It’s bad enough that we got captured by vagabonds, but the fact that they know who I am is horrible. I mean, it might be good for Balderk, he’s probably going to live a little longer if they think he could have value diplomatically, but once they find out he’s nobody, he’s dead.
Briareth’s probably dead too. King’s Archer’s are expected to be able to get themselves out of tricky situations; there isn’t a ransom fund for them. Not to mention, they’ve probably cracked down on brother groups to this one in the past, so, if these thieves find out his job, the best he’ll get is a slow painful death.
I’ll survive this. To these raiders, gold is worth more than vengeance against my family, so I’ll be ransomed. My parents will pay. They’ll face pushback if they use taxpayer money, but they’ll pay up.
Unless we can escape, I’ll be the only survivor. Again.
I got over the guilt of being the only survivor of my platoon, but it was hard. Can I do it a second time? With people I’ve become this close to?
My thoughts swirl as I’m roughly tied up and force-marched to their camp. Balderk’s behind me, he looks confused. Briareth’s in front of me, so I can’t guess how he feels. I watch as a few members of the troop plunder our supplies, ripping open carefully packed bags to see if there’s anything good inside. I overhear one of them asking the leader if they should try to take the deer with them. The leader only shakes his head in response, and I know why. The deer wouldn’t obey them anyway, and they most likely have plenty of food already. Why anyone would want to help feed or clothes these outlaws is beyond me, but they do have supporters from the rural countryside who provide them with basic necessities.
Things changed in the twenty-two years I was gone, and the change has sped up in the two years I’ve been back. Or maybe I just didn’t notice it earlier, and really nothing has changed. Not everyone likes the crown and the way our country is run, not everyone wants the war to end, not everyone thinks the war should continue; although their beliefs are different the extremes of all these sides all think my parents should be ousted, the system should be overthrown, and someone new should come to power. Petty groups of thieves grow with popular support and support of some in power, and we end up with organised bands like this one with over forty active members and connections to other bands across the country.
I mean, it’s kinda our fault for not setting a guard. We should have expected something like this. I’ve been getting tons of memos about things like this happening recently. I should have set a guard, but I was too excited to finally be doing something important again. Everythings been dull since Faladel and I got back, but we were finally going on an adventure again. I was so busy being excited the entire ride that I plum wore myself out! Lesson learned. I’ll do better next time.
I might forget.
Whatever, no sense dwelling on the past.
After roughly being tied up, I manage to convince one of the people who were threatening us earlier that taking along Myrddin would be worth it. Horses are much better behaved than deer after all, and Myrddin isn’t very skittish. I watch and make sure that the outlaw is treating him right as we are led along a forest trail, presumably heading to their camp. Faladel is so lost in thought that he doesn’t even notice as one of the elves guarding us tries to trip him. He still avoids it somehow. Does being a prince make you immune to embarrassing situations or something? No bad hair days, no tripping, no clothes out of place, heck, he doesn’t even look dirty from sleeping on the ground last night! I want to know that trick!
Eh… on second thought I probably wouldn’t bother to use it. I’m not that good with keeping a schedule or a ‘morning routine’ anyway. But that doesn’t make me want to know it any less.
Balderk looks a little lost, I can see why Faladel felt the need to stand up for him last night. It probably never even struck him that all elves might not be on the same side. Poor little guy.
As we enter the camp, I notice one group training over by the target practice. They’re not very good, they wouldn’t even get close to Raegel’s standards. I mean, they’re supposed to be aiming for the nose, right? Since that’s the center of the face? That guy in muddy boots just hit a chin cleft! That’s nowhere near the nose!
Suddenly I remember that faces aren’t supposed to be used for target practice, and take a second look at the targets. Fudge. They’re all painted with faces of Faladel’s dad. No wonder that nose looked familiar. No wonder Faladel looks like he’d like to murder these guys. I knew I was getting an unusually hostile vibe from him.
Once all of us are actually in the camp– Myrddin included, I double checked –the leader of this gang starts shouting orders again.
“Stick the guard and the dwarf in the pit, bring the Prince to me for questioning.”
I’m about to protest. Not the being stuck in the pit part, the part where they called me a guard. I’m a King’s Archer, calling me a guard is like calling an eagle a pigeon! They both poo, but one’s a lot more dangerous.
I open my mouth, but Faladel flicks me and glares. I’m not sure why he’s glaring; I’m the one who got flicked after all. He continues staring at me. I stare back confused. And then it dawns on me, if I was getting memos about these people, the King’s Archer’s have encountered them. If these folks have been encountered by King’s Archer’s, they probably don’t like us. Therefore telling them who I am might be a bad idea. I blink gratefully at Faladel, but they’re already taking him away.
When they bring Faladel back and dump him in the pit with us he’s quiet. The sun rose around two hours ago, and the shadow of the pit’s edge does little to hide his bruising eye or the blood dripping from his split lip. He holds one arm tenderly, not volunteering any information about what happened to him as Briareth gently tries to attend to different cuts. It’s rather obvious what happened though. He doesn’t need to state it. His answers to the questioning were unsatisfactory, they beat him up, he probably didn’t cave, so they beat him up again.
We sit in silence for a while. Briareth eventually asks him what sort of information they wanted.
“They’ll probably ask you different things than they asked me.” He responds curtly. “Don’t tell them anything.”
“I thought you elves were all supposed to be on the same side.” I offer.
Faladel snorts. “If only that were true.”
Briareth elaborates for him. “If you’re looking at it from a dwarven perspective, sure. After all, one of the few things Faladel and these elves who captured us would agree on is that they don’t like most dwarves. However, these elves also don’t like the way the current government is run. Although the people in this group probably have different ideas over how it should be run, they all agree Faladel’s parents shouldn’t be in power. I’m sure such things exist in the dwarven empire as well.”
“I’ve never heard of them.” I say, confused.
“Everybody has differences in opinion.” Faladel says cryptically. “Most just keep them quiet.”
“What’s the punishment for revolt for dwarves?” Briareth asks.
“Umm..” I hesitate
“How about treason? Or what you did, running away with secrets?” Briareth presses
“That’s easy.” I reply, I’d considered the consequences of me running away dozens of times before I actually went through with it. “Death.”
“So is it hard to believe that if there is no knowledge of open revolution going on, people will keep their opinions to themselves?” Briareth asks, smiling.
“I suppose not.” I realize. “So the government is just trying to keep the people too scared to band together? To make sure no revolutions form?”
“Quite possibly.” Faladel confirms. Above us I can hear the sounds of elves waking up and going about their daily business. “The other option is that there already is a revolution and the government has effectively stopped it from communicating it’s existence.” He adds on.
“I mean that’s basically what we try to do after all, even if we aren’t successful.” Briareth chirps in.
“I wouldn’t even call these idiots a rebellion though.” Faladel argues. “If they really had the support of the people and had the movement necessary to create a proper rebellion, they would wait and prove it through an election instead of kidnapping and torture. Then they could change the government from the inside. These groups are just resentful pests. We arrest them on charges of assaulting travelers or robbing government caravans, trying to keep their violent ways from spreading.” His voice is low, but I still glance up worried one of the elves guarding our pit will overhear and react. Neither of them do. The breakfast rush has started, and the chattering of hungry elves must be drowning out the noise of our discussion.
“So Faladel.” Briareth says, seemingly having caught on to the reason Faladel is so talkative now. “What should I expect when they take me in for questioning? Anything fun?”
“I never would have pegged you for the masochist type, Briareth.” Faladel answers dryly, shifting his wounded arm with a wince. “Like I said earlier, your questions will probably be different from mine. I feel like they knew from the start I wasn’t going to tell them anything, so they just had fun asking me a bunch of classified information and beating me when I wouldn’t tell them. Meanwhile, these egotistical jerks probably think that you will be more malleable than me, and will try to get you to answer their real questions.”
“Want me to give them false answers?” Briareth says, smirking.
“I’d like to say ‘no, don’t give these personified rodents even the temporary satisfaction’ but if you feel like their trust could be worth it in our escape, go ahead. I trust you not to tell them anything useful.”
“You guys are already planning an escape?” I’m rather shocked. “How often does this sort of thing happen to you?”
“Of course we’re already planning an escape.” Briareth grins. “Faladel’s an old hat at getting kidnapped.”
“Oh ha ha.” Faladel’s voice is anything but laughing. Looking at me, he explains “Briareth’s an idiot, and I’m leaving our escape in his hands.”
“That doesn’t fill me with confidence.” I reply, slightly scared.
“Don’t worry, his job requires him to get training for this sort of occurrence. Much as he’d love to deny it, he’s actually quite capable. By the way, Briareth, from what I overheard from the guards, you’re up next on the interrogation list. It will probably happen right after breakfast is over, so you should mentally prepare yourself.”
“I’d rather go in without a plan. Things tend to turn out better that way.” Briareth replies cheerily. I can’t tell if the elf is joking or serious. Either way, I find myself being slightly worried for him despite Faladel’s assurances.
When Briareth gets back, he pulls a stink-eye on our captors before he’s dumped in the pit. He looks a little worse for the wear– bloody nose and a black eye and a few large bruises starting to form–but not nearly as bad as Faladel. I don’t have any more time to think about what this could mean for me though before the guards fish me out of the pit and start pushing me towards a makeshift hut, presumably where they’ll interrogate me.
After shoving open the door, they sit me down on an uncomfortable stool, tie my ankles to it, and my hands behind my back. I’m a little too close to the firepit in the center of the hut. I glance upwards, there’s a hatch in the ceiling for the smoke to escape through, but it’s covered, making the room hot and smoky. I try not to think about why they’d have a fire going in the middle of the day.
A deep voice speaks from behind me, “Why are you with the elf prince, dwarf? Where were you going?”
“And don’t give us that idiotic story that you two are running away to get married,” Chirps in a second voice, “we already heard enough about it from the knight.”
“Yeah, if anyone was going to get married it would be the prince and the knight, they’re certainly devoted enough!” A third one cackles.
I hear two thumps shortly after one another, and then the deep voice shouts. “Either stay quiet or stay out you idiots! I run the interrogations around here.” I hear the door shut behind them, and he starts again.
“They were right about the knight’s devotion though. It’s a shame he wouldn’t work with us. He seemed rather capable.” His voice starts moving. Instead of behind me, I hear it move to the left of the firepit. I resist the urge to glance at him and gulp nervously. What are they going to do to me? How will I survive this? I keep my eyes fixed on the smoke as it drifts upwards.
“He got away with sprouting quite a lot of nonsense because our leader thought he could be turned.____” The voice continues moving, the speaker just outside my vision. “Now you might think all elves are evil creatures dwarf, but for the most part we don’t hurt others for fun. I, of course, am an exception.” I can’t help it. My eyes flicker to him as he sits down across from me, and then stay there stunned. His face– half of it looks melted! My jaw drops, and then I quickly close it. But he noticed.
“Nasty sight ehh? Could have been worse though. Got it in the Kings’ dungeons.”
I sputter, trying to think of something to say. What could make skin melt like that? What did he do to deserve it?
“Enough about me though.” The melted-faced elf studies me. One of his eyes is glassy, he probably can’t even see through it. “The boss doesn’t think you can be turned. Doesn’t want you to be turned. Fact is, the way I understood his orders, you either prove yourself a useful font of information here or become my new playtoy.” He pauses to let that sink in. “Now with that in mind, why are you and the elf prince traveling together? Where are you off to?”
I glance at him. “How do I know you won’t kill me after I spill everything I know?”
“Oh you will be killed. Eventually. It’s not like we can just let you go after this, you know?” He pulls a dagger from his belt, casually flips it in the air and then catches it. “It’s just a measure of how painful the death will be, and how long you survive beforehand.”
I shudder, and try to consider my options. “Could you let me think for 5 minutes?”
“Not unless I beat you up so badly that you need that time to recover.” He grins, his half-ruined face making the expression far more terrifying than his neutral face from before. He tosses his dagger again. The glassy eye seems to consider me, even as the other one watches the dagger flip, spin, and sparkle sinisterly in the firelight.
Flinching I ask “What was the question again?”
“What are you doing with the elf prince? Easy enough right?” His glassy eye bores into me. Hunting my secrets.
“We’re tr-traveling.” I stutter nervously, trying not to give too much away.
“Where?” He presses. That eye. The smoke. I can’t think straight.
“I don’t know where exactly, somewhere in the northern mountains.” I say, hoping it will be enough.
That much is true, and the elf accepts it. “Why?”
“The King wanted Faladel to learn something. A-About the war I think, how it started.”
He leans in frowning, “Would you say you’re close with the Prince?”
I’m confused with this sudden change in the line of questioning, and the answer slips out easily. “No, we met only a few days ago.”
“Interesting.” The dagger lands in his hand again, and then comes flying straight at my face. I shriek at the sudden attack and attempt to jerk to the side. I overbalance, tipping over the chair that I’m tied to. I hit the wood floor hard, bruising my arm and face. “I need to talk to my superiors,” The interrogator says, standing up and walking past me towards the door. He yanks out his dagger before opening it a crack, letting in the fresh air and natural light. “I guess that means you can have your five minute break now.” He says, right before he exits. The door swings shut behind him with an ominous clang.
I glare at my shoes as he leaves the room, head swimming. What did I say that he could find interesting? I don’t know how any of that would help him. I didn’t mention anything about the crazy Librarian we’re supposed to find. He didn’t ask about our quest any more. Why did he want to know about my relationship with Faladel? Did he actually put stock in what Briareth must have babbled about us getting married or something? Guys aren’t even my type! I hope I haven’t gotten Briareth in trouble though… It’s kinda obvious he was lying now, even though they probably could guess that earlier.
I try to concentrate through the haze permeating my brain. I can’t think straight, maybe it’s all the smoke I’ve inhaled, maybe it’s the fall I just took, maybe I’m just too panicked. Should I try giving nonsense answers like Briareth did? What will let me survive the longest? If I give answers that are lies but seem real, would it make me live longer than answers that are vague but truthful? I’ve been going with vague but truthful, but perhaps if I can lead them down the wrong track it would be better. Besides, just giving vague answers could earn me a beating if they think that will knock out more information.
My mind swims to the past. I wish we were taught in the army how to avoid breaking under torture. But the elves don’t really take prisoners, and we never knew anything of value anyways, so it probably wasn’t seen as worth the time. It was a complete fluke I heard about the Scourger, so maybe they had a point in not teaching us.
The door opens behind me, and I crane my neck to see who it is. The elf with the melted face enters my field of vision, and I glance away again. I guess my five minutes are up. That was fast.
“Time for the next round!” He says cheerily, spinning his dagger between his fingers. “We’ll start with an easy one again. What is your name?” he asks, moving towards me.
“Ba-Balderk.” I stutter, eyeing his dagger nervously. He’s not going to throw it at me again, right? “Balderk Ungart.” The light from the door makes my head hurt.
He smiles at me, another horrific smile. And then yanks both me and my stool back upright in one clean movement. Suddenly our faces are inches away. “Age?” He asks cooly.
“Thirty-one.” I mumble. The light from the doorway flickers as a shadow moves across it. Someone else just entered the room.
“Now, don’t go getting shy on me already. We’ve barely even started.” His half-melted face twists into a frown. “Speak up, I couldn’t hear you.” Out of the corner of my eye I notice two elves dragging in a small table. The interrogator follows my gaze and says “Ignore those idiots, and just answer the question.”
I clear my throat, “I’m thirty-one.” I reply, as clearly as I can.
“Much better.” The melted-faced elf says, moving behind me and cutting the ropes tying my wrists together. The other elves move place the table in front of me, and while one attaches my wrists to the table with thin metal bands, the other goes and fetches the interrogator’s chair from the other side of the firepit.
Taking his seat again, the melted-faced elf stares at me with both his glassy eye and his normal one. “Any family?” He asks.
“A mother, three sisters. My father is dead.” I reply, more than a little nervous. Why would he want to know about them? There’s no way these elves would go looking for them right?
“Why are you in elven territories?” The interrogator’s voice questions me just the same, but his normal eye gleams. This question is important to him.
“I– I–” I start to answer, but then stutter to a halt. I can’t tell them about the Scourger. Who knows what they’d do with that information? My mouth silently closes.
Instead of looking upset though, the interrogator smiles, a more disturbing smile than any of his previous grins. This one looks almost… predatory. A sudden waterfall of pain crashes through me, turning my vision bright red for a few seconds. I scream so loud my voice breaks. My hand! My finger! It feels like it’s on fire! I stare down at it. The end of my right pointer finger, the entire top knuckle, is gone. All that’s left is a messy stump, blood pouring out.
“Well, you’re a bleeder.” The interrogator says, completely unaffected as I stare in shock at what used to be my finger. “We may have to cauterize that before we send you back to the pit, can’t have you dying of blood loss. Keep in mind, everytime you fail to answer my questions, I’ll chop off another part until that whole finger is gone. Then I’ll move on to the next one.”
I’m not done until nearly supper time. When they walk me back to the pit, I feel like I’ve ended up giving away more than I should have. I let out a small yelp of protest as one of the guards kicks me in. As I fall, I flail around and nearly knock over the bucket of water they’d handed down while I was gone.
Briareth yawns and opens his eyes– well, actually, one of them is swollen shut– and asks, “So what did they want to know from you?” Then he notices the burnt end of my finger and my bruised and battered body and changes his question. “What did you tell them that they beat you up so much?”
“More what I didn’t tell them.” I reply. “Whenever I hesitated to answer a question, he’d hurt me. When I outright refused, well, I only refused once.” I raise my wounded hand.
“Seriously, are you okay?” Briareth asks, worried as he inspects my hand. “He cut it off right at the knuckle!” He announces indignantly.
“I’ll be fine.” I say, uncomfortable with the attention. “More importantly, did you really tell them that Faladel and I were running off to get married?”
Faladel, who had just taken a swig out of the water pail, spits it all the way across the pit. “You told them WHAT!?”
“You left my options pretty open, so I spun a cute little romance between you and Balderk here. Star-crossed lovers stuff, you know, that sort of thing.” Briareth’s grin is evil.
“Thank goodness.” I mutter, as Faladel still gapes at Briareth, completely speechless.
“Why?” Briareth asks me. “Was me lying a good thing?”
“Kind of, I may have built off that, saying that it wasn’t Faladel and I getting married, it was one of my sisters and Faladel. I also said I was the king’s cousin, and that the marriage was going to be part of a peace treaty. I thought they were going to catch on after that by questioning me about important governmental things, but instead the guy just left again, he didn’t come back for what must have been an hour. They must’ve thought something about that was important.”
“Well duh,” Faladel snorts “If my family were able to broker peace, our popularity would rise a lot, especially in the rural areas that don’t see a lot of fighting. The war has never been popular back here since all these families don’t even see what their children are dying for. If we can win them over with promises of peace, this so-called ‘rebellion’ will lose all of it’s support.”
“Oh!” I exclaim, my eyes widening. I wince, as it pulls at my cut up face. “That makes a lot of sense, surprisingly.” I continue “I was just trying to blather something that would be rather believable.”
“Yeah, I don’t think my getting married stopping the war is believable though.” Faladel adds on.
“Why not?” I ask, confused at his criticism of my story.
“From what I hear of your king, he wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice his cousins if it meant a surprise attack.” Faladel explains, shifting and then wincing as one of his wounds reopens.
“Oh. That also makes a lot of sense.” I say disappointedly, then brighten. “But they don’t know that!”
“Did you mention the Scourger at any point, Balderk?” Briareth breaks in.
“Nope! I can successfully say I avoided that pitfall.” I say proudly.
“What about where we’re going?” Faladel asks.
“I said we’re headed north to find the origin of the war.” I admit, less proudly.
“They probably brushed that off as balderdash.” Briareth shrugs. “Many backlanders still hold to the old religious claim that it was all destined to happen.” At my curious look he elaborates. “Some really old church used to propagate the idea that the whole war was just a stage for a battle between a pantheon of gods. I don’t know the details, the papers that Raegel found were almost rotted away. It took him days to decipher that one bit. However, there’ve been claims of sages in the woods spreading the old religions. Your torturer has probably heard a lot of stories about” He makes air quotes “‘The truth behind the war.’ Probably thinks we’re off to visit one of those very sages.”
I frown, that sounds a bit similar to our stories about the war, but Briareth seems bored with this topic and I’ve never put much thought into religious stuff. I’ve seen what happens to the dwarves who do, so I swap subjects to something much more pressing. “So what’s our plan, Briareth?”
“Don’t say it so loudly!” Briareth hisses, and then continues in an undertone “The plan is not to let anyone in on the plan!” I can hear Faladel chuckling softly in the background.
“Sorry!” I mutter. “I don’t know how much longer until they write me off as a deadweight though and get rid of me.”
“I can assure you we’ll get out before that happens.” Briareth says with a quiet confidence. In the dirt he draws the word Tonight, and then rubs a hand through it.
“I sure hope so.” I whisper.