Ridiath stepped in after Efeddre, found the door as thick as her torso.
The room was stacked with herbs and shells, hooves and powders, organs, the torchlight painting shapes and shadows in orange. Bales, crates, baskets, jars, all brimming, each clearly and simply marked.
Efeddre crossed room and squatted beside three wooden jars against one wall. He carefully twisted the tightly fitted lid off the nearest; it had no seal. In the torchlight the contents seemed clear, shining with a ripple, almost like water. A sharp, pungent smell reached her, filling her lungs, and Ridiath felt a jolt behind her eyes.
Efeddre pulled a small flask from a pouch on his rope belt, and submerged it in the dense liquid. When it was filled, he let viscous streams and beads drip back into the jar. She had never seen so much, and never so thick. One could have bought a ship with that flask. With those three jars one could have bought half of Endonsárre. Corking the flask, Efeddre stowed it back in the pouch.
Efeddre worked the lids off the two other jars. The pungent smell intensified. From inside his pouch Efeddre took a small bundle, and Ridiath watched as he carefully shook a portion of the grainy contents into each jar, until the cloth was empty. He refitted each lid, and studied the area all around. Licking his finger, he picked up something from the floor Ridiath couldn’t see.
Suddenly, she understood Efeddre’s plan.
He stood, raked the room with another glance, and turned. Ridiath followed, and he pulled the massive door shut behind her. Stepping back, he let Idishe move in with the key.
The pattern of rasps and thunks, and the door was locked fast again.
Glancing around at the walls, Efeddre handed Idishe his yleflun, then the rope belt, and began stripping off his clothes. Idishe accepted them, and when Efeddre waved them back, they retreated down several steps.
It was hard to see the shift in the dimness beyond the torch, but she could feel it; the air around them filled with a burst of warmth that was almost immediately sucked away, drawing cold air up the stairwell. The stair was barely wide enough to hold him now. Ridiath could only see his hind legs, padded toes splayed, gripping the steps, black-tipped tail batting against the wall.
Efeddre lunged, putting as much weight behind it as he could in the small space, and she heard wood and metal groan. A snarl vibrated in her chest, then she heard claws splintering wood. Wood cracked under another lunge. A growl and furious clawing.
After a silence, his tail and hind legs abruptly went out of focus with another flush of warmth, then receded out of the light. Efeddre met them at the base of the stair, wiry and naked, and retrieved his clothes. Idishe handed him the key.
She did not understand why he led them back down the left fork, but Idishe did nothing. Efeddre had motioned her to replace the torch on their way back, and while her eyes readjusted she moved by the feel of his heat ahead of her.
In the cold, airy chamber, he walked to a point slightly off its center, and set his yleflun aside as he sank into a crouch.
Ridiath took the position facing the corridor leading to the fork, and Idishe faced the corridor leading to the barracks. As she spread her attention through the chamber, she felt a sharp motion from Efeddre, and something shifted with a soft thunt.
He lifted a door out of the stone, setting the heavy board aside. Something crept up her spine, turned in her stomach.
She recognized that hole. She knew it from Ibleton’s stories.
No sound came out. She couldn’t see inside.
Efeddre reached in, and something started screaming.
Ridiath forced her eyes to the mouth of the corridor, alert for shadows that had not been there, movement. The thrashing, banging metal, wood, enraged screaming filled the chamber until it seemed as if all the air were taken up, and she heard Efeddre haul out a writhing, snarling body.
Efeddre absorbed the blows silently, then she heard him fall, as if he had allowed himself to be knocked onto his back. There was abrupt quiet, except for harsh breathing.
“Sabbad’yon derga. Mem ilo’krrek etros. ”
“Ilo tericht thret.”
The other voice did not respond.
She heard Efeddre stand, heard shifting.
Idishe preceded Efeddre, and Ridiath fell behind them, pacing almost backwards to keep the other end of the corridor in view.
Glancing behind her, she found a child twisting its head back to stare at her, eyes bizarrely calm.
At the fork, Ibleton had changed places with Solme. The men all stared at the child, who had buried its hands in the black hair at the nape of Efeddre’s neck, stick legs clamped to his waist, peering around his shoulder without expression.
Doctor stashed in a hide-hole, Ibleton said with slurred hands. Dead. No breeders. Two men moving through the prisoners.
He glanced at Ridiath.
Need you to see something.
At the end of the right fork climbed another stair. The ancient steps wound up to a long chamber supported by arches, lit with mirrored lamps. It was crammed with tables, shelves, jars, flasks, and the smell of bile and rot. Two giant vats took up the center of the space, one simmering over a bed of raked coals. She counted a soldier and four doctors dead.
As they passed the vats, Ridiath gazed into dark, rippling blood, a thick, floating coat of dense translucency draining in the barest trickle into the second vat. Ibleton led her through the stained and splattered tables to two that were occupied.
One was by a cadaver, a man, Secled or Endon, waxy-skinned and stinking of brine and postponed decay. The other was a Sergilé warrior the doctors had not bothered to kill before they began dissecting him.
He stared at the ceiling, eyes twitching, too fevered to realize they were there or understand why his guts were lying on the table beside him.
Ibleton made the sign for mercy kill, made it a question. But she waved him away, moving beside the table, laying down her lhir. She could smell the gently rippling rethor, already fading into the background of her senses.
Hands braced on the table, she stared at him, a face like any other Sergilé man, sharp square angles, dark hair and beard and eyes. She wondered, if with enough time, the rethor could save him.
Pressing her hand over his mouth and pinching his nose shut, Ridiath pried his head up and held her face over his. Even in his delirium he could not help but stare in her eyes as he died.
She did not know if she felt his essence leave his eyes to find a home in hers.
Ridiath let his head drop, and unsheathed her knife. Rolling his face to the side she found the thick beaded plait at the base of his skull, matted with blood and grime, and sawed it off, tucking it into a pocket inside her padded jerkin.
Done, she signed to Ibleton, reclaiming her lhir.
When they returned to the entrance, Efeddre sat on the stone, child in arms, its face buried in the pit of his shoulder. The mangled body seemed so cold, and quiet lying on the stone, yet loud, like a shout. Solme and Toney had returned from the prison level, all the prisoners killed.
Efeddre looked up at Ibleton, then Idishe. Ibleton gave the signal.
Standing, Efeddre moved toward Toney.
“Yenne methala mem.,” he said quietly, and Toney held out his arms.
The child clung, twisting, emitting a rising screech. Some of the men immediately eyed the corridors.
The child was abruptly silent, staring at Toney, eerily impassive. When Toney reached out again, the child allowed itself to be passed over, transferring its grip to Toney’s meaty shoulders. Efeddre stripped again, handing Toney his things, except for the key around his neck.
Ibleton led the way out into the slick, icy night, and Idishe brought up the rear as Efeddre disappeared down the left corridor. She thought she knew what the patrols would find when they came back to Laschdarvi.
They waited, hidden among the rocks, while Idishe scouted out the galley. Fis and Oraun were ready for them.
This was the tensest part of the waiting, the waiting before the end. Ridiath’s ears strained into the night, tried to spread themselves between the rocks, over the icy water where the river met the ocean. She was hypersensitive to any noise on the galley, feared the child crying out. But the child made no sound.
She did not hear Efeddre return, did not sense him creep on board with his lifeless burden. Only felt Gerril’s reaction when he realized Efeddre was there. The signal passed up the length of the boat, and Ridiath laid her hands on the oars in front of her, felt the others settle into position.
When they reached deep water at the first blue light before sunrise, Efeddre gently lowered the body into the ocean, and let it drift away.
Before she slept she sent a message to Demhlei.
Don’t use any new rethor.