The man stared back at him. Then he dropped back into a squat by Egreall.
“Help me shift him,” he said, loud enough for the guards to hear. They glanced over, then Ashur realized the order was meant for him. Slowly, he unlaced his hands and pushed himself up off the ground. The guards didn’t react, eyes flicking over him, almost bored as he crawled over and knelt by Egreall’s head. The man didn’t want help shifting him, he wanted to touch him, reaching out, partially hidden by Egreall’s body. Ashur slid his hand along the ground until the tips of the man’s fingers covered his, damp and calloused.
He felt the knot of power ease, and reach out to grasp what he offered—
Ashur’s breath stuck in his throat as the sensation choked him. A string began to unravel from his core, like ripping out a weaving as he was wrenched into someone else. His heart sped up, and he tried to adjust the tension of the flow between them as the man pulled, clumsy and using too much strength, gathering a tangle neither of them knew what to do with. Then it was like diving into deep water but he had no control, and the string became the tide, drawing out of him, into Egreall.
The knot of power took him, used him, the man’s fingers running along Egreall’s body, tracing veins, then the deeper, invisible arteries. There was some pattern he was following, a pattern Ashur could almost understand through the sweat suddenly sprung out on his skin, though the sudden thickness of his breath, moving inward to the rotting gash in Egreall’s thigh. It was slow, so slow, and Ashur felt with every beat of his heart that the guards were going to tire of the game, that they would come over and rip this fragile tide apart. They were talking, murmuring to each other, one leaning against the trunk of a weaver tree, palm resting casually on the hilt of his lhir.
Ashur didn’t know how much longer he could stand it, fought not to pant against the razor discomfort of it. The man was completely focused, blind to anything but Egreall’s flesh. The slicing pitch of mating spiders consumed the vale. The hilt of the stranger’s lhir was within reach, unguarded. Ashur could have taken him so easily, if he could have pulled himself away.
Pus oozed down Egreall’s skin as the man massaged closer and closer to the surface of the wound, molding muscle and skin like clay. His eyes never moved, as if he wasn’t really seeing at all. He kept running his fingers back and forth, back and forth, pinching, movements growing finer and finer, until he stilled.
There was a scar, brilliantly pink against Egreall’s slate skin.
The man gripped Egreall’s thigh for balance, breathing shallowly, face half-hidden by the fall of his hair.
Ashur heard him gag, watched him press a gore-smeared fist to his mouth, swallow back bile, unsure if he was about to pass out. If they were both about to pass out.
His bones were heavy, heavy as iron, an exhaustion that left his mind intact and he wanted to lay down and never get up again.
Hands unsteady, the man tied the crusted bandage over the fresh scar, taking two deep, shaky breaths. Then he forced himself to his feet, making some signal to the soldiers, and Ashur realized that he was going to have to pick Egreall up again, have to carry him up the plunging stair. The obstacle of it seemed insurmountable.
But he got Egreall onto his shoulders again, and managed to follow the tall Secled out of the copse into the sun. The heat nearly dropped him. As they approached the pitted road his mind jumbled with plans and risks, each step taking him closer to where it wouldn’t matter.
He had a heartbeat to make that final decision, escape where he had power, could possibly use it to free the rest of his men, or fail, and live while they died. And the man— he stared at his back, couldn’t help staring. He had to find a way to take him with them.
Then white stone crumbled under his toes, and the numbness fell over him like a shutter cutting out the sun. He could feel nothing, not even the dense knot resting in the man’s core. It was like a blow to the gut, sour, clenching pain as he realized his indecision had cost him any advantage. Ashur couldn’t understand what was wrong with him. He could still drop Egreall, dodge the soldiers, run, hide in the river, fathom some way to get his men out.
He kept walking, as if he couldn’t do anything else.
At the first few high, narrow steps he found he still had strength. He knew his bones were not actually made of iron, and that made it easier to fight the weight of them. His bruised stitched up, then cramped to agony. Three times Ashur let himself brace an arm against the wall of the stair, shoulders heaving for breath before he continued. The second time he heard one of the soldiers behind him make a sharp sound of disgusted impatience, but the tall Secled behind him said nothing.
He was panting hard when they reached the blinding deck of the fort, sweat a needling itch under his arms, making his tunic and breeches stick to his skin. His throat was so dry it felt like the soft tissue would crack.
Behind him he heard: “Put them back in the cell. I’ll be in my quarters for the [tip:pemfcad=siesta]. Inform the eerlon I will meet with him when I wake.”
Then the stranger was gone, leaving the soldiers to herd Ashur back into the corridor lined with cells. Passing the second cell, Ashur caught the shadowed shapes of faces and eyes through the lattice.
“Everyone back up,” one guard ordered, then, “Put him down.” Shakily, Ashur lowered Egreall to the floor while the other unlocked and swung open the door.
The soldier wrenched his head down and shoved him into the cell with a kick. Gerril’s burly arms helped catch him, but Cosag bit back a sound of pain as Ashur’s elbow rammed into his ribs. He struggled to find enough space to untangle his limbs and move back as the soldiers half-tossed Egreall in, contorting his body as they pushed his legs in after him. Then they banged the door into the frame and maneuvered the bolt through its phases. After the free air, the stench of Hessher’s bloating body became horrifically obvious. Cosag and Naal untwisted Egreall’s body, Naal checking the pulse in his throat and listening to his breathing.
“What happened?” Gerril asked when the soldier’s long shadows had retreated, voice low, intense in Ashur’s ear.
He stared through the lattice at the light painting the corridor wall.
“I don’t. Know.”
He came awake without realizing it.
Ashur had crawled through the press of bodies to the back of the cell, giving someone else a chance to breathe the fresher air. He had surprised himself, falling asleep with his head tilted against the wall, knees drawn tight to his chest. Vaguely, he remembered startling himself awake once when his head had slipped.
His neck was stiff, slack cheek pressed against Odul’s shoulder.
“What?” he coughed belatedly, straightening.
Odul tipped his pointed chin toward the lattice. Ashur stared, seeing but not.
Disoriented, he said, “I can’t see.”
“Big-order Secled’s back,” Odul told him in a soft voice.
The cell came into abrupt focus.
“How long’s it been?”
“Barely long enough to shit.”
Ashur crept carefully through the knees and legs and heads to the lattice. Fingers of light still reached through the corridor, and the heat had not abated.
On the other side of the cage, the tall, yellow-headed Secled sank stiffly to the corridor floor, one hand braced on the wall behind him. His eyes took a heartbeat to focus on Ashur.
His voice was low.
“The eerlon and his men don’t know I’m here.” His eyelids dropped as he rested his head against the stone behind him. “We have only the heat of the pemfcad, less, more likely, until they wake up.” For a breath or two, he didn’t say anything else. Then he opened his eyes. “Swear an oath to serve Secled, and swear yourself under my command, and I can give you amnesty.”
“Why would a salt-peddlar or anyone else care about any amnesty you claim?”
“I am Jueden.”
Ashur found, surprisingly, that he didn’t know the word. There was a harsh laugh from the other cell.
“He’s their Guardian,” Clisand translated. “The one man who can kill the monarch and they can’t touch him. Supposedly.” The man slid his eyes in the direction of the voice, and Ashur honed in on him for any sign he understood. He didn’t.
“Tell him what he wants to hear and get us out, then hold him choked until we get back to the ship,” Colae hissed in his ear, his breath hot, dry. Ashur watched the man’s Secled face, remembering how the eerlon fought orders, and that he did not know about this meeting.
“I don’t think holding you hostage would work,” Ashur said, in Seclednar, not looking away. The man had to be considering the possibility, had to know that they were. There was no reason to hide it. He replied with a faint, exhausted smile.
“The eerlon would be more than relieved to let you murder me, I think.”
Ashur held his gaze, eyes hard.
“What do you want?”
“Keep me alive, and live yourself.”
Dead silence filled the baking air.
“If anyone’s going to mutiny for this, tell me now,” Ashur called.
Behind him, Megars said, “I don’t care if he wants us for a harem, if he’ll get us out of this death-kiln I’ll throw in my mother and my aunt to sweeten the cache.”
“Get us out,” Shenele called from the next cell.
“No one touches him,” Ashur said harshly, not taking his eyes from the man. “He’s mine. Anyone gets too excited and kills him I’ll cut out your lungs, and I won’t use a knife. Anyone not understand?”
No one answered, and the Secled Jueden’s eyes stayed fixed on him, waiting.
“We’ll do it,” Ashur told him. “Name whatever oaths you want.”
“Fealty to Secled, and to me.”
“Sworn, by honor, whatever,” Jentosh said, echoed by a smattering of “Swear,” and peeled himself out of the sweaty tangle to crouch under the low ceiling.
“I swear myself under your command,” Ashur said deliberately, because the words mattered. “And every one of these men is mine.”
The man was staring at them, visibly weighing whether they would simply kill him as soon as he opened the door. He had no way to know.
He pushed himself to his feet like the effort cost him, and walked across the corridor. Three metallic rasps, and he jerked the bar out of its slot, and pulled open the door. He stepped back, and Ashur stepped out. Jentosh sprang out behind him, moving immediately to the other cell as men filed out stiffly.
“I can lead you to your weapons.” Whether he said it because he thought they would need to be armed or as one final effort to keep himself alive, Ashur didn’t know. His eyes were bloodshot.
Men started spilling out of the second cell. Shenele knelt in the middle of the corridor and started kissing the stone.
“Do we have to pass any of the eerlon’s men to do it?”
“Not if we go around.”
“Do we have time?”
“If we want to not get killed, we need to make the time.”
Jalar and Cosag carefully carried out Egreall. The flow out of the other cell stopped briefly to allow Litin’s wiry frame out. Immediately he crouched by Egreall, fingers finding his pulses, the other hand lifting the gored rag. His pale eyes looked up sharply at Ashur, gave the man a fleeting glance, then all his attention returned to Egreall, checking his tongue and eyes.
Idishe, Kimfen and Fis were already scouting out the sunlit ends of the corridor. Dhomlar stretched his arms over his head, elbows almost bending backward while Kol shook himself out. Other men were limbering up in quiet commotion, someone sending the tall Secled an occasional fleeting look. Colae’s pale regard was steady, catching Ashur’s attention before he was distracted by the scouts.
Clear, Fis signed, then Idishe.
“Which way to our weapons?”
The man tilted his yellow head toward the opposite end of the corridor. Kimfen ducked out, Fis watching the archway after him.
Colae was looking up at the man with a sudden intensity and a faint edge.
The man laughed, as if the sound couldn’t help but come out through his exhaustion.
After a breath, the hard edges of Colae’s face suddenly melted into a grin, and he chucked the man on arm.
Kimfen reappeared in the mouth of the corridor, gesturing them on. The Jueden threaded his way through the men, his scabbard bumping a few legs. Colae stood looking after him, arms crossed.
“Since when have you spoken Ekkednar?” Ashur asked under his breath.
“Since when’ve I not?” Colae said, face smooth and voice ripe with laughter. Ashur felt his brows twitch together, and looked down at Colae’s stringy body.
“You’re not tall enough to be a herder.”
“I didn’t wean myself on milk and blood.”
Ashur slid him a last irritated look before ducking through the crowd after the Jueden. They left Hessher’s rigid body, and closed and locked the doors behind them.
This archway opened to a smaller deck clinging to the steepening side of the slope just before it peaked at the plateau. They were protected from the glare of the white stone by the fort’s squat tower, their way cast partly in shadow. The Jueden gestured to the nearest stair that curved around the wall deeper into the fort. Ibleton and Gerril were splitting the men into smaller groups, the scouts each leading one.
A fierce satisfaction gripped Ashur as he watched them fan out, moving quiet. Two things he loved: His life and his crew.
“Down, and then the corridor to the right,” the Jueden said.
“Is there a watch?”
A jerky agreement. “We should avoid them.”
Abruptly the Jueden halted, swaying, and Ashur grabbed his arm, taking some of his weight.
“If I faint, hit me until I wake up,” the man said too evenly, his eyes held a little too wide.
“On my mother and my aunt…” someone muttered.
Ashur kept close to him down the slow curve of the stair. The man kept a hand against the wall and didn’t stumble. At the base of the stair hung two shuttered lanterns on hooks, and he lit one from a stone jar of coals, blowing until the wick caught.
Deep in the cool recesses of the fort the Jueden led them down the corridor past another hallway, keeping the lantern shuttered. They moved by the feel of the walls, quiet, but not silent. At the next corridor he took them right, turning them toward the vale. He stopped them once, at an intersection, listening intently, but they heard nothing. In a thin branching corridor he took them through a plank door, and let the lantern shine.
Their weapons were spread across two heavy tables, still being sorted. Familiar crates and baskets and barrels lined the square walls.
“Flying luck,” Rie breathed, pacing over to a barrel and grabbing a knife to pry the lid up. Scanning the clutter of belts and sheathes and hilts Ashur spotted his dirks, dragging them out of the pile.
“Ecrembl,” he said. The knee of his missing leg propped on a bench, Ecrembl looked up, and Ashur tossed him his bandolier of knives. He gave a rare flash of teeth.
Men were filing in and out, the room too small for them all, taking turns drinking straight from the barrel and searching for their weapons. Kol found his bow, and Ecrembl handed Solme his lhir. When the tables were empty they were still short a few blades, claimed by the fort’s soldiers.
Toney was hoisting a makeshift pack basket stuffed with dried fish and blocks of samsk fat onto his sturdy round shoulders while others were filling every jar and flask they could find with the remaining water.
The Jueden leaned against the wall, eyes closed. Ashur’s blood was pumping now, pushing his weariness back. It was strange to see a man willing to close his eyes among uncertain friends.
“Where next?” Ashur asked, pulling him out of his fugue.
The Jueden turned them back in the corridor, then took a different route, until Ashur’s sense of direction could no longer tell him what was sunward or where the river lay. They met none of the eerlon’s men, and finally emerged from a heavy, iron-banded door at the base of the other side of the fort. A stony trail climbed the final stretch of slope.
The land sang in his bones as the first stubbly grass poked through his toes. Ashur breathed deep, feeling each of his men reappear to his senses as they stepped out of the fort, and knew by the chaotic miasma of life above them that there was an army camped on the plateau.
They were halfway up when Ashur heard a faint shout, and looked back. Atop the walls a small, frantic figure pointed, then ran out of view, and two more appeared, followed by shouting and the clang of iron.
“Hope they don’t have archers,” Leki said nervously behind him, eyeing the high walls.
“The Secled were never smart enough to learn that from us,” Kol said, pacing backwards, an arrow already nocked.
“Where’s our ship?” Ashur asked the yellow-headed Secled ahead of him. The dense knot of his power was bright and clear.
“Already flown to the mouth of the river.” Ashur didn’t waste any more breath on it. It was true, or the man believed it was.
“Who are we going to have to convince you haven’t cracked?”
“The Third Thocas. And probably anyone else we meet.”
“Yapasfe. Hustle it!” he yelled to the train below them.
The plateau rolled out fading green to every horizon except behind. Grosses of armored figures milled among line upon line of tents, and Ashur saw the russet coats and dancing legs of limbihte cavalry on the eastern edge of the camp.
Searching out the familiar presences around him, worn, hurt, thirsting, Ashur found himself missing only one— Hessher.
“Form up,” the Jueden told them. “Somehow. Don’t look like you’re going to attack.”
“Parade lines,” Ashur ordered. “Keep weapons down.” Leki reluctantly sheathed his knife, and Kol slipped his bow over his head as the men arranged themselves in a triple column. They had already been spotted by the camp’s watch, and a single rider trotted up to the growing knot of activity preparing to meet them. Ashur could feel his crew’s unease around him, and kept his eyes to the front.
Flanked by a pair of soldiers, the rider had dismounted, reins in one gloved hand. As they approached Ashur could tell he was from Secled’s northern territory, where the people started to be indistinguishable from the Sergilé. He bore the long brown hair and slightly finer features, even a water shadow of the queer battle light in his eyes. If he’d been born a few lengths farther north he might have spoken Sergileg and been riding under a different banner.
The insignia on his mail was a triangle.
“Tansh,” the man called dryly as they came to a halt, “this is not the escort you left with.”
The tall Secled didn’t answer. Ashur glanced at him and found him staring fixedly ahead —Ashur thought in an effort not to pass out— and realized he didn’t know exactly what to call him. But they didn’t have the luxury of time, or uncertainty.
“We have sworn ourselves under the Jueden’s command, to pay our debt to Secled.”
In the responding silence, the corner of the Third Thocas’ mouth curled upward.
“But who is the hostage?” he said, not as loudly as he had called before. One of his escorts already had a hand on hilt. In the background of his vision Ashur watched the Thocas’ limbihte, wet nostrils flexing, floppy ears perked straight, long, yellow teeth bared as he panted around the bit.
Somehow, the perfect thing happened.
Beond and Aaric had started to edge closer to the front. The Jueden lifted his hand, the gesture generic and utterly clear. Without a word, without glancing at Ashur, they stepped back into rank. Something subtle shifted in the soldiers’ eyes, no less wary, but not ready to attack.
“There are better uses for convicts than beheading,” the Jueden said, almost casually, and started walking without waiting for a signal from the Thocas. He did not step his mount out of the way, and he did not hinder them. Mouth turned down and brow furrowed one of his men stepped aside for them.
As they passed, the Thocas said, “Well played, Tansh.” His quiet amusement was like a knife held only in the hand and not buried in the gut.
Ashur started scanning immediately as they entered the trampled scar of the camp, drawing the eyes and murmurs of soldiers pitching tents and hauling gear.
The very fragile lynchpin of their amnesty guided them through the maze, glancing neither right nor left. He made for tripod hide tent like all the others except that it had a moat of trampled ground around it, until a soldier hastily caught up with them.
He had the same classic squared features as the Jueden but was more of an average Secled size, though made stocky with mail and leather. His light brown hair had been pulled back in a short queue.
Ashur caught the desperate words in his low voice, “Alaun, what have you done?”
“They have my amnesty. Get them water, and food,” the Jueden said. “Don’t wake me ’til tomorrow.”
“Do it, Delyn.”
He walked past him and pushed through the flap of the tent. The soldier raked Ashur and the rest with hardening eyes.
Catching sight of Gerril with Egreall draped over his shoulders, Ashur motioned and cautiously followed the man into the tent. He moved carefully while his eyes adjusted, and the Jueden didn’t turn to look at them as Gerril used one foot to scuff out a space to lay Egreall.
“Keep a watch in the tent and outside. Don’t let them wake me before sunrise. Tell them you’re acting under blue tannydh” He loosened the belt to his lhir, heading to a pallet against one side of the tripod.
Questions and demands fought to climb out first as the man dropped onto the pallet, blade under one arm. He was asleep before Ashur could open this mouth.