Five – The South

Their landing was no more than a snap of water against a rock. Ice crackled around the hull.

Idishe crept gently onto the shore, only another boulder in the cloud-shrouded darkness.

The boulder was gone. Efeddre crouched poised on the prow, listening.

As they sat behind their oars, Ridiath felt the keenness, the anticipation that made the tension of waiting melt away.

Barely enough time had passed for them to expect him when Idishe’s compact shadow reappeared at the prow. They filed carefully onto the rocks, except two watchers in case the galley were discovered. She followed carefully behind Felghaim, stepping only on the rocks he did, and felt nothing shift beneath the supple leather shoes tied around her feet.

Behind a boulder they gathered, squatting, and Idishe spoke loud and crisp with his hands to compensate for the dark.

Five sentries with bows. No sign of patrols. Idishe would take the west and the south sentries. Efeddre would take the north-east, east, and the steeple. They disappeared softly.

Ridiath heard the rattle of a rock, but it could have been water against the ice-rimed shore. Four breaths and Ibleton led them a winding path around the boulders to within a slingshot of a darker shadow in the overcast night. Ridiath rested her palm lightly on the pommel of her lhir. No sound came from the watchers on the walls. She could feel her clouded breath against her cheeks, hot and wet.

A soft scuff against stone, a great door swinging upward. They stayed still, and silent, fading into the piercing breeze. Someone stepped out, and the movement was like Efeddre, but they waited until he approached their hidden position, signaling them on.

Creeping inside, they met torchlight and a body in the fork of the wide entrance corridor. Gathering around Efeddre, his brown hands gave concise reports.

He paused and glanced behind his shoulder, and a heartbeat later Idishe slipped into the torchlight from the right fork, cleaning gore from his knives with a cloth.

Prison guards dispatched, Idishe signed one handed, sheathing his blades. Efeddre caught his attention, and something hard and intent passed between their impassive faces. Idishe nodded. Efeddre’s gaze switched to Ibleton, who gave the slightest jerk of his head. They were the only ones who knew the full extent of his plan.

Ibleton and Idishe conferred with their fingers, a slur of signs too fast to catch all what was being said. Ibleton gave the result.

Two groups, one to take each level except the prison level.

Idishe jabbed two fingers at Ridiath, then Efeddre, then Solme, and finally tapped his own mouth. Ibleton took stock of the division, and led Toney, Felghaim and Gerril down the right fork, their heels flicking out of the torchlight.

Idishe started down the left fork, a hall of chill, damp stone that seemed to swallow the air. Her weight settled into her feet, and she had to remind herself not to think.

The corridor opened into a large chamber, and Idishe slowed, taking it in, moving from memory. Ridiath let the room settle into the outline of all the charcoal maps sketched out on deck planks, knew they approached another corridor.

Only four soldiers slept in the first barracks. Sliding her knife through the first soldier’s throat, she was grateful. By the time he woke it was already too late. She smothered his gurgling with his blanket. Five, she whispered in her mind.

In the next barracks the last two managed to reach for their weapons, and one yelled before he died. Solme narrowly missed being gutted, a shallow slice across his belly.

Six.

At the gaping door to the third barracks, Idishe halted just outside the light of the next torch. Across her body Efeddre said something to Idishe with his fingers. Ridiath waited for them, her heart louder than her breath from the yell. Refocusing her attention, she could feel the readiness waiting inside. A soft push on her shoulder told her to stay.

The instant Efeddre slipped inside, she drew the length of her leg in iron from its scabbard. A gush of air, as of breath knocked out, and the sickening thud of Efeddre’s wooden yleflun connecting with flesh. Idishe ducked in after him, followed by a series of impacts, and an aborted cry. She stood ready with Solme at the corridor, waiting for any approach from either end, or for a soldier to burst out of the room.

Idishe emerged first, then Efeddre, a point bleeding through his tunic. Ridiath glanced at the wound, then down the corridor as they stepped back behind Idishe. They passed into the fiery puddle of another torch, and she closed one of her eyes against the light.

A soldier melted from around a bend, whirling faster than she could see to add deadly momentum to the swing of his massive blade. Idishe spun around him as Efeddre ducked under the swing and his yleflun landed on the soldier’s back, dropping him. Solme cut his throat as another soldier suddenly appeared and Idishe was already there, slashing, feinting. The soldier did not see Ridiath tight against the wall outside the rim of the light, and she knocked his blade-arm askew, swung out the way of his other fist, and slid her lhir up into his chest.

Seven, she thought.

He tried to use the last of his strength to gash her thigh and she dodged, twisting her blade, shredding his insides, then slashed his throat to be sure.

Surveyed the bodies, her pulse ran fast. Patrols unaware of them until they came on them, hopefully. The smell of shit and bile and raw meat floated to the back of her nose, lingering as she stared at the rumpled sheen of his intestines spilled on the stone.

They crept forward, hugging the curve of the wall.

At the next room, Efeddre went in alone.

She did not hear the fight, only the impact. Ridiath cast her senses up and down the corridor.

When Efeddre emerged, a soldier lay draped over his shoulder, one side of his face deformed. She counted nine piercings carved in bone and shell in the ear facing her, and her pulse jumped faintly.

They met no more resistance before the last doorway.

Idishe and Solme held the corridor as Efeddre stepped inside. Glancing at them, Ridiath cautiously followed.

Inside was a small round chamber capped with a vaulted ceiling, filled with faint drafts. They were within the steeple. A single torch burned.

Ridiath turned in a slow circle, the curve of her lhir held across her body. Her gut turned, not in horror, but in recognition.

A body hung by the ankles over a broad, shallow basin. Skin stretched over ribs and hips, head tied back by the hair to show windpipe and meat bulging out of the throat. Female, a body covered in too many wounds to have lived long enough for them to grow old, but they were old, had been old before she had finally died.

Efeddre dropped the soldier like a sack. Twisting his yleflun into the rope at his waist, he jumped up onto the rim of the basin. With quick efficiency he uncuffed the gaping wrists, then reached up to unbind the ankles, and gently gathered the body in his arms.

Efeddre laid her on the cold floor, then tossed the soldier’s body into the broad bowl as if he weighed nothing. Climbing up, Efeddre grabbed an ankle and hauled the body above his head, and shackled the soldier dangling above the basin.

Squatting, Efeddre took out his knife and methodically slit the soldier’s arms open from elbow to wrist. Blood flowed down his pale arms, down his palms, dripped off his fingers into the polished stone bowl, bleeding down a hole in its center.

She wondered, too removed to be sickened, if this was his vengeance. She could read nothing on his face.

From around the soldier’s neck he drew out something that dangled, and slipped it over his head.

In the corridor, the wasted body over one shoulder, he signed something short to Idishe with his free hand.

Have it.

Sharp, alert curiosity built under her sternum.

Idishe’s eyes flicked with acknowledgement, and he led them back down the corridor.

They checked each of the rooms on the way back down the hall. Nothing appeared to have been moved, and no one lay in wait. Back at the fork they found Felghaim standing guard just outside the ring of brightness surrounding the torch.

A dozen and a half down, he reported. No casualties. The rest were combing the upper level, checking for hiding places. Efeddre knelt and laid the mutilated body on the floor facing the wall. His intense gaze locked on Idishe.

The faintest nod of assent, and Idishe pointed Solme to stand guard with Felghaim. Standing, Efeddre pulled a thong weighted with a long, slim rod from around his neck. Taking it, Idishe examined it from end to end. Efeddre made for the right fork, and catching her eyes, Idishe tilted his head after.

Tracing the charcoal maps in her mind, Ridiath followed him into the dark. Idishe came two paces behind, so softly she could barely discern his presence even though she knew he was there. A pool of torchlight appeared in front of them, and the fire turned Efeddre’s lean shape into warm lines. He paused, turning back to her and tilting his head toward the torch. She obeyed with the slightest hesitation, lifting it out of the bracket and holding it at an angle where dripping pitch couldn’t scald her, and wondered; they didn’t need the torch.

The darkness solidified beyond the firelight as they moved on, blinded to anything beyond its reach.

Efeddre halted just at the light’s edge, and as she moved forward, she saw an opening in the corridor to the left, and the jagged shadows of steps. He started to climb and she followed, conscious of where she held the torch and her lhir, catching Idishe in the corner of her eye.

At the top of the brief, curving stair there stood a door, heavy wood banded with metal. Efeddre stood two steps down, and Ridiath lifted the torch as Idishe moved past her. She caught him kneeling in front of it, drawing the long rod out of his thick tunic, before she turned her awareness back down the portion of stair revealed by the curve of the steps.

There was the rasp and rattle of metal in metal, a long slide. Careful, measured sounds in sequence. Repeated. She found herself disturbed; she hadn’t known the Drifalcand had learned to use locks. Wood squeaked, thunked, a scrape, and air suddenly whispered past her face, pulling them forward. A ticklish, medicinal smell wafted into her nose and mouth, and Efeddre gestured her in.

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