyes?”
You don’t see the power in what he has, Pounce said, blinking hard. It’s very strong.
“You let us believe you had naught!” I said, cross with Farmer.
“Wasn’t it better that I did?” he asked, his eyes worried. “We were followed, Beka, at least from Queensgrace. Given that cozy deal Sabine made for her and Tunstall, you have to wonder if one of them left a trail.”
I had been wondering, and sick at heart over such thoughts. Back and forth I had gone since they had put me down here. Tunstall? Never! But … Sabine? I would have sworn before the Goddess that the lady had no turncoat blood in her veins until she accepted Thanen’s invitation. Both of them together? Impossible, and yet … Here I was, and here was Farmer. Of course, it was not unknown for captors to place a traitor with a captive to winkle information from her, but a turd made of wax and silk? Surely that was going a little far to get information from a common Dog.
Farmer went on, “The traitor could have made the deal at Queensgrace. That’s where our troubles got relentless. They knew to tag my pack. Not the pack with my spare clothes, the pack with my magical resources.”
He was right. I’d known it since that first night away from Queensgrace, or guessed it, and was certain when Farmer and I both found the slave trader’s brass tag on Farmer’s pack.
And who? The knight I’d looked up to for four years, fought beside, laughed with? My new love, with his frank, open blue eyes? Or worst, much worst, of all, my partner. The cove who, with Goodwin, had taught me all I could learn as fast as I could learn it. The cove who’d saved my life so many times I could not count. No matter where I looked, there was a possibility that was fit to tear me in two.
I heard soft sounds and turned back to see Farmer open the silk. Pounce leaped up to see as well. Inside the blue cloth was a long, flat roll of ribbon. As Farmer set the wrapping down, I opened the roll a couple of folds. By the back I knew—barely—that the ribbon itself was red, the color of magical power. It was covered edge to edge with embroideries in all different colors. Looking closer at the front, I realized that each color continued down the ribbon without breaks. It was only in the weaving and curving of the design in tiny bends that it appeared to be tiny bits of color intermingled.
“It’s all spelled, isn’t it?” I asked Farmer. “I’d’ve gone blind, doing this kind of stitching, so small and tight.”
He picked up the ribbon and opened it out another couple of folds. “I have a spell to make the stitching bigger,” he explained. “And I worked on it for a very long time. This makes what went up when my packs burned look like a bucketful compared to a lake.” I looked up at his face. It was set, determined. His soft mouth had gone firm. He had plans for those threads, each holding magic from a different mage. I could not wait to see those plans unfold.
He glanced at me and put one arm around me as he stuck the ribbon in the pocket of his breeches. “Whatever happens, get the lad and get out of the castle,” he told me. “I’ll be right behind you, no matter what.”
“But we don’t have Dog tags,” I reminded him.
“I never needed them,” he said quietly. “That was to make the rest of you feel better.”
“I don’t know the layout here,” I told him. “The Gift is all very well, but there are some practical things to be covered, don’t you think?”
He kissed me and took his mouth only a little bit away. “Do you mind if I magic you? If I call the castle map into your head and mind while we pretend to nuzzle for the guards?”
It was a good plan. I nodded and whispered, “Do it.”
He cupped the back of my head in one hand and wrapped the other arm around me. As he pressed his lips to mine, I felt a vision unfold in my head. It was like my memory houses, only this was a castle, drawn in pen and ink. It built itself from the underground up, dungeons, wine cellars, great hall, kitchens, studies, pantries, armory, and on. It built out, adding floors and towers as it included outbuildings and walls. When the last tower and gate were placed, the vision folded itself up like a map, settling in my mind where I would be sure to find it.
He released the spell, but I continued to show my affection for him a moment longer. I stopped only when the rattle of metal on metal told me that our time alone was done for the moment. The guards who had opened the door after banging on the bars made merry at our expense as they brought in a pitcher of water and two bowls of something.
One of them looked directly at Pounce and didn’t see him. “If I knew I had my last hours to spend, I’d like it this way, lovin’ up a pretty girl!” he jested. They were different from the guards who had shoved Farmer inside.
I glared at them and they stepped back. “Whoa, wench, warm them eyes before you look at your man again!” said the shorter of the two, holding up his hands. “Elsewise he might only be givin’ you cold comfort!” He shivered.
“Her eyes are beautiful,” Farmer said, turning my chin so he looked at me.
“Ghost eyes,” said the taller guard, and “Ice eyes,” said the other.
“Too many mages hereabouts,” the short one added. They left us, locking the door behind them.
“I’m no mage,” I snapped, and spat on the floor.
“No, sweetheart,” Farmer replied, “but that’s a glare that tells folk what you will not—that you are a very bad mot to muck with, and you will see them to their graves. There’s power in it that sticks to those you glare at. It makes me tremble in my boots. Or it would if I had them.” He looked sorrowfully at his bare feet.
I gave him a light buffet on the head. “Looby,” I told him.
As my reward I got his silliest grin. “Ma allus said—”
“Your ma should have drowned you at birth,” I told him as I picked up one of the bowls. It was the usual brown slop with a hint of beef and gravy, and something that looked like a turnip. “I’ve eaten this all along. Unless it’s poisoned today, it’s all right.”
“They’re not poisoning us,” Farmer said, getting to his feet to stretch. “If they want my blood, they want it pure. No wonder they need to change kings. Roger would never allow blood magic to be practiced here. Baird will.”
“Why do you say so? Baird is Roger’s brother, and it’s their father that forbade blood magic,” I said, handing Farmer his bowl.
“Because Thanen and his mages will make sure that’s part of the bargain, if they haven’t already,” Farmer replied.
“Sarden maggot-ridden corpse baits,” I muttered.
Farmer was inspecting the contents of his bowl. “What do you suppose that is?” he asked, prodding a lump.
“It’s better not to know,” I said. “Eat it fast. Don’t try and taste it.”
Once we’d finished, to help pass the time, Pounce told us a story of a hero he had befriended; then Farmer and I managed to find a clean spot of floor to nap on with the cat. None of us spoke of Sabine, who had seemed to turn traitor, or Tunstall, who had gone along like a lamb. None of us spoke of Achoo, out in the woods.
The jangle of lock and keys brought us all to our feet, instantly awake. “Get ready,” Farmer whispered in my ear.
The door swung wide and a lone jailor came in, a short sword in his hand. Already I was scornful of his worth. No cage Dog ever approached celled Rats alone, weapon or no.
“Back, mage,” the empty-headed pig’s knuckle said, pointing his sword at Farmer. “We know your magic is tied up. If you don’t care for your mot to be the same, you’ll stand back. The trull comes wiv me.”
I heard a chuckle from the door. There was his fellow guard, holding the key ring and a glowing orange globe that I guessed was supposed to keep mages under control. “Don’t worry, Master,” that one said. “We’ll take fine care of her.”
“No more gab from you,” Farmer announced in a loud, official bark. “I don’t know what game you’re about, mage, but you’ll not fool any man of my lord’s guard! Over against them shackles on the wall, right quick! You, gabble-monger!” he snapped, pointing to me. “Stop scatchin’ yourself and get that wench afore she sneaks off down the hall and the cap’n sees her!”
“What’s you talkin’ about?” asked the one already in our cell. He sounded even slower than before, dreamy.
“I’m no wench,” murmured the other.
Farmer hadn’t said that he meant to do magic now, but neither had I needed his brief warning to know we were about to take a chance. He was acting like we were the guards, and the guards were us. Seemingly the guards had begun to believe it.
“Here, you!” I ordered, and dashed forward to grab the one with the globe and the key ring. Slipping the ring over the hand I used to hold the globe, I gripped the cove’s louse-ridden hair and thrust him into our cell.
I hooked his right leg from under him and helped him drop by shoving his head. Once he was down, I set the globe and keys aside and got one of his arms up behind his back. I released his hair to grip his wrist, shoving it up toward his shoulder. With my other hand I shoved his elbow up toward that same shoulder. Nobody likes that hold, particularly when it’s pushed hard enough to break bones. He screamed. Suddenly he was shouting, “How dare you treat a Provost’s Guard this way! I’ll get you hobbled, so I will, and hie you before a magistrate!”
Seeing that Farmer’s magic had taken, I let the cove go. We did the pair of them up in the shackles on the rear wall, in case anyone came looking from outside. We used their belt knives to cut gags from their tunics to silence them.
The last thing Farmer did before we left that cell was take up the globe. He held it in his palm, eyeing it calmly, with that look that told me he was examining it from the inside out. Slowly the light began to fade. Once the globe had turned lead gray, he dropped it to the floor. It smashed into hundreds of tiny glass fragments. “I’ll take any extra power I can find,” he explained.
Since I had the keys, I locked up. There was no one else in the corridor. I beckoned to the other cells with the keys and raised my eyebrows to my partner. Farmer thought on it for a moment, then nodded. “Don’t let yourself be seen. I’ll silence the keys.”
I peered into one of the cells. Four men were inside, looking as unhappy as any caged Rats I had ever seen. I hoped they were not rapists or murderers and went about my work.
Next we found the guardroom. No one was there. Farmer twiddled his fingers over a pot of ale that was heating on the fire. Then we looked for the stairs.
“We’ll look like guards for half an hour unless a mage sees the spell and breaks it first,” he whispered in my ear. The climb was a long one. “I learned that bit of magic from a hedgewitch who normally sold it to wives who were cheating on their husbands. If the husband came home while the lover was still there—”
“That’s wicked,” I told him sternly, seeing how such a confusion spell would be useful. Then I grinned.
“Meet me by the shrine to the Maiden of Archers if we’re split up,” he said. I nodded. The shrine was a small one, tucked away near the stables. I had it on the map in my head. “The magic I put on the cells just now opens the doors in an hour. Then this place will be a madhouse. There won’t be any jail guards down here to stop them, not if they drink that ale. Do we find Tunstall and Sabine?”
I thought fast. “Our first duty is to the prince,” I said. The voice I heard was still that of a mot, though deeper and coarser than my own, and the body I saw was shorter and thicker than mine. “Then we just go. However we can. We’ve no time to spend testing the others’ loyalties.”
“Sabine’s giving way to them could have been a ruse,” Farmer pointed out.
I nodded. “I’d thought of that. And it’s better for Tunstall to be with her and free of the cells. But the lad is more important than anything. I’m wagering he’s in the kitchen, the slave quarters when it comes toward bedtime, or Prince Baird’s rooms.”
“He worked there before. It’s warm and there’s food. If he’s avoiding punishment or been set to work again, I’ll wager that’s where he’s to be found,” I explained. “He doesn’t know the heat and the smoke make him wearier, or that mayhap they’re instructed to give him bad food.”
“Where do you think I should search?” Farmer asked. He stopped by a tapestry that covered an entry to the great hall, and peeped through a slit. “They’ve gone to their amusements,” he told me softly. “I’ll be safer than you will, hunting among the nobles.”
“Prince Baird,” I whispered. “You stand a chance of getting to his chambers and looking around.”
“The stroke of midnight at that shrine, unless we’re occupied,” Farmer told me. “We’ll know something by then.”
I nodded. I didn’t want to leave him, but the lad had to be found. Farmer kissed his fingers and touched them to my cheek, then slouched and ambled through a break in the tapestry, the picture of a guardsman off duty. I’d walked but two steps toward the stairwell that smelled of kitchen when I heard Elyot’s voice from the other side of the cloth.
“I thought I felt strange magic. Did you really think such an obvious disguise would get past me, you dolt?”
Back came Farmer’s reply. No more was he playing the country lout for this treasonous louse. “Your thoughts and your ability to detect me aren’t my concern, Elyot. I have more vital business than you.”
I did not wait. I could not wait. Pounce and I trotted down two stairs toward the kitchen smell. When a red and sweaty maid climbed toward us, I stopped her. “Don’t go there,” I warned her. I sounded gruff, the sort of mot who whipped prisoners and teased the maids for extra food for herself. “Two mages is arguin’. I don’t think they mean to keep it to talk.”
As if I could foresee things, the tapestry hiding the big hall’s entry burned in a flash. Crimson and blue fires replaced it. I gripped the maid under the arm and rushed her back down the stair. She clung to me until we were in the kitchen, then screeched her tale to the servants gathered there. They did not stop to argue, but fled through the several doors that opened onto the huge room.
When they were gone, I waited. I knew the child slaves here had not followed the adults. I hadn’t seen them go. They would be tucked in the shadows, niches, and cupboards, or hiding in the open pantries, hoping to steal scraps.
I heard a crash up above. I ground my teeth. I wanted to be there, guarding Farmer as I’d done the night our camp was attacked. Instead I had to follow my duty here, Hunting for a boy who might one day be a liar like his turncoat uncle Baird. Surely I’d be better off helping Farmer!
But duty was duty. I had never failed Lord Gershom. I looked around.
A haunch of pig, half of it already cut away, lay on a table. The cooks must have been preparing it for a baked or stewed dish of some kind. I took up a knife and began to cut slices of my own, stuffing one in my mouth and setting others on a table behind me. I heard them before I saw them, at my back, grabbing the meat I’d set for them. They gave off the telltale jingle of slave chains. When I thought I’d left enough on the other table, I began to set slices on the bare space next to the roast. They had to think about that. It would mean coming into my view. These were the ones who were tucked away behind me. They knew I’d see them when they came out, but they’d be hungrier than ever after watching the others eat.
Mage-made thunder boomed down the stairs. The first of the hidden kitchen helpers dashed out of a niche between cupboards, seized a handful of scraps, and scrambled back to his hiding place, thinking I would be distracted by the noise. Another came after him in that tight-legged run they had to master with only a short chain between their ankles. Their clothes were but ragged shifts. The curst shackles had cost far more.
When I tired of cutting up meat, I went to the shelves and started to look through the bowls. A huge one near the top provided cherries, fresh ones. So did the bowl next to it. I turned with them in my hands to face six scrawny slave children, the youngest six, the oldest ten. Their faces and hands were smeared with pork fat. Three of them held knives.
I set the bowls down on a worktable. “Greasy as your hands are, it’d be easy work to get them knives from you,” I said. “Can you even use those in a fight?” My voice came out differently. I was still in Farmer’s disguise.
Nobody spoke. They’d learned the hard way that silence was the better road for the likes of them. Something crashed again on the level above and all of them flinched.
I shrugged. “Cherries here. Fresh picked. I’m havin’ some. When was the last time you had cherries?” I scooped a handful from a bowl and moved back, leaning against the shelves. Then I ate my cherries, spitting the pits on the floor. I hoped that any of the kitchen staff who’d put those lash marks and scars on these little ones’ arms would slip on one and break his head, or her head.
They waited until they couldn’t stand it anymore, then went for the cherries, making a wide path around me. I didn’t move. When I finished my fruit, I stuck my hands in my pockets and waited. Pounce walked in and leaped up onto the table with the pig. The little slaves didn’t notice that a big slice of meat suddenly turned into a fine-chopped pile before the cat began to dine. Had I known Pounce could mince his own meat, I wouldn’t have worn myself out for years doing it for him!
I walked around the kitchen, keeping away from the table with the pork and that with the cherries. To them I seemed only to be idling about. I did set cheeses where they might reach them, as well as a loaf of bread and a jar of honey. I found what I sought at last, a small bundle of wires used to lace up stuffed birds, tucked away above the knives. With a mallet for pounding meat I shaped two of the wires as I needed. As I banged away, the battle did the same, flat, ugly crashes sounding along the stairs.
When I ceased hammering the wires and looked at my companions, they stared at me. The ones that had gotten knives held them tight, their hands white-knuckled on the grips. Their nervousness had not stopped the boldest of them from grabbing the food I’d taken down, I noticed. One of them held Pounce awkwardly in her arms as Pounce gave me his most patient look.
“What?” I asked them. “Why are you still about? It’s not like you can’t hear them mages battlin’ up there.”
One of the older ones opened her mouth, only to cringe when a particularly large smashing noise boomed down the stairs. “This old pile be full o’ magics,” she said when she could be heard. “They done tol’ us that. ’Twill never fall. An’ you’s leavin’ a mess o’ food. We’d be fools t’let it go.”
“Wasn’t doin’ it for free,” I told them. “Everything’s got a price.”
“A slave for food,” I said quietly. They moved closer to hear me better. “There’s a new one in this place, here only a few days. He was out serving three days ago when they brung in prisoners. He was a little lad, and he fell. My lord cuffed him and sent him away. They call him up to the nobles’ rooms, mayhap only a couple of times, mayhap a lot.”
“What d’you want ’im for?” asked the gixie who’d spoken first. “What’s he to the likes of you?”
I took a breath. It was funny, how tense it made me just to say it. “His friend sent me. Linnet.”
“Linnet?” I heard a voice say. “You know Linnet?”
“I spoke with her a bit,” I replied, deliberately not looking for the speaker. “Another gixie, she called you No-Skin, Gareth.”
“They have ordered me not to use that name,” the invisible speaker replied. “Gareth.”
My heart twisted in my chest. No wonder they had kept him mostly in the cart. All he had to do was speak to let folk know he was not a typical slave. No child bought and sold in the markets spoke so well.
“It’s all right, lad,” I told him. “I’ve come to take you home.” I looked at the others as I heard someone struggling and scraping near me. Holding up the wires, I said, “I’ll take you all if we can find a way out of this place.” There were a couple of promising tunnels on the map in my head, but they would trust me more if I needed something important from them. Slaves and the poor trust no one who offers sommat for nothing.
“There’s no way,” lisped a fair-haired gixie, but the oldest gixie and the oldest lad were trading looks.
The prince crawled out from under the shelf at the bottom of one of the tables. I took the angry lad and sat him atop the same table fast, before he had time to do more than hit my cheek. I grabbed his arms and said, “Don’t hit me again. It makes me cross.”
“I’m no toy to be lifted up and about,” he told me, but he kept his hands to himself. “An’ you don’t look like you did when you come in. You’re taller. You got a braid, an’ you’re skinny.”
“I had magic on me,” I said, “and it wore off. You want to complain? Or do you want the shackles off?” I ignored the other slaves’ whispers.
The noises from upstairs were quieter. Who was winning? I looked at the opening to the stair, then ordered myself to keep my mind on business.
Gently I set the prince next to the cross-grained lad. “Were you born so nasty, or did working here make you this way?” I asked the vexing one, going to work on his shackles. Lucky for me these were the expensive kind, that locked with a key. I’m no hand at striking them off, but locks I can pick.
“I was sold,” he told me, peering at my work. “What’s that you’re doing, with the wire?”
“Quiet, and you’ll see,” I said. My good lock picks were in my shoulder pack, wherever it was. These clumsy ones took more fumbling. “Someone give the lad here some meat.”
“You can’t get out of here, magic spell or no,” the gixie said, the one who did the talking at first. “They’ll kill you.”
“They’re going to be busy for a bit,” I replied. There was the click as I turned the second wire. The first shackle popped open. Under it the lad’s skin was red and raw. I wanted to kill someone. Instead I turned to the second shackle. It took less time. I kicked it under the table and the lad jumped to the floor.
When I turned to Gareth, I saw he was feasting on a strip of meat that someone had given to him. My change in appearance did not seem to worry him. I started on his shackles. The infection under them was bad, though not old. They could only have put the ankle shackles on recently. He had a wrist infection where another clasp must have been. Seemingly the orders about no marks on him had changed. He’d lost a lot of weight. His rib bones showed stark against his skin through the overlarge armholes of his tunic. His eyes were sunk deep in his skull and surrounded by dark skin. He was ill.
He chose to stay where he was, eating hurriedly, while I turned to the others and held up my picks. They shrank back, behind the oldest girl, who shook her head.
“They’ll kill us if they catch us without the chains,” she said. “They’ll kill us if we try t’ run. There’s more slaves comin’ in every week this time o’ year and we’re the cheapest sort. You’re mad t’ take the little lad, and Daeggan there is mad t’ go with you.”
“I wasn’t born t’ this,” the cross one—Daeggan—said. He must have been all of eight. “They already know I’m bad. How long before they break me?”
I nodded to him. “Do you know a way out, then?” He made a face in a way that told me he did.
“ ’Tis risky, and none’ve ever come back t’ say if it works. Could be they’re still layin’ in there, gone to see the Black God,” he told me.
“We’ll learn soon enough,” I replied.
“You’ll be in the woods,” protested the oldest gixie. “Where can you go after that? You’ve no horses. They hunt runaways on horses, with hounds! And all the land hereabouts is my lord’s. Anyone on it would give you to him. Is your magic enough?”
“The lords will be occupied, I think,” I said. “I know how to travel in hostile country. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a better mage with me.” At the very least Pounce and I could reach the road. With Achoo already in the woods, we would do even better. It wrenched at me to leave these other children behind. I knew they would slow us down. Daeggan at least looked to be in good shape, but most of them were exhausted and starved. They would be frightened in the dark woods and terrified of other people. And we had to hurry to take advantage of the distraction provided by Farmer and Elyot. Still, I had to offer the chance to them. “Think again. I’ll take off your shackles. Go with me and Gareth, or stay. You’re fed here, I suppose, and warm enough. If we make it away, I can promise you’ll be free, and I’ll find places for you.”
“You’re mad,” the oldest girl said firmly. “And nobody’s lucky here. There’s bears and mountain lions and wolves in the forest, and snakes and traps. All this is Lord Thanen’s, all of it. They’ll brand my face and I’ll never get anything but hard work again.”
One by one they all refused to go with Pounce, Daeggan, the prince, and me. Seemingly dying a slave was better than the forest and the chance of dying or being fetched back for punishment. I thought I’d be relieved, but I wasn’t. Daeggan made more sense to me. He wanted to leave before he was broken. It was no wonder, after he’d been working with the broken all of the time.
We bundled up food in a hurry. I made a strip of sacking into a sash where I tucked the food pouch and four good, sharp knives. Then Daeggan led us down a hallway littered with straw and splinters, plainly used for deliveries. I could have done so myself, as the map in my head lined the path to his tunnel in yellow. About five hundred yards along Daeggan took a turn into a lesser hall. We trotted down a set of stairs and along another hall. By then Pounce had disappeared again, gone off on some errand of his own. We were in the stone under the castle now, the air cold and forbidding. I liked it no better than I had liked it in the dungeon.
Gareth was shivering and laboring to keep up with me. I took pity on him. First I set my knives aside so they wouldn’t stab me in the gut. Then I knelt, motioning to my back. “Up with you,” I told him quietly. “Piggyback, let’s go.”
“Go on,” Daeggan urged. “Ye’re slowin’ us down, honeytongue.”
I frowned at him. “The lad’s name is Gareth, please.” I turned my head to look at the prince, who had frozen in place. Tears ran down his cheeks. “What is it, my boy?” I asked him softly. I swiveled on my feet to wipe his face with my hand. He was no prince to me in that moment. He was just a little fellow who’d gone through a month of ruin with no understanding of why.
“My—friend, Tassilo, that protected me,” he whispered. “He—he’d give me rides on his back. He fought right in front of me and they killed him.”
They had made him afraid to name his guards and surely his parents and servants. Either that or they’d spelled him. I smoothed his hair, hating Thanen and his fellow traitors myself. I could not let hate distract me. Mine was the task of getting clear of these monstrous conspirators with the boy in one piece.
“You will have justice for your friend,” I told him. “Now, come. We’ll go faster this way.”
He linked his arms around my neck. I grabbed my knives and rose to my feet, sticking the blades in my belt before I gripped his legs with my arms. My bad rib stabbed at me, but I ignored it. I started forward, surprised to find Daeggan had waited for us.
“Thank you,” I said when we caught up.
“I’m goin’ soft,” he replied. “Keep up, now.”
We had gone but a hundred yards or so more, past a handful of sets of stairs leading up and away from the corridor, when I heard the approach of running feet. I put Gareth down and sent the lads up a stairway into the shadows. Then I took a torch from a bracket in the wall, waiting to see what nasty surprise the gods had arranged.
Pounce rounded a curve first, with Farmer in his wake. Like me, he looked like himself, not the guard in the cells. It was all I could do not to cry out. The ribbon was gripped in my man’s fist, the flesh red and swollen around it. The ribbon itself was unmarked. Farmer was burned on the side of his head and on his chest. Half of his tunic was charred, but he still gave me his looby grin. The moment he embraced me, he sent healing into my body, mending that bad rib at last and getting soot and scorched cloth on me. I struggled, but he wouldn’t let me go until he’d kissed me well.
“Take care of your own self, you great cracknob!” I scolded. Luckily for him, I could see his burns slowly healing. “And don’t overdo. We’ve got company. He knows a way out.” I looked up into the stairway. “It’s all right. He’s with us.”
Daeggan, knife in hand, came down first, keeping Gareth behind him. He looked Farmer over, then he pointed at Farmer’s fist. “Don’t that hurt?” he asked.
Gareth hung back on the stairs, eyes wide, his thumb going into his mouth. I took my knives from my belt and set them down, then crouched on the bottom step with my back to him. “Farmer’s all right,” I said to him. “A little odd, but you know how mages can be. Come here, lad.”
I heard a sound and looked back. Gareth had backed up two steps rather than come to me. He pulled his thumb from his lips. “Mages were there,” he whispered, his eyes huge. “They let the murderers in. They burned everything.” He put his thumb back in his mouth.
Daeggan glared up at me, then at Farmer. “Now see what you done?” he demanded. “We nearabout had him not suckin’ his thumb, bein’s how my lord and the mages pinch ’im whenever they catch ’im at it. Lookit ’im!” I thought of the ugly round bruises that I’d glimpsed, pinch marks, showing up against Gareth’s dyed skin, and bowed my head so no one would see my fury.
Farmer crouched where he was, in full view of the stair. He had to be as on edge as I was now that the crash of the fight was ended. Folk would be moving about soon, mayhap even down here, but Farmer acted as if we had all night. “I wasn’t one of them that attacked your friends,” he said. “The mages that did that were wrong. We need to catch them. I just came from fighting one. Elyot.”
“Tell me you killed him,” I said quietly. I knew him, knew what his answer would be, but a mot can dream.
“No,” Farmer said, shocked. I sighed and my soft-hearted man told me, “It is not my right to kill him. It’s the law’s right, and the king’s right as wielder of the law. I knocked him halfway to Midwinter and laid a sleep on him.”
I glanced at the prince. Gareth had taken the thumb from his mouth. “The law?” whispered the lad. “You work for the law? The law belongs to my papa.”
“It’s your papa who sent us, and your mama,” I said. “I promised them we’d bring you home.”
“We all swore to serve the law and bring you home, and find out who took you,” Farmer added. “Come along, lad. We need to hurry.”
Gareth trotted down the steps and climbed onto my back.
“That’s better,” Daeggan said as Pounce leaped onto his shoulders. He flinched, but he accepted the cat’s weight and looked at Farmer.
“We need to go back a way,” Farmer told me. “There’s another tunnel. It looks better suited to us than the one you were aiming for.”
“Are you certain?” I asked quietly, following him back down the corridor. “I want to get the swive-all pus mouse out of this sarden castle.”
“Those are bad words,” Gareth said in my ear. “Lunedda spanked me when I said swive.” I waited for him to weep at the mention of his dead nursemaid, but he only buried his face in my shoulder.
“You have no idea of the bad words Beka knows, my lad,” Farmer murmured back. “Once she starts, she nearabout sets my ears on fire. We’re very, very lucky she’s no mage, or the power of her words would split every lawbreaker she arrests from top to toe.” He led us up a flight of stairs. The downward end was the way to the dungeons.
“Stop blathering,” I ordered Farmer, as if he’d listen. Truth to tell, I was grateful for his folly, as the boy seemed to take comfort from it. He was relaxing in my grip. His trembling eased until it was the slightest of quivers. I doubted that he’d stopped shaking since he was yanked from his home.
“You arrest people?” Gareth whispered.
“Farmer and me are Provost’s Guards,” I explained as we continued to climb. “There’s three of us and a lady knight who came here seeking you.”
“I want to be a Provost’s Guard when I grow up, before I’m … you know,” he said, stumbling to a halt before king, I was sure. “I thought you all had uniforms and batons and boots and badges.”
It was good to hear him so eager. “This is my uniform. It’s very dirty,” I explained. “One day you’ll see me properly kitted out.” Farmer was hand-signaling for silence. I put my finger on my lips so the boys would understand and the three of us ducked into a hall that opened onto the stair. Farmer did something to the nearest door that made it open partway. The room beyond was dark and smelled of lack of use. Silently we three moved out of the light that shone in through the opening.
Farmer bumped me with his hip and tugged Gareth. Gently he shifted the boy onto his own back. He would do so when I couldn’t object, not aloud, and not with hand signs that he would see. When I put my hand on Gareth’s side, though, he was trembling no more than he had on my own back. I relaxed. Seemingly the chatter between Farmer and me had made him feel better about my man, better enough that Gareth didn’t mind riding on Farmer’s back instead of mine.
I moved to the crack between the hinges on the door, where I could see the stair. I heard the approach of booted feet and voices. The folk were arguing softly and passionately. I took out two of the knives I’d stolen, just in case. Then I realized that one voice was Sabine’s. When they came in view, I nearly gasped. Nomalla of Halleburn walked with Sabine and Tunstall as if they were taking a stroll after supper. Only the fact that all three carried four heavy packs and the belt with my baton put the lie to their appearance. Tunstall was in uniform again, his baton hanging at his waist. He even had boots!
I clicked my tongue twice, in the way Tunstall had taught me, the way hillmen do it. He stopped the two mots. “Cooper, it’s all right, I think,” he said quietly, with a glare at Lady Nomalla. She’d put her hand on the hilt of her sword the moment he spoke. “The lady has rethought things.”
“Go,” Farmer’s voice whispered beside my ear. “We’ll wait.”
Pounce left Daeggan to join me. We went out onto the stair, keeping distance between us and the Halleburn knight. Sabine gripped me by the shoulders and looked me intently in the eyes. “We were coming to release you from the dungeon,” she explained. “Farmer’s gone somewhere—he locked Elyot into a substance like glass and tore the main hall apart.” She picked up Pounce and kissed him. He even let her. “Have you seen the boy?” she asked. “We got into Prince Baird’s rooms, but there’s no sign of him. We just found some of the kitchen servants. They told us they fled when the mage fight began upstairs. We have to find the boy and Farmer before we can get away.”
I pointed to Nomalla. “Why are you trusting her?”
“She freed us,” Tunstall said.
“That’s enough,” Sabine barked, her eyes fiery. “Nomalla, if you speak so of these two Guards again, you’ll face my sword. Their honor is every bit as good as yours. Better. They’ve not turned on the Crown for so much as an hour.”
“May we brandish our shields at some better time?” Farmer asked wearily as he stepped from the darkened room with Gareth on his back and Daeggan at his heels. The prince whimpered and struggled to flee when he saw Nomalla, but Farmer hitched Gareth around to sit on his hip and bounced him as if he’d been a mother all his life. “Easy, lad. She’s on our side, for now.” He looked at Nomalla with eyes that had turned the color of ice. “If she isn’t, I’ll make her very sad.”
“Will you turn her to ice, too?” Daeggan asked. “She’s all right, you know, for one of them. She made her brother stop whippin’ me.”
Nomalla backed away from Farmer a step. She put both hands on her weapons, one on her dagger hilt, one on her sword. “You buried Elyot in stone, or ice, or something up to his neck,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “He’s screaming for someone to let him out.”
Farmer’s smile had no warmth in it. “Only Cassine Catfoot could free him. Let’s be on our way, shall we? You first.”
“One moment,” Tunstall said. He smiled at Daeggan. “Who’s this?”
“This is Daeggan. He’s a slave who wants to change his place in life,” I said. “He knows a way out.”
“So do we,” Sabine told us. “Nomalla and I played in the tunnels as girls. I know one that’s best for our purposes.”
“I think you’d best make your own way out of here,” Tunstall said, resting a hand on Daeggan’s shoulder. Gently he told the boy, “If not that, go back to your place and wait for us to return with soldiers to arrest the lord. We have a rough journey ahead. A deadly one. Too risky for a lad, even one as brave as you.”
Daeggan gave Tunstall his clenched fist of a scowl. “I’m stayin’ wiv her,” he said, pointing to me. “Her I know better’n you. I go wiv her or I tell my lord ye’re down here.”
“Clever lad,” Farmer remarked.
“Daeggan’s my friend,” Gareth said.
“That settles that, then,” Tunstall said, grouchy. “If we live, I’ll find him a good position scrubbing privies. Let’s move.” He passed my belt and pack to me while Sabine set Pounce down and gave Farmer’s shoulder pack to him. I took the kitchen knives from my makeshift belt and put them in my pack before I donned my true belt and felt for my own blades and my baton. Then I checked my pack and nearabout yelped with delight. My arm guards, each with ten thin knives as ribs, lay on top of my other belongings. Hurriedly I slid them on. Though I could manage the ties myself with one hand and my teeth, Farmer did them up for me. As I bent to close my pack, I saw light near the bottom. It was my stone lamp. I slid it into my pocket. A little light is always useful.
Once Farmer and I had our packs in place and Farmer had settled Gareth in his arms, Nomalla and Sabine led the way down the steps. Pounce walked between Tunstall and Farmer, whilst I brought up the rear. Daeggan trotted along with me. I started to feel uneasy as we went deeper. So did Farmer, from the looks he gave Tunstall, and so did the lad beside me.
Finally Daeggan halted. “She’s takin us t’ th’ cells, she’s gonna lock us up and turn us over!” he whispered, clutching my arm. We weren’t far from the guards’ station. He had a point. All we needed was a cove with a short run to an alarm bell.
Nomalla and Sabine halted on the last landing between us and the dungeons. They turned left and walked three yards down a small corridor there. Farmer followed while Tunstall put his finger to his lips and frowned at Daeggan. Into the hall we went. I paused on the landing, trying to hear any noise from either way on the stairs. All was silent. Wouldn’t they come to the dungeons to find me, knowing Farmer was out? Had they tried to find Gareth, or had they gone for Sabine and Tunstall, believing them to be more important just now? I rubbed the back of my neck and caught up with the others.
Sabine and Nomalla had turned to face the left-hand wall. Like the rest of this part of the castle, it was old stone. The rock was not all cut to the same shape, but the pieces were fitted together, round, square, and rectangular. The differences between them were filled in with mortar. Among them one small, reddish stone hardly stood out, though the other ones were gray. The red one was at chest height for Lady Sabine. She set a couple of fingers against it and pushed.
A section of the wall in front of the lady swung in like a door. Gareth, who seemed to know to be silent, gasped and almost clapped his hands with delight, stopping himself just in time. Beyond the door lay a dank tunnel, barely high enough to fit Tunstall and scarcely wide enough to fit him and Farmer walking abreast. It was veiled in cobwebs and thin roots. I checked the map in my head and found this place. The tunnel that opened into that corridor was one of those that led off the edge of the map.
Tunstall grabbed the nearest torch from its bracket.
“I can light the way,” Farmer protested. I reached in my pocket for my light stone.
Tunstall grinned and passed the torch around the opening, burning the cobwebs away. “Can your light do that?” he asked.
Farmer shrugged. “You know I can’t do fire, remember?” he asked. It was just as well. I had the firm opinion that Farmer should save his strength, physical and magical. We had a long road ahead, all of it on foot, with Farmer, the lads, and me barefoot at that.
Tunstall went first with Pounce beside him, then Nomalla and Sabine. Farmer put Gareth down and shooed him, Daeggan, and me ahead of him. Once we were inside, he shoved the stone door closed. Daeggan, for all his spirit, did not like the dark that filled the air around us. No more did Gareth.
“Keep to the main path,” Nomalla told us. “Don’t go into any of the side tunnels. It’s too easy to get lost down here.”
After that the two lads clutched each other tight and flinched at every side tunnel we passed. The torch did very little for those of us behind Tunstall and the ladies. I was taking my stone lamp from my pocket when a cool kind of moonlight filled the tunnel.
“There’s no need,” I said, showing Farmer my own lamp.
Farmer touched it with one of his glowing hands. The stone shone brighter than before. “Stop worrying,” he murmured. “Tunstall appears to have forgotten I do light, if not fire. Light’s the easiest thing I do. And it’s everywhere.”
I let Daeggan hold my stone. Once he realized it wasn’t hot, he clutched it like his life depended on it. I took the lads’ hands. We hurried on after the others, poor Farmer bending so he wouldn’t bump his head. Tunstall was in the same basket. I noticed that after a time he began to rub the back of his neck. The position and the tunnel’s chill damp were making his bones ache. There was a warm balm in his pack, but neither he nor Sabine would take the time to get it out. I think none of us believed that our captors would not discover our absence and work out that we had help from within.
“How many know of these tunnels?” I asked Lady Nomalla.
“My brother, who is not here,” she replied over her shoulder. “Perhaps my father and my aunt, who grew up in this place. The castellan, certainly. He is one of my father’s by-blows. That’s all.”
“I always preferred him to your brother,” Sabine remarked, as calmly as if we were on a daylight stroll. They talked quietly about relatives as we continued on through the depths under Halleburn’s causeway, where the tunnel grew wider and higher.
No such daylight walk I’d taken sported blind white lizards moving at the corner of my eye, or pale fish in the stream that ran alongside one section of the tunnel. The side tunnels sometimes showed bigger webs than either of the boys. At one turning some poor mumper had been chained to the rock and left to die, a skeleton in very old-fashioned rags.
Sabine halted and laid a gentle hand on the dead man’s skull. “I still say a prayer for you before each fight, Brother Bones,” she told him quietly. “I have kept my promise.” She noticed we all stared, and explained, “I was lost here when I was very young. I promised Brother Bones that I would pray for him if he would show me the way to the castle, and he did.”
Lady Nomalla replied, “My father does not know and says his father did not know, so the poor man has been here nearly a century at least.”
The lads gave the skeleton a wide berth. I looked back as we hurried on. The dead man had naught to say to me. I thought my own prayer for him and sent it to the God, in case Brother Bones’s soul still wandered for lack of a pigeon to carry him.
It seemed as if we’d been treading the uneven ground forever when I felt a breeze coming from somewhere in front of me. A moment later Tunstall whispered loudly, “Douse the lights!”
Daeggan handed mine back to me. I stuck it inside my breeches, under the band of my loincloth, rather than risk the light escaping my pocket. Farmer’s glow faded slowly, not going out until we could dimly see the end of the tunnel, a mass of ivy. Tunstall passed his torch to Sabine. Holding up one hand in a “halt” signal, he used the other to draw his long knife. Carefully, silently, he eased out through the curtain of vines.
“Are we home?” Gareth whispered.
Daeggan hushed him. I knelt beside him and shook my head. I didn’t say it would be one of the gods’ great miracles if we made it to the boy’s home.