I swallowed, my throat sore from the lump there that refused to leave. On the walk back to Campbell’s castle, the loss of my troops sank in even deeper. My stomach had finally stopped churning, my head stopped spinning, leaving now just a steady smoldering in my heart – sparks waiting to start a fire.
The cry of the trumpets died down as Set led the way with swaggering steps into the throne room. The four guards surrounding me gave me my space, one sporting a blotched bruise on his jaw, and another a red streaked scratch over his eye. However my little victories against their previously overbearing escort style came at the price of a still tender bruise on my side. The leather breast and back armor I wore had kept the blow from doing more damage than it could have, and consequently Set had ordered it removed in case I should have a sudden change of mind about our ‘little agreement’. Even still, the guards now afforded me the distance I’d wanted, and thus I considered the bruise and loss of my armor worth it. Anything that made my captors regret having to look after me – without inciting them to kill me – I counted as a win.
Ross and Campbell stood by the dais at the end of the long, blue edged red carpet. A fireplace roared on the left, permeating the chamber with warmth to drive off the autumn chill.
Set halted near the two nobles, I and my escorts doing the same.
“My Lords Ross and Campbell,” Set bowed to each of them. “My assault has yielded double benefits. Not only were the rebels destroyed utterly, I managed to capture another of the esteemed enemy order. Their head, no less.” Moving aside and making a dramatic gesture, Set announced, “Lady Kearney, leader of your famed insurgency and head of the guardian order.”
As the nobles turned their attention on me, I met their scrutiny with a kindled gaze. I had hoped the next time I would see either of those men would be with a sword in my hand. But here I stood. Their prisoner.
A smug expression crept onto Campbell’s face, while a cross between a grin and a sneer widened on Ross’s.
He clapped his hands together. “Set, you outdo yourself!”
Set shrugged. “Oh, no need to thank me, my lord; I enjoyed it heartily.”
I clenched my jaw to keep from saying what sprang into my mind.
“Well done, Set.” Campbell agreed, stepping forward at last and eyeing me for a moment before looking to Set. “But where is the other one?”
“He was left alone,” A slight smile quirked the edge of his mouth. “To think on what happens to those who resist their rightful rulers. He is alone, and unaided.”
Ross nodded in approaval, clasping his thick hands behind his back once more. “Brilliant. He can relate firsthand what transpired, should he come across any more of their supporters.”
Campbell retreated back to the throne, but I caught his slight frown before he turned away. How much of this alliance had been his idea? It occurred to me suddenly, considering the interaction between the two so far, that Ross appeared to be far more enthusiastic about this situation than Campbell did…
But why? Why was Campbell letting Ross take control? Didn’t he see that that’s what was happening here?
Retaining his dramatic flair, Set knelt before Ross and held out my sword to him. “Lord Ross, to add to your collection, I humbly present RuneBinder.”
Again, I tensed. The urge to dart between the guards and give Set a good shove and ruin his little show rose up, but I quelled it. Right now, I needed to wait.
Ross’s knifelike grin returned as he grasped RuneBinder’s hilt and raised it before him. He turned it so the blade glittered in the firelight, and the ornate inscriptions that ran two thirds along the shining steel almost glowed. Pleasure gleamed in his dark eyes as he gazed along its length.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the smile Set cast my way. A shiver ran down my spine unbidden, and I pretended to ignore him, clenching my fist. Adrenaline still coursing through me with every heartbeat made my muscles quiver at intervals. Fear and anger battled in my mind for dominance.
Ross approached me. I kept my eye on RuneBinder. I’d known Ross for a while, and wouldn’t put the ironic idea of killing me with my own weapon past him.
“It is said that members of your order have certain…..powers.”
Campbell perked at Ross’s comment, and Set chuckled.
“Indeed they do, my lord.” Set folded his arms. “Fortunate for us, otherwise we’d not be in this position. I made sure to thank the last for that factor.”
Ross raised his caterpillar brows at me. I glanced up at his face once, but then returned it to its averted position, clasping my hands behind my back to restrain them. I knew what he wanted to know, and I debated an answer.
But he became impatience in the silence. “Well?”
I shrugged. “I have nothing.”
His brows now furrowing, Ross narrowed his eyes, but before he could conjure a suitable reproach, Set tapped his arm to move him aside, and stood in front of me. I bristled at his proximity, meeting his probing gaze with a glare.
He tilted his head, then seemed suddenly to look beyond me. My breathing stopped. My glare faltered. Something in my head began to throb, then—
His gaze focused. The throbbing withdrew like a splinter from flesh, and I drew in a sharp breath. My heart hammered.
What did he just do to me?
A smile touched his mouth. “No…. she does not. She does not believe.” He glanced at Ross, stepping back again. “And by extension, hers is rendered inactive.”
He’s crazy. I narrowed my eyes at him. All of this is crazy. Why is everyone suddenly so obsessed with these old legends?
I felt cold steel against my neck, and swatted it away on reflex. RuneBinder’s blade bit into my fingers, and I cried out, pacing away and gripping my wrist.
Ross snorted behind me. “As their leader, she is useful whether she has a power or not. However…. See if you can ‘activate’ hers.”
I didn’t need to turn around to know the smirk that crossed Set’s face.
“As you wish, my lord.”
“Will you need this?”
“No, it is merely a piece of fancy steel. My lord’s collection would do best with it.”
“Good.” His tone emanated smug satisfaction. I kept my back turned on him, pressing my hand against my tunic to stay the bleeding. “Good.”
This seemed to be the end of the conversation. Set snapped his fingers, speaking to the guards. “Take her to the cell prepared for her arrival. I will be along momentarily.”
The guards fell into their positions around me once more. I gave them looks that told them they would not have to drag me; I would walk. So I followed them out of the throne room, not even affording the three men behind us a final glance.
Our footsteps echoed in the halls, boots against stone, an irregular pattern. The warmth from the fire in the throne room dissolved, leaving now the whispering dank chill of the castle to taunt me. My cloak still lay at the bottom of the moat where I’d left it without heed. The gentle throb of pain from the cut on my fingers distracted my mind from considering my predicament too deeply. We wove through a maze of halls, then finally descended a winding staircase down into a haze of blackness beneath the castle itself. Only a few torches lit the way at the bottom of the staircase, where two lanky guards stood flanking a massive wooden door, making them look like ghouls guarding a gate to some ancient tomb.
“Set’s orders.” The guard escorting me on the front stated. “This one for the cell prepared earlier.”
With a nod, the ghoul on the left pulled out a ring of keys, inserted them and twisted them in the lock, and grasped one of the two ring handles. His fellow ghoul assisted him in hauling the wooden door open on hinges that groaned but once.
The guard behind me gave me a shove. I stumbled through the entrance. The scent of mold and water penetrated my nostrils, and tightened my throat.
“Well, well.” A burly figure appeared at my side, grasping my arm. This time, I didn’t fight the intruding touch.
My escorts still stood on the other side of the threshold. “This is the one Set promised. Put her away. He’ll be along shortly, he said.”
The jailer grunted, nodding, then stared at me as his ghouls heaved the dungeon door shut once again. I stared back. His eyes were wide, his jaw square, his shoulders broad, and his wiry hair pulled back in a ponytail. His skin was pale, even in the darkness, making it impossible for me to tell if his hair was black or if that was just the lighting. Or rather, lack of it. An ambiance of light filtered in and mingled with the shadows, though I couldn’t tell where it came from.
Releasing me, the jailer plodded down the cell lined hall. The keys jingled on his belt. “Come on. There’s nowhere else to go.”
I glanced back at the closed door. He was right, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I watched him go a few paces before, and considered staying put and making him drag me to the cell. But I was tired. Tired from the fight, from the walk, from the roiling emotions in the throne room. If he turned out to be a harsh man, I wouldn’t stand a chance. Warily, I trailed him.
In here, our footsteps sounded damp, unlike in the halls above us where not a move could be made without the sound bouncing off the walls. Here, each step scraped, muffled.
As we walked, I glanced side to side at each black barred cell we passed.
“There were prisoners from the battle.” I said.
The jailer grunted.
“Where are they?”
“Some fifteen of them over there in the West Wing.” He replied, as if giving directions on where to find a certain stall in a marketplace.
I hesitated. Did I really want to know? “What’s their condition?”
“What’s their condition? They’re in the dungeon, everyone here ends up in the same condition eventually; it doesn’t matter.”
I swallowed, trying to dispel the moldy taste on my tongue. “There were two special ones. Drake and Armstrong; generals.”
“Here we are.”
The jailer stopped in front of a cell and used his keys to open the door. Without waiting, he grabbed my arm and shoved me inside. He shut the door with a bang, jingle, and click, and vanished into the darkness.
“Hey!” I shouted, coming to the bars. “Where are my brothers? Answer me!”
His only response was the gradually fading shuffle of footsteps.
I stood there for several long moments, staring into the murky darkness. Not even torches warded the chill here. Not a single soul occupied the cells around me. Not a single sound except the scuttle of mice, and the whirring of thoughts inside my head.
Now what are you going to do, Penny?