From the Barrens, Part 3
Somewhere in the Barrens, Winter Y380
It’s cold, seeping through her clothes and running down her neck into her hair. The world is bobbing along upside down when she opens her eyes, which was such a bad idea that she immediately shut them, then slid back sideways into the blissful blackness she had woke from.
When next she climbs back into the grey, rougher hands are passing her along like a commodity, a parcel delivered. Hands touch her face, sliding along her bark, pressing hard against her temple which sharpens the world for a brief, blinding moment.
Brilliant blue eyes flood with relief as they look into hers. She knows that face, knows those feathers on the brow, remembers the taste of the wine they last shared in Holberg. “So…about your cousin.”
Then the moment passes, the clarity gone, and she’s struggling against the bonds, against the pain that spikes and stabs through her, and against the hands that are trying to hold her down.
Someone screams, primally, all rage and fury and pain at being captive.
When she next woke, her back pressed against stone, and her hands were heavy and cold. Lifting her head slowly, she blinked away the last of the fog that had persisted for who-knew-how-long. She reached up for her head, and started at the heavy iron that shackled her hands together, the long chain bolted securely to the wall. She looked around the bare room, eyes stopping on the League and Dawnish captives, six she could see.
She then noticed the dark eyes that bore into her from across the cell. There, an orc studied her back from where they sat on a table, idle fingers tapping a quick rhythm softly on the wood. Roughly dressed, but they looked strong, armoured.
“You’re all awake. Finally.”
She ignored the gruff voice, looking down at herself. Her fingers were bruised, cut and stiff. She shifted her weight, feeling where her body rebelled and flared with white-hot pain, where her clothes stuck to matted and clotted blood and new-forming bark. She looked over the others, guessing at injuries.
“What are you after?” Her throat scratched, vocals hoarse.
“Me? I’m just here to get to know you all. Who you are. What makes you tick.”
Despite herself, despite the pain in her cheek and the ache for water in her throat, she grinned, bit back a laugh.
The game was simple. They’d come in twice a day with some supply they needed, and all the prisoners had to do was answer their questions in the way they wanted, to receive them.
Sometimes it was a clean bandage, some herbs to sort out an injury, the bare minimum to keep a wound becoming too septic. Where did you come from. What are the armies doing here. Tell us all you know of the patrol routes, the numbers that have come.
Sometimes it was food, or a pitcher of water, though again, only the bare amount to keep a couple of them on the right side of dehydration. Why have the Dawnish chosen to push again. Tell us what they hope to gain from this ‘Crusade’.
The threat behind their position was explained to them on the third day. We are not the Druj; the deplorable torturers, the poisoners, the corruptors. But we know their methods. And we will use them, if you resist.
“Barossa,” the captives would whisper, nudging her to get her attention in the small holding cell, “What do we do?”
They turned to her for guidance, she couldn’t figure out why. Whenever they were uncertain how to act, whether to remain defiant, whether to provide more information when pressed, they’d follow her lead. In the quiet, whispered moments, she had to think quickly, work out what was most needed, like planning out a play. ‘Today, we need water. Resist long as you can, then tell them… Tell them about this.’
There were a few missteps, and they found ways to make one of them pay for lies, when they found a discrepancy between one statement and another prisoner’s, or when the info from the front did not match their accounts. The Dawnish wanted to be defiant, to resist the blood and pain and suffering. Soon it was becoming known that the League prisoners would break easier. And there Vitória was, the one who had seen most of Andrea’s maps, her tally sheets, her reports over dinner and wine. ‘Today, Jacomo needs some vervain. You tell them…..’ And she would come up with another believable lie.
It wasn’t long at all before the questions she was being probed with were starting to turn back at her captors. And sitting as comfortably as she could on cold flagstones, she ‘weakened’, and kept gathering info, and planning, and telling pretty little lies.
It was hot, so hot, as she clung to the arm draped around her, and the fox mask in her hands.
“Do you know what it will take, to escape from here?” Alesso’s accent was thick through the hot air.
“I don’t have to explain it to you, of all people.”
“You could stay.”
“We need to escape, and soon.”
“If I stay, I’ll die. I’m dying right now, if this fever doesn’t break.”
“They’re treating you–”
“You won’t be able to hold out for our sakes much longer–”
“Alesso. They’re going to kill me. Should I wait until they decide to do it?”
“They might kill the others.”
“My name isn’t Alesso, Vitória.”
“They are coming with me. I will not leave them behind. I am not that far gone off the path.”
“How far gone are you?”
“Probably far, I’m talking to you, aren’t I? You’re dead.” He smirked down at her, tightened his arm around her shoulder, the shell of a ghost.
“Whose fault is that?”
“Tomorrow, you’re getting the supplies.”
“Are you so sure?”
Hansel tightened his arm around Vitória’s shoulder, hugging her closer, and listened to the fevered conversation she thought they were having.
Arms clamped around her and pinned her shoulders down easily.
“Wait, what are you doing–” her stomach knotted as she turned her head back to see Elaine go ashen and turn away, as Hansel’s face went red with rage.
There was a clang of metal off to one side, and something was pulled from the bowl of the brazier that lit the room. She balked at the glowing red metal that was held towards her, struggled a little harder. “No, wait, don’t do this– I’ll do whatever you need, just name it–”
“Stop. What good is this going to do? She’s done everything you asked of her!” Hansel shouted up, pushing his way forward as far as his chains allowed “Numbers can change, armies can move, that’s not our fault if we’re wrong!”
Vitória struggled harder, unable to pull out of the grip she was in, panic and the racing of her heart louder than the rest of their argument. ‘Not fire, please not fire,’ thoughts screamed as words were passed between the orcs. She couldn’t miss the clench of Hansel’s fists, the twitch in his jaw, nor the red flush of his face as he looked between the old orcs and her, helpless and raging.
“It’s going to be fine, Hansel. Calm down.” Flailing did nothing, unable to even shift the arms that held her, grabbed a handful of her hair, pulled her head back so her cheek was laid flat, as the red blade was brought closer.
Her eyes flicked between Hansel’s eyes, and the glowing metal inches from her cheek, so close she could already feel the heat. ‘Not the cheek, please by the Virtues, not the face.’
“Have courage.” She dared to whisper. His eyes, dark as the ocean, flared stormily as rage filled them, as he struggled and screamed louder.
“Hansel, calm! Look away, it’s all going to be okay.” Hansel’s screams only grew louder.
The metal first touched her skin.
She had been burned.
The brand on her skin glowed, or felt as if it did. She couldn’t bear to look down at the charred, russet-red-black skin again, the swelling around the marks that felt like fire had licked —still licked– three lashes across her chest. The agony was distracting, the heat unbearable. No matter how she tried to distract her mind, the pain was always there, always infuriatingly present. ‘They burned me!’
She didn’t even hide in the shadows, walking straight through the ramshackle village. She could hear the screams, the alarms, and the crackle of flame behind her. She could hear one of her allies fighting in the next lane. The cries of orcs attempting to put out the fires added to the chaos, not knowing whether to fight or save their livelihoods. The stolen knife clutched between her bound hands already dripped with blood.
This was an indulgence to rage, to vengeance: this felt sinful, but she wanted the world to burn because she burned. She lashed out at another brazier, sending it skittering into a cart of supplies. A torch in a sconce, she grabbed and tossed through a window. The chaos helped the others escape, diverted attention from the release of the prisoners to the spreading inferno. But for her, beyond the thinly veiled use that her seeds of chaos sowed, this just felt good.
More fighting was approaching, she’d need to move on soon. A woman skittered around a corner, –she looked just like Serena, which didn’t make sense– and cried out her name. One of the guards — “YOU!” Vitória screamed at the hated figure — tried to rush her from the docks and was swiftly tripped with the swing of the chain hanging from her wrists. It was nothing to drive her knife through his throat.
Her skin burned more furiously, the Mawrig branded there a ceaseless ember that fanned the flames. Fingers searched as deftly as a pickpocket, pulling the key from a thread around the orc’s neck. She stood, fumbled with the odd angle, then laughed at the clink of the lock and the heavy clank of the chains pooling at her feet.
Amidst the crackle of the spreading fires, amidst the chaos of the night, Vitória shut her eyes. The smoke was beginning to sting, she was obviously seeing things. It burned, burned incessantly. Rubbing the raw and burned skin of her wrists, so long shackled, she looked back up. No, she clearly must be seeing things. Serena was running towards her.
She stood, apart from the others, shaking, shivering as they hid in a dark copse to ensure they were not followed. Biting her lip did nothing to keep her teeth from chattering, to keep her muscles from seizing up, or hide the pain she was in.
She looked around at the faces of those who had come to help free her, who had come just in time to shepherd her out of the burning town, away from the orcs just before her energy and adrenaline ran out.
‘I freed myself.’ Her mind whispered, holding tight to the fact as she looked over the faces of the five other captives that had made it out, then pushing aside the once face that hadn’t made it out, that she hadn’t saved.
‘But they also came to free me.’ Lupo was there, trying to insist she take his coat to keep warm. But he was her best friend, so utterly devoted. Serena had come, which surprised her, guiltily– because of course family would come, but it was so hard to forget that, once, they hadn’t come for her. Bo was there at Serena’s side, of course he would aid Serena — he sure as hell wasn’t there for Vitória. Hazel, now that was a surprise. She hadn’t known that Hazel was even in the Barrens, and the youthful briar wasn’t exactly combat tested. It took a moment before she could place the last person, she knew she–‘oh, Frederick Novarion. He must have come with Bo. I don’t think he even knows me.’
“Is that everyone, Vitória?” Her name snaps her from her reverie. Her eyes blink as the question is repeated, as eyes turn to her. She’s not ready for their stares.
“Everyone alive.” Their eyes darken, and she looks away, they all know that tone of voice. “We’d best move on.” She shrugs herself out of reach of their hands, pushing aside their attempts to check her for injuries, and gestures them off. “I want to go home.”