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Imprisoned — Down a Lost Road Extra

Down a Lost Road Extra:

Imprisoned — An Alternate Telling

I wrote this short to explore a scene from Down a Lost Road from Yatol’s perspective. In the book, this piece corresponds roughly to Chapters 3-5, from the point when Merelin goes back into her tent after talking to Yatol, through their imprisonment in and escape from the Gorhiem Bolstoed. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It was a thrill to take a little closer look at the way this guy’s mind works. =)

Disclaimer: This scene contains some rather violent depictions that might be disturbing to some readers. I hope they’re not too strong, but I figured I should give fair warning.

 


 

Yatol - Lost Road Chronicles

 

The girl had gone back into her tent, fighting against the tears she thought I couldn’t see. For such a small, thin little thing, she had some kind of strength in her. Half of the men in the camp would have lost their sanity if they’d been through what she had that day. Most people were barely able to deal with the world they could see, but she’d just been thrown out of the only life she’d ever known, and she took it like nothing could surprise her. Even our forced march across the desert hadn’t earned me a single complaint, and I hadn’t done anything to spare her.

I never would have believed it, but she reminded me of her father.

But still, for all her strength, I kept hearing her words rolling in my thoughts—I want to go home. Maybe I’d misjudged her. Maybe she wasn’t the strong, enduring type, but only too timid to speak until I’d pushed her past her limits. Maybe Onethyl should never have brought her across the stars. But from what he and the other Brethren had told me, time was running out, and he at least seemed to think she was ready. I only hoped he was right.

I sighed and tilted my head back. In the morning we would find out what she was made of. Syarat had sent word ahead to Master Enhyla, telling him we would be coming. Coming for counsel, for answers, or maybe just a smile of pity at our confusion. I’m sure I didn’t know, but it seemed as good a place to go as any. I just hoped the girl could take another trek across the Perstaun. We would be out in the open, lonely desert for a long time, and complaints ring louder over the sand than in the forest.

The high boughs of a distant tree shook suddenly, tremoring like a fever. My focus snapped to the watchman’s stand, where I could just see the soldier shimmying out of it, down the smooth trunk. I lost sight of him when he hit the ground behind one of the tents, then a moment later he reappeared, running straight for me. That couldn’t be a good sign.

“Yatol!” he hissed, searching for me in the darkness.

“Here,” I said, and moved closer to a ring of torchlight. “What?”

“Ungulion fiends,” the man said. His name was Marek, I remembered. New recruit from my home city. “Think they’ve been tracking you from the portal,” he went on. “Didn’t you guard the girl’s passage?”

I didn’t like the tone in his question. The watchman was twitchy, getting paler by the second.

“Are they almost here?” I asked, instead of answering. I couldn’t count on biting back the harsh words I desperately wanted to say.

“Near the forest’s edge. I counted five.”

“Damn,” I said.

And that was exactly why I had chosen to take the girl to the camp instead of staying at the portal. There was no way either of us would have survived an engagement like that. I’d hoped—foolishly—that the Watcher would be able to distract them, keep them at bay until the portal closed. At worst I’d hoped that they would have lost our track over the desert. Just a little breath of wind would have been enough to hide our path, but we hadn’t gotten it. I had gambled, and lost.

“Go tell the general,” I said. “Tell everyone to move out, into the trees if necessary. They’ll be safe there. The Ungulion won’t be looking for them anyway.”

Marek nodded. I could feel him squinting at me, that cautious, skeptical look I knew so well.

“What about you?”

“I’ll do what I should have done before.”

“The girl?”

“She’s my charge,” I said without glancing at him. “Not yours.”

“Can I help?”

“Get a spear if you must. I don’t care.”

He just stood there staring at me. Finally I turned and pointed toward the camp, and guilty realization dawned in his eyes. He saluted—to me—and ran back toward Syarat’s tent. I spun away, moving a few steps into the trees.

I needed counsel—and help—but not from any mortal man. Not that any of them would believe that I could seek advice from one of the Brethren. Most people couldn’t even see them, so they had long ago stopped believing in them—or at least in believing that they had anything to do with us. I knew better.

Sometimes I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

“Onethyl!” I bent my head. “Onethyl, hear me.”

I waited, holding my breath for half a minute before I realized it. It was always a chancy business, calling on the Brethren. Once I had called on one of them only to receive his answer three years later. Time was unpredictable with them. Onethyl was prompter than most, perhaps because his whole being was consumed with time and space.

“I hear you,” he said, his voice like the moon, and a moment later his golden light surrounded me. He came as force and power, not in the flesh, so I kept my gaze lowered. “Why do you call for me, Farseer?”

“I’ve put us all in danger,” I murmured, after letting out my breath a little too fiercely. There was never any point in trying to fool one of the Brethren, and much as I hated to admit my mistakes and my limitations, the situation gave me no choice. “The Ungulion are almost here. And…there are too many for me to take. You’ll have to take her home. I can hold the portal if she is safe on the other side. I can draw them away from her.”

The light sharpened, and contracted, and I felt Onethyl’s presence become tangible before me. I glanced up to find him measuring me quietly, the darkness of his eyes wild against his golden skin. Of all the Brethren his gaze was the hardest to meet, because his eyes were not like men’s eyes. It was as if his eyelids circled windows into the night sky far from Mekaema, all pitch and void and filled with stars.

“I will bear her across,” he said. “But if she goes back now, there is a risk she will forget everything, and have no desire to remember. We gave Davhur that chance too, but he chose to return to Earth. Pray that she too chooses to return.”

I let myself glance back toward her tent. After what I’d put her through, after how I’d treated her, would she want to come back? And if not—what then? Davhur had spoken of other children, but it was this one, this girl, that he had called a daughter of our world. If even she gave up on us, and kept Pyelthan locked in that other world, what would become of us? A vague notion elbowed into my mind, that if she stayed away, maybe I could venture into her world and take the thing from her…even by force, if she wouldn’t give it to me voluntarily.

But it wouldn’t be safe with me. Not as long as I was the only one either capable enough or stupid enough to watch the portals.

“I’ll take my chances with her,” I told Onethyl. Behind us, farther into the trees, I could just hear the beginnings of the Ungulion’s wailing, keening cry.

“They have sensed you,” Onethyl said.

“Get her out of here.”

He nodded, and vanished. Marek was just sprinting back toward Merelin’s tent as I left the sheltering trees. He had a spear, holding it idiotically with both hands as he ran. I wanted to ask him how long he’d been training to be a soldier, but figured it wasn’t the best time to shatter what little misplaced confidence he had.

“I’m ready!” he called, nearly decapitating a pole brazier as he passed.

When he joined me I noticed he had a sword strapped to his back and daggers at both hips. And he only had two hands, just like the rest of men. I gave an inward sigh and hoped he would have the sense to flee when the Ungulion appeared. Leaving my long-bladed knife sheathed behind my back, I drew only the small, curved blade that hung at my hip. Marek stared at it—or me, maybe—lips flapping noiselessly. He looked like he was about to say something about it, then the dead wailing picked up in a long, slow swell. I’d heard it more times than I cared to count, but it still made my skin prickle just like the first time. No one should ever have to get used to a sound like that.

“That’s them, isn’t it?” Marek asked.

I tightened my hand on the white hilt of the dagger. Reached inside, laid a calming hand on my tremoring heart. Soothed the desperate gasping of my lungs. In my thoughts I could recall Mykyl’s voice:

“With this Blade, you will never stand alone in battle.”

The memory of those words almost made me smile, because at just that moment, Marek gave up and did what any sensible person would do. He ran away. I let out a slow breath, trying not to feel quite so relieved, and steadied my stance for battle. The keening threatened to drown me, but I listened instead to my heart, the steady rhythm against my ribs. All the light of the torches and fires went out. They were nearly here.

Then I saw them, ghosting between the tents, streaking straight toward me.

The slow burning in my soul inched out into my veins. It crept down my arms, up my neck with a force like sound. Drown, drown, drown. I pulled strength from the deepest pit of my soul, drawing it out after the fire that burned in my throat and fingertips. It loosed all at once, a river bursting its banks, and threw my arms wide with the force. I heard my voice tearing free, surging out like a wordless syllable into the night. Light flared all around me.

The force of it sent the first three Ungulion flying back through the darkness, their wailing turned to screams and fading too fast to silence. I dropped to a lower stance, waiting as the remaining two crept forward, cautious now. Everything still throbbed in blinding white light around me, and my mouth tasted like blood, as if the voice had been ripped from my throat. My palms wept sweat. I swapped hands holding the Blade, back and forth, to give myself a chance to wipe the dampness away on my pants.

A long bronze dagger materialized from the first Ungulion’s cloak. My thighs burned already from holding the crouch. Too much, too soon. I’d used up so much strength. Both Ungulion had weapons drawn now, and they circled me like carrion birds, waiting for me to die. One of them inched closer and closer to the girl’s tent, where I could still feel the throb and pull of the portal. I darted toward him and flicked the tip of my knife at his arm, trying to draw his attention and his anger. Too many more steps around me, and he would feel the pull of the open portal, too, and would realize what had happened. Just a few more minutes. Just a few more.

The Ungulion shrieked in pain. The pain always startled them. It’s like they forgot they could bleed. He stared at his arm, then, snake-like, lashed his knife toward me. I saw it coming and dodged. But my legs were too weak, too unsteady. I moved too slow, felt the razor-sharp edge dance over my shoulder. The white light burst into a red fog. My feet stumbled over the broken earth. The next blow I didn’t see as much as anticipate. It came low, from the first Ungulion, a vicious upward jab toward my neck as I bent over.

I spun, desperate, slashing with the knife as I turned. It raked over solid mass, but I couldn’t see anything now. Didn’t know where I had struck. For all I knew, I had fallen and scored the earth with the blade.

I realized a moment later that I was flat on my back. My ears rang, and the earth tilted dizzily under me, the blood in my mouth mixing with bile. A shadow loomed up over me. Bronze flashed. I sighed and stared up toward the treetops that I couldn’t see but knew hung above me.

At least the portal was closed, safely. And maybe the girl would have the sense to stay away. Maybe Davhur was right when he decided to stay in that other world, far away from ours.

Here there was only death.

I waited, and waited, but the final blow never came. A sharp, grinding pain dug into my ribs, sending a shower of stars over my already blinded vision. I tried to shift away from the metal-toed boot, but my body wouldn’t obey.

“Why don’t you kill me?” I heard myself ask, the words liquid in my mouth.

“We know who you are,” one of them said.

And the other asked, “Do you have information?”

I closed my eyes—or at least, I thought I did. I couldn’t quite tell.

“Never,” I managed to say.

“We’ll see about that,” said the first. “Bring him.”

My arms jerked in their sockets as one of them dragged me upright. I tried to steady myself, but my muscles wouldn’t respond. Tried again. My arms twitched a little, barely pulling back against the Ungulion’s grip. His fingers tightened, grey nails prodding into my wrist. Finally, finally I felt some life in my limbs. I jerked my arm back, hard, and with all my pitiful strength slammed my head against the place where I knew his would be.

Through the explosion of pain I felt the smug satisfaction of hearing the Ungulion screech in surprise and agony. He dropped my arm to grab his head. It did me no good. I lost my balance and collapsed back onto the ground, cursing myself for my weakness.

“Can you not control him?” the first Ungulion hissed.

In the vague blur of shadowed vision, I saw the other rise up over me, and draw back his arm.

* * *

I woke to the smell of blood and rust, and the feel of warm stone under my hands. I made an effort at opening my eyes, and soon the shadows retreated to the corners of my cell. Good. At least I knew where I was. The Ungulion were nothing if not predictable, and any time they caught a prisoner, they dragged him off first thing to the Gorhiem Bolstoed. It practically felt like home, by now.

I shifted, dragging myself up into a sitting position. My mouth tasted foul, and I spat and coughed, and stared at the blood-tinged spittle on the back of my hand. God, one of these days I was going to kill myself like this. And they hadn’t even started trying to extort their precious information from me. Sooner or later I’d meet the day when I wouldn’t be able to withstand it.

Not yet.

I pushed myself to my feet, and staggered a few steps around the cell. Reached up to the rusting bars in the narrow window, and tested a few of them. They shook generously, and I almost smiled. They’d even given me my old cell. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and the blood from my palms, and set to loosening them a little more in their sockets. Soon they’d be weak enough to pop free with just a little pressure. I’d wait to remove them till the time was right, to avoid raising suspicion among the Ungulion. I worked on all of them but one, leaving the leftmost bar to use as an anchor if I managed to make something sturdy enough for a climbing rope.

Footsteps in the hall interrupted my work, and I slouched down against the wall just as an Ungulion interrogator appeared outside my cell.

“I heard they brought you in again,” he rasped, voice scraping like straw on stone. “I didn’t believe you were stupid enough to engage us again.”

“I never learn,” I said blandly.

I thought I heard the Ungulion laugh, then he produced a ring of keys from his robe. With a resigned sigh, I swallowed back the tug of dread in my throat. The door swung in and he strode in to pull me to my feet. I got up before he could touch me, and when his hand lashed out to grab my wrists, I held them out voluntarily instead. I knew that I faced the inevitable, but at least I could go on my own terms.

The Ungulion stared at me through its blood-red eyes, its lipless mouth opening in what I could only guess was a smirk. Then it was out into the corridor, marching down toward the interrogation room.

Their techniques were always the same. I’d been able to withstand them so far, for so many years now. As long as I had enough strength going into that room, I felt fairly confident I could come out again, skin and secrets intact. It was harder this time. The pain cut deeper. They worked on me with a sort of desperate urgency. Maybe they thought they were running out of time, just like we did. But I succeeded, barely, in keeping my mouth shut, and an hour or so later I was back in the cell.

I didn’t let them see what they’d done to me. It took all my shredded strength, but I knelt frozen where the interrogator left me until I heard the door lock and his footsteps fade to silence. Then I gave in. I couldn’t hold out any longer. Vaguely I felt my cheek pressed against the stone floor. Blood tugged from some wound on my back. Time shuddered and lurched. I lay still, trying to focus on breathing. For a few seconds, I was afraid I’d lost the ability. Tomorrow I would work on the rope. Tomorrow I would escape, and find out what to do about Davhur’s daughter.

Some time later I woke to the sound of footsteps, again. I shuddered and rolled onto my back, staring up at the daylight streaming in through the window. Several hours had passed, anyway, but they couldn’t be coming to interrogate me again already. They always waited at least a day…and I hadn’t slept that long, had I? Maybe I had.

I had felt the damage they’d done to me. Maybe they could tell they’d pushed me to the edge of breaking. Or maybe they really were that desperate, and didn’t care if I survived this time or not.

I picked myself up, resting on hands and knees until the nausea passed, then shifted around to sit against the wall and watch the corridor. Let them think I didn’t care. Let them think I was ready.

The Ungulion appeared, and didn’t stop for me. I flinched. Apparently I wasn’t ready — not for what I saw. The Ungulion had a small, slim form thrown over his shoulder, shrouded in the folds of his own cloak. A few strands of long, light brown hair hung down his back.

I scrambled to my feet.

No.

The word formed on my lips, but didn’t leave them.

They had captured Merelin Lindon.

I listened as the Ungulion deposited her into the cell next to mine and clanged the door shut behind him. In a moment he stopped in front of my cell, leering in at me.

“Brought you some company. You can listen to each other die,” he said.

I strode up to the door, hoping I looked steadier than I felt. My hand lashed onto the bars and I shoved it as hard as I could, making the door clash against its frame.

“Who is she?”

“What do I care?” the Ungulion said. “She was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Makes us curious. We’ll find out who she is, don’t worry.”

I shook the bars again as he turned away, but it made no difference. As soon as he had disappeared, I made my way to the wall dividing our cells. Foolish girl. She should have stayed away. She was going to get herself killed.

And I—I surprised myself by caring. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of her suffering the humiliation of defeat. Not after…

Not after what I’d seen her father suffer.

“Merelin!” I called, leaning my hands against the stone. I dropped to my knees, and found the small hole her father had once pointed out to me.

“See these holes, Yatol?” I could hear him asking me across this same wall. “These stones are weak. When the day is hottest, find a weak point, and you find your escape.”

“Merelin!”

Still nothing from the other cell. I only prayed they hadn’t done too much damage to her already. She was such a small thing. But I thought of her fire, when she’d stood up to me the first few moments we were face to face, and the memory made me smile. She had strength. Rash, reckless strength, maybe, but there was more to her than she let on. Strange creature.

I shifted around to lean my back against the wall, closing my eyes and waiting. It took less time than I expected for her to start moving around. I could hear the straw shuffling as she sat up, then, somehow, I could sense her presence on the other side of the wall, leaning back against the stone directly across from me.

A moment later I heard her muttering to herself, “It’s not supposed to be this way!”

She sounded angry, and the mental image I had of her being angry amused me.

I hesitated, just for a second, and then turned to kneel toward the wall. “Merelin?”

She forged right on, “Way to think you could just come back and save the world. You got caught! It just figures…”

Anxious as I was for her, and furious as I was that she’d come back at all, I couldn’t help grinning at her indignation. She thought she could save the world. A lot of people out there wished she would, but I’m sure she had no idea just what that would mean for her.

“Merelin!” I called, a little more loudly, the voice burning in my throat.

She shuffled away from the wall, moving toward the cell door. The bars complained as she leaned against them.

“Who’s there?” she whispered.

“Yatol,” I said, and suddenly wondered what she would think when she discovered she had only me for company.

There was a brief silence, then her voice, closer than before, “You’re here? I saw what happened…somehow, I don’t know. I’m so sorry! I tried to tell you I had gone.”

A little noise of surprise escaped me. I knew she had gifts, but seeing across worlds was not one I would have guessed. Funny, she didn’t seem to realize why she had gone back to her home world. Or how.

“I knew,” I said, simply.

“You sent me back, didn’t you?”

And there was the moment of realization. I nodded, then remembered the wall between us and said, “Yes.”

“Then why did you stay?” she asked. I could hear her confusion, tinged with rage. “You could have gotten away. I don’t understand.”

I sighed, letting my gaze drift over the bloody scabs and wounds on my arms.

Should I tell her the truth? Would it make any difference?

“It’s my task,” I said finally. “They would have followed you if they’d found the way you’d taken.”

I didn’t explain any more than that. She would figure it out, or not. It didn’t matter.

“The way I had taken?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“But why did you send me back?”

Ah. That was the question I was sure she wouldn’t really want to hear the answer to. I wondered if I should tell her. She was smart enough; she would understand the implications. But did I want her to understand? I could imagine what kind of pain that would cause her. Still, I couldn’t stand the thought of being anything but honest with her. If I spoke, I would always tell the truth. Maybe that’s why I’d always had a taste for silence.

But I answered her, and said it quietly, “So they wouldn’t catch you.”

And I realized, with some surprise, that it wasn’t just that unspoken promise to her father that had motivated me. Somehow I couldn’t stand the thought of this girl, this reckless, fearless little spitfire being hurt by the Ungulion. I would never allow them to do to her what they did to me. She was unlike anyone I’d ever met. And somehow I thought I rather wanted to see her face-to-face again.

She was quiet for a while, and I knew she was thinking over what I’d said—and what I hadn’t. I only hoped she wouldn’t feel too guilty. I’d made my choices, just like she’d made hers.

“Yatol,” she said, voice soft, “what are they?”

Thank God for the change of subject.

“We call them the Ungulion, but I don’t know what they call themselves,” I said.

Ungulion bastards. They didn’t know the meaning of mercy. They knew nothing but their own hatred. And they would do to Merelin what they did to me.

Not if I could help it.

After a moment she asked, “Those were the things in Mr. Dansy’s shop, weren’t they? Those were the things that were hunting me. They were in my world too. Mr. Dansy said I had to keep Py…” I froze, but she caught herself and finished, “the object safe from them”

“Nothing else matters,” I said.

God. I’d spent most of my life with that one thought to drive me, closing the walls of my vision to everything else. I’d say it would consume me in the end, but in truth, it already had.

I shifted my position, that little movement sending a spasm of pain through me. Oblivion called to me, and I yearned for it, but I couldn’t give in to it. Not now. I had to speak. Had to give her some hope. Had to let her know that she wasn’t abandoned.

“Listen,” I said, the voice fraying in my throat. “I can get us out of here, just…just not yet.” I swallowed and blinked back the darkness. “I need some time.”

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Somehow, the concern in her voice shattered me more than the pain. I leaned my head on the wall and said nothing at all.

“Yatol?” she asked.

I gritted my teeth on a groan and twisted around, carefully, to sit on the ground. In the silence my mind screamed memories of Ungulion interrogations, the voices, the questions, the knives, my gasps of pain, the voices, the voices…

I slammed my head into my hands and drew a long, thin breath.

“Talk to me, Merelin,” I heard myself say. “It doesn’t matter what about.” The noise in my head pitched up again and I dug my fingers into my scalp, saying with something like desperation, “I can’t take the silence just now.”

For a moment she said nothing, then, “You were waiting for me in the desert. How did you know I was going to be there?”

I laughed, a pitiful, weak kind of laugh, because I couldn’t help it. “Questions,” I said.

“Sorry,” she murmured, sounding contrite. “I miss my brother.”

My brows shot up in surprise. I knew about her brother, of course, but I hadn’t expected her to tell me about him, of all the things she could have talked about.

“We’re twins,” she went on. “Nobody would know that though. We don’t look anything alike. But we’ve always…” Her voice trailed away on a wisp of sadness. “We’ve always done everything together, until know. Getting each other into trouble. Getting each other out of it. Making up mad adventures. Why…” I waited, but when she didn’t ask the question, I smiled. Instead she said, “I wonder why he didn’t come with me.”

“What is his name?” I asked, but my voice gave out, and I could hardly hear it myself. I closed my eyes and repeated the question.

“Damian,” she said. I could tell she was smiling from the joy in her voice. “He’d be all into this. And…He’d be pretty mad if I told him about this, though.”

For a moment I sat frozen, the memories of my interrogation blurring over my memory of Merelin Lindon. Anger burned through me. I let it surge, let it give me strength.

“For good cause, too,” I gritted, twisting around and tearing free a chunk of rock from the wall. It clattered away, and I let out my breath. “Look, by the floor.”

“The hole? What about it?”

“These walls are centuries old, and the heat makes the stone weak,” I said, echoing her father. Then I added, “It crumbles easily.”

I set to work breaking up the rock. On the other side I could hear her doing the same, laughing a little as she realized I was telling the truth. For a while we carried on in silence. Just a little longer, and I would be able to tell her how I planned to escape. It would be harder for two people to get out, but we could manage.

“Well, this is really convenient,” she said presently.

I paused to wipe my hands on the thighs of my pants. They were bleeding again. The brittle quality of the rock was convenient, of course, but pulling at the stone felt like rubbing my hands intentionally over a washing board.

All I said was, “Yes.”

“What exactly are you planning on doing?” she asked.

I didn’t really want to admit that I didn’t have much of a plan, or anything beyond vague ideas. Was I supposed to tell her we were going to climb out the window on a rope that I didn’t have?

“You’ll see,” I said, evasively. “It’s almost large enough now.”

“And I’m sure the whole wall will cave in over us when it is,” she shot back.

I caught myself grinning again, and I said, “That would make things easier.”

“So, why would someone build a building out of rock that you can break?”

Good question. I’d never really thought about it myself.

“There was no need to use anything stronger,” I guessed, assuring myself that it sounded reasonable. Then I stifled a laugh and added, “Most people don’t try to pick apart buildings. Not generally.”

I quickened my work, pausing every few moments to wipe my hands again. Soon we’d gotten a fairly good gap cleared out, wide enough for someone her size to squeeze through, anyway. I was impressed. The rock couldn’t have been any easier on her hands than mine, but she hadn’t whispered a word of complaint.

I glanced down through the gap just as she dropped her head down to look through. And suddenly I remembered my wounds, and I pulled back before she could see me.

“Here. You should be able to get through now,” I said, wiping the edge of my sleeve over my face, trying to blot away some of the blood. The last thing she needed was to see me looking like a corpse.

“Me?” she asked, skeptical. “Are you sure?”

“It’s more than large enough for someone so…” I trailed off, trying to think of the right word.

“So what?” she asked, peevish. “Scrawny?”

“Slender.”

The word slipped out unguarded, and the blood pounded in my ears. I slammed my hand against my forehead. What an idiotic thing to say. What an idiotic thing to put me so out of sorts. What was it about that girl that made me feel so foolish?

I mentally slapped myself, and steeled my thoughts. This wasn’t the time or place. We had to get out of here before one of us got killed. That brought my attention back to my escape plan, and my lack of a rope. I surveyed my pile of straw thoughtfully. I could weave it into rope easily enough, if I had enough time, but I didn’t think I had enough straw to make one long enough. Luckily our little tunnel solved that problem too.

I bent down to peer through the hole, and Merelin jumped a little in surprise when she saw me.

“While you’re over there, get all the bedding you have and push it through to me.”

She grimaced, and gave me a skeptical look. “Gross, what for?”

I swallowed the smile and let her wonder. After a moment she rolled her eyes at me and disappeared from the gap. I pulled up my knees and waited, mentally rehearsing our escape. It would take me some little time to weave the rope, but somehow I thought I wouldn’t mind company while I did.

I bent to see if she’d returned, and almost got a face full of straw as she shoved it through the gap at me. When I’d gathered it up, she dropped onto her stomach and elbows and stared through at me. I could see her mentally working up her resolve, her eyes sweeping over the dimensions of the narrow gap. Poor girl. She was scared out of her mind. And yet she just gritted her teeth and started easing her way toward me.

She’d almost made it halfway through when I caught the faint ringing of footsteps, distant down the corridor. I was so sick of that sound. My heart stopped, my blood froze, bridging the space between fury and fear.

Merelin had heard it too.

“Yatol?” she whispered, breathless. “What is that?”

Before I could answer, she was worming her way back through the hole. I glanced down once to make sure she’d gotten clear, then piled as much of my dismantled rock back into the hole as I could. From the sound of it, she was doing the same on her side. I knew she was smart.

The steps clanged louder and louder, closer and closer, then they stopped in front of my cell. I’d finished my desperate efforts just in time to situate myself against the wall before the Ungulion appeared. He seemed familiar to me, somehow. Taller than the others, his face thinner—thinner and crueler than the Ungulion I’d met before. I’d been under his interrogation before. I remembered him now. He was the one they called the Inquisitor.

“You again, is it?” the Ungulion asked.

Apparently he remembered me too. I turned my face away, and ignored the question.

“It is always you. How long has it been this time?”

When I didn’t move and didn’t look at him, the Inquisitor slammed his metal boot against my door, the iron crashing so loud that I couldn’t resist a slight flinch. My ears were still ringing when he went on, seething with fury,

“Look at you already. And it has only begun. This is the last time, for you.”

I turned back to him, measuring him coldly. “Yes, it is.”

One way or another, I thought, quiet dread settling in the pit of my stomach.

The Ungulion kicked the cell door again, then dragged out his ring of keys and set to work on the lock. I sighed and closed my eyes, letting my head lean back against the stone for just a moment. They must have been desperate. Or they must have thought that I was—finally—disposable. I knew my strength. And I knew they had drained off enough of it already. For maybe the first time in my life, I doubted whether I would be able to survive. I’d struggled in countless ways over the years, but one thing I’d always been able to depend on was my ability to defy death. Now even that seemed to be slipping out of my grasp.

The Ungulion strode into the cell, towering over me.

“Get up,” he hissed, chains flashing between his hands.

“Make me,” I said, but knew better than to waste my energy fighting him.

He reached toward me, but I swiped his hands away and pushed myself to my feet. The cold iron circled my wrists, then the Ungulion grabbed my shoulder and drove me out the door. Or threw me. I stumbled over the iron lip of the doorframe, barely catching my balance before I fell into the cruel spikes lacing the whole wall of the corridor. The Ungulion stepped out after me, trying to grab my arm. I jerked out of his grip. Whatever happened, no one would drag me against my will anywhere. Not while I had strength to stand on my own.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Merelin clutching the bars of her cell. She looked like a disaster, with bloody face and hands, her eyes, once so devastatingly luminous, now dark and rimmed with…tears. I tried to catch her gaze, tried to give her some kind of encouragement, but I had none to give. I felt none myself. Then the Inquisitor jabbed me in the back, forcing me on down the hallway. I bent my head, and walked the long walk through the shadows, back too soon to the interrogation chamber.

Two other Ungulion interrogators waited for me in the darkness. I felt them chain me to the pillar, leaving my bonds slack so that I wouldn’t even have that support to keep me upright. They’d arranged it that way once before, and by the end, when I needed the chains to hold me up, my legs had given out and the fall had dislocated one of my shoulders. I twisted the slack of the chain around one hand, and prayed I could keep hold of it.

“Do you know who the girl is?” the Inquisitor asked, flexing his hands in a metal-plated glove.

I gritted my teeth in silence. His fist slammed into the jagged wound on my side they’d given me earlier. I let out my breath in a grunt, and bit my tongue on the pain. If the first impact wasn’t bad enough, the Ungulion kept his fist planted there, digging the armored knuckles against the bruise and into the torn flesh. I could feel fresh blood welling from the wound, and sweat seeped out over my forehead.

“Is she the one?”

I spat at his feet, and caught the backhand of the glove across my mouth for my efforts. My head snapped back, and I snatched vainly at my chains to stay upright. Already my thoughts were tumbling in a slow chaos, and the questioning had barely begun.

Just die silent.

“Once we have finished with you, we will begin on her. She will tell us what we need to know, I would wager.”

You’d make a bad gambler, I thought, and said nothing.

But the words turned me sick. I knew they would do it. They had no qualms about interrogating a girl. I had my doubts that they would succeed with her, but I almost wished she wasn’t so strong. So stubborn. Because if she held out, it would only get worse. If she broke quickly…

If she broke, and told them her identity, they would kill her on the spot. No ceremony. No form or formality. A knife to the throat and a quick end.

I swallowed back bile. Not if I could help it. Survive, survive, I commanded myself, and retreated deep into my spirit to find my strength. Let them do to my body what they wanted. They wouldn’t have me. Not yet. In some vague corner of my consciousness, I could feel the sting of their buffets, beating old bruises, inflicting new ones. Could hear the rasp of their questions, their voices inching higher and higher in pitch. I gripped the cold metal links of my chains, and willed to stay alive.

They can’t have me. Not yet, I told myself, over and over again.

When I thought it would never end—when my grip on my sanity and my strength had stretched thread-thin—I felt my knees hitting stone, and no searing pain in my shoulders to follow. They had unchained me from the pillar. I tried to regain my feet on my own, but one of them had a grip on me already and pulled me up roughly. My mind wouldn’t focus on anything, and I couldn’t understand what words he said in my ear. I only smelled the death-rot drifting from his mouth.

My legs wouldn’t obey. I struggled to force them into motion, but they just dragged uselessly as the Ungulion forced me back down the corridor. Somewhere through the pounding of blood in my ears I thought I heard Merelin’s voice screaming my name. I tried to lift my head, but couldn’t tell if I moved it at all. Moments later I felt the sharp crack of my knees and hands hitting my cell floor. I collapsed onto my side, but I could sense the Ungulion still standing there behind me.

Don’t look weak. Never look weak.

I choked back a groan and pushed myself back onto my knees, and then into a sitting position, slumped against the wall.

God. I’m still alive.

I didn’t listen as the door slammed shut. I was alive. And as soon as I could possibly get a rope woven, we were going to be free. No matter what.

Slowly, slowly, the rush of blood faded from my ears. And—

“A newcomer, I see.”

Those words cut through my thoughts with painful clarity.

No.

“Get up!”

Metal chains clashed in the quiet.

No. No. No. It wasn’t possible. They couldn’t be after her. Not yet. Not yet.

She stumbled out into the corridor, dwarfed by the Ungulion who held her chains. I gathered the shredded remains of my energy and threw myself at the cell door.

“No!” I cried. “Leave her alone!”

I slipped one hand between the bars, as if somehow I could reach her and pull her free, or drive the Inquisitor away. The Ungulion spun toward me, then his foot lashed out again and slammed into the bars of my door. The impact sent me staggering back. The world tilted dizzily, and my hands flailed, reaching for something, anything, to hold onto. And for just one moment I caught Merelin’s gaze. She looked cold and proud, and somewhere behind it all, terrified. But she met my gaze fearlessly, and then she was gone.

I sank back against the wall. I’d failed her. I failed. Sentenced her to death.

My one consolation was the strange vibrancy I could feel from Pyelthan, hidden somewhere in her cell. Somehow Merelin had had the foresight to leave it behind. I almost felt guilty for fixing any hope to that fact. It felt like I was already giving her up for dead.

I dug my hands against my head, and prayed with every ounce of strength I had that she would survive. Somehow I didn’t care if she gave up information about everything else in the world, as long as she kept herself anonymous—and alive.

I let my body rest for a few, terrible moments, then forced myself back into motion. No time. I didn’t have time to waste languishing in self-pity. In a few hours I would be out of this cell, out of this horrible prison, and I just hoped that I wouldn’t be escaping alone. I set to weaving the straws the way the old rope-makers had taught me at the Academy. The work took painstaking effort and so much time, but it kept my thoughts focused. Kept me from worrying about her.

Sooner than I anticipated the sound of footsteps returned. I shoved the lengthening rope behind my back and waited breathless, half-expecting the Ungulion to return empty-handed, and mock me with the news of their victory. Maybe that was why I reeled with relief when I saw him burdened with her small figure. He dragged her much as he had dragged me, but her head sagged and I wondered if she had fallen unconscious. From the way it sounded like the Inquisitor just shoved her body into the cell, I assumed she was out.

I let out my breath. Sometimes the body has a way of saving itself through unconsciousness, and I thanked every power in Mekaema that she had found release through that path rather than another.

When the hall quieted down again, I dragged myself back to the wall.

“Merelin!” I called, listening for any sound of movement in her cell. It felt like we had just been through this.

Nothing.

I wove a few more inches into the rope, my fingers burning and wrists aching from the effort. Every few minutes I tried calling to her, but still I got no reply. I gritted my teeth and kept working. If she didn’t answer within the next few minutes, I would have to try to reach her somehow. If the Ungulion had touched her at all with their flesh, and not just with their gloved hands, she could be dying already.

“Merelin!” I cried again, my voice cracking from thirst and pain.

“I’m here.”

I dropped the rope and leaned my head in my hands. Then I twisted over onto my knees and let my forehead rest against the wall.

“Are you hurt? Are you all right?”

I waited, and waited, but she never answered. Fresh panic infused me with a new energy, and I scrabbled at the rubble-filled gap. I had to get to her. She needed help, now…

“Yatol,” she said, suddenly, stilling my fingers. “They were going to summon something.”

I closed my eyes.

“Azik.” The name fell like lead from my tongue. “The Breaker.”

“I think I fainted. I don’t know if I told him anything.”

“He hasn’t arrived yet,” I said.

“How do you know?”

I faltered. A vision of green flame and a mouthless face reared up in my mind, and I pulled back from the wall, sucking in the breath through my teeth. All up and down my arms and through my neck I felt a memory of pain, tugging, driving, suffocating pain. God, how had I survived that? Could she?

“You wouldn’t be here now if you’d seen him,” I said slowly, hating the words.

A pause, then, “Have you ever seen him?”

Pain shot through my wrists again, and I flexed them instinctively. Sometimes I could barely remember that it hadn’t been just a nightmare. Sometimes the phantom pains made it impossible to forget. Words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t talk about it. Not now.

I settled on working at the rocks, and could hear her starting on her side. For a while we both concentrated on the task, then she—inquisitive she with her million questions—said,

“Yatol, is the Ungulion going to come back?”

“No,” I said, scraping away a large chunk of rock. “Another will pass in a few hours to check on us, but by then…”

By then we will be free.

When I’d gotten most of my half cleared, I returned to my rope, weaving it as quickly as I could manage. Some little corner of my mind kept turning a disgusted glance over me, as if the scars and scabs and bruises were trophies of my failures. As if I’d won them by being too weak to resist. I clenched my jaw and stared at the musty bits of straw, twisting, plaiting, coiling.

Merelin scrambled through the gap, but I kept my gaze fixed on the rope. I didn’t want to look at her, not just yet. I didn’t want to see what they had done to her. She hovered near the wall for a while, watching me as if she despised me.

She sees how weak you are, a hateful little voice in my head said. She knows you can’t even defend yourself. Do you think she’ll ever want your help defending her?

I drove the voice away, frowning as I worked. A moment later she crept toward me, crouching down close enough that I could feel her feverish warmth. Her hand reached out, a little pale blur in the shadowy cell, and touched the rope I had coiled at my side.

“What are we going to do with that?” she asked.

I could feel her watching me, that steady, discerning stare of hers, like she could read my soul.

“We get out,” I said, twisting a bit of straw a little too violently and crumbling it to dust. I cursed under my breath and picked up another.

“Get out, how? We’re sort of locked in here.”

“I won’t let you be taken before Azik,” I said, with the violence that crumbled straw, and stone.

I flicked a glance in her direction, rather against my will, but pulled it away again as soon as I caught her eye. I didn’t remember thinking she was particularly attractive—or unattractive either—when I’d first met her yesterday, but something about the way she watched me made me feel suddenly small and self-conscious, like a child. Maybe it was the light in her eyes, stark against the swollen bruise on her cheek, or…

Focus.

“See if you can pry the bars out,” I said, sharper than I meant. “All but one, the leftmost one.”

I breathed easier once she’d moved away, standing up on her tiptoes to try to get a good grip on the bars. As she wriggled the first bar back and forth, I measured out my length of rope and figured it would be basically long enough to get us within a safe distance of the sand. I had only a small pile of straw left, so while Merelin was busy with the bars, I kept weaving.

She suddenly staggered back, lost her balance, and sat down hard on the cell floor in a cloud of dust. I glanced up, startled, but she didn’t look hurt. She just sat frozen, then shook her head like a wet dog. Something about the way she sat there, all indignant and bewildered, made everything else meaningless, and I caught myself grinning. She stared at me in surprise, which made matters worse, then her hand reached up to brush her hair back as if that could solve its wild chaos. I jerked my gaze back to the rope, trying not to laugh when I felt the glare she speared after me.

Finally I finished with the rope. I pulled myself to my feet, hating my weakness, but Merelin didn’t seem to notice. Or if she did, she had an exceptional ability to hide her disdain. I secured the rope to the last bar and, with a quick burst of strength, pulled myself up into the window casing, telling her as I did,

“Come after me.”

She stared up at me in disbelief. “Won’t the bar come out? We just dismantled half a wall of this stuff!”

“This bar will hold,” I said, hearing more confidence in my voice than I felt. “Or did you think I’ve been idle waited for you?”

Those words spilled out on their own.

“Waited for me…?” she echoed.

Her gaze drew mine, like a magnet, but that impetuous voice was gone now, and I had no more words. I slipped my leg over the casement, peering down to the rolling sands below. My guess had been good—the rope fell to within two man-height’s distance from the sand. The sand would be cushion enough. We could make it. And then to the scouts’ outpost, and on to Master Enhyla’s.

“Yatol!” Merelin cried, one hand reaching up toward me like she wanted to pull me back into the cell. “Wait, stop. It’s so thin. It’s just straw! It can’t hold!”

“Trust me,” I said, and launched myself out of the casement before I could second-guess myself.

I made my way quickly down the rope, my arms shaking from the effort and vision hazing every few feet. If I slowed down, I would never make it. I barely made it even at my breakneck speed. But finally I reached the end of the rope, and, after dangling a split second, dropped to the sand below. I fell to my knees on impact, sand spraying up around me. Sand. Freedom.

Now for Merelin.

I looked for her at the window casement, and found her already sitting on the ledge. She had a death-grip on the remaining bar, as if she thought she could hold it in place while I climbed down. Just when I started worrying that she’d lose her nerve, she shifted her grip to the rope and lowered herself out the window.

So far, so good.

She made her way slowly, inch by inch. I gritted my teeth and willed her to go faster. Her face was deathly pale, shining with sweat and blood. After a few feet, she stopped entirely and just hung there, eyes closed, arms shaking. When she opened her eyes, she canted her head a little to glance down at me.

“Come on,” I whispered. “You can do this.”

You can stand up to the Ungulion and resist their interrogations. You can do anything.

She tried to brace her foot on the wall, and almost fell. My heart stopped, suspended in space with her there on the rope, and when she started scrambling down my pulse shot back into my ears.

She had gotten almost halfway down the wall when the unimaginable happened. She froze. I didn’t think she could get any paler, but she did. And then I realized why. I heard the Ungulion’s keening from the cell above. In a moment he appeared at the window, leaning out to look down at us, eyes blazing fury. Then his hands reached out, and his nails started plucking at the rope.

I frowned. Why wasn’t he trying to pull her up? What was he hoping to do? Did he know her identity, and mean to kill her? Had they figured it out?

Merelin, to my surprise, was shooting down the rope at an alarming speed. Too late I saw the rope buck and crumple. My shout was lost in the Ungulion’s screech. She slammed against the wall, hands tearing at the rocks. I winced as she caught a rock in her bloodied hands, and clung on with desperate strength.

The Ungulion would not be thwarted. I stared up at him, and somehow I almost thought he looked triumphant. The keening rose to a piercing shriek, and slowly, slowly, he stretched his hands toward Merelin.

No, no, no…

I rushed toward her. Just as I opened my mouth to scream at her, to tell her to jump, she did it on her own. The Ungulion’s hands leveled on her, and she threw herself back from the wall, plummeting in a sick free-fall toward the earth. I ran. Stumbled clumsily in the sand. Watched the Ungulion dive from the window like a great black bird, cloak and robes fluttering like wings around him, careening toward the ground straight after Merelin. I grabbed my knife, the knife no Ungulion could touch, and threw myself toward them. I couldn’t reach them in time. They hit the ground, Merelin a split second before the Ungulion, but the Ungulion landed on his feet and crouched in front of me, staring from me to her and back again.

His hands shot toward her, and I hurtled at him. Ducked under his outstretched arm, and drove backwards with the knife as I passed him. The blade sank into the folds of his robe at the base of his spine, buried to the hilt. I pulled the knife free. We both spun, him toward me, and I back toward him, but I was a step ahead of him. As soon as I saw the front of him I plunged the blade into his breast, once, twice.

His wailing filled every ounce of my being. I was deaf with it, sick with it, blind with it. Still he staggered, clinging desperately to his sad half-life. My spirit slammed against his. His mind drove vicious nails into mine, twisting and grasping. I dragged the blade back and aimed a backhand slash to his throat. Finally, finally, I felt his spirit crumble. My mind cleared. And I watched the formless black robe fluttering down to rest like a wretched puddle over the sand.

I sheathed the knife, and sank to my knees beside Merelin. As terrible as her fall had been, she’d landed well. Nothing seemed twisted or broken. She was just pale and still as marble, beautiful even with the bruise on her cheek and the blood on her temple. I touched her cheek gently, then laid my fingers over her parted lips. After a moment I felt her breath, shallow but even, and I let out my own in relief.

She had survived. Somehow I knew she would. It ran in her blood.

I collapsed on my back beside her, and stared up at the sky, willing myself to find some last shred of strength to get us both to safety. When I felt it bubbling up in the deepest pit of my soul, I staggered to my feet, slipped my arms around the girl and lifted her up.

Her eyelids fluttered. I couldn’t tell if she was awake, but I spoke to her as if she was, “It’s safe now. We don’t have far to go.”

She let out a thin breath and her head drooped to rest against my shoulder, finally letting go. As carefully and gently as I could, I set off across the sands under the growing dusk. But the tiny little spring of strength I’d found was dwindling fast. My legs shook, and my head throbbed viciously.

Finally I knelt in the sand, and laid Merelin down in front of me so I could rest my arms.

“Akhmar,” I whispered, bowing my head. “I cannot do this alone.”

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  1. Exciting News for SisterMuses! - J. Leigh Bralick

    […] where those scenes occur so you can jump to them easily and then back to Merelin’s story.  Imprisoned will be included, of course, but I’m also adding a few totally new […]

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