“They’ll come for you,” he said the very moment I woke up in chains.
I could not move my hands. I could not move my feet, tethered as I was to a great stone chair. The fabric against my skin was soft. Of course they had taken my armor; of course they had taken my arms. So: “I expect they will,” I said past a throat dry and aching, and looked for the first time at the buttressed ceilings of Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
I supposed I would spend a great deal of time watching those soaring, crumbling arches in the days to come.
He circled until it was look at him or shut my eyes, and I would not shut my eyes. He was tall, stocky with what was either strong bones or muscle running to fat. Dark-eyed, dark-haired, dark-garbed: every inch groomed and careful and deliberate. “No,” he said softly. “I know who you are. The lieutenant’s girl. The only woman Stoneburn’s ever allowed in his Company. They’ll come. And they’ll die.”
Sun streamed through the windows, high up at the far end of the hall. What time was it? How long had I been here? My arms were numb from being so long unmoving, my stomach empty and my throat parched. It could have been any time, any day. I could have been anywhere, but he was moving with the ease of familiarity: I was in Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
“You will be fed,” he said. “If you refuse food, you will be punished.”
He turned on his heel and left.
His footsteps echoed on the stone and the sound curled up into the ceiling, darting between stone sentries missing noses, arms, eyes.
You’re a gloater, I thought at the back of his head. You’ll drag it out. Indulge yourself even if it means time away from your battle plans, your lines and divinations and labour. You’ll lose if they come. Or if they don’t.
I took stock.
I had been in the halls of the nobility before; I grew up in the halls of the nobility. They had their patterns, their ways, their servant-sounds and rhythms and habits. Lord Darkdrake’s hall had none of these patterns; the silence stretched and lengthened until it grew thin and taut, and never once did it break. My muscles knotted and ached for the lack of that breaking.
The sun slanted ever further in, pooling warm and uncomfortable at my feet as I noted the exits and matched walls to arms of the compass, itemized my situation neatly in my head.
They had taken my armor. Instead I wore a long dress of white linen, the kind of dress that would have been too simple in my previous life and was much too impractically frivolous now. They had taken my arms, my secondhand sword and the bow my lord uncle had given me, and the reason for that was obvious. He wanted vulnerability, not strength; he wanted me to look and feel and be vulnerable.
Somewhere beneath the coldness of my regard, I began to get angry. He was setting a stage. He was creating the battlefield. I could not buy into it.
I resolved to ask Captain Stoneburn, when next I saw him, what had transpired between him and Lord Darkdrake to provoke such a desire for vengeance.
When the light-dapples on the floor were long and tinged with sickly orange, a servant came in with bread and cheese and water. Peasant food: perhaps it was meant to be a slight. Mercenary food, Company food: perhaps it was meant to remind. I moved to take it, and remembered that my hands were bound fast.
The man moved closer with a jangle; he was wearing mail and leather, and there was a sword in his scabbard. He set down the platter before me, just in what would have been arm’s reach, and tore a chunk off the loaf of bread. “Open,” he said.
The point is not pride, I told myself fiercely as he put bread in my mouth, tentative, slow, and then bolder. The point is to stay alive. Feel out the situation. The point is to get out of here whole.
The taste of the man’s touch on the food was of metal, and dirt, and decay. It tingled in the back of my mouth the way magic did. I spent the afternoon wondering what spell laced it.
At sunset Lord Darkdrake came into the hall and tilted up my chin with one leather-gloved hand. It was cold against my skin, but I didn’t care: it was better than touching his living flesh. I couldn’t help but swallow when he drew the small, sharp-bladed knife. Bait, I reminded myself. He won’t kill, not yet.
Lord Darkdrake saw the motion, and laughed.
He brought the knife up, tangled his hand in my hair—loose now, not bound back—and neatly severed a long and twisting lock from my scalp. I squinted: there was no mud in it from where we made camp the night before—if it was indeed the night before, the last night I remembered. There was no sweat or damp in it from how my helm sat too-tight upon my head since the pads were replaced. It was soft, and dark, and a smell like roses wafted past my nose when he pulled it from my head.
It had been washed. They had washed my hair.
For the first time I felt very afraid.
“How prosaic,” I choked out, and choked upon the words. “A lock for every day?”
“No,” he said, “this is the second. And the pieces will grow bigger, I think.”
This time I did not swallow, or move, or think.
“They will come,” he said. He slid the dying curl of hair into an envelope of the stiffest smooth-cream paper, and made his way into the darkness.
That was the first day.
I woke in the morning stiff and sleepy. The white linen dress hung wrinkled to the floor; it chafed where the chains pressed it against my skin. I wanted to scratch my arms, my belly, and I could not move an inch. The tension in my guts told me I needed to relieve myself; the weakness in my limbs told me that I needed to eat. I wasn’t hungry.
The sun began its crawling progress towards the darkness at my feet.
I tested the chains; studied their links, studied the strength of the stone I was bound to. I tried to remember battle plans made long ago under the hire of the northern provinces, when it looked for a while that our company might march against Lord Darkdrake and take his hall and lands and life. I recalled instead the restraint in my captain’s eyes when the terms of hire were given us, and how he had passed the negotiations off to me, his second lieutenant, the only woman in Donovan Stoneburn’s Company.
I tried not to think of Captain Stoneburn or his first lieutenant, my lover, or how long it took to traverse the shattered path to Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
On the second day at noon—perhaps noon, for heat was rising off the stones and I felt near sick from the needs of my body—I spoke to him.
“What did Captain Stoneburn do to earn your attention?” I asked.
The master of the hall looked at me, his eyes hooded from lack of sleep and a lifetime of deeds that had reached even my ears. He’d not moved until I’d spoken, just ranged his eyes over my face for minutes that slowed into thickness, heartbeats longer than minutes. “It is a lengthy tale,” he said, “and it happened very long ago.”
“Perhaps a trade then,” I told him, feeling a little stronger now. “A tale for a tale.”
He looked down at me, moved a step closer until I could feel his breath stirring the naked spot on my scalp. “There is no information you have that I need.”
He is arrogant, I thought. He will lose. The closeness of his body, the smell of him made me want to pull away. I couldn’t.
“Very well,” I said. “What did his first lieutenant do to earn your attention?”
His dark eyes darkened yet further. “That is an even longer story, and happened yet longer ago.”
“And his second lieutenant, then?” I asked.
He took my chin, pushed it up so he could look me straight in the eye. “You are the only woman in Stoneburn’s Company.”
I thought briefly about intimidation, about tactics, about the things I did when I interrogated prisoners and why they worked, and why they didn’t. I thought about how some of them worked even when you understood them, and how that felt, and how that little cycle could break a person without you having to lift a finger.
I wished he would stop touching me.
“I am,” I said instead.
He paused. “There is one thing I have wondered,” he said.
I made sure not to break eye contact, not to flicker or blink. “Yes, my Lord?”
He pulled his hand away, clasped both of them neatly behind his back. At ease: they called it that because it meant you were totally defenseless, that you were in the company of those you did not consider threats. “What brings a woman of your birth and family to Donovan Stoneburn’s company?”
There were many ways, over the years of my service, that I had answered this question. They were mostly false: tales chosen to fit the fancy of the asker, stories that implied forced marriages, grand destinies, dark magics, and other expedient things. I did not think a tale would satisfy Lord Darkdrake, not after I had looked him full in the eye. I did not want to speak the truth to him; I doubted I could do otherwise.
His eyes sparked. He waited.
“An interest in human suffering,” I said finally, soft.
The spark quickened, took on life, became a cold and steady light. “And Stoneburn stole from me. A small thing by some reckonings, easily replaced. But of value.”
I could not conceive of Donovan Stoneburn stealing; what he wanted he could purchase or deal for. There was always someone willing to pay in blood and gold for the things the Company wanted. “And his first lieutenant?” I asked.
The lines of Lord Darkdrake’s face set, still and harsh. “His first lieutenant knew of the theft, and he did not speak or act to prevent it, did not hold to the oaths he had sworn.” A pause. “He left my service that day.”
I looked down at the chill stone floor. Perhaps he would see submission, intimidation, and count it against me, but I would not have him see the expression on my face.
“You were unaware of this,” he said.
I swallowed. “The past is not a topic oft-discussed in Stoneburn’s Company.”
There was silence for a moment. A shuffle, and then he was looking into my face again, searching. He had not turned my head; Lord Darkdrake crouched before the stone chair and looked up into my eyes, and I averted them.
“And does he know that he warms his nights with a peer of the realm?” he asked.
“Hardly a peer.” My voice grated, caught. I could not meet his eyes.
“Your name is on the rolls.”
“It’s not my name anymore.”
“Does he know?”
His gloved hand reached out for me again.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes,” and wondered how much I had just given away.
I could not say how long he watched me before he stood and left the hall.
I was fed. The soldier washed my face with a damp cloth, awkwardly positioned me over a chamber pot that was brought and removed again, and as the sun set my cheeks prickled with cold. There was no fire laid in Lord Darkdrake’s hall, and the linen dress, already stiff with sweat, grew stiffer yet.
When he came back it was full dark; Lord Darkdrake emerged from the shadows, a silent, looming figure. “I had near forgotten,” he said, and cut away a hank of hair so close to my scalp that it came away bloody.
I did not cry out, but the breath left me in a plume of steam that dissipated into the cold. I tilted my head back; the wound stung, itched. It was not even close to the worst I had taken, but I found myself hard-pressed to ignore it, to relegate it to the quiet place in my head where I kept the scars and broken bones and bruises.
Lord Darkdrake studied me for a moment, quizzical.
“It’ll bleed into my eyes otherwise,” I said.
He nodded, and disappeared into the darkness.
I thought long into that night, waiting for the wound to scab and seal. I thought about my lover and my captain, and the glances they gave each other sometimes that now made much more sense. I thought about traps, and pitfalls, and how much credibility I dared give the words of a man like Lord Darkdrake. I thought about how long it took to traverse the shattered path to Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
That night I dreamed of walking along the edge of a cliff sharp as a knife’s edge, dreamed of falling, dreamed of watching. Lord Darkdrake watched me in my dreams with that studying gaze, and I realized what was different about it: he watched me as if I were a soldier and not a woman as well.
When I woke, shaking and frightened and not knowing where I was for those first few blinding seconds, there was blood drying in my eyelashes.
That was the second day.
I could barely see when I woke the next morning. The blood had dried thick and tough overnight; one eyelid was tight with it. I did not know how long it would be until the man with the facecloth returned, or if he would at all.
For the first time since I woke in Lord Darkdrake’s hall, activity buzzed and fluttered around me. Chairs and tables were moved into the hall, both before and behind me, and although the servants watched me out of the corners of their eyes they dared not acknowledge my presence. Torches were lit, the floor swept as if for a grand ball.
They were coming. They were coming today.
The soldier came back at noontime, wiped the crusted blood off my face roughly enough for disregard but not so much as to be malice. He put bread and cheese in my mouth, and held a cup of strong tea to my lips while I swallowed and sipped and tried not to spill. It did not taste like magic today.
The tea sloshed hollow in my belly and my bladder cramped with need. “Ah . . . ” I said.
The soldier looked up.
“I need the latrine.”
He grunted. “I’ll ask his Lordship.”
I closed my eyes, remembered the trenches in the campaigns of the Five Winters’ War where there had been no latrines and we had camped, waded, fought in our own shit for unending weeks. I’d held it before. I waited.
I opened my eyes when I heard Lord Darkdrake’s step fall against the flagstones.
He pulled a chair opposite mine and sat, regarding me with his cold and distant eyes. “I have run into a conundrum,” he said.
I pulled my head up to look at him.
“They are coming. My watchers have spied them riding for the gates. I am left with a question on the topic of human suffering.”
On the first day, I would have felt sick to hear those words. On the first day I still had the strength. “You’re asking the wrong person.”
He reached out, ran one finger down my cheek. This time he did not wear gloves. His hand was cool, dry, distressingly human. “Would your mortal fear or your death move them more?”
I shuddered. My stomach twisted, ached, begged for relief. He would not let me be until he had an answer.
“Do you have the capacity to move me to mortal fear?” I said softly.
“I think I do,” he said.
I swallowed. “Think, but not know.”
Lord Darkdrake shrugged. “Your sword hand. Your eyes. If I took them?”
The rhythm of my heart sped up until I swore he could see it shivering in my chest. “Others have learned to fight without a hand. And I’d still have my ears and my nose and my mind.”
“You’re frightened,” he said.
I stared at him and said nothing.
He laughed, quietly. The sound echoed into the rafters of the hall. “A soldier to the last.”
“What did you expect me to be?” It didn’t matter what I said now. They were coming, and I would either be dead before sunset or in my own tent by dawn. “A novelty? A pet? A toy?”
Lord Darkdrake shrugged. “I expect nothing anymore, and everything. It keeps matters uncomplicated. But nonetheless, you were a surprise to me.” He paused. “You are not the kind of person I expected to love a traitor.”
I narrowed my eyes, shifted my leg the hairsbreadth of space it could actually move. “That is something I plan to speak with him about when I return to my company,” I said.
He smiled, then, a faint half-smile that chilled swift through my bones. “I am sending four men to conduct you to the latrines. There will be a bath laid, and a dress. I expect you to be quick.”
I inclined my head to him as the soldiers stepped forward, summoned by a crook of Lord Darkdrake’s finger. Two of them pulled their swords, gleaming bright and heavy and tantalizing just out of reach, and the other two unwound the chains that had bound me to cold stone for the last two days.
My body seemed to inflate as the chains lifted away; the compression of my breath that I’d thought drugs or magic vanished. My limbs were weak and sore; although the blades stayed trained upon me, they had to half-drag my body from the chair, into a maze of hallways and rooms and flights of winding stairs, into the depths of the hall.
I kept my eyes down and memorized the route, step by step, until the smell of hot water tickled my nose. I looked up and the bath was marble, a veined dark marble low-lit, with a basket in the corner for the oils and scents and salts. It was not a bath for servants, and it was not a bath for prisoners.
Perhaps my estimation of Lord Darkdrake was wrong. As I peeled off the cold and dirty dress and the soldiers did not turn their backs and I did not especially care, I knew it had been wrong. But which way I had erred . . .
I tended to the wounds with plain water before employing the soaps or trifles: the one on my head, the long swathes on my ribs and arms and legs where the chain had rubbed skin raw and tender. Two of the guards withdrew; their footsteps echoed off the flagstones, faded. The remaining two watched me: one with a hard set to his face that spoke of duty, and the other with an expression I knew too well from weeks and years of camp life.
I stared back at him, cataloguing quickly. He had the sword. He had a knife in his belt. He was armored over chest and stomach, wore light bracers on his arms, but his legs were bare and unprotected.
I stood from the bath, dripping, watching him watch me. I dried my hands and feet carefully, my legs so they would not drip and betray my footing, and then walked straight up to him. He blinked, and when his eyes opened again they were lit with something new and familiar: greed.
I took the knife from his belt and hamstrung him neatly, then cut his throat as he fell.
There was more noise than I wanted: a gurgle that might alert the guards at the door. No time for that now, I told myself, and rounded on the second guard, blade low and ready. His eyes narrowed, he opened his mouth, and I dove down to his feet, hitting the ground hard, slashing up at his knees and rolling away fast. It was hard to get up—too hard.
The guard looked down at me, naked and panting and moving too slow, and moved for the door.
I threw the knife.
The Company’s first lieutenant, my lover, had taught me to throw knives when I was first promoted to an officer and before my hands ever touched him outside the practice ring. I relied too much on the bow, he said. He was no longer my superior officer, but I was less secure in my commission then; I let him drag me out, day after day after day, and flung knives at painted targets until my aim was steady enough that he let me be. I wondered now if he had foreseen this, feared it; I wondered if every officer in Stoneburn’s Company lived in danger of their lives because of the secret those two hoarded.
I wished they had just told me.
The knife landed shakily in the guard’s throat, off-target but not enough to be catastrophic, and he dropped to the floor clanking and bleeding. I went to inspect the body, and carefully slit the throat the entire way. There was no reason to leave him to die slow. He was not the one who ordered me brought here.
I washed the blood from my arms and belly, dried on Lord Darkdrake’s soft thick towels, and laced myself into the clean white dress with a quick deftness I had not forgotten. The armor the guards wore was either too large or small, and I ignored it. Their blades I tested carefully, weighed in my hand, tried a few strokes that only confirmed my weakness—I had been right to use the knife.
I took the leather thong from the careful guard’s hair and bound my own hair back. It pulled at the shallow, scraping cut in my scalp, but the pressure eased soon enough. The sword shifted in its harness strangely, not my sword, and I made my way back through the labyrinth to Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
He was examining his preparations: a table, wide and heavy, bearing manacles for wrists and ankles, straps across the middle. Torches lit bright and spaced throughout the hall. His doublet was finer than usual, and when he moved it did not move like fabric: it concealed the weight of armour.
“Quick indeed,” Lord Darkdrake said, and turned to face me. “You do not disappoint.”
“If you wish to recruit me,” I said, now understanding why the other pair of soldiers had vanished, “deeming your guards expendable was not a point in your favour.”
He shrugged. “One stole. The other followed and took a chambermaid a year past. I do not stand for such things in my ranks.”
I tried not to dwell on which crime fit which corpse. “I’m not your executioner,” I said, and my voice grated harsh.
“Think of it as a demonstration of skill,” he said. “You would not be fit to serve me if you were not capable of escaping from my hall.”
I pulled the sword from its harness and fit it to my hand, choosing a grip that let me handle its unfamiliar weight. “Quite a risk.”
He did not even reach for his own weapon. “And yet you are not on the road to the forest. You are here.”
I paused. No. This was a question I would ask myself later, when I was no longer in Lord Darkdrake’s hall.
“I have not lied to you,” he said, quiet. “I have not uttered one word of untruth since you entered my hall.”
“I know,” I said, and took a step towards him.
“Nor have I taken your sword hand or your eyes.”
“I know,” and shifted my grip on the sword.
“Then why fight?” he asked.
I took another step forward, altered my stance, swept the skirts of my dress back so they would not tangle my footing. “For my lover, and for my captain, and for the loss of my time.”
“I don’t think they understand you as I do,” he said, and pulled his own weapon from its sheath.
“You understand nothing,” I said, and attacked.
Lord Darkdrake was fast; he was faster than I, exhausted and underfed and lightheaded as I was. He was faster than I on my best day, primed for battle, surrounded by compatriots who would guard my back well. But he was not pressing an attack; he was defending, deflecting. Waiting.
“You might as well accept,” he said. “You won’t be able to trust them again, not entirely. You know it.”
I hesitated, and right away knew it would be fatal.
Lord Darkdrake’s blade swept in low and neatly slashed across my belly. My breath caught and I near choked on it; I could not look down at the wound. I could not afford to look away from his sword.
It burned, and I stumbled.
“I will take you in,” he said to me, soft. “I will sew that up and give you a good bed, good food, command of entire regiments.”
“I don’t want it,” I whispered; my world was a spiral of pain, and the focal point was the burning cut on my stomach. “What would you gain anyway?”
“Stoneburn stole from me,” he said. His voice seemed to float through the hall, to surround me. “Repayment in kind, I think, would move him more than your mortal fear or death. And we have the same interest.”
I coughed, and my stomach felt like it would burst apart; I crammed my free arm against it to hold it down, hold it in, keep it away from me. “You misread my interest,” I said, and aimed a weak slash high upon his chest. He deflected it easily, pushing my sword away so lightly it slid and did not quiver.
“An interest in human suffering,” he said quiet, no exertion or strain in his voice. “There are only so many ways that can be read.”
“You misread it,” I replied, and aimed another blow at his chest. I watched his blade move up as I dipped mine down, down to his waist, flipped the chain shirt he wore with the tip of my sword and plunged it straight into his lungs.
He blinked twice before he fell. I dropped the sword; it was too heavy to hold any longer, and my wrist burned and whimpered with strained muscles. It didn’t matter. I had read him correctly, finally. When it mattered.
“So what did you mean?” he whispered, as the blood bubbled on his lips. “The interest?”
“That’s not something you need to know,” I said as I dropped to my knees. I crawled through the pooling blood on the floor, his and mine together, to slit his throat. There was no reason to leave him to die slow. That was not the nature of my interest in human suffering.
For the first time in three days it was quiet in Lord Darkdrake’s hall, and it was a quiet I could relax into: not the silence of death, not the silence that was a threat and a promise, but mere silence.
A bird sang somewhere in the rafters, and the sound of hoofbeats drifted in from far away, the sound of ringing metal. Perhaps a shout from a voice I knew.
I thought of the questions I would have to ask them in the days to come, and the answers that would be slow in coming, and cursed the body of Lord Darkdrake where it lay for never having lied to me while resident in his hall.
Then I lay down on the cold flagstones, arm pressed across my stomach to keep the lifeblood in, and waited for them to come.