- Continuing With: Mila and Belken
- Setting: Generic gritty fantasy
- Length: 1,253 words
- Key Tropes: betrayal
- Content Warnings: imprisonment, torture mention, dead body, wounded enemies
- Explicit?: No
Mila expected, when the three hours were up, to see Belken pushed back into her cell by their captors. For the torture to be effective, she had to see it. She waited, and steeled herself against the horror she expected to witness, trying not to imagine what techniques would be used. She knew of many, but also knew a devious, sadistic mind could always find new ways to torment the human body. Belken might be tortured in ways she could not possibly imagine on her own.
She waited longer. Surely it had been three hours, at least, even with her skewed sense of time. Belken hadn’t blown out the candle nor replaced her blindfold when he left, and she studied what she could of the room by its light. She learned nothing that her other senses had not already told her–stone walls, damp and cold, a single door. The only true use of the candle was to gauge time passing by the wax it lost as it burned.
When the screams started, she couldn’t tell how far away they were. For any sound to reach her, it had to be loud and close, funneled to her by the hallway she expected lay beyond the door of her cell. But it didn’t sound nearby, by the quality of the echoes. These screams were faint, distant, and strangely enough, scattered and surprised.
If they were torturing Belken close enough for her to hear, to wear her down, why not do it in the room with her?
Because then they couldn’t fake it. That would explain why something sounded off to her about the cries of pain. She had seen a woman tortured, once. This didn’t compare.
The noise ceased abruptly, replaced by something else, fainter. At first Mila couldn’t tell what it was, and she leaned forward in her chair as far as her bonds allowed, closing her eyes and straining to hear more clearly, to make sense of the new sounds.
Footsteps on the stone. Fast. Heavy. People running. She couldn’t guess how many, only that it was more than one person.
The thudding slowed and stopped, but not at her door. There was a scrape of something along the stone, another door being opened. “Empty,” a deep voice said.
She had learned something new–there were other rooms here, other cells. And Belken wasn’t in the one next to hers.
Another door opening, closer. Across the hall. “Empty,” another, lighter voice said.
Those screams she’d heard had been Belken’s torture, real or faked. They’d been the cries of battle, of a quick, surprise attack. Her guild had come for her. She was being rescued.
She straightened and opened her eyes as her door swung open. When she saw the familiar gray leather armor, the black masks covering the lower halves of their faces, the soft black hoods, she sagged in relief. “Hey,” she said weakly.
The largest of her three guild mates crossed the room to kneel at her back, his fingers making quick work of the ropes. Their newest recruit six months ago, Peres was already proving himself a capable, silent asset. “Mila,” he greeted her briefly.
“Thanks for coming for me,” she said to all of them, studying the shapes of the other two, unable to recognize the small bits of their faces visible in the poor light. Neither was small enough to be the guild leader–Petralla wasn’t here. One she was certain was Nicora, a veteran she had seen around but rarely worked with or spoke to. The other was almost certainly Girard, who had joined up within a year of her and never seemed to like her.
Three people who don’t know me well and have no personal loyalty to me. Either this is a test Petralla set for them, or caution, in case I’ve been compromised and need to be put down. She suspected none of them would flinch at it, especially as no one had responded to her thanks.
Girard was hanging back, watching the corridor. The distant clang of battle song, blades against blades and bodies striking other bodies, filtered into the cell, coming from the other direction, not the way they’d come. When it stopped, Girard stuck his head out and whistled sharply, imitating a bird call. The answering whistle came instantly. “Let’s go,” he said.
Mila stood, and opened her mouth to tell them about Belken. But behind her, Peres grabbed her shoulders and propelled her forward, nearly tripping her in his haste. She wouldn’t make much headway, appealing to them to go after him–they clearly had one assignment, to secure her and her alone.
They brought her to a crossing of two corridors, where three more guild mates stood amid scattered bodies. Only one was obviously dead, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, while the others might only be incapacitated. Mila shrugged free of Peres’ grip, drew herself to her full height, and addressed the guild’s second in command. “Evran.”
“Mila, glad to see you in one piece. Now, report.”
Evran was always like that with her–a moment’s kindness before business, but serious as soon as that switch was flipped. She filled him in on what she knew as quickly as possible, constantly aware that they were not in a particularly defensible position.
“Hmm.” Evran stroked the mask over his chin, as if he were touching the beard underneath. “Peres, assessment.”
On her left, Peres snapped from scanning the empty hallway behind them to focusing on their commander. “If this Belken was coerced, as he said, we have a responsibility to protect him. He was targeted because of us.”
Mila held in surprise that their rawest member supported a secondary rescue. She drew breath to speak, but a look in Evran’s eyes warned her not to.
“If he’s betrayed Mila, we still need him. Whether the threat of torture was a bluff or not, I’d rather we be the one to punish him. And we might get information in the process.”
“I agree with them both, but if you’re asking for a contrary opinion, commander, I’ll play. Petralla was clear in her instructions to get in, get Mila, and get out. We’re not here to start a war with the Bone Traders, not until we know it’s necessary. If they want our guild ledger, they’re up to something, and that war is probably coming soon. But that’s the leader’s call, not ours.”
Evran didn’t ask his aides, the two shadows who attended him everywhere, bodyguards, assistants, and sometimes, speculation said, lovers as well. They were guild mates, but their loyalty was to him–Mila didn’t even know their names, and had never heard either of them speak. “Mila,” Evran said.
She made herself say the right thing. “I don’t believe my opinion should be considered, commander. Whether he’s complicit or not, I can’t set aside my feelings.” Even if he had betrayed her, her heart burned at the thought of leaving him behind. Would their enemies punish him for his failure, for her escape?
Evran nodded. “Fan out and find him. Stealth when possible, fight when necessary. Mila, describe him for us, then you’re with me.”
After that was done and the others left, Mila followed Evran and his shadows down one of the hallways, the four of them moving slowly on silent feet. She leaned close to the commander. “Thank you,” she breathed.
His eyes crinkled, evidence of a smile beneath his mask. “You love him–he’s family. We protect our own, and we punish them, too. You believed we’d come for you, right?” She nodded. “Don’t ever doubt us,” he added. “We all know the price of loyalty and love.”