Luck in the Shadows
1 Luck in the Shadows
Asengai's torturers were regular in their habits—they always left off at sunset.
Chained again in his corner of the drafty cell, Alec turned his face to the rough stone wall and sobbed until his chest ached.
An icy mountain wind sighed through the grating overhead, carrying with it the sweet scent of snow to come. Still weeping, the boy burrowed deeper into the sour straw. It scratched painfully against the welts and bruises that bloomed across his bare skin, but it was better than nothing and all he had.
He was alone now. They'd hanged the miller yesterday and the one called Danker had died under torture. Alec had never met either of them before his capture but they had treated him kindly. Now he wept for them, too, and for the horror of their death.
As the tears subsided, he wondered again why he'd been spared, why Lord Asengai repeatedly told the torturers, "Don't mark the boy too badly."
So they hadn't seared him with red-hot irons or cut off his ears or opened his skin with knotted whips as they had with the others. Instead, they'd beaten him skillfully and dunked him until he thought he was drowned. And no matter how many times he'd screamed out the truth, he couldn't seem to convince his captors that he'd wandered onto Asengai's remote freeholding seeking nothing more than the pelts of spotted cats.
His only remaining hope now was that they would finish him off quickly; death loomed like a welcome release from the hours of pain, the endless stream of questions that he didn't understand and couldn't answer. Clinging to this bitter comfort, he drifted into a fitful doze.
The familiar tread of boots jerked him awake sometime later. Moonlight slanted in through the window now, pooling in the straw beside him. Sick with dread, he pulled himself into the deeper shadow of the corner.
As the footsteps came closer a highly pitched voice suddenly burst out, shouting and cursing over the sounds of a scuffle. The cell door banged open and the dark forms of two warders and a struggling captive were framed for an instant against the torchlight from the corridor beyond.
The prisoner was a small, slightly built man but he fought like a cornered weasel.
"Unhand me, you cretinous brutes!" he cried, his furious words marred somewhat by a noticeable lisp.
"I demand to see your master! How dare you arrest me! Can't an honest bard pass unmolested through this country?"
Twisting an arm free, he swung a fist at the warder on his left. The larger man blocked the blow easily and pinned his arms sharply back again.
"Don't fret yourself," the guard snorted, giving the prisoner a sharp cuff on the ear. "You'll meet our master soon enough and wish you hadn't!"
His partner let out a nasty chuckle. "Aye, he'll have you singing loud and long before he's through." With this, he struck the smaller man quick, harsh blows to the face and belly, silencing any further protests.
Dragging him to the wall opposite Alec, they manacled him hand and foot.
"What about that one?" one of them asked, jerking a thumb in Alec's direction. "They'll be taking him off next day or so. How 'bout a bit of sport?"
"No, you heard the master. Be worth our hides if we spoiled him for the slavers. Come on, the game'll be starting." The key grated in the lock behind them and their voices faded away down the corridor.
Alec curled more tightly into the shadows. There were no slaves in the northlands but he'd heard tales enough of people carried off to distant countries and uncertain fates, never to be seen again. Throat tight with renewed panic, he tugged hopelessly at his chains.
The bard raised his head with a groan. "Who's there?"
Alec froze, regarding the man warily. The pale wash of moonlight was bright enough for him to see that the man was dressed in the gaudy clothing common to his kind: a tunic with long, dagged tippets, the striped sash and hose. Tall, muddy traveling boots completed the garish outfit. Alec couldn't make out his face, however; the fellow's dark hair hung to his shoulders in foppish ringlets, partially obscuring his features.
Too exhausted and miserable to attempt idle conversation, Alec pressed into his corner without reply. The man seemed to be squinting hard in his direction, but before he could speak again they heard the guards returning. Dropping flat in the straw, the bard lay motionless as they dragged in a third prisoner, this one a squat, bull-necked laborer in homespun garments and
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