Egreall’s breathing had turned short, and harsh.
Cosag cradled him in his lap, fever sweat sliding in beads down his waxy forehead. The smell of rot in his leg had begun to stain the air. Heshher’s body hadn’t begun to stink, still rigid, not yet gone soft. There was barely enough air for them all, not enough space for everyone to crouch, not quite enough ceiling to stand up. Ashur watched the empty corridor through the lattice of the brickwork, the smothering weight of the sweat of two and a half dozen men packed practically skin to skin and the tang of piss filling his nostrils, invading his tongue.
The fort had been built in white stone from the surrounding hills, but the midday sun at the height of the storm season still turned it into an oven. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. No one had fainted. Ashur passed his eyes over the heads crowding the cell. Naal massaged the back of Tande’s neck where he huddled into his arms. He was likely to be one of the first to snap, and knew it.
There was at least a door. They weren’t mortared in. This was a temporary prison; they would have to be moved, to another cage, or to be executed. Unless the execution would be to simply let them cook to death without water.
Idishe was in the cell next to them, with the other men. He knew how the door locked, but he couldn’t reach the mechanism. Not even Dhomlar’s bizarre flexibility could, though he had tried until his missing fingertips started bleeding again.
They hadn’t seen a guard since the night before, no one to even beg from. No one to threaten them into silence, either, but there wasn’t enough air to talk, not enough energy to sign anymore. They didn’t know if their ship was still moored in the river down-valley from the fort or if the Secled army had flown it toward the Widest Water. With enough will Ashur thought he could have convinced the brick to crumble, but the instant he had been dragged at the point of a lhir onto the wind-eaten pile of white stone his senses had died; he had only his ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and fingers. All those and he was still blind, somehow numb. The rock did not speak to him. He could not push beyond himself to feel the baked stone slopes with their swathes of green or the cool drag of the river, could not even sense the patterns of the men around him.
There wasn’t enough room to stretch out Egreall’s fevered body, so they had curled his knees to his chest, his dark, dark skin somehow sickeningly grey. Other than Egreall the worst were Dhomlar’s fingers, and Lamdek’s shoulder had been shattered by the back of a lhir. Kashen had been stabbed in the gut but they couldn’t smell any bile, and he hadn’t taken fever yet. Near the back of the cell Mehth kept fading in and out of sleep from a blow to the head, and Ashur could hear Toney softly coaxing him back to wakefulness.
Light reached into the corridor fronting the cells from either side, the archways leading to the high vantage of the fort. Ashur stared through the mortared cage at the stretching fingers of it, watching it melt across the stone, hot, exhausted bodies filling his peripheral vision.
His eyes shifted when the heavy movement and defined pace of men wearing chain mail and a lhir on their right side filled the corridor, then their preceding shadows. The Secled commander who had captured them, an eerlon, appeared, followed by two of his soldiers and one other.
The stranger moved free of mail but he wore a lhir, and a knife concealed in one long sleeve. He was big for Secled, his long hair yellow, loose. Ashur could find no sign of rank on his dark overtunic, no jewelry to tell him of wealth. His cloth was cut in the Secled style, all closed seams, unremarkable. But as he slowly sat he shifted his scabbard so that his lhir was out of the way and still clear to draw with a practiced twist. By the weathering of his squared face and his grey-less hair he had lived to maybe just before his half-life by Secled standards. The eerlon stood to his left, another soldier flanking his other side, young, the embroidered insignia on his surcoat marking him newly minted. The last soldier was older, more seasoned, and stood by his eerlon.
Sitting, the stranger’s eyes were level with Ashur’s where he knelt on one knee in the cell.
“Who speaks for you?” His voice was low, words distinct. Ashur said nothing. The eerlon answered for him.
“The red-brown one at the front called the surrender. The harle.” Ashur’s eyes flicked to him, shifting his head minutely so he could keep both men in view. The holes in the lattice were barely wide enough to stick his arm through. Behind him the men were quiet, even their breathing softened, everyone straining to hear.
“The eerlon reports you were caught pirating up the river,” said the Secled on the floor. The eerlon shifted, his expression tensely uncomfortable. It caught Ashur’s attention. An eerlon was second or third only to a thocas. He commanded all the men in the fort. Ashur kept him in his peripheral vision through another open square in the lattice, watching his reactions as he focused on the stranger.
In Seclednar Ashur said, “Water and meat are what any man needs to live. There aren’t enough Secled to need all the water in the river or tramplers in the hills.” The man’s eyes were steady, even.
“What about grain, from the fields?”
Ashur said nothing.
“The eerlon says there are three dead in the two villages you raided.”
“And one of mine already from the eerlon and his men, and soon to be another,” Ashur snapped, desperate anger finally seeping into his voice. Something in the Secled’s eyes shifted, almost like interest, but somehow more primitive.
“How many wounded have you?”
“We surrendered, so that should tell you plenty. Five harsh enough that sitting in this cesspit isn’t doing their lifespan any favors, and one who’s just this side of cold.” Ashur paused, gathering the words, any ploy to convince them to keep them alive. Egreall wouldn’t live through the night. If they were alive they could find opportunities to escape; there were none in death. “Let our doctor from the next cell in here to tend to him, or take him to one of yours. Convict-slaves are more useful alive.”
Ashur didn’t need to look at the eerlon, or have his other senses to feel his stiff, dismissive anger, but the man sitting across the lattice from him was watching him, considering.
“You would serve a slave sentence?”
“I’d rather labor than die.”
The stranger said nothing. The young soldier to his left shifted, restless, while the eerlon stared into the cell, eyes hard. Ashur swallowed back any arguments or appeals. Any mercy he would have to come to himself.
“Bring the worst wounded to the door,” the stranger said finally. “The rest of you back away. Use this as an attempt to escape and you forfeit all your men’s lives.”
The eerlon straightened abruptly. A heartbeat of shock froze him, then Ashur was pushing himself into a crouch, stepping between and over Egreall’s curled legs, helping Cosag drag him closer to the door. There was nowhere to back to, but with a shuffle of sweaty limbs everyone in the cell managed to cram themselves closer to the far wall.
Bending over the stranger, the eerlon was hissing protest, “I cannot support this.”
“I understand your reservations,” the man replied softly, eyes watching them through the heavy brick of the lattice.
“There is no useful reason—”
“Do it. Now.”
The eerlon froze over the man, rigid. Abruptly he straightened, motioning to one of the soldiers, his squared jaw clenched.
As the young soldier stepped toward the door, Ashur noticed how the bulk of his armor made his frame look too big his face, his features not yet filled out. Someone’s knee dug into his back, and he could sense the shallow breathing of every body touching him. Against his side Ashur could feel Tande almost shuddering, eyes clenched and chin ducked so he could not see the door open. Naal held him, head pressed against his brushy beard, comfort, but ready to grab him if he broke.
The soldier unlocked the door with cautious precision, lifting the bolt out of its socket, sliding it to the side, pulling down again. The rasp and screech of iron against iron covered up the sounds of all the shallow breaths.
The weight of the door gave to his touch, moving outward, and Ashur was still, very still, willing everyone else to stay just as still. The eerlon had his lhir half drawn, ready to clear its scabbard before any of them could clear the door.
The young soldier dragged Egreall’s fevered body out by the ankles until he was past the arc of the door. He moved to lock them in again and Ashur was seized by a sensation like he had just been allowed to breathe, and now the rope was tightening around his neck again. The dread lodged itself in his chest.
“Wait, thiridg,” the yellow-headed Secled on the corridor floor said. The soldier halted, but looked at his eerlon. The eerlon ground his teeth and said nothing. “You are harle?” The Secled’s eyes found him through the open door. “Then you can carry him.”
Ashur stared for a blank breath, his second shock, feeling the stillness of the men behind him, of his men in the next cell. Before they stepped into the numbing white stone of the fort he would have been their best chance of escape, and if he could turn this—
He could also escape alone. He felt it as some of the men around him felt it, an inevitable calculation. Leaning over beneath the low ceiling, Ashur stepped forward slowly.
“Crawl,” the eerlon growled, fist wrapped around his half-drawn lhir.
He did. He crawled across the suddenly empty front half of the cell, smelling the sweat and piss and fear soaked into the stone, keeping his head and his eyes low. As he passed the threshold of the door, he moved past Egreall and knelt, forehead against the warm stone, hands stretched out in front of him. He couldn’t see any of his men in his peripheral vision, knew they were watching him, didn’t risk looking.
Ashur heard the sandy scrape of the door shutting behind the soles of his feet, felt the soldier walk by him, and wasn’t surprised by the vicious boot to his side. He didn’t try to stop the explosive sound of breath and pain, didn’t try to guard his body. He took it, hands out in front of him, keeping his eyes to the stone as jagged pain clawed through his side. There was a pause, the boiled leather of the boots just barely visible over the edge of his arm, the soldier waiting, maybe wanting, for him to fight.
The boot lifted again, not a kick this time, but a shove to the ribs, toward Egreall’s body. Ashur moved slowly, keeping low, easing past the stitch of pain in his flank. He pushed Egreall onto his side. It was a struggle after the heat and fasting to get him upright enough to balance on his shoulders, trying to keep a grip on his sweaty skin. The standing was easier, once he got the weight balanced. He kept his gaze ahead, not looking at his men, not looking at any of the Secled.
The stranger was already on his feet. Ashur was considered tall by the people on this continent, but he realized the man was taller, though he was not as tall as Fis. Ashur couldn’t see his face, but he felt as if he were followed by some neutral expression that gave him no sense of where he stood in the man’s estimation.
In his peripheral vision Ashur saw a hint of a tipped chin, and the man said, “Ahead.”
He moved toward the bright archway at the end of the corridor, feeling the eyes and blades at his back. As he emerged, the fierceness of the high sun glaring off the rock burned his eyes, but he kept walking as his vision adjusted, knowing he had room until he had to start avoiding the plunging wall. Ashur caught the impressions of three more armored figures, and plotted the distance and angles between every soldier on the deck.
“Down,” the man directed as they reached a towering flight of steps cutting straight up through the walls.
Behind him, the eerlon’s harsh voice, “It is already an idiotic risk to let two out—”
The tall Secled didn’t say anything, but the eerlon abruptly cut himself off, and Ashur heard two sharp orders.
As he tested the first step he couldn’t find a reason why the man would take them out of the main bulk of the fort. But if he led them close enough to the edge of the stonework—
This was the way they had been marched up, which meant it led down to the river, and maybe their ship. In his mind he mapped the rock flats and trails of deeper green they had passed, roped hand to neck. He measured the distance between the stair and the first white stone, his chances of reaching the border if he bolted, how he could use his power against the soldiers, how he could hold hostage a man who could quell an eerlon’s protests. It would have been almost suicide to attempt to run down the stair, which might have been one reason they didn’t bother to put a guard in front of him who he could kick down to land broken at the bottom.
In the well of the stair, the shade was almost as delicious as water. He worked his mouth, trying to moisten his throat. The steps were dangerously uneven, first short and narrow, then steep and tall. Picking his way carefully, testing every single step, Ashur moved half sideways to give himself better footing and so Egreall’s head didn’t drag against the wall.
At the base of the fort the stony slopes opened before them into the vale of the river, interrupted by the remains a narrow, pitted road of white flagstone. The Secled couldn’t claim to have built the fort. They found it already old. A shuddering burn ached in his thighs from having to take the uneven steps down while carrying another man’s weight. Emerging from the stair, the stranger came even with him, and the hair at the nape of his neck prickled as he felt the guards moving closer.
Neither of the soldiers who had accompanied the eerlon to the cells were their guards, a pair generic Secled faces who scanned the slope as if they didn’t expect anything, hands on their weapons more out of habit than readiness.
The tall Secled considered the land with more purpose, and led them slightly downhill toward the shade of a small copse of slender weaver trees, each of their interlacing tines barely three fingers wide. Ashur still couldn’t think of a reason why the man would lead his prisoners away from the fort, and neither of the soldiers had a doctor’s insignia. But he kept his anticipation contained, not letting his eyes give him away.
Ashur stepped off the weed-cracked flagstone, and his perception of the world punched back into focus, crushing him, there as if it had never been gone and overwhelming. He staggered a little under Egreall’s weight. He could feel the voice of the sun and the ageless patterns of the vale, how the ice had crushed and folded it on its ancient creep southward. And through the din of mating spiders and hawks hunting hidden nets he suddenly understood why the stranger had wanted to leave the fort.
The tall Secled had twisted abruptly toward him, and there were no more power games between captor and captive because they were just staring at each other. Ashur wondered if he had the same look of unguarded shock painted across his face for anyone to see, and thought he must.
In the eerie numbness of the fort, he had not felt it. Had been blind to that dense knot of potency, of ability in the stranger’s center, as if it were a layered ball he could have cupped in his palms.
The guards weren’t paying attention, hadn’t noticed the stillness between them.
“Feeling insecure?” Ashur asked dryly, quiet. The man raised his yellow eyebrows.
Ashur glanced down toward the stranger’s waist, where he had already cleared two fingers of sharp iron from his scabbard. The Secled’s eyes followed the glance, then an instant of naked surprise, and he quickly sheathed the blade and let his hand drop, turning as if to hide the movement from the eerlon’s men.
“Put him there,” he directed, gesturing with his chin to a level patch of duff in the deeper shade. Ashur sank carefully into a crouch, gently easing Egreall to the ground on his back. The wound in his thigh had started sluggishly bleeding again, laced with pus. Ashur could feel the stickiness of it through the shoulder of his tunic. “Stay at the edge of the trees,” the stranger ordered the soldiers. “Don’t interrupt me.” Compared to the eerlon’s fury they seemed more exasperated, and moved closer to the edge of the copse without argument.
The tall Secled kept flicking glances at Ashur as he moved to Egreall.
“Back up. On the ground,” he said, in a different tone than he had ordered the soldiers. “Hands behind your head.” Ashur shuffled back and lowered himself onto his stomach, holding the man’s eyes, a challenge he wouldn’t have dared before. The stranger gave him one last lingering, somehow furtive look before his attention focused on Egreall, fingers teasing out the crusty knot holding the ragged bandage over the wound.
Ashur watched the slow slide of his hands, mesmerized, feeling him move beyond his skin and into Egreall. The man traced the raw edges with his thumbs, dipping his fingers into the bloody hole, feeling the skin on the inside of Egreall’s thigh. Ashur’s sense of him wove in and out of Egreall’s flesh like a ribbon, some organ of perception he had never encountered before.
He moved beyond the wound, tracing something under skin and muscle down Egrealls’ leg, over the knee and across the shin. Then he ran his flattened palms up Egreall’s belly, pushing under his tunic, lingering over his heart. His hands were pale against Egreall’s skin.
Ashur felt him recede slowly into himself, like a tide pulling out.
“I can’t help him.”
Ashur almost stood up on his knees, drawing the half-interested attention of one of the Secled guards, and kept his hands laced firmly behind his head.
“What do you mean?” he demanded, voice low, cracking from his thirst. “Why?”
“The infection has reached his blood,” the man said, rocking back on his heels to stand, long streaks of his yellow hair bright against the vest his overtunic.
“What do you mean?” Ashur demanded again. He reached out and jabbed the knot of power cradled in the man’s core, and watched him stagger as he stood, even though he barely swayed. His pale brown eyes were faintly wide as he stared down at Ashur. “You have that. You can reach the infection.” Composure recovered, his eyes slid briefly to the guards, who barely paid attention.
“I can… understand, things that others might not,” he said quietly. Ashur realized with a queer tilt of his perception that the man might never have tried to speak of this before, that he didn’t know how. “But I still have only my hands, and my eyes, and the gifts of the land. It would take at least two days to even tell if the infection could be coaxed out, and I don’t have the plants I need to help me, or the air.”
Ashur stared at him. Impossible. Impossible that someone could have been born with that gift and not be able to use it. Along the River, anyone with that—
He pushed himself past his skin, encompassing the man, offering, demanding. “Use this.” He glared. “You can feel it.” He could. Ashur could see it in the guarded impassivity of his face, that he could feel Ashur like Ashur could feel him.