20th Ashan 717
It wasn’t a bad view. Snow-capped mountains against an iron sky. The jade of winter pines, dusted with white like something from a story book. Kestrel lent against the edge of the cave mouth, wrapped up a heavy woollen blanket that she held up to her ears. Her boots were two sizes too big, so they were stuff with socks; which she didn’t mind given the freezing chill in the air and the consistent snow, so high up.
The fort was busy, humming with activity. Most people never saw the crenelated stone walls that curved around the base of their dominion. Not from behind the walls anyway; not if they weren’t part of the faction. From the base of the mountain they were almost impossible to spot, unless you knew exactly what you were searching for. There was a flurry of activity as the gates were hauled open and a party trotted in. Two men with a third slung over the middle horse. Kestral had learnt not to be too curious at an early age, and so she sank back from the mouth and back into the shadows. She heard Voren moving on his bed and crossed the floor. It was covered in ancient tapestries, torn from noble houses and merchant wagons. The brilliant colours faded beneath the heavy footfall of boots.
In the centre of the room, the tapestry’s had been cut away where they boarded the firepit. She knelt, feeding split logs into the burning embers and fanning them towards the mouth.
“Vesper,” he rolled onto his side and she stood. The woman knew her master’s summons and returned to his bed, silent. She reminded herself that this was better than the previous room’s she’d occupied.
Before he was spent, they were interrupted. Pounding on the heavy wooden door made the man growl with frustration. His fingers squeezed against her hip, nails making half-moons in the flesh till they drew blood. He staggered to his feet and pulled his breaches up. Lurching towards the door, he pulled it open and it screamed against the stone ceiling.
“What?!” Voren demanded. He was a bear of a man, covered in thick bushy hair.
Her master was notoriously bad-tempered and Kestral remained between the sheets, and waited. She traced the line of the brands on her arm. A line of marks starting at her shoulder and working their way down the pale flesh. The most recent, on her forearm. The brand had scarred in four distinct lines.
She couldn’t hear the mumbling on the other side of the door but sat up, sheets pulled to her chest as Voren stalked towards her.
“We’ve got a prisoner,” he threw her dress towards her.
Kestrel wasted no time in pushing her hands through the dark grey shift and then pulling the woollen dress over the top. The over-dress was sleeveless so the grey showed through. She pushed the sleeves up her arms and returned her feet to her boots. What did this have to do with her?
“I want you to look after it,” Voren jerked his thumb towards the door. “Keep him alive.”
She stumbled in her haste to descend through the warren, weaving through the faction’s members and into the belly of the mountain, pulling her kit over her shoulder. It was cold and dark, so she snatched a torch as she ran, feet padding down the steps.
Another great door blocked her descent until she knocked. A thin, wiry woman looked her over and arched a brow.
“Voren sent me,” Kestral lowered her gaze to the woman’s collarbone. “He wants his prisoner alive.”
The woman shrugged and gestured for Kestral to enter with a mocking sweep of her hand.
“Fat chance of that.”
Kestral led with the torch. There were no windows in the circular room, but the domed ceiling rose out of reach and finally opened to the sky in a gap, too small for a grown person to climb through. So there was a drift of cold fresh air. She recognised the room, in the summer it was used to store dry goods and wine to keep it cold. There was a tangled mess of man on the stone floor and she set her torch on the bracket. The guard at the door shrugged again.
“What do you need?”
“Firewood,” Kestral scanned the empty room, “blankets. Bread and water.”
The woman seemed to consider the requests before she turned and passed them onto a young, gangling looking boy who was missing a hand. Waiting for the items to be bought, Kestral circled man, padding over the circular stones. Dark hair matted with blood. Clothes that looked like they’d frozen to his body. She knelt and unfastened his boots with deft fingers and eased them away from his feet, flinching at the smell. Tall and lean, the torch flickered on her pale hair as she bent.
The boy returned and she gestured for him to set the fire. Watching his movements before setting the kindling to light. The room was quick to heat and the boy helped her to drag the man towards the warmth. She covered him in the blankets, tucking them around his feet and then she retreated back across the room to the door and waited. The boy stayed with her and she learnt that his name was Kit. He kept a long black jacket folded over the stump of his wrist and sat close beside her. Kestral was aware she should sent him running to pick up more duties and so asked him to collect some broth. He obeyed, but returned with a cuffed ear and Voren on his heels.
Her Master threw the door open and it rattled against the stone, chipping a piece off that dropped and bounced around. He discarded her bag in her lap before making his own circle of the prisoner. Kicking the man to see if he was still alive, before turning to leave again. He bent, caught her face with his fist and peered into her pale blue eyes, “alive
,” he hissed.
She wanted to reply that they hadn’t given her much to work with, but remained silent.