7 Nevrine, continued (continued)
She looked skeptical. Worse than skeptical—she looked disdainful. I said, grasping at anything, “Master Liskesstis, I promise you in the Kilios’s name that we can free you, if that’s something you think will help. I know you can’t go back to your village, and I don’t know where else you can find shelter, but you will certainly start dying if you stay here. I bet some of you, the sickest and the smallest, have already succumbed. Please let us help you.”
She sneered. “I know the Kilios. Who are you to make promises in his name?”
“I’m his wife,” I said.
That changed her expression completely. She said, “Cederic Aleynten has no wife.”
“We were married two weeks before the convergence,” I said. “You know him? How?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What hand does he cut his meat with?”
“His left,” I said, “even though he’s right-handed, and before you ask, he cuts all his meat, even chicken legs, and it’s an impressive feat of agility.”
“Which of his ears is pierced?” she asked.
“Neither, though his right ear was pierced a long time ago. You can still see the mark,” I said, trying not to think about what we’d been doing when I made this observation.
“That only proves you’ve been close to him, not that you’re married,” she said.
I wished at that moment I could raise one eyebrow like Cederic does. “I could give you any number of corroborating details,” I said, “but then we’d have to have a very…intense…discussion about why you happen to know what he looks like naked.”
To my surprise, she laughed. “No need,” she said. “You’re exactly the sort of young woman Cederic would marry, if he had any sense, which he does.” I don’t know why I blushed at that. I’m putting it away somewhere to consider later.
Just then we heard footsteps outside, and hands grabbed me and Jeddan and pulled us into the crowd. Someone pounded on the tent pole in the door opening with what sounded like a big stick. “Shut up in there, damned traitors!” growled the guard, and everyone held very still until he went away. After a long, long time, Jeddan and I were released, and Liskesstis came to stand before me again. “We will not survive this,” she said in a low voice. “They have already begun rounding up victims to be raped. Some of them do not return. And our children…we will risk anything for a chance at survival.”
“We can’t free you unless you have somewhere safe to go,” I said.
“There’s a town about ten miles east of here, or was. No reason to believe it’s not still there,” Liskesstis said. “We can walk that far, or die trying, but at least we’d die on our own terms. And I don’t think we’ll die.”
“How many mages do you have?” I asked.
“Only one, in addition to me, and she is barely more than a child,” she said. “I am the only Darssan mage here. I thought my retirement would be peaceful,” she laughed.
“I think you should gather anyone the people will listen to, and begin planning your journey,” I said, “and Jeddan and I will work on helping you leave this place.”
“We can’t just walk into the snow! We’ll wander until the storm kills us!” a woman said.
“Have faith,” Liskesstis said. “We’ve kept you warm so far, haven’t we? Hidden the most vulnerable? These two have offered their help, and I think they can deliver on their promise. They will open the way, and we will walk out of here. Or would you rather wait here for that pretty daughter of yours to be snatched up? Twelve, isn’t she?”
The muttering subsided. I said, “Will you have any trouble bringing everyone together?”
“We’ve been moving secretly between the tents ever since arriving here,” she said. “You worry about your own problem. I imagine it’s more difficult than ours.”
I shrugged, then repeated the conversation to Jeddan, quickly. “I had an idea, but I was wondering what you’d thought of,” I said.
“Let’s see how many guards we’re dealing with, then plan,” he said. “I’ll go outside the camp, where the snow will help conceal me, and you can look around in here.”
It took us about half an hour to feel confident we knew what we were facing. There was a tent, well-lit and comfortably warm, where ten or twelve guards sat, clearly uninterested in going out into the cold, though one of them made a desultory loop between several of the prison tents while I watched.
Seven other men patrolled the outside of the camp, though none of them were very alert. It was clear they all were counting on their rifles and the weather and the barrenness of their surroundings to keep the prisoners penned in, because anyone could have knocked the “fence” over and walked away. We met back up in a corner between the prisoners’ tents to confer. Jeddan was grinning far too broadly for someone facing an impossible challenge.
“I was nearly caught,” he said, “and look what happened.” He wavered, flickered, and I suddenly had to look away, my eyes watering from trying to see past the concealment pouvra. “It’s the strangest experience.”
“Do you think you can use it on someone else?” I said.
“I don’t think so. I’ll try. But at least I can sneak up on those guards and overpower them. If we can clear them away, can the Castavirans walk out of here?” he said.
“There are far too many of them not to attract attention,” I said. “They’ll make too much noise. And we can’t get rid of all the guards I saw in that tent at once. But…I have an idea.”
“Can you set the tent on fire?” Jeddan said.
“I could, but that wouldn’t be a long-term solution,” I said. “I was thinking of doing it the old-fashioned way.”
Which is how I ended up sneaking into the storage tents and stealing about forty rifles, five at a time (I could carry three and use the mind-moving pouvra on two at a time, which means I’m getting stronger), and passing them out to some Castaviran volunteers who knew a little bit about shooting. It was extremely dangerous because the storage tents were adjacent to the guards’ main tent, so they could watch them, and the more trips I made, the more often I had a chance of being caught.
But the guards were all making a lot of noise playing some card game that involved penalty drinking—take a drink every time you lose a round, or play the wrong card—and were well on the road to inebriation. My Castaviran warriors were getting really impatient by the time I brought the last armful, but I told them, “There’s one more thing I need to do, or some of you might get hurt or killed. So be patient. Half of you need to go back to Master Liskesstis—quietly—and the other half wait here for your part of the plan.”
It was going so perfectly I should have known something was about to go wrong. Just as I’d sneaked inside the main tent, intending to start gathering the guards’ rifles (there were six or seven of them, all propped against the tent wall or lying next to camp stools) one of the men stood up, stretched, and said, “I’m gonna go take a piss,” and headed unstably for the door. I was on the wrong side of the tent and there was nothing I could do except watch in horror, because he was going to step outside and find himself facing two dozen armed Castavirans, and they would shoot him, and then everything really would go to hell.
But nothing happened. I had one gun clutched to my chest and my other hand resting on another rifle, preparing to turn the concealment pouvra on it, and felt as if the pouvra had turned me to stone. No shots, no screams, not even the thud of an unconscious body hitting the ground. I slowly concealed the rifle and picked it up—might as well finish the job, since I was there—and eased my way out of the tent. There was no way I was going back for the rest. It would have to be enough.
I went around the tent to where I’d left the prisoners, and found them huddled up, I thought against the cold. But no, they’d surrounded the guard and completely immobilized him, gagged him with somebody’s scarf. He looked furious and terrified all at once. “Take him somewhere, and bind him. Use the tent rope if you have to. You won’t be coming back here.”
Three of them dragged him away, and I told the rest, “Just a few more minutes. And remember, you can’t kill any of them.”
“We’ll do what we like to the bastards,” said one of the men. I recognized him as the one I’d spoken to first.
“I don’t care what you do to them, myself,” I said, though I quailed inside at the thought of them murdering even such vicious brutes as these guards no doubt were. “But if you kill them, Endolessar will have to hunt you down or risk looking weak. Then all of this will be pointless. Please. Leave your vengeance behind, at least for now.”
None of them looked very convinced, but they did as I asked. I don’t care that it’s skipping ahead in the story to say that. I was so worried, at the time, that their anger would get the better of them, and I honestly couldn’t blame them for wanting revenge. I have no idea what it’s like to have your homes destroyed and your families brutalized in that way and I couldn’t tell them they shouldn’t be angry. But I was risking my life for them, and if they were all killed because some of them let that anger overcome them, it would’ve been a pointless risk. So I was so relieved when everything else went as planned. More or less.
to be continued…