Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
I don’t know how long I was out for. When I opened my eyes, everything was still a little bleary and smeared together, and I could smell damp. I heard Nola’s voice, whispering a constant chant of prayer, so I supposed at least two of us must still be together.
“Maker keep us, Maker protect us. Maker keep us, Maker protect us—”
“Ugh! Will you stop that? It’s driving me insane!”
Shianni. I wanted to smile, but my face hurt too much. Instead, I sat up, clutching my throbbing head. Blood appeared to be crusted at the side of my mouth, and my tongue tasted foul. I squeezed my eyes tight shut—willing everything to stop spinning and my stomach to stop flipping over—and tried to work out what was going on.
Certainly, one thing was clear. I’d had no idea how damn lucky we’d been, up until today, that Arl Urien’s son had spent so little time in Denerim. I wondered if he’d behaved like this in Val Royeaux, or whatever fancy city he’d been billeted to for his education. Probably. Just like he doubtless knew enough of our culture to understand that what he’d done—what he intended to do—on this, of all days, was the most unforgivable, shameful insult. He took pleasure in that, I suspected.
Still, I needed to open my eyes and assess our situation. I attempted it, and did not make a particularly useful contribution to anything.
“Oh, thank the Maker you’ve come to.” Shianni took hold of my arm and helped me sit up. Her fingers brushed against my painful jaw, and both of us winced. “We were so worried. You usually dodge better than that. I’m afraid this one’s going to hurt for a while.”
“Urgh….” I tried opening my eyes again, and this time managed to get my cousin’s face to hold still long enough for me to see she wasn’t bleeding. My tongue felt thick and flabby, and it made talking difficult. “Is… is everyone all right?”
It was, quite possibly, a stupid question. I blinked, peering at the drawn, worried faces around me. Shianni, Valora and Arith were all there, with Nola hunched over in prayer. The room was small and windowless—perhaps some kind of store, or side-chamber. The grey stone walls were not lime-washed, and there was one heavy, squat wooden door.
Beyond that, everything was flashing blue lights and dented shadows.
“We’re scared,” Valora said, “but unharmed. So far. They locked us in here until that… that bastard is ‘ready for us’.”
Her chin dimpled and trembled and, uncharitably, I hoped she wasn’t about to burst into tears. I rubbed my forehead, puzzled at being completely unable to remember how we’d got here.
“Uh. Wh-where is ‘here’, exactly?”
Shianni snorted. “The arl’s estate, though I doubt we’re getting the tour. After that human knocked you out, one of the guards put you over his shoulder, and they marched us all up here. We left through the north gate, I know that, and then it was Short Street, Rope Walk, Marketgate… and then I lost count. We came into the estate from the west, I think. This has got to be an undercroft or something, but I don’t know. There were so many corridors….”
Her voice began to shake, and I squeezed her hand. “It’s all right.”
“And just how is that, Meri?” Arith asked sharply. “Just how is it all right?”
I saw the fear in her face—in all their faces—and realised they were looking to me for some kind of answer. I didn’t know why, or what I was supposed to do. I turned to Shianni and lowered my voice.
“Is Nola… okay?”
She glanced at our friend, still doubled over and rocking in prayer. We’d known her since childhood, and I suppose she’d looked up to us. Nola was one of those girls who always seemed to need protecting, as if she wasn’t totally at home in the real world, so to speak. She always listened hardest when the Chantry sisters came in to visit, and would probably have joined them if she’d been given the opportunity. She was sweet, pious, and occasionally very irritating… but she was ours.
“I don’t know,” Shianni confessed. “You know how she gets nervous. I—”
I nodded. “All right.”
My cousin’s face crumpled, and she tried to hold back a sob.
“This is all my fault,” Shianni whimpered.
Silent tears were already running down Valora’s cheeks. I fumbled for something to say, some kind of false comfort that we could at least hang on to.
“M-maybe he’ll listen to reason once he’s sobered…?” I tried.
Arith scoffed. “More like once he’s had his way with us. We’re going to be beaten, raped, and probably killed up here, let’s face it.”
She was giving in to the panic. I could see it. Valora let out a small, damp cry, and I knew I couldn’t let them fall apart. Not now.
“Then we need to get out of here,” I said, though I was aware of how stupid it sounded.
“Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath,” Arith said coldly. “That door is locked and solid, and we’re unarmed, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Nola chose that moment to redouble her prayers.
“Maker keep us, Maker protect us. Maker keep us, Maker protect us….”
Shianni rolled her eyes. “Oh, not this again!”
“Look, we’ll… we’ll just do whatever they want,” Arith said, twisting her mouth awkwardly around the words. “We’ll have to. Then we’ll… go home, and try to forget this ever happened.”
“She’s right,” Valora agreed. “It’ll be worse if we resist.”
“It’ll be worse if we don’t!” Shianni protested, and all three of them looked imploringly at me—like I had an answer.
I didn’t know what to say. What choice did we have?
Arith glanced towards the door. “Someone’s coming!”
She was right. Heavy footfalls echoed in the corridor. Several men. My heart thudded against my ribs as we rose, pressing ourselves against the cold, clammy stonework.
“Stay calm,” I said. “Do whatever they say.”
Keys jangled in the lock, and the door swung open to reveal five burly, smirking guards, each well-armed and wearing the standard city armour—padded jacks and leg guards, overlaid with toughened, studded leather plates and helms. The numbers might have been even, but we were hopelessly outmatched.
Their sergeant grinned unpleasantly at us.
“Hello, wenches. We’re your escort to Lord Vaughan’s little party.”
My mind gnawed desperately at the options before us. Could we break away from them, try to run? No. Even if we managed it, they carried crossbows as well as swords, and we’d be felled inside a corridor’s length. We just had to stay calm and pray that, somehow, we—
Suddenly, Nola pushed away from the wall, positioning herself between us and the guards. Her face was a strange mix of utter terror and a kind of blind, terrible fury… a depth of anger I’d never dreamed she had in her.
“Stay away from us!” she shrieked, raising her arms, her pale, moon-like face twisted and two spots of colour burning in her cheeks.
I moved, tried to grab her and pull her back, but I wasn’t fast enough. The guard drew his sword and, in one simple, easy motion, the blade arced through the air. The movement was over so fast it barely seemed to have happened at all, but then there was all that blood…. Nola fell backwards, crumpling to the stone floor, her scream lost to a horrible, gurgling sound.
Blood sprayed from her throat, great jets of it at first, and then it just kept coming, pouring from that wide, jagged slash and pooling all around her. I think Valora squealed.
Nola’s mouth turned slack, and her pale eyes grew blank as stones. Arith cradled her friend’s head on her lap, and the blood oozed against her skin, each desperate touch leaving another finger-shaped stain on Nola’s cheeks.
And then it was over. She was gone, and we understood just how easily any of us could be next.
Arith looked up at the guards, pain and anger etched into her face.
“You killed her…!”
The man had already wiped and sheathed his weapon, as if nothing had happened.
“I suppose that’s what happens when you try teaching whores some respect,” he said, his voice all the more menacing for its calmness. He nodded to his men. “Now, you grab the little flower cowering in the corner. Horace and I will take the homely bride and the drunk. You two, bind the last one. She’s the scrapper.”
They meant me. I baulked, but there was nothing I could do. With Nola’s body just splayed like that, sightless eyes still staring at the ceiling, the guardsmen took hold of Arith, Valora and Shianni, and dragged them from the room. I caught one last look at Shianni before they hauled her out of the door. She mouthed something to me, but I didn’t understand what it was, and then my eye line was filled with the two remaining guards, both of them focusing their full attention on me in a way I was not used to deflecting.
“Don’t worry,” one said, kicking the door shut behind him. “We’ll be perfect gentlemen.”
I was backed as far against the wall as I could get, though it didn’t stop my shoulder blades from trying to dig through the stone. Everything Mother had ever taught me seemed to ripple right there beneath my skin—how to duck, dodge, feint and fight—but there were two of them, and they were not only bigger than me, but much better armed.
“Yeah,” the second guard added, reaching down to loosen the laces beneath his padded jack. “So long as you behave yourself, girlie.”
“Now, then,” the other man said, with a wheezy laugh. “You heard the sergeant. Be a good little wench, or you’ll end up like your friend there.”
He nodded to Nola, but I didn’t want to look at her. Whatever they did now, they couldn’t hurt her anymore.
“Try it,” I said, through gritted teeth. “See which bits you lose first.”
It was anger and bravado, nothing more. I knew I had no chance against them. Nothing I could do, except shut my eyes and pretend I was somebody else, a long way away from here.
They laughed at me. The shem with his laces undone gave a rough, dirty chuckle.
“Ha! Horace was right. She’s the scrapper.”
“We’ll have to see about knocking that out of you, girlie,” the first guard said, twisting a length of rope in his hands.
They moved towards me, and I held my breath. When the door began to open, I thought another one had come to join in, but it was no human.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Soris stood there with a crossbow slung over his back and a sword in his hand, still wearing that dreadful wedding garb. He looked terrified.
The guards turned, and the one with the half-laced hose chuckled.
“Oh, look at this! A little elfling with a stolen sword.”
Soris swallowed heavily, hunched over… and bent to the ground, shooting the sword along the stones to me. I dived, grabbed it, and straightened up, the point level with the first guard’s stomach.
It was a fine weapon, though bigger than I’d ever been used to—no sharpened kitchen knife, this—yet it floated it my hand, so light and easy to wield, like it was an extension of my arm.
The guard looked down at the well-polished blade, then up at my face.
“Oh, sod,” he said.
His companion obviously wasn’t so bright. Struggling with his state of undress, he drew his sword and I ducked, slipping between the two men. Mother might have taught me how to dodge blows, throw punches, and parry with strips of wood, but I’d never actually struck anyone with a weapon before. Even so, her words echoed back at me from all those years ago, warmed with the cosy heat of the fire and the smell of her famous dumplings on the stove.
Only a fool thinks his blade is just for slashing. A sword is made to thrust, pierce, guard and ward, as well as cut. It is both edge and point, for to fight is always to know both sides of a truth; to be bold but prudent, quick but precise, and strong, but able to bend.
I’d learned a great deal from her, if I had but known it. Not the art of war as it was taught to noble-born sons—all chivalric pretences and fancy postures—but the balance and grace of fighting, and of judging my opponent’s weakness against my own skills.
Of course, knowing the theory didn’t make the practice easier to master.
It took both hands, but I brought the blade up, and it bit into the guard’s belly, a surprisingly soft stretch of flesh protected only by his aketon and the toughened leather strips that bound his breastplate on. The quilted fabric ripped, and though the sword didn’t pierce him, the weight of the blow must have caught him off-balance. I followed it up with a foot in the groin, and he fell to the floor just as the second man swung at me.
A twang and a dull thud sounded, combined with Soris swearing, and I turned to see the second guard clawing at his neck, from which protruded a few inches of crossbow bolt. Blood bubbled around the shaft, and the human collapsed, dead.
Soris stared, ashen-faced, but then pointed behind me.
“Look out, cousin!”
My target had risen from his prone position, winded but unbowed, and he was coming for me again. As Soris struggled to reload the crossbow, I held my ground, waited until the guard lunged and, ducking beneath his outstretched arm, brought myself around to strike at the backs of his knees, unprotected by the armour. He cried out as my blade sunk into flesh and sinew, and folded to the ground in obvious agony. Panicked and clumsy, I swung again, not thinking. My sword met the back of his neck, and that thin stretch of grubby pink skin bloomed red, mangled like a crushed rose.
The force of the blow echoed all the way through my arms, jarring everything right up to my shoulders and my throbbing jaw. I cursed and stumbled backwards, barely managing to free the blade, and then nearly falling over it. Some fighter I was.
In any case, the guards were both down. Soris panted raggedly, blood running down his hand where he’d caught the side of his palm in the crossbow’s mechanism. I saw him staring at Nola’s bloodied form.
“They killed her,” I said, hearing the tremor in my voice, however brave I wanted to be. “The others… I—”
Soris took hold of my shoulder and made me look at him.
“Are you all right? They didn’t… hurt you, did they?”
I shook my head. It all seemed like a dream, as if we’d wake any minute and find none of it had been real.
“I’m fine.” I frowned, looking down at the sword in my hand as if it was nothing to do with me. “Where’d you get the weapons?”
“That human… Duncan. He gave us his sword and crossbow, but that’s all we have.”
My frown deepened, and my gaze met Soris’ wide, frightened eyes. He was so pale the freckles across the bridge of his nose stood out like cinder burns. I took a deep breath, knowing I must be calm and rational. So many questions, and no time to ask them all. We must think logically if we were to survive, dream or not.
First: we were somewhere within the arl’s estate. Did anyone know of Soris’ presence? If not, how long did we have until someone worked it out? Second: the women would have been taken to Vaughan. Where would we find him, and how would we— Hold on a minute.
“What d’you mean, ‘we’?”
“Me and Nelaros,” Soris said.
“Nelaros is here?”
“Yes.” Soris nodded. “He’s the reason we came. He lost it on those who wanted to just ‘hope for the best’. I-I didn’t know what to do….”
He looked so apologetic I wanted to hug him. I settled for a grim smile.
“You’re here now. That’s what matters. Did you have to fight your way in?”
“No. We snuck in, though Nelaros took down a guard. He’s a savage fighter,” Soris added, sounding impressed. “He’s guarding the end of the hall. We should probably figure this out with him.”
I looked down at the prone bodies on the floor, then set to wrenching off their leather helmets, and as much of the one undamaged jack as I could safely unbuckle.
“What are you doing?” Soris hissed.
I threw a helmet at him, and pulled the pitted sword from the dead guard’s fingers.
“What? You’d rather go out there in nothing but your wedding clothes?”
He swallowed heavily and pulled the helmet on, his fingers struggling with the chinstrap.
“Ow, my ears….”
“Hurry up,” I snapped, and helped Soris into the padded jack, which at least afforded a little protection, though most of the leather armour was, obviously, not made to fit elves.
We took the weapons we’d managed to scavenge and, though I did not want to leave Nola there, we had no choice. I took one last look at her body before we shut the door behind us, and crept out into the corridor.
Everything here appeared to be storerooms and, judging by the sounds we heard echoing along those old walls, the barracks and off-duty rooms for the guard must be close by. Laughter and voices traced the stones, and every moment seemed to bring a new threat of discovery.
“This way,” Soris whispered, guiding me towards the door at the end.
I wondered what we’d do when we caught up with Nelaros. What hope did the three of us genuinely have against the arl’s entire guard? Besides, the estate was massive. I’d never been up here before, but I knew how these places worked.
Father had been in Bann Rodolf’s employ for years and—though the bann’s estate was not as grand as this—it ran along the same lines. The nobs had their posh rooms at the top of the pile, and everything beneath that was a seething mass of servants, guards, gardeners, maids, skivvies and other staff, all keeping things running for no thanks and little pay.
We might as well have run into a rats’ nest.
A small voice at the back of my mind began to suggest we should just try and get out, but I couldn’t do that. I could still see Shianni’s face as they dragged her and the other women from the room, and the memory of Lord Vaughan’s cold green eyes came back to me. The scent of his breath, his… touch.
No. We would find them. After that, well, I didn’t know. It seemed an impossible task, yet the feeling of finally having absolutely nothing left to lose was somehow liberating.
We reached the door, and Soris stretched out his hand to grasp the handle, already hissing Nelaros’ name, but something felt wrong. I tensed and, as the door opened, I saw the heel of a fine-tooled leather boot bent unnaturally against the floor.
Three guardsmen were waiting for us, their weapons drawn.
Nelaros already lay dead at their feet, the back of his head cleaved open, splintered edges of bone framing the wound. Blood spattered his fine wedding tunic, and matted his blond hair.
“See?” the first of the guardsmen said. “I told you there’d be more. Elves run in packs. Like rodents.”
I recognised him. The sergeant who’d called us whores and wenches.
My grip tightened on the hilt of my borrowed sword. The guard on the right-hand side watched me uneasily. Good. That could be exploited. My chest heaved, the coppery tang of blood filling my nose and mouth, and the breath sore in my lungs.
“You killed Nelaros,” I said, surprised by how calm I sounded.
“Ha!” The human wrinkled his nose. “He squealed like a stuck pig when he died.”
I gritted my teeth, the anger black and foul as pitch within me.
“Where are the other women?” I demanded—as if we were in a position to ask questions.
The guardsman gave me a deeply unpleasant smile.
“Oh, don’t you worry, sweet thing. They’re being taken care of. And when Lord Vaughan’s had his fun… well, we get our turn.”
Beside me, Soris bristled. Fury burned low in my throat, but I saw this vile game for what it was, and I wouldn’t be thrown off-balance by it. There was only one way this could end.
I shifted my grip on the borrowed sword, and the second guard eyed me nervously.
“Should we keep the knife-eared bitch alive, then?” he asked.
The sergeant shook his head. “They killed our boys. She dies.”
The moment broke into a hundred pieces as, like one man, the three of them lunged.
Soris thought so quickly. His hand still on the door handle, he pushed me out of the way and jerked it to, then shoved it open again, using the heavy, ancient wood as the most effective weapon we could have had. The guards staggered, momentarily blinded, two of them with bloody noses, and we took our advantage. Back to back, we fought like creatures possessed, giving no quarter and yielding nothing.
The first guard was panicked and clumsy, and he went down fast. My blade bit his with the rasping clang of metal, every joint in my body juddering with the force of the blow, and my foot found his groin. As he sagged and swore, the sword took its second bite, steel sinking clean through his side, and he didn’t rise again.
Soris felled the second shem with a lucky blow that caught him at the edge of the ribs, but took a wound to his arm in the effort. The sergeant—the bastard who’d done for Nola—disarmed me, but I ducked and rolled, able to work my way behind him and fling myself on his back, getting my arm around his neck and squeezing with everything I was worth.
I had never done anything like it, never felt anything like it before.
The human could have been a decent, honourable man, though I doubted it. He could have had a wife and children, been a good son to elderly parents… any of those things. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. In that moment, he was nothing. He was less than nothing, and the desperate thrashing as he clawed at me, the gargles and gasps he made as I choked the life from him, did not seem real, or important.
I did not stop until he folded beneath me, dead, and I pitched to the floor.
Soris sat hunched against the wall, trying to stem the bleeding in his arm. The room was small—little better than an alcove, probably used for storage—but it was chaos. Our fight had knocked crates and boxes flying, and who knew how many people had heard us…. I ripped a strip from the bottom of my skirt—the skirt that, so many hundreds of years ago, Shianni had helped me into, while I marvelled at the feel of silk beneath my hands—and bound my cousin’s wound.
“Better?” I asked.
Soris nodded, and looked at me with a mixture of fear and awe. “You….”
His gaze slipped to the dead guard, and I put my hand to his cheek, not wanting him to look. I was not proud of what I had done, or the thrill of triumph that still pounded in my veins.
“Are you with me?”
“Y-Yes.” His eyes seemed to clear a little. “Yes. Let’s… let’s hurry.”
I helped him stand, and we paused for a moment by Nelaros. He was still warm, and I turned him over, hating to look at the mess the guards had made of his head. His face was slack, expressionless, and I remember wishing he seemed more peaceful. He’d died trying to save me. A brave man indeed.
Soris touched my arm. “Come on.”
I nodded but, before we left, I slipped my fingers into the pocket of Nelaros’ tunic and found the ring that, now, he would never give to me.
It seemed right to take it.
I rose, and we pressed on, darting from door to door, scurrying in shadows and confusion. We didn’t know where we were going. Any semblance of a plan Nelaros and Soris might have had was in disarray, and somehow we ended up in one of the kitchens.
I suppose it must have been a night kitchen, or perhaps just for the guard, because there was only one human cook and his elven assistant in there. A fire heaved in the grate, and both men were occupied. I motioned silently to Soris, pointing to the door on the other side of the room. It was the only exit, and there was no way we could sneak past unseen.
He looked wildly at me and shook his head, but time was running out. I grabbed his wrist and we just darted in. I had some ridiculous idea about blustering our way through, threatening either one or both of the staff with the bloody end of my blade, but I hadn’t thought it out properly. The cook turned at the sound our entrance, and scowled.
“What’s this?” Indignation quivered on his sweaty jowls. “I don’t recognise you, elf. Wait—is that blood? You’re rebels! Bandits! Outlaws! The guards will make quick work of—unghhh….”
His eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumpled to the flagstones. Soris and I stared at the elven assistant, who held the two-pound weight from a set of kitchen scales in his hands. He looked at us breathlessly, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d done either, and then gave a grim smile.
“You have no idea how long that shem’s had it coming.”
Soris gave a disbelieving cough of laughter. A little bit of gallows humour, I suppose.
The elf dropped the weight to the counter and dusted his palms together.
“He’ll live, anyway. Just a little rap on the head.” He stepped over his prone master, giving the man a not-too-gentle kick on the way. “I’m Adwen. You’re one of the girls they brought in, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes. Did you see where—?”
“They took the others to Lord Vaughan’s rooms.” Adwen winced as he looked from me to Soris. “If you want to help them, you should hurry. He’s not… gentle… with women.”
It didn’t surprise me to learn the bastard had a reputation.
“How do we get there?”
Adwen shook his head. “I can tell you where to go, but to get to the domestic quarters, you’ll have to go through the ward room. In there.” He pointed to the door. “It’s full of off-duty guards. You’ll never fight your way through all of them.”
Soris looked nervously at me. “What—?”
“Wait.” Adwen ducked down behind the counter. “I might have an idea.”
He brought out two bottles of brandy, mugs, and a clean apron, and pushed them towards me.
“They’ve been in there drinking and playing cards since the end of shift. If you can pass for servants, they’ll never notice you.”
It couldn’t possibly work, could it? I looked down at myself. My wedding dress was torn and spattered with blood, and Soris wasn’t much better. And what about the weapons?
“You’re sure there’s no other way through?”
“Not from here, unless you go back the way you came and cross the lower courtyard.”
“Let’s do it,” Soris said. “We don’t have time to waste.”
I looked at my cousin, torn between surprise and pride. He was right, of course… and we hardly had much choice.
I set to pulling off the delicately embroidered wristlets, stomacher, and collar that I had so admired this morning, and swathed myself in the white apron. Soris was more difficult to disguise, but Adwen helped him strip the unconscious cook of his tunic, and that at least obscured the most garish bits of his clothing. They deposited the half-naked shem in one of the back pantries, and Adwen locked the door.
Once we were duly wiped down and covered up, we hid our borrowed weapons in a sack, topped off with some firewood, and looked to Adwen for approval. He nodded.
“You’ll do. Remember, head straight on. Go quietly past the side rooms, and take the right corridor up to the domestic suites. Good luck.”
“Come with us,” I said. “We could use another hand.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” He jerked a thumb towards the pantry that held the unconscious cook. “They’ll blame that one on you, and I’m not pressing my luck with the guards. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting out of here before the storm hits.”
With that, Adwen darted away through the door by which we’d entered, and I couldn’t blame him. I glanced at Soris.
He twisted the top of our fake firewood sack in his hands and looked fit to vomit at any second, but he nodded.
“I guess so.”
“All right. I’ll go first.”
Carrying the tray of mugs and brandy, I slipped into the ward room, and was immediately hit by the fug of stale sweat and spirits, and the mingled smells of leather and boot polish. Long wooden tables ran the length of the room, and several off-duty guards sat around them on low benches, drinking and gaming just as Adwen had said.
Closest to me, a group of three of them—a man with a heavy red moustache, another with a thick black braid, and a third with dark skin and hair bound into tight cornrows—were sitting amid a nest of empty mugs and cards, coins piled in the middle of the table. I fixed my gaze on the door the other side of the room. If we edged through quickly and quietly, perhaps Soris and I could make it…. The odds weren’t great, but they weren’t completely impossible, either.
“I call,” said the first guard.
“Call,” the second added, grinning.
The third shook his head. “Too rich for me.”
He tossed his hand down, glanced up at me, and snapped his fingers.
“You! Elf! Over here. I need another drink. Anyone else?”
The first man laughed wheezily. “Sure, to celebrate taking all your money.”
“Ah, stop counting and start shuffling!” The guard glared at me. “What are you waiting for, eh? Get us those bloody drinks! I’ll blacken your eye if you don’t move yer arse!”
“Right away, sers,” I said, my heart thudding at my ribs.
The tray wobbled in my damp, trembling fingers. I was convinced we’d be caught out, but I went to the guards and uncorked the bottle of cheap brandy. Soris scurried by in my wake, carrying the sack straight through to the far door. None of them gave him a second glance, especially when I started setting out the booze.
“It’s about time!” snapped the guard with the cornrows. “Stupid dog. Come on… pour and get out, knife-ears.”
I worked my way up and down the tables, ensuring each man had a full mug, my stomach clenching at the feel of unexpected, unwelcome hands on my backside. I remember thinking how strange it was that they could show such derision and hatred for us, and yet be so ready to grab and fondle.
Shemlens, the elven word for them. Not one we were encouraged to use. It means ‘quick children’, and was apt, I thought, for that combination of spite and greed we so often encountered in their kind.
One of the guards—a big man with dirty blond hair—pinched me, hard, and laughed when I flinched. I splashed brandy onto the table, and the man seated to his left raised a hand and grabbed my wrist, twisting it viciously.
“Clumsy rat! Mop that up.”
“Sorry, ser,” I mumbled, wiping up the spillage with my apron, praying they wouldn’t see what I wore beneath it.
“Go on,” the guard sneered. “Out of my sight, or I’ll beat you for fun.”
He raised his hand again, threatening me with a loosely clenched backhander. I played my part, hunched myself up and—to a chorus of laughter and jeers—Soris and I scuttled from the room, drawing the heavy oak door shut behind us.
Soris leaned against the wall and let out a long breath.
“Maker’s breath… I can’t believe we got out of there!”
I hushed him, already glancing down the length of the corridor.
“We may have to face them again yet. Which way do we go?”
“Straight on, then to the right, I think.”
He rubbed at his wounded arm; blood was already seeping through his borrowed tunic. Both of us must have been struggling with screaming muscles and aching joints. I know I was, and my head still throbbed from the blow I’d taken earlier. All the same, we couldn’t stop now.
We ditched what had passed for our disguises, reshouldered our weapons, and headed along the faceless corridors for what felt like hours. Listening at doors and hiding in shadows, I began to fear we’d never find Vaughan’s quarters. Adwen’s directions were… loose, to say the least. Yet, at last, we found our goal. The utilitarian décor of the guardrooms, storage and servants’ quarters gave way to more opulent surroundings.
Even the stonework was better finished, and the walls were hung with lavish tapestries depicting scenes from myths and legends; I made out dragons, hunting dogs, magnificent knights and beautiful maidens… and it all seemed very foreign indeed. White knights and great warriors. Hm. I wondered if noblemen had ever been like that, or if the glory had always been a lie.
We pushed on, heading through the maze of doors and chambers until we reached the accommodation suites. Once we got there, it was easy to tell which was Vaughan’s room.
It was the one the screaming was coming from.