The ring of eman vath, p.24
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.24

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Eighteen: Little Bird

  Wren’s captors threw him into the cell headfirst. The last thing he saw was the stone floor rushing up to meet him, and then his chin hit rock and his neck snapped back. At first he was half under the impression his bad luck had gotten even worse and he’d somehow broken his neck, but when he tried to move and found he could, he realized that wasn’t the case.

  That being said, his vision was fading out, and he dimly recognized, with unfortunate familiarity, the process of falling unconscious.

  “Should we change him? He stinks.”

  “No – leave him in those rags. No reason to waste good clothes on a scrawny one like that. He’ll be dead before the week is out.”

  The first voice said something in response, but Wren didn’t hear it. The throbbing in his neck hit his head and everything faded away.

  He came to sometime later. He didn’t know if seconds had passed, or minutes, or maybe even hours, but the time between sleeping and waking was enough that his body was stiff, and his neck felt as though it had been wrapped in something hard and sticky.

  But at least it moves, Wren thought with a grimace.

  He sat up and looked around. A cell – grimy, rough-hewn, and hardly big enough to pace about in. Not the worst place he’d ever spent a night, but certainly still low on the list.

  Never trust a merchant, he chided himself. Never!

  He’d thought himself lucky when he’d come across the man after he’d fled Var Athel. There had been a small bag of gold attached to the saddle of the horse he’d stolen, and he’d used it to get as far along the road as he could from Caelron to Fort Turin in the north. On the way, he’d met a merchant named Aldred, who had offered to take him the rest of the way if he sang for his supper. The man had heard him on the road, and said his men would like a bit of music. Wren had agreed, even though he didn’t like the idea. An empty stomach makes for foolish decisions.

  The merchant had said he was returning from the south – he’d said Calinae, but Wren hadn’t believed that for a second – and that he was heading north to Fort Turin. Wren had fallen in easily enough – sang a little song, did a little dance – and kept them in music and merriment for the rest of the journey north.

  And then the merchant had tried to take the ring.

  It had been the last night, just outside the city of Turin, and they’d made camp down the road in a nearby field. There’d been others as well – Wren as a city boy born and bred hadn’t realized people actually enjoyed sleeping outside and such in the country, but it seemed people were peculiar and that was the way it was. The guards had been relaxed and easy with him that night. He’d sung a few songs – his voice was good, even without the lute – and that was that, or so he’d thought.

  They came for him in the night.

  He woke by accident – one of them tripped over a pot in the darkness, sending it clattering away under the merchant’s wagon, and Wren was up and moving before he knew consciously what was happening. They shouted for him, tried to circle around, but he was too fast. He escaped into the woods and raced away into the night.

  He ran hard and fast – straight north to the city. The guards that had enjoyed his songs showed no preferential treatment as they chased after him, though he supposed that shouldn’t surprise him. Guards were simple like that – they liked you and then they didn’t. That kind of thinking seemed to come with the package.

  He slipped them easily enough once he found his way into the minor city of Lower Turin, south of the famous Fort Turin that held one of the three passes through the Barrier Mountains. He laid low for as long as he could, stealing when he dared, singing for his supper in a pinch, but they found him anyway. In the end, he took what he could, retreated one last time to the eaves of the Rolling Pin inn where he’d been sleeping, and stole a coat and a pair of boots on the way out of town.

  He struck out for the coast, staying south of the Barrier – only madmen went into the Wilds, everyone knew that – and made for one of the tiny fishing hamlets that dotted the shore. He found his way to backwater armpit of a village called Pot – like the cooking utensil, which Wren did not doubt would be considered high-end technology to those who lived there – and tried to figure out what next to do.

  In all that time, he never thought of selling the ring.

  He never wore it, of course – he would have been apprehended in an instant, a shabby boy wearing a ring like that – but he did slip it on a strip of rawhide and tie it loosely around his wrist, an old thieves trick that would hide it if anyone were to catch him and slide up his sleeves.

  He liked to look at it – the way the band gleamed, the way the carved black runes contrasted with the showy gold and gave it weight, the way the sunken diamond seemed to sparkle even in the darkness. Even when he had no food – and not for want of trying – he didn’t think of selling it.

  Because it gave him music.

  Whenever he looked into the depths of the sparkling diamond, whenever he ran a finger over the carved runes that spelled out who-knew-what in some who-knew-which language, melodies came to him, springing fully formed into his mind. And even when his stomach was empty and his head pounded with hunger, he could hear the music and soothe the pain. When it was too cold, the music seemed to warm him, and when he fell into the ugly type of despair brought on by hunger, the sound of it made him smile again.

  Of course, now he was in a damn cell somewhere.

  You never should have taken it out to look at it in the first place – it’s how the bloody merchant knew you had it. And after all that, now you’re a captive, in Delsur knows where, and your new hosts will bloody take it if you don’t think of something!

  He pushed himself up and turned around, careful not to twist his neck too far. It felt all right – nothing broken, but everything tender. He touched the ring on his forearm – his captors had done just as they all did, sliding up the sleeves of his shirt to check for daggers, never imagining there were valuables to find – and tried to think through the fog of exhaustion and hunger that always seemed at work upon him.

  The Black Ships had raided Pot the same night he’d arrived, and they’d taken him along with half the village. He’d heard stories of them: They left the women and children – hopefully they just left them, though Wren wasn’t sure of that – and took the men, chaining them below deck. Most of the others ended up stripped of any finery they wore, even just their sturdy-made wool clothing, but Wren was so ragged and dirty they hadn’t even bothered. They’d left him in the torn and tattered remnants of clothing he’d managed to scrape together, taking only the newly stolen coat and boots from Turin.

  The trip had been mercifully short. Only days later – though even days in that putrid ship’s hold was enough to make Wren believe in the stories of the old god Delsur and his Underworld – they’d arrived at a forsaken rock of an island, chained and held captive with nothing to look forward to and no hope of escape.

  He was used to hopelessness, though.

  He reached again for the rawhide strip concealed beneath his grimy wool sleeve and ran his fingers along the smooth metal of the ring, thinking hard. He looked around his cell again, this time taking it in, sizing it up. Two body lengths across, barely a body length deep, floor covered in dirty straw, single bucket in the corner. Carved of rock – a cave? They’d gone down when they’d come in, which meant he had to go up to get out… what about the lock?

  He moved to the door, keeping an eye out for a patrol but seeing none. He tried to examine the lock, but it was a single-sided deal, and he needed to see it from the front. He looked both left and right as best he could – careful not to twist his neck too far – but he couldn’t manage to see the door at the end of the chamber. The cells were offset so that it was hard to see anyone else in the narrow earthen hall, and the hall itself was slightly curved, so that with the angle the guard was invisible.

  Damn.

  Taking a deep breath, he reached through the bar
s, touched the lock face, and then quickly pulled his arm back. He waited.

  There was no cry of alarm or shouted remonstration. He reached out again, felt the lock once more, and then pulled back, taking slightly more time to perform the maneuver. Still no response. He snaked his hand out again, this time confident he had some time to examine the locking mechanism, and traced the opening. It seemed simple enough. The keyhole was small, but not terribly so –

  Noise.

  He retreated immediately back into the dank cell, clinging to the shadows that cloaked the walls. He couldn’t see the door, but by squeezing against the left-hand side of the cell he was just able to see what was coming through.

  The door swung open with a bang, presumably kicked, and three guards pulled in a big hulk of a man who was fighting them tooth and nail. The guard by the door moved up and into Wren’s line of sight from where he’d been sitting, raised a heavy cudgel, and smashed it down on the back of the man’s head. The blow rebounded with a solid, sickening thunk!, and the man being held gave out a moan and his struggles notably weakened. Wren was shocked that the blow didn’t knock him out cold – the fact he was still conscious enough to struggle at all was something of a wonder, which, it turned out, was not lost on their jailers:

  “Damn – he’s still awake!”

  “Tough bastard,” one of the others said in the same strange accent, so thick it was almost a foreign language. “Did you hear what he did to Smiley?”

  “Funny Boy? No – I’d’ve thought he’d take care of an oaf like this.”

  “He didn’t. This one smashed his teeth in – broke his jaw too. He’ll be lucky if he ever smiles again.”

  “No! Bastard… ”

  The guard raised the cudgel again, and Wren winced in anticipation, but the blow never fell.

  “Wait! He has to be conscious tomorrow.”

  “Why? He’ll be much less trouble if he isn’t.”

  “He swings,” came the grim pronouncement. “He’s to be made an example.”

  There was a grim silence after this, and then the guard chuckled deep in his chest, a sound that made the hairs on the back of Wren’s neck stand on end.

  “Fair enough,” he said. “He’s the cell at the end – throw him in.”

  He spat on the man they were holding and bent down low enough to hiss something in his ear. The man flailed back weakly, but it seemed the fight had finally gone out of him. The other two guards grabbed him and pulled him along.

  Wren retreated, watching as closely as he could without appearing to watch at all, and then moved forward again as soon as they’d passed. He quickly felt the lock again and confirmed for himself what he’d already suspected. Cheap – the kind that would keep a strong man in but let a skilled man out. All Wren needed now were tools.

  He ran his hands through his hair, pushing the ragged blonde strands of it out of his face. He tried not to think about how long it had been since he’d had a bath – By the old gods, a bath! Now wouldn’t that be heavenly – and instead focused on the man who’d just come in.

  There were sounds of a struggle, and then a heavy object fell to the floor.

  There was a short pause, and then he heard the sound of rusted hinges bearing the weight of a swinging door, followed by the crash of weight on metal bars. Wren heard too the jingle of keys, and then the guards were coming back up the cellblock. He turned back inside his cell and sat casually against the earthen wall. As the guards passed, one of them glanced into his cell and he smiled and waved cheerfully. The man – a brute for sure, with a scar that crossed his whole face and a grimace that could curdle milk – sneered at him, but kept walking.

  When they got back to the door with the guard, they spoke:

  “He’s out cold,” one of them said.

  “Thought you said you had to keep him up?”

  “He’ll wake by then – boy’s as strong as an ox.”

  “What’d he do?”

  “Led a bloody insurrection in the middle of the work camp,” one of them growled. Wren would have bet anything that it was the scarred brute: the voice matched him perfectly. The speaker hawked and spat before continuing. “He attacked us, and then another dozen up and did the same. The others were put down – they’re dogs, nothing more. Not him, though – he’s to be purified on the morrow, and then he swings.”

  This pronouncement was met with a cold, ringing silence that immediately pricked Wren’s ears. It was the kind of universal quiet inspired by fear, and if the guards were scared of whatever being “purified” meant, then there was a goodly chance the man at the end of the row would not much like it either.

  Not my problem, he thought as he moved back to the door. Looking through the bars, he could now see that all three men were turned toward each other and away from the long cellblock. Wren cut his eyes the other way to the cell at the end of the hall, and realized he could see the far corner of it, and coincidentally the man they’d thrown there.

  He lay spread-eagle on the floor, and though he was breathing, his head was bloody and a lump was forming beneath his thick dark hair. His bronze skin – what’s a bloody Islander doing here? – looked strangely red and bloated, and though he was breathing, he wasn’t moving.

  Focus, Wren reprimanded himself.

  He reached his hand through the bars and diverted his attention to the lock again. He felt around the edges, trying to measure how deep it was…

  A sudden flash of realization hit him: It wasn’t even a tumbler-and-pin lock, just a simple deadbolt. He could unlock it by sticking anything in the hole and turning, so long as it was strong and skinny enough with a bent piece at the end.

  He looked around quickly, searching desperately for a spur of rock, a forgotten piece of wood, anything he could use. The guards were still talking – their voices were low, but they’d fallen into the same trap guards always did of thinking that just because people were shut in cells they were also deaf: Wren could hear every word. He listened as he moved quickly about the cell, touching the walls and floor, looking for anything loose.

  “Was he there?”

  “Yes, he gave the order.”

  “No!”

  “Quiet, idiot. It was the Skull himself.”

  Wren stopped, curious, as he heard the fear in the speaker’s voice. The Skull? What did a man have to do to earn a name like that?

  “When he says purified – does that mean like the last one?”

  “Yes,” growled the voice of the scarred brute. “Strengthen your stomach, boy. You’ll see more of that before the end of this.”

  Whoever he was talking to protested, and then the conversation continued but began to dim. Wren realized that they must have stepped through the door at the end of the hall and were speaking on the other side of it, leaving the cellblock temporarily unattended.

  Great. The perfect time to pick the damn lock and there’s nothing to use…

  His eyes fixed suddenly on the iron manacles that had been fastened to the arms and legs of the man in the other cell, though what use they served now while he was unconscious and bloody, Wren could not discern. Perhaps the guards were reassured by their cosmetic value.

  They were simple manacles, simple like the iron locks, and meant to resist strength, not cunning. They were made of a circular bit of metal, with iron pins stuck through them to keep them shut.

  Long, thin, iron pins.

  Wren thought quickly. He didn’t have a lot of time. It would be easy to pick the lock with the crossbar from the manacles, but while escaping the cell was relatively easy, escaping the guard was not.

  The big man stirred and gave out a hollow moan, coming back to his senses.

  Wren rushed to the bars, looking between the stirring man and the entrance to the long cellblock. Straining – his neck shouted angrily at him, but he ignored it – he pushed his head against the cell bars and saw that the main door was still ajar. The guards were just on the other side of it. Feeling his heart thump in his chest, spurred
by the familiar spike of manic excitement that came with risk and danger, he turned quickly to the man stirring on the floor and made a sharp plosive sound with his tongue.

  The man in the cell turned slowly and looked up. His face was streaked with grime in addition to thin rivulets of dried blood, but his eyes, though clouded with pain, focused easily enough on Wren.

  “Hey big man,” the thief said quietly, speaking as loudly as he dared. He knew that there were others in the cells farther down the row, and knew too that the guard could return at any minute and see them talking. “Looks like you’re in a bit of a bind.”

  The man’s eyes cleared and he sat up the rest of the way. He then tried to stand, but his body swayed dangerously and he was forced back to his knees. Wren grimaced but said nothing about it – he pushed his face into the bars of the cell, straining to get an eye on the door, and just managed to see the guard’s hand close on the edge of it. The conversation was ending.

  By Delsur’s bloody bulge –

  “Hey!” he hissed at the Islander, “look at me, come on!”

  The man looked up, confusion in the bright blue-green eyes that looked strange and unsettling against the bronze skin, and just that quickly Wren realized he wasn’t a man at all – he couldn’t be more than sixteen or seventeen years old. He had a man’s growth, though: wide shoulders and a thin waist, thick arms and legs, and all of it looked like it could be put to use in a potential prison escape.

  “What do you want?” the Archipelagan finally whispered back, his eyes, rimmed with pain, watching Wren warily. “You shouldn’t talk. They’ll hurt you.”

  “I don’t intend to be here long enough for that,” Wren hissed back, speaking quickly and quietly. He was keenly aware of how little time there was.

  “You can’t escape,” he said. He turned away.

  “Idiot!” Wren hissed, drawing the young man’s attention back to him. “I’ve already found the way – I need your manacles. Now!”

  “What?”

  There was sound from down the cellblock, and Wren wrenched his neck around – you’re fine, you’re fine, pain is a part of life, deal with it – and looked down the hall. The guard was coming back in, bidding farewell to the others; he stopped at the last second, halfway across the threshold.

  “You need to give them to me now!” Wren said, suddenly frantic. “I’ll use them to get out of my cell, and then I’ll get you out too!”

  The other boy’s expression seemed torn between hope and suspicion.

  “How do I know you will?”

  “Bloody Iofina’s tits,” Wren hissed, shooting one last look at the guard, “I’m barely a hundred pounds soaking wet, you think I can get around the guard without you? I get us out of the cells, you get us out of the block, then we get up to level ground, and we can go our own ways. We need each other – and in case you didn’t hear when you were unconscious, you don’t exactly have a lot of time. They’re going to hang you tomorrow. We do this now, or your time’s up and I’ll have to bloody find someone else!”

  The young man listened to the full tirade, weighing him with his eyes. The second after Wren fell silent, there was a heavy swing and a thud, and then the sound of a guard’s boots. Wren threw himself back away from the bars of the cage, back to the pile of straw that was thickest and least filthy, and lay down. Affecting nonchalance, he looked up at the ceiling as if bored.

  He heard the guard stroll past him, heard him move down to the end cell where the other boy was, and Wren held his breath. How much of a fool was the Islander? Was he smart enough to pretend to be unconscious?

  A long moment passed.

  Finally, boots scraped the ground as the guard turned and made his slow way back up the cellblock. Wren caught one last glimpse of him, the silver and black of his livery gleaming even in the dim torch lighting, and then was on his feet and moving silently to the bars, straining to see the other boy.

  The Islander was just sitting up. His eyes found Wren, and they looked at each other for a long moment. Wren felt the sweat on the back of his hands cooling in the breeze of his breath; he felt the aching in his neck and head, felt the gnawing hunger in his gut; and the whole length of the moment seemed to contain lifetimes of suspense.

  The Islander nodded, and Wren smiled.

 
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