The darkness was a gift.
Sunlight reached through an open strip at the peak of the roof, but it never penetrated more than a footspan into his cell, casting brief, checkered shadows.
Sometimes he could forget some of what he heard, but he never forgot what he saw.
“Come on, don. Gimme your hand, don, c’mere.”
Rher didn’t open his eyes.
The sound of the iron-banded door cracking, and Coasd’s gimp tread, weighted by rusted mail, followed by eager shuffling.
“Line up,” he called, gruff. Rher opened his eyes, and moved to the front of the cell on all fours.
“C’mere,” the Egg said. “Just gimme your hand.”
Rher caught a glimpse of his sweat-shined face, his black tooth as he grinned through the hole in the wall between their cells.
The Egg had been bricked in just before the last cold season. He had found a chink in the wall, and with his fingernails and a chunk of brick he had worried at that chink until one day Rher looked over to see a wet eye staring at him.
He had carved and carved a whole year and more, until he could fit his fingers through, then his arm. Rher had stayed away from that side of the cell since.
A pale, rag-nailed hand waved at him.
“Just gimme your hand, don. Gimme your hand.”
Coasd limped one cell closer, and the Egg’s arm disappeared. As the guard reached his cell, Rher cupped his hands under the wooden spout shoved through one of the squares of the lattice, catching the sticky slide of porridge, half chaff and barely warm against his skin.
Coasd’s lined Secled face disappeared as he pulled the spout out and moved to the next cell. Rher slurped the gruel from his hands, carefully probing for old bones with his tongue before he swallowed. Coasd went up one side and down the other, left to refill the pail, then came back for the second round.
“Come on, Coasd, a little more, we could be cousins,” the Rage said at the end of the row, wheedling.
“Shut up before I stick something sharp in there,” Coasd told him, and disappeared through the door.
It wouldn’t matter how much he swallowed, there was hardly anything in it. Rher hadn’t felt full for two years.
He stood, and stretched, bending at the waist and resting his elbows on the dusty brick floor. He pissed in the narrow latrine lining the back of the row of cells, then dropped his pants and squatted, hanging his ass out over the pit. Yesterday’s gruel came out in about the same condition it had gone in. The stench of weeks old piss and shit wafted out. The latrine was sloped; occasionally they diverted a stream of the river to flush it out.
It was too narrow to crawl from cell to cell. There had been a little farmer man, tiny thing, who had tried. He had gotten stuck, halfway above the reek. The guards hadn’t come to get him out. For half a twelveday they had to listen to him scream and beg, until the screaming turned to moans, and then just a smell, until the lizards slithered in to lay their clutches in his rotting belly and eat their way out.
Coasd came back in with a sloshing bucket, pouring it in the same way, pausing long enough for each man to have three cupped handfuls. He was either feeling magnanimous or lazy, because he went around again. They usually got water twice a day, or sometimes all of it at once. Occasionally Coasd would give them extra, but not Taghil.
As soon as Coasd had barred the door behind him, a voice came from the cell across from his.
“Think he come back, don?”
“Mebbe, Rher said.
The sound of shifting, the length of a scrawny leg broken up by checkered bricks.
“Maybe we no use the water talking, don? But I like talk,” Lukufá sighed. “Nice, normal talk, or I go crack, oh? Like Egg.”
Rher’s memory instantly provided him with a dozen images of the black-toothed face grinning at him through the hole.
“Tell me a story,” he said lazily. The Egg started scratching at his hole with his fingernails, spitting to moisten the brick.
“It have be story short,” Lukufá said. The Duchy merchant at the end of Rher’s row had begun singing, long, high, soft sounds, and the a voice in the cell beside him started growling, “Stop, stop, stooop. Stop. Stop,” until he muttered himself quiet.
Two years since they had mortared Rher in, and there had been three men across from him. He remembered almost every instant of those two years, every face, every seam, every brick.
The first man had been a Secled wain driver who had fed the Endon merchant who hired him to the limbihte, raped the accountant half to death and meant to sell their wares down the coast, before the merchant’s contact in Lum had set the city garrison on him. He was big, all raw, hard muscle. He had said he was going to stay strong, fight his way out. He had run in place in his cell every day, pushed his own weight off the floor a gross of times before he let himself rest.
He had eaten himself alive, running leagues in his cell even as he withered away. The teeth-rotting porridge they got couldn’t feed that kind of work. When he was too weak to even eat, the guards left him, then chipped his body out and mortared a frantic, wild-eyed Duchy sailor in.
He hadn’t done anything, he said. It was his harle’s treachery. His uncle would come for him. He moaned and wept, slate black arms reaching through the lattice, hanging limply when he’d exhausted himself. Finally he hit his head against the wall one too many times.
The last one was Lukufá. He was from Crec, a farmer who had been born in the lee of the mountain that bled fire. He knew enough Donse to say he had lost his people in the shaking earth, and been picked up wandering the coast by an Endon crew, who didn’t tell him while they fed him that they were going to fly him far away, to another ocean. The Secled had taken him for piracy. Rher believed him. It was a common enough story.
“Well,” Lukufá started, “Once big herdbeast wander to village, but that herdbeast is idol, oh? Head prongs curly, not like your herdbeasts. And tramples the squashes and the beans. And daughter eldest says, ‘Stop! Stop! I your woman if you stop…’”
Rher crossed his legs, and closed his eyes. The wain driver had worked to stay strong. The Egg carved at his hole. Rher slept most the day and night. He sat, without resting his back against the wall. He stretched, every day, kept his body loose. He clenched his muscles one by one until they burned, then let them relax. He stood, walked around his cell once a day. When he didn’t want to move, he stretched again. When he didn’t want to eat, he did.
The thunk of the bar lifting, and the crack of the door. Lukufá’s voice and the singing abruptly stopped, low conversations abruptly hung in the air.
Taghil walked in, ignoring them. He was younger than Coasd, barely out of his prime. Not crippled, that Rher had ever noticed. He still oiled his mail, and always wore his lhir. Theories were he had either beat his eerlon to the dirt or fucked his eerlon’s woman.
Taghil walked past and sat on the stone bench in the middle of the walkway between the cells for his watch. No one made a sound they didn’t have to.
Lhir naked across his knees, Taghil stayed through his entire watch. He observed every protocol, pacing the length of the walkway five times, staring into each cell to scrutinize all dozen and a half of his charges on each pass. Rher could feel the cut of his gaze, but didn’t open his eyes.
But when the door cracked again, followed by a light step, he did.
A girl slipped by the lattice of his cell, half skin, half bone, with little pointy tits.
“Who let you in?” Taghil said, looking up.
She jerked her chin toward the door.
“Said you might have a bowl for me.”
“I don’t want whatever’s hiding between those nasty knees. Go tell Coasd I don’t want his bones.”
“Come put that ass against this hole and I’ll give you a bowl,” the Rage at the end of the row called. She didn’t look at him.
“I washed,” she said sullenly.
“Get out, before you get a beating.” Taghil was turning away, but Rher was watching the surreal vision of the girl reaching under her skirt and bringing a mallet down on the back of his head. Taghil crumpled at the knees, landing hard on his jaw.
“Killim! Killim!” the Egg shrieked. Shuffles and padding feet, faces pressed against the lattice. The rest were smart enough to shut up. Taghil was moving, sluggishly, hips pushing up as he tried to draw his lhir. Climbing on his back the girl wrapped one scrawny arm around his neck, gripping it with her other hand for leverage. Choking, Taghil tried to buck her off, scrabbling at her hands, trying to grab her hair. She let him, bearing down harder. Boots scraping against the worn brick, he managed to flop onto his back, landing on her, but she held on. A wheezing gurgle.
He wasn’t moving, when she crawled out from under him, breathing heavy. With a measured swing, she hit the side of his head with the mallet again.
Straightening, she looked around, the wave of her brown hair tangled around her shoulders.
“I want a man named Rher.”
He stayed quiet, in the shadows of his cell.
“And what’f I were?” the Cutthroat said from the cell across and to the left.
She didn’t say anything for heartbeat.
“Do you remember being born?”
Rher heard him suck his teeth.
Rher pushed himself up, and walked to the lattice.
“S’me you want.”
She turned, studying him without taking a step closer. He braced his hand against the brick, watching her through a narrow square.
“I remember shooting outta my momma’s cunt, and I remember my first breath of air. It tasted like wood dust. And I remember you,” he said slowly, her sharp, square features registering, a younger face still recognizable beneath the now, “standing with your sister on the High-Sun. You wore yellow, with a green mantel. You gave me a stick of charcoal I could trace the embroidery. She wore a ship’s worth of green, with her hair done up for the Sergilé. She put her hand on your shoulder and said something, and you put your fingers in hers.”
Without a word, she stepped forward, reaching under her skirt again.
“So what’s this about?”
She pulled an iron spike to join the mallet, and voices erupted, dialects of Seclednar, Donse, Duchy-tongues, hands straining through the lattice.
He was suddenly on full alert. She started gauging the brick, noncommittally placed the spike.
“Here,” he said, gesturing, and she passed the mallet and the spike through a hole in the lattice.
He’d had years, two years to find every weakness in the mortar, two cold seasons to dribble his water ration into the cracks whenever it got cold enough to freeze.
He hit the first weak spot, and the mortar crumbled. A few more hits and the first brick was out.
“Pass me pass me! Gimme gimme right here right here!” the Egg shrieked, scrabbling at the hole.
He pounded the spike into the next crevice, and said, a little out of breath, “Other guard?” Coasd hadn’t been active in the army in a dozen years, but he still had a lhir.
“Dead. Ecrembl’s watching.”
His arms burned, starved and unused, almost turning numb, the mallet ridiculously heavy. He kept pounding, and the girl wrapped her hands around the next brick, jerking it out. In the chaos of voices he went for another cracked seam, flecks of mortar hitting his eyes, and she started kicking.
Kicking a toothy brick out, Rher ducked, and wormed out of the hole, twisting to scrape himself the rest of the way out.
“You give me those or I’ll kill you!” the Rage screamed, slamming himself against the lattice over and over. “I’ll kill you you give me those I’ll kill you!”
“We need these anymore?” On his feet, he hefted the spike and the mallet.
A hesitation, then she shook her head.
He could see the dark eyes in the cell across from his, ragged black hair, skin the kind of pale that said it would have been golden if there were light.
He pushed the spike through, then the mallet, clasping Lukufá’s hand.
“I hope you find your people.” Then he ran after her through the door.
She dragged them through a fen. As soon as they had slipped out of the garrison block, an overcast sky rolling in from the ocean, she had them crawling up to their necks in filmy brown water, under the dense thickets of cane. If the garrison had tried to follow them they would have drowned in all their iron.
Come dusk they had finally broken out onto a raised, stony bed, and for two breaths she looked completely, devastatingly lost. Her mouth tightened, and she crashed through some waist-high hummocks of sedge. Rher braced his hands on his thighs, a compromise between standing and falling over and sitting and not being able to get up. Ecrembl wasn’t much better, leaning on his stick, stump leg dangling. The girl had disappeared in the brush except for her shoulders and head when Ecrembl caught her waving them over.
She was standing on another patch of little stones, rummaging through a bag. On the ground there were a few blankets wrapped in an oiled hide, and she handed Ecrembl the bag, ripping into a dried fish with her teeth.
The escape from the garrison had been too easy.
Their path had been clear, the gate unbarred, unguarded. She knew too much about the fen. It was bizarre, seeing her half-starved, draped in rags, mire still dripping down her neck.
“Whaddo I call you?” Rher said. “Because no way in eight storms am I saying your name.”
She looked at him with her dark eyes, stripping another hunk of fish off the brittle ribs.
“Ridiath,” she said. He thought about it, rolling it around. It sounded like the Seclednar word for cord, “ridyad.”
When Ecrembl took first watch, she lay tucked at his back like it was nothing. Distant fireglow stained the silhouettes of the brush in the direction of the garrison, the night filled with a murmur of distant activity. But no one moved into the fen.
Come morning, Rher drifted, half awake, the unfamiliar comfort of skin and warmth at his back. He stretched a little, and abruptly the girl rolled away, popping to her feet. Glancing over, he saw her back turned, arms crossed tight over her ribs.
“You don’t have to worry ’bout that,” he said, muscles heavy and bruised, joints grinding as he pushed himself sitting. “You starve long enough, you can’t even get stiff. Prob’bly been near two years since I even rubbed myself.”
He remembered who he was talking to, the strangeness of it taking over. Rher found her looking over her shoulder at him, and there was almost something wrong with how expressionless she was, like her personality had retreated behind her face.
“You don’t need a cock to rape.”
He stared at her.
She had a firekit in the bag, but they didn’t risk the smoke. Chewing on a handful of oily kernels from some inland plant, she tapped a stone with a shrubby stem.
“At least two of the others may be convict-slaves on the road to Camanl.” She had dropped any hint of Lum’s street dialect, her Seclednar suddenly crisp and formal. “Your harle and crew escaped with one of Secled’s better ships. To my knowledge they are still abroad. How would we find them, without compromising them?”
“Mina ormiet, who else got caught?” Ecrembl scrubbed at his face. “I don’ even remember. Tande.”
“Rie.” The memory of the fight on the docks appeared behind Rher’s eyes in sharp, perfect detail, rich in depth and color. “S’there anyone else, after?” he asked.
“I only know of four of you, for certain.”
“What about the Jueden?” Ecrembl asked, pushing shaggy, matted blonde hair out of his face. It was strange to see it so long, almost made him look Secled. Rher supposed it might do the same to him. They said a man who didn’t have a friend to cut his hair wasn’t a man worth dealing with, but Rher wasn’t willing to waste the edges of their knives.
“He suicided. Rather than submit to execution.”
Ecrembl looked at his loosely clasped hands.
He sucked his teeth, spat.
“Bet for him.” He hauled himself up with his crutch, and Rher watched her eyes follow him, something there he couldn’t read.
Two more days she hauled them through the fen, knowing her way like she had no right knowing. They were lucky a windstorm had moved through a couple of days ago, carrying away most of the biters. A few times he found himself looking around at nothing, just bushes and sedge and puddles, a movement catching his eye, or a sound. The faint taste of salt in the air called to him, made him look west.
When they stopped to rest, squatting in the muck, Ecrembl moved in closer, keeping his voice low.
“Someone’s following us.”
He glanced at Rher, drawing out his knife.
“Don’t,” the girl said. “He’s with me.”
They glanced at each other, then at her.
“What, he guarding you?” said Rher.
“He guarding you against us?”
Rher stared at her, hard.
“Are you a threat to me?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
“Then he has to reason to guard me from you.”
Rher and Ecrembl looked at each other again. Unconcerned, she chewed more fish.
“Don’t try to expose him. There’s a reason he’s not here.”
“And if we do, outta circumstance?” Rher asked.
She grinned, brief, and sharp.
Rher kicked at the poles barring the door, squeezed between them, and felt something die in the pit of his stomach.
“Oh sweet friend. Sweet friend.”
He sank to his knees by Rie’s tangled, dusty body, reaching out to touch him as Tande scrambled inside, the baking heat suddenly cooled in the shadows of the mud-bricked pen.
“Rie?” Tande said desperately, leaning over his face. “Rie.”
“Tell me this is real,” he wheezed, voice sticky, cracked.
Ridiath was working at the poles, using her weight to rock them back and forth, loosening their grip in the parched earth.
Rie’s upper arm was broken through, an angle where there wasn’t supposed to be an angle that made Rher’s stomach flip over, bumps on his face in all the wrong places, eyes swollen shut, sticky, sand-smeared cuts all over his body.
“Best you know, Rie, how broke up are you?”
“Not’s bad as it could be,” he coughed. “Prob’ly heal up good. Could still go real bad.”
“We move you we gonna make it worse?”
“Not gonna know ’til, huh?”
“We need to leave,” Ridiath said abruptly. She had crawled in after them, the door clear.
“Moving him too quick could break him up worse.”
“If he’s that broke up then he’s not worth bringing.”
“Just, give us a breath, woman.” Rher tried to scrape his fingers through his hair, got caught in the tangles, tugged at it helplessly with both hands. If he got Rie on his back he could still fit through the door— But who knew what his ribs were like—
“We have to leave now,” she said. “The overseers are coming.”
“How c’you possibly know that?” Rher hissed.
“Who’s salt pedlar’s whore is she?” Tande demanded, a whispered shriek.
“Soon as you think about it you’ll figure it out quick,” Rher snapped, but Ridiath had drawn her knife and pressed it to the dark, slack skin at Rie’s neck.
“We leave. Now.”
“Laberd, don’t be dramatic. We’re going, we’re going.”
“Listen to her,” Ecrembl called from the outer corner of the pen, voice pitched low. “I can hear ’em.”
Rher grabbed the arm that looked like it might not be broken and as careful as he could hauled Rie onto his back, Tande supporting his lolling head. He didn’t scream. Just rattled out a tight breath, almost like a whimper.
Abandoning his post, Ecrembl crutched across the dusty barracks block and into the grass, Rher and Tande behind him, keeping low. Ridiath took enough time to crudely straighten the poles, then dashed after them.
Most of a pass they’d been walking, kydele’s curtain lining the eastern night, slowly fading the closer they came to Camanl. A caravan had passed them, moving north, mostly breeders and children. All night they listened to talking and laughing and playing and fucking, before they picked up camp, leaving a trampled scar, full of charcoal and shit pits. They had stayed well away from the road, until Ridiath had insisted she knew where the crew was working.
It hadn’t been hard to spot Tande; there was only one other slate man levelling the road to Camanl. It didn’t matter that it had been two years, Rher knew the shape of Tande’s shoulders, his gait, the way he moved. The trick had been waiting until he was almost alone to snatch him. The Secled didn’t waste iron on chains. They branded the convict-slaves and fed deserters to the limbihte.
He had panicked when they grabbed him, flailing in the tall grass and sucking in a shuddery scream, too low to be heard on the road.
“Easy, Tande, easy.”
Breathing hard, his wild eyes focused on them, and he had said, “You need a haircut.”
“You must have friends here,” Rher teased, giving him a hand up, looking at Tande’s oily, shaved scalp, and the thick, pink keloid cross on his forehead.
“Nits,” he said.
“When was the last time you saw Rie?” Ecrembl said, voice low and urgent. “You know if they sent him somewhere else? Tande had been eyeing Ridiath, keeping watch on the road through a veil of grass. Tande’s face had turned suddenly devastated.
They were lost in the grass by the time they heard shouts. Rher’s stomach clenched, waiting for some sign, some sound from the limbihte, but all he heard was more shouting. Flying luck the wind picked up, washing through the plains to hide them crawling through. They must have crawled for a league before they were out of sight of the barracks, the plains so flat you could see everything going and coming for days. Tande was able to carry Rie for a while; they didn’t feed convict-slaves any better than they did prisoners, but he said working the road you learned you could do more than you thought. If they could have made a stretcher even Ridiath would have been able to drag him, but they didn’t risk the time it would take to try to patch something together from not much more than grass.
In the heat of the day they had to stop. The sun above was like a weight, pushing Rher into the earth. He laid Rie down as gently as he could, the rest of them sitting with the grass well above their heads.
“What about the riders?” Ecrembl asked.
Ridiath shook her head, her frazzled hair tied into a rough knot.
“The limbihte were turned loose.”
Just, ‘The limbihte were turned loose,’ not, who on all the waters turned them loose.
She said, “They’ll hunt herdbeasts, not us.”
“They’re trained to run down convict-slaves they’ll hunt us,” Rher told her.
She just said, “The soldiers will be preoccupied bridling the limbihte. They aren’t going to care about a half-dead convict.”
You hope. He thought it, didn’t say it.
Ecrembl gathered some tall, stiff stalks and bundled them together for a splint for Rie’s arm. Rher lay beside Rie to keep him warm. He thought about the limbihte, and resisted looking around for the man who wouldn’t be there. The whole trip Ridiath had never disappeared to talk to him. She pissed in front of them, she did everything but shit in front of them.
“So, what, s’there some kind of signal, you two have? And he warned you?”
She stared at him, with her empty face.
“I told you not to talk about that.”
Tande saw the gourd Ridiath had slung across her chest and reached for it. Ridiath slipped the strap over her head wordlessly and handed it to him. He gulped desperately, managed to stop himself and handed the gourd to Rher. He dribbled as much as he could into Rie’s swollen mouth. He was still conscious, breathing tight and short, but he could swallow, coughing a little of it up.
“They didn’t brand you?” Tande was looking them over, his yellowed eyes darting from detail to detail.
“We’re mortared in.”
Squatting, hands laced over his scalp, Tande stared into the dirt.
“They locked Rie in, the first time.” He started crying, voice choking. “They just kept hitting his head and hitting his head he didn’t do anything just every time it was him…” Ecrembl pulled Tande into his arms, letting him collapse against him, and rubbed a hand up and down his back, his face tight and set.
“We’re gonna find everyone. We were thinking, this part of the season, if they’re still on the Widest, they’ll be trying the weatherweed harvest.”
“We got a legless man and a broke up man, and I’m not much better right now. We’re about like a raft in a hurricane.” Wiping his wet nose with the back of his arm, Tande was staring at Ridiath now, where she had stretched out on her side, a sheaf of grass shading her hidden face. “What’s she doing off her momma’s tit?” he said, something ugly growing in his voice. “She’s the whole reason this happened. Why’s she here, she—”
“She can—” Ecrembl said.
“Where you be if I was not?” Ridiath said tonelessly.