Once more marching through the crowded room, Kat in front, me bringing up the rear, all of us watched, furtively by some of the drinkers in the room, openly by others. At my request Kat paused by the woman from the Gray Watch, and with a nudge and a nod Kat invited her to precede us out of the smoke and heat of the pub. A rumble came from the amorphous body of the crowd as she rose, a question hanging in the air. I hoped they would never know the answer; my people like to keep our business quiet. I am sure many stories have grown out of that seemingly minor incident; the people of Brewer’s Ford were hungry for meaning.
We stepped into the cold night air. Smoke from the bonfires along the main road clung to the ground, moving like a gray river, almost a thing alive. We stepped into it and I watched it swirl and disperse around our legs, as if we were wounding it.
“Where’s Bags?” Elena asked. Our new companion almost hid her surprised reaction when she heard the name.
“He’ll meet us,” I said. With no more conversation I led the group south, away from the broken fortress and toward the king, careful always to keep myself or Kat between our new friend and Elena. After a short distance, I changed direction and led us into a darkened alley between two buildings, moving toward the river bank, and we began our march in the other direction. If this sudden change in direction confused anyone, they kept it to themselves.
It would be naïve to think no one saw us double back, but one does what one can. At least the drunken mob in the pub saw us turn in the direction of the king. It was only a few minutes’ walk along a path by the whispering river, past quiet docks where a solitary boat groaned against the timbers, to reach the makeshift wooden bridge that provided access to the fortress. Bags waited there, along with two men in military uniforms, studiously not seeing us. Baldwin’s instructions, no doubt.
“Good to see you,” Bags said to the woman. “I’m Bags.”
“Hazel,” the woman said. “I’ve heard of you.”
Bags shrugged, as if perhaps being heard of wasn’t such a good thing in their world. “You have a blade?” he asked.
“Not anymore.” She glanced at the hilt of his sword and raised her eyebrow. Bags shook his head; she shrugged and glanced at the rest of us. Now I had even more questions, better asked away from curious ears.
“What’s the plan?” Bags asked me.
In answer I mounted the rickety structure that led to the ruined courtyard above, feeling the boards shift as they creaked beneath my feet. The others followed me. I felt the structure move as each of the party began the climb; when Bags brought up the rear the stairs shifted to the side and I was happy to be almost to the top.
I jumped from the wooden structure to solid stone and looked about the devastated landscape. All was still. Shadows from the rubble stretched across the broken courtyard, long fingers of darkness in the fading silvery light cast by the moon as it slid toward the horizon. The shadow cast by the fallen tower could have hidden anything. Or anyone. I moved as quietly as I ever have, testing the ground under each foot before putting weight on it. After a few steps away from the edge I waited for the rest to gather around me. Five of us now, all strangers, more or less, much as I liked to think I understood most of them. The noise Bags made as he walked rendered my previous caution moot.
We stood in a loose knot. I spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the chill breeze. “Katherine, if anyone else comes up here, kill them.”
“The moon’s going down. Will you be able to see well enough?”
She shrugged. “Darkness favors the ones not moving.”
“Don’t assume they will use the new bridge.”
It’s probably a good thing that I couldn’t see her expression clearly in the shadows. “I’m not an idiot.”
I moved on. “Elena, you’ll stay at the top of the stairs that lead down into the cellars. If there’s any activity up here, you will run to tell us. If you hear anything unexpected from down below, you’ll run and tell Kat.”
I could see the whites of her wide eyes in the moonlight as she nodded yes.
“The rest of us will go below,” I said. “Hazel, can I trust you?”
After a tiny pause she said, “Yes, you can.” Her words carried an undercurrent of conviction.
“We’re working against your bosses,” I said.
“Not after…” she gestured around us while she groped for words. “Not after this.” Her back was to the moonlight, making her face a mystery, but I trusted the voice. “They don’t value the lives of ordinary folk too dearly. I could accept that; the king is no better, or any of the rest. But this… This was slaughter.”
“Are you armed?”
She nodded and reached behind her back, under her cloak, and pulled out a serviceable knife, short for open fighting but plenty deadly enough up close. “I try to avoid fighting, but I can when I need to.”
“You told Bags you didn’t have a blade.”
Hazel looked over at the big man, who answered for her. “That’s different,” Bags said. “Some of us got weapons from our employers.”
“Like your sword?”
“Yeah.” I waited for him to elaborate on that. “They’re magic in a way. Connected to one of our employers, so they can find us when we are in the field. I got mine from the man in charge of our unit. He’s dead now.”
“You’re sure no one else can find you with it?”
He nodded. “I’m sure.”
“How’d your boss die?”
“Murdered. Killed by his rivals.”
“His rivals are the people we’re fighting now?”
Bags spoke carefully. “Could be. I think so. I wasn’t allowed to investigate.” His face hardened. “I wanted to.” There was no happy-go-lucky smile on his face then, no what-can-you-do shrug. I felt the chill of icy anger that lay buried deep within him.
Elena looked up at him. “Then let’s tear the entrails out of those toad-licking shit-eaters and feed them to their weeping children.”
Bags shot her a glance and smiled, but I don’t think he appreciated the smile he got in return. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” he said.
Kat smiled as well and put her hand on Elena’s shoulder. “We will,” Kat said. “They shall not prevail.” Hours before, that contact and the hackneyed statement would have been met with a shrug and a sour look from Elena. Not this time. Elena, still watching Bags, put her hand on top of Katherine’s, where it lay on her shoulder. Something had changed between the two. I welcomed the warmer relationship, but it made me nervous. Everything made me nervous.
Gravel crunched beneath Bags’ feet as he shifted his weight. We had bodies to move and an unknown object to recover. “Let’s get started,” I said. I turned and made my way through the ruin, skirting an area where the paving stones seemed to sag a little, suggesting potential collapse. Kat slipped into the shadows. Under the tarp that had been erected over the stairway heading down I indicated a shadow where Elena could wait and listen. “Don’t take chances,” I said.
After we were a few steps down Bags put a spark to a lantern he had acquired. I pulled my hood up to keep the light from shining directly into my eyes.
Around us hastily-erected timbers held the crumbling stones of the ceiling up, casting crazed shadows as the lamp moved between them. The broken castle moaned in pain as timbers settled and stone blocks shifted. “Ahead and to the left,” I said. Hazel led, I followed, while Bags held the lantern high behind us.
It did not take long for us to reach the relative safety of the passage cut into the living stone, and into the well chamber. It was as I had left it, an empty chamber save the low circular stone wall surrounding the well, topped with a wooden frame that held a pulley over the opening. I had been hoping for a second rope, but the pulley was empty now. No doubt the rope was part of the makeshift construction somewhere in the fortress.
Bags found a black iron hook in wall and hung the lantern on it. “How do you want to do this?” he asked.
“We’ll lower Hazel down. She can tie the rope to the first one and we’ll haul him out.”
Hazel looked at me. “Why me?” she asked.
“You weight the least.” I said. Which was probably true, if you didn’t count her battle underwear.
Bags tested the wood frame and the pulley. “Might be strong enough,” he said. “It’ll save a lot of work if it is.”
Hazel looked back and forth between Bags and me. “All right,” she said. “But let’s be fast; that water’s going to be cold as hell.” She sat on the low wall surrounding the well and wrapped the rope around her waist but didn’t tie it. “Let’s get this over with.”
Bags moved the lantern to hang on the crossbar next to the pulley, to cast at least a small amount of light down into the hole. As he passed the rope around the pulley he said. “We can lower the lantern down after you, if there’s any place you can put it down there.”
Hazel grunted a response. Bags and I took the rope, and Hazel eased her weight onto it. “Ready,” she said. We lowered her down.
I was starting to think the rope might not be long enough when it went slack. “You all right?” Bags called down.
“There’s a fissure in the stone,” she called back up. Her voice was distorted by the echoes, higher-pitched tones punching through the mud of the lower tones. “I’m wedged into it, just above the water.” I heard splashing sounds and muffled curses. “All right,” Hazel said from the depths, “first one ready.”
We pulled, and the last corpse I had thrown down the well was the first one back up. Decay was not as bad as I had prepared myself for; his tongue was bloated and his eyes looked as if they had been nibbled by fish, but there had not been enough time for rot to set in in that cold water.
The woman I had thrown down there was next, then it was time for the soldiers. “They’re not floating up,” Hazel called.
“They’re in armor,” I shouted back. “You’ll have to dive.”
“Can’t swim,” she said, matter-of-factly. She might have told us that before we lowered her into a well, but I suppose she had something to prove to us.
I took a breath. “Let’s pull her out,” I said to Bags. “I guess it’s my turn.”