The guard by the door sat at attention for a long while, visible only as a shape in scarlet and a face lit in flashes by the torch between us. Iron bars on the floor dug into my legs, and I became quite aware that my little encounter with the Inquisitor had left me drenched in sweat. That sweat was turning clammy, joining the smell of bile and damp stone in my nose.
The light of the single torch was enthralling. I stared at it in the dark, twenty feet down the hall, too far to shed proper light; it cast everything in shades of red and brown, orange highlights on the bars and wet stone.
Don’t know how long it took. Time ended when that door shut. The only way to mark its passage was the constant, hoarse whispering from the cell to my left, closer to the door, and that was too low to understand, wild and desperate.
I let out a breath, shook my head. Rubbed my hands together from habit more than necessity. What a miserable place.
“I was about to say the same.”
“Lucky thing the wee boy wasn’t with us,” I muttered. “Imagine he’d go half mad and kill the jailor, seeing where they’d stuck his sister.”
“He seems to be capable of some restraint.”
Too much restraint, you ask me.
“Ah, now we are casting judgments against the man for his immaturity of temper?”
Sarcasm, wonderful. Another harbinger of intelligence.
Eventually, the guard by the door seemed satisfied that he’d waited long enough. He rose again, lit a candle for himself down by the entrance, and walked down the hall twenty paces to snuff out the torch. The smell of smoke made its way down to us poor fucks in the dark as he walked back, sat himself down, and waited by candlelight.
I shook my head, scooted until I could put my back to the bars. My shoulders were stiff, and the knees were going that way as well after spending so long bent. Every limb felt heavy. A familiar feeling; I’d sat too long in fear, let the panic wring me dry.
“Fuck me, it’s cold,” I muttered. That fuck’s likely gone. I couldn’t bring myself to mention him. Even the memory left a bad taste in my mouth. “You there, lass?”
“I am.” Warmth folded in like a cloak, arms snaking around me from behind despite the iron bars. A chin tucked against my shoulder, Her cheek pressed against mine, waves of golden hair suggested in the corner of my eye. “You alright?”
“More worried about you, to tell the truth,” I said, as quietly as I could. “Haven’t often been that quiet before. You alright, lass?”
“He heard me. Saw me. If…if anything had happened to you–” She withdrew a hand. Her fingertips brushed against the rope on my wrists. A curl of smoke drifted to the sodden stone ceiling. Gold light flared in the cell, just for a moment, and I glanced up at the guard. He looked to have dozed off, sleeping by candlelight. Bastard.
“We’re here.” A flash of heat against my wrists. My hands jerked apart, free now, and I pulled them around in front of me. Half the coil of rope was still hanging around my wrist, embers racing along the rope like ants. The faint smell of smoke filled the cell. “We’re here, lass.”
Her cheek was soft, and felt so damnably, convincingly real. I was warm again, a comfortable, everpresent feeling that permeated every inch of my body, warm down to my bones, in a way that rarely happened in Frydain after the end of summer. I didn’t have the strength, any more, to be suspicious of it.
I don’t know how long we stayed there. A while, sitting in the dark, ignoring the sound of dripping water and unheard prayers, before I pulled away.
When I did, she slipped through my arms like smoke. I settled back against the wall of the cage with my legs curled up in a knot, and she appeared opposite me, mirroring my pose, dress spilling carelessly onto the bars.
The figure in the cell next to us was speaking very quietly and incessantly under their breath, hooded and wrapped up in layer after layer of rags to ward off the chill. I leaned against our shared set of bars and cupped one hand to my ear.
“Let me help,” Grannine whispered conspiratorially. Then I could hear every word my neighbor was murmuring, as if they were speaking right into my ear. A woman’s voice, maybe, low and ragged.
Don’t know what I’d do without you, lass.
“Nor I you.”
“…light of God incarnate, to whom no prayer is unheard, no call for help unanswered. Almighty God, whose name is never adjured in vain, to whom a plea for intercession is never futile, inspired by your glory I pray, I entreat, I come before you sorrowful. O merciful God, do not despise my petitions, but in your mercy hear me, save me, answer me, deliver me.”
Think that’s her? I glanced at Grannine. She rolled her eyes at me. I leaned up against the bars, the wall I shared with the muttering stranger, and tried to thread my fingers through the flat iron weave without cutting them on some hidden edge.
“Psst.” The figure did not look up. There was barely any skin visible beneath piles of filthy rags wound close, some damp, some so dry that they rattled with every movement. I made another clicking sound with my tongue, keeping an eye on the guard at the head of the hallway. “Psst.” Lass. She’s not hearing me.
“Have a little persistence, my Dermot.”
“Fuck’s sake. I don’t want to wake him.”
“Perhaps stop talking to yourself?”
“Psst! Sister.” I rattled the edge of the cage slightly. “Mariead?”
The figure in the other cell froze, head lifting slightly beneath its hood of tatters, and the prayer ceased.
“What new trick is this?”
She was hoarse, throat ragged from overuse and lack of water. She spoke with the same cold, precise accent as Aidan, though the sound scarcely carried. Eyes gleamed beneath her hood, barely visible in the hollow of a pale face. “A sympathetic voice, to entice me to reveal the names of my conspirators in some final confession? I have already unburdened my litany of sins to the ministrations of your Inquisitor.” She drew back her hood.
She didn’t look even slightly like Aidan. Once, she might have been beautiful. Now, hollow features lent her a sharp, birdlike air. Not a gentle bird; no sparrow or swallow here. She was a rook, or a shrike, or a kestrel. A few stray locks of wild brown hair escaped her hood, streaked with silver. Her eyes were dark and more than a little mad, glaring at me. One eye was blackened, darkened by an ugly bruise, and her lip had been split.
Grannine hissed, at the back of my mind.
“They’ve hurt her.”
What did you expect?
“That ends now.”
That’d be nice.
“I can reveal no more.” She shifted back a bit from the bars, crouching on bare feet that flashed beneath her skirt of tatters. Her teeth chattered, but rather than undermine her words, the quaver in her voice turned it cold, threatening like the shiver of a drawn knife. “My sisters were ignorant of my actions, and no further torment will extract anything but the inventions of desperation.”
I’ve changed my mind. This one’s my favorite.
“There is fire in her.”
Is that your highest compliment?
“Sorry to disappoint,” I slipped my fingers out from between the bars, holding up empty hands. “I’m not here for the Church.”
“Then how is it that you know my name?” She moved back a bit further, wary. “Have we met?”
“Met, no. I think we have a mutual friend.” Another glance to the guard at the top of the corridor. Still asleep. Fairly safe in doing so; no prisoner made it this deep into Bridgeport without being tortured, starved, and beaten. Unless they were hand-delivered by a Templar with the intention of staging an impossible breakout. “Aidan brought me here.”
This did not earn me a paroxysm of joy. Suppose I shouldn’t have expected one. Would have been nice.
“He should not have done that,” the woman in the other cell said, in a low voice. She drew her limbs close around herself, hunching down. “Sir, I do not know you, and forgive my presumption, but it seems to me you have risked your life for no good purpose at all.”
I heard a sound of confusion from the lass hiding among my thoughts, dismissed it.
“Sister–M–listen, see, what do I call you?”
“‘Mariead’ is enough.”
“Right.” I looked at her, hollow and full of fire like a hooded lantern. Now that the lass had mentioned, I saw it in her, an ember not yet quenched. “Sister. We’re here to take you away.”
Mariead did not move. The look in her eyes was familiar, a fanatic’s steadfast resolve. I’d seen it on Aidan’s face from time to time.
“Sir,” she said, coolly, gently. “I fear for you, if this is your earnest plan. Such a thing is impossible. And moreover,” she raised her chin, almost enough that I could not see tear tracks on her face. “It is against my wishes. I implore you to leave me, and work whatever plans you may have for your own salvation on your own. I ask nothing more from you or any living man save permission to die in the manner decreed for me, and pass on to what follows.”
“I don’t understand.
I didn’t have to think about that for very long.
“Sister. If I come down that rope without you, Eris is going to snap me in half like a fucking twig.”
It was quiet in the dungeon. The quiet of a cell got to you after a while; it was enforced, commanded–by proper guards, at least–the man sleeping at the far end must have been new. Untrained. He should have been awake and beating us for daring to make a sound. I’d been putting off reckoning with the quiet by talking to the lass, trying to hold it back, but it made itself known now.
She shifted, restlessly, a little towards the wall between us.
“Sir,” Sister Mariead said, very, very quietly. “What did you say?”
“I said she’d snap me in half like a fucking twig.”
“Sir,” she repeated, a third time she’d called me sir, a title I’d never once in my life deserved. She moved closer still, placing one thin, long-fingered hand on the bars below to steady herself. She hid it well behind cold poise and courtesy, but there was ragged, desperate edge in her movements, a starving animal. She had to hold back the sentence, choke it down; it would spill out of her too quick if she let it, bleed her fear all over the stones. “Forgive my hesitation, but I am at this moment ill-disposed to trust the evidence of my senses…what name did you say?”
“Eris Malarin. Big slab of a woman. Her plan, mostly, if I’m telling the truth.”
Mariead was silent for a moment, and she crept closer to the bars, slowly, like any sudden move might make her bones poke through her skin.
“Sir,” she said, a fourth time. It could have grated on me more. “Sir, I…I do not know you, I pray you will not take offense, but please, in the name of God or Saint Isaac or anything you may find holy or binding, tell me honestly…when was the last time you saw her alive?”
I opened my mouth.
“Gently, Dermot,” Grannine whispered, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Gently.”
“About six hours ago, Sister. I’m not a…” Lass. Help.
“You’re doing well.”
You don’t have to sound surprised.
“I don’t have…holy things. But I swear to you, I left her alive six hours ago, not long after we saw your wagon rolling into Bridgeport.”
Brown. Her eyes were brown. I hadn’t seen it before, but closer now, at this angle, I could see the color in them. That, or the lass was affecting my sight again. All the ice in her eyes melted, and pooled at the corners.
She took a breath, small, steadying herself.
“Very well, sir,” she said, with iron in her voice. And something more, at the very deepest part of her expression. It called back to me, alike in kind, that spark the lass had seen; a simmering, scalding fury, white like molten gold, stoking higher with the first breath of hope. “Let’s hear your plan.”