by Nick LS Whelan
Jeanette gnawed at the overcooked rabbit Alger had caught.
“It’s terrible,” she said.
“Whine when you catch food by your lonesome, bitch.” the soldier replied. Jeanette’s alchemical trickery had stopped him from killing her. But it didn’t force him to like her much.
And that’s just fine, Jeanette thought. Aloud she said “I’m paying you, aren’t I?”
“Not yet. And you paid only for a sword-hand. Not for a cook.” Everything Alger said was calm and contemptuous. Jeanette might have liked him more if he sounded half as frustrated as she was. She returned to the task of digesting the gamey supper he’d caught. Bad as it was, it was the first thing they’d managed to eat since midday yesterday. And Jeanette had to admit, she would have been worse off without the nasty brute.
Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him eventually. The Xulcam pollen made him forget the savage beating he’d given her. But she never would. The worst of her injuries were only now fading. But there would be scars to keep her memory fresh.
And he’ll pay for each one, tenfold. Jeanette vowed. She tossed the bone she’d been gnawing on into the fire. It sizzled. She rose to her feet.
“We need to get into town. We need hot food and a soft bed.”
“You want hot food and a soft bed.” the stoic soldier corrected.
“Need it or want it, we’re going go get it” she snapped. He stayed silent, chewing at his meat. He picked a bone clean before offering a reply.
“If the money for those things is in your pocket, why’m I not paid yet?” he asked.
“60 gold crowns is a small fortune. I’m talking about five sheckles of food and cloth.”
“Do you have the sum of that?” he asked, in a patronizing tone. Jeanette rolled her eyes. The dolt’s superior attitude made her want to kill him all the more. She strained to keep her voice even.
“Two days back we passed a road going into Nulara right? One the locals use for trade?”
“Yarb, we did that. ”
“You’re a soldier. Don’t tell me you’ve never turned bandit when your pay was late.” His eyes narrowed as he caught on to her plan. He didn’t seem to like it.
“Yarb, but with ten and more men to my right and left. Not just a sword and a witch.” Jeanette counted the note of testiness rising in his voice as a small victory.
“So we stalk some trader until they make camp, then slit their throats at night. The road is at least a three day journey, they’ll need to make camp.”
“And what of your wantedness? You get nabbed for some coin, and I don’t get paid.”
“Getting ‘nabbed’ would be worse for me than it would be for you. But it won’t happen. Even if Ulric sent word this far, I’m hardly the only Nobeli woman in Lauglen.” Alger stared at her, unconvinced, so she continued.
“We’ll stick to the dregs, and I’ll scrounge cloth for a bonnet to hide my hair. We can get a good rest and be gone before anyone realizes we were ever there. If anything it’s your cloak and armor we ought to worry about. If you’re marked as a deserter by now, it’s a dead giveaway.”
Alger just grunted and reached for the last piece of rabbit. Jeanette could see him mulling over what she’d said as he chewed at the gamey meat. Finally he muttered:
Jeanette opened her eyes. All she saw was black. Her temples throbbed against a rope tied tight around her head. It was hard to breathe. Her mouth was dry–filled with rags. She tried moving, but the the rub of ropes on her arms and legs left no room for it. She could feel her pulse quicken in her temples as the reality of her situation set in. She had apparently been very wrong about how recognizable she was. And about how badly Pestor Ulric wanted her dead.
As her heartbeat throbbed faster, her wiggling became more spastic. Each failed attempt to escape the ropes increased her mounting hopelessness. She tried to clear her thoughts. Panicking will only hurt you she told herself. But whomever had done the ropes knew what they were doing. She tried to take deep, calming breaths. But the gag restricting her breathing only fueled her panic. She was on the verge of screaming when she heard a hand on a doorknob. She went completely limp, doing her best imitation of unconsciousness.
“You’re not fooling anyone, witch.” Came a man’s voice a moment later, accompanied by a sharp kick to her thigh. Caught, Jeanette tried to rise to a sitting position. She forced herself to be calm. The man had a Lauglen accent. Whatever trouble she was in, she wasn’t back with the army. Yet.
“Hrmmn nm muuuh!” Jeanette knew he wouldn’t understand her. She didn’t even actually say anything—but how else to get his attention? There was a pause before he responded.
“Rewards almost the same if you’re dead, which you will be if you scream.” She felt hands at the back of her neck fiddling with a knot. The rope slackened, and she spat it out, along with a soiled rag. She enjoyed several deep breaths.
“I can pay you.” she croaked through dry lips. The offer sounded weak even to her. She wasn’t surprised to hear her captor chortling.
“First, no you can’t. You barely had any coin on you. And if you were rich or powerful back in Rotain, then the army wouldn’t have a 300 crown bounty on your ass.” Jeanette winced, hoping Alger wasn’t in the same room. The promise of 300 crowns would overwhelm the paltry charms of the Xulcam pollen.
“Second, even if you could pay more, I’ve already sent a runner to your Governor. Ten thousand crowns wouldn’t be enough to save me if I let you go. I’d be dead just as surely as you’re gonna to be. No dice.”
Jeanette searched for anything she might offer in exchange for freedom. There was nothing. No bargain would get her out of this. She would have to escape. She needed to be easy, calm, and friendly. She needed to create opportunities, which might become cracks she could wriggle out of.
“Can…can you at least bring me—us, my friend and I—some food? The army’s at least a few days out. We’ll need to eat if you don’t want to hand over a pair of corpses.” Again, the man paused before responding. Either he was slow in the head, or he was being much too cautious.
“Yeah, alright. I think there’s some old mash out in the other room.”
Jeanette heard him moving, the opening and closing of a door, and the turning of a lock. A few seconds later the sounds repeated in reverse. If he locked the door just to walk across a room, when she was already bound, then he wasn’t slow. He was cautious.
Hands freed her arms from their binding, and removed her blindfold. He could have made her eat blind. That small mercy would at least give Jeanette a chance to examine her surroundings. She saw a cold bowl of beige gruel on the floor near her, Alger was a few feet away, still unconscious. There was blood on his temples. She guessed he’d put up more of a fight than she had.
She reached out for the bowl, knowing better than to push her luck asking for a spoon. She dug into the mash with her fingers. A few mouthfuls in, she looked up at her captor.
“Banros” he replied, after another pause.
“Thank you, Banros.” She returned to her food, glancing around the room between scoops. She tried to look curious, rather than calculating. He was watching her. They weren’t in a proper cell for prisoners. It was clear the room had another purpose most of the time. A rudimentary office, free of adornment save for a large map hanging on the wall. It was printed on a yellowing vellum. She could tell at a glance that it was an older artifact than she’d expect to find in a place like this.
“That looks like a Brimese map. A Nobeli villa-city, right?” She kept her eyes on the map, avoiding the temptation to look at his reaction. He waited so long to reply that she began to wonder if he’d actually heard her at all.
“Finish eating.” He said. He was trying to sound stern, but Jeanette caught the shift in his tone. His curiosity was at odds with his better judgement.
“I’m Nobeli, you know. My mother’s line traces back to the heyday of the Brimese Empire. It’s where my magic comes from.” This was true, as far as she knew. At the least, it had always helped to enhance her mysterious image.
“Last chance to be eat.” Banros said. He was definitely interested. Jeanette didn’t know why, but it was a crack in her cage. She returned to her food. She needed to pique his curiosity further, without pushing him too far. As she tried to suss out her next move, he saved her the trouble.
“They said you were a witch, but if you’re so damn magical why are you tied up on my floor?”
“It’s a subtle thing.” Jeanette said. “You’re smart enough to know old stories exaggerate.” His eyes flared, and Jeanette knew she’d misstepped before he spoke.
“Don’t patronize me.” he said, his voice steely. “You’re done eating, and when my runner gets back in a few days, I’m turning you over to the army. That’s it.”
Jeanette opened her mouth to smooth things over, but he was already shoving rags into it. The knots he tied on her arms felt even tighter than before. He left in a hurry, and the door lock sounded behind him. Whether through kindness or carelessness, he’d left her eyes uncovered. That was something.
Jeanette weighed her options. It was clear that the map was important to Banros. It was also clear that he thought she might have some value with regard to it. It wasn’t clear what that value might be. But, given another opportunity, she might work his interest into an advantage. If she made her captivity too difficult, then preventing her escape would distract him. That would limit her opportunities to talk to him.
She had a few days at least. Long enough to try talking a few more times. If that didn’t work, she could always try to escape later.
She spied a mouldering pile of hay in the corner. With the little mobility she had, she scooted closer until she could roll onto it. Once she got used to the smell, she drifted to sleep.
“Wake up!” The harsh whisper cut through Jeanette’s light doze. It felt like she’d been asleep for hours, but she didn’t feel any better for the rest. The room was dark, but enough light was visible under the doorway that the sun must be up.
“You living?” the voice came again. Alger had managed to work the gag out of his mouth. She tried to shush him, but all she could produce was a vague “Phuuuph!” which didn’t seem to have any impact on the soldier.
“Work it off, it’s not hard!” he hissed across the black room. Jeanette began to work against the gag with her lips and tongue. She slid the ropes over her lower lip inch-by-inch. After long minutes, the ropes fell to hang loose around her neck. She coughed the rags out of her mouth. Her throat was painfully dry.
“Be quiet!” she spat at Alger. He ignored her.
“Listen, we’re not in army hands yet. But soon enough we will. We gotta get to running.”
“How do you know that?” she asked.
“You’re in ropes, I’m in rusty irons. Army has better gear. Now you wiggle free, can you magic my locks?”
“Then find the damned key! Ropes is easy. Then I’ll–” the pair’s whispered argument fell silent as footsteps sounded outside. A moment later the lock turned, and Banros entered again, holding a steaming bowl.
“Got your gags free, huh?” he said with unsettling cheerfulness. “That’s always a hard hole to keep plugged.” He set the bowl down in front of Jeanette, and fished a spoon out of his pocket. Hot mash, with an egg. Jeanette forced her face to remain neutral. Her captor’s sudden kindness meant he’d decided Jeanette had some power. She needed to figure out just how much power she had.
Jeanette stared Banros in the eye. Alger looked between them, confused about what he’d missed. The room was quiet.
“So,” Banros spoke first “you know something about my map. I can make sure you have a bed and some hot food for the next few days. Much better than sleeping on the floor and eating the scraps we remember to toss you.” Jeanette let her captor’s offer hang in the air while she mulled over how to proceed.
“Could you give this food to my companion?” Jeanette nodded towards Alger. “I’m still full from last night.” Banros looked confused, but picked up the bowl and set it before the soldier. Hands still bound, Alger burried his face into the bowl without shame.
“Thanks.” Jeanette said, careful not to sound grateful. He needed to know that she wouldn’t be persuaded with creature comforts. And it didn’t hurt to show Alger a little loyalty. He might come in handy during an escape.
“What do you know about your map?” Jeanette asked.
“I know it’s a Brimese ruin. I know around about where to find it. And I suspect there’s a fair amount of booty to plunder from it.” Banros replied.
“Then what do you need from me? Loot it.”
“I need to know what hexes might be on a place like that, and how to ward them away.”
Jeanette had no idea, but answered anyway.
“There’s no such thing as a standard set of protective hexes. I’d have to be there, sense them for myself.”
“I can’t do that.” Banros replied, frustration evident in his voice. “You can help me and these last few days will be comfortable, or you can be coy and miserable.”
“I don’t know why you think I can tell you so much just from looking at a map. There’s nothing I can tell you without being there.”
Before the last words had left her mouth, Banros leaped to his feet and threw his stool at the wall. It struck a few feet from her head, and bounced onto the floor with a clatter. His face was flush with rage, and Jeanette saw a knife in his hand that hadn’t been there before.
“Don’t fuck with me, witch! You know you aren’t worth much more alive than dead. So here’s the deal: you tell me how to avoid the ghosts in that place or I gut you here and now and save the army the trouble!”
Jeanette couldn’t help squirming away in fear. She was helpless. If he was going to kill her, she was already dead. She was already spinning together some hokey bullshit in her head. Something to satisfy his curiosity and get him away from her. She stopped herself. Satisfying him would get her nothing. The worst he could do now would be to kill her a few days earlier than she was scheduled to die anyway. And if Banros killed her, at least her death would include a lot less torture. She had nothing to lose.
“Why are you so scared of thousand year old wizard tricks?” Jeanette asked, refusing to brace herself against the blow that was sure to follow. It surprised her when, instead, the anger drained from Banros’ face. He slumped into a nearby chair, and rubbed his forehead with his free hand.
“It’s not me. I’ve been to the place before, years ago. Way out in the lowland woods, where nobodys been since the Brim left. Untouched. Probably filled with the kind of loot you could live on the rest of your life. I’d risk ghosts and curses for that. But my boys won’t, and I won’t risk it alone. I thought if I could get some specifics from you then maybe…to hell with it.” He stood and made for the exit.
“Wait!” Alger burst out, speaking for the first time since Banros entered. “We’ll go with you. Watch your back.” he looked to Jeanette for support.
“Absolutely.” she said. Banros paused halfway through the door, but didn’t look back.
“You’d stab me in the back the minute we were out of the city.” he said. Alger winced, and Jeanette thought that had likely been exactly what he was planning. She hurried to pick up the slack.
“I can cast the unbreakable promise spell! We’ll bind ourselves to you.” Now Banros did turn around. He stepped back into the room and closed the door halfway behind him.
“Once cast, we would die if we betrayed you.” Jeanette continued.
“You can’t escape a few ropes and a locked door, but I should trust my life to your witchery?” Banros asked.
“I told you. It’s a subtle thing.” Jeanette replied. “But promises are sacred, they already have a bit of magic about them. There’s an ancient ritual which strengthens that magic. Makes it deadly to the oath breaker. We’d waste away in a few days if we betrayed the conditions of the promise.” Banros’ silence was encouraging.
“There’s still the Governor and his army.” Banros rejoined after a moment “Somebody will get the blame for your escape. I’ve got no intention of being too busy running for my life to spend my money in comfort.”
“Who’s the easy ones for the Gov’ to blame?” Alger asked, “A man already far away? A man for whom a new hunt must begin? OR, your cowardly fellows who will be right here for the hanging?”
Banros gave Alger a serious look, then peeked back into the room beyond the door. He closed it.
“How do we cast the spell?” Banros asked.
“A candle and a copper coin.” Jeanette said. “And we’ll both need our hands and legs free.” Banros quickly found both nearby, and freed his new allies. Jeanette fussed over the precise way the other two should stand, and how they should hold their hands. While, in her head, she worked out the performance of this “Spell.”
She put the coin on the back of the Banros’ left hand, and stacked her’s and Alger’s hands atop that. With her right, she held the candle a foot beneath their stacked limbs. Banros winced as the heat from the tiny flame burned him.
“The magic must burn through us, do not pull away!” she insisted. Distracting pain always made spells feel more solemn.
Jeanette muttered a poem in Brimese that she’d learned as a child. It was about a little girl who danced too wildly, broke a sacred vessel, and became cursed with two left feet. But to people who’d never learned the ancient tongue, it sounded portentous. After two lines of the poem she said in the common tongue:
“Alger and Jeanette do solemnly swear to assist and protect the coinbearer, Banros, on his journey to seek wealth in the homes of the long dead!” She then pressed all three hands down hard, extinguishing the candle’s flame. Banros, burned by the wax, gritted profanities through his teeth and dropped the coin. Jeanette retrieved it, and held it out to him.
“So long as you hold this coin, we must abide by our promise, or we will die.”
Banros, shaking his hand to soothe the burn, stared at the coin. There was fear in his eyes. With a trembling hand, he reached for the coin as though it might shatter like glass. He hefted it in his burned palm.
“It’s cool.” he murmured. “It feels heavier.” Jeanette resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the awe in his voice.
“Wait for me here.” Banros said, sliding the coin into a pocket inside his vest. “I’ll get your things and make sure the coast is clear, then we’ll be on our way.”