#Sunday-Romance Serial: “Hell or High Water”

Photo by Igor Lepilin on Unsplash
  • Continuing With: Mila and Belken
  • Setting: Gritty fantasy, it’s getting less generic as I world-build but I still don’t have anything like place names
  • Length: 1,500 words
  • Key Tropes: reunion, and still maybe betrayal, we’re not sure?
  • Content Warnings: death, torture mention, imprisonment, weapons, brief violence
  • Explicit?: No

After half an hour of careful, quiet searching, their luck gave out. Mila turned a corne, ill-lit by smoky torches, and came face-to-face with a Bone Trader in full ritual gear, their mask a horrifying caricature of a human skull, their robes a deep red splotched with deeper stains. A foul smell came from him–Mila now knew the rumors were true, that the robes were never washed, that whatever bodily fluids came from their victims was considered a sacrament.

How wretched was a person’s soul, that they could believe trafficking and torture was holy?

Evran had given her one of his knives, as her own gear had been taken. The blade found a home in the Trader’s gut without thought, and before the man could react. If she had been thinking clearly, she would have aimed higher–belly wounds were generally fatal, but not instantly so. Still, this man’s eyes rolled upwards as he slid backwards off the weapon with only the faintest sigh.

If he had been alone, it would have ended there, a silent death deep in his own compound. But two others stood behind him, and their shock didn’t last long.

Evran’s shadows flowed through the darkness, one for each Trader. Mila didn’t see the blow that felled the first, but Evran had time to snap, “Don’t kill the other.”

The larger companion, a burly man with walnut-brown skin and black eyes above his mask, pivoted and dug the point of his knife into the slim neck of the now-captive Trader.

“Excellent,” Evran said. “Show us the way to your prisoner.”

The commander had realized instantly what it took Mila a precious few seconds to work out–these were likely Belken’s torturers on their way to fetch him. This was good news, if true; it meant they hadn’t already started. It meant no general alarm had been sounded because of the guild’s infiltration and Mila’s own rescue.

And, on a more personal level, it meant Belken was probably telling the truth.

The Bone Trader held up her empty hands. Mila was sure it was a woman; the build was skinny, tall, and the robes they wore were shapeless enough to hide any obvious attributes. But they were also relatively unstained, and the outstretched hands were soft and slim and pale. A woman, a young and rich one at that. A new initiate? Would she be more likely to give in than one of her dead counterparts?

Her shoulders sagged. “This way.”

She led, with the others keeping her corralled, one to each side, one behind. Mila fell into position as rear guard, watching their backs as the woman took them down unexplored ways. As they passed new doors, Mila’s tension spiked, waiting for new assailants to spill from them at some unknown signal.

The door she indicated was locked, but Evran had taken a key from one of her dead brethren. His guards nodded at each other from either side before the smaller of them opened it and the larger jumped through. Inside lay complete darkness. Mila waited, not sure what she was waiting for, until a soft voice said, “Clear.” Evran motioned at Mila to take a nearby torch from its holder, and they all went in.

Belken lay on his side on a dirty pile of rags and straw that might have been a mattress, once. He curled protectively around his stomach in a way that made Mila think he was already injured–someone had kicked him repeatedly, or punched him hard enough to vomit, then left him to await a worse fate. Though it might not be his vomit she smelled, because the air was so laced with vile odors it would be impossible to tell.

She handed the torch to Evran while the shadows secured their captive with manacles attached to the wall. “I don’t know where the keys even are for these,” the woman hissed. Mila lost the thread of any further protests she made when she knelt beside her lover and touched his shoulder.

He startled, shifting away with a low cry. The torchlight showed tear tracks and blooming bruises on his face. “Hey,” Mila said softly. “It’s me.”

After a few heartbeats of shock, Belken sat upright and seized her roughly in his arms. “Oh, gods, Mila. You’re here. You’re free.”

“Not quite yet,” she corrected, “but almost. Can you move? How badly did they beat you?”

He grunted as he tried to rise. Mila shifted to a crouch and helped him to his feet. “Worse than I’ve ever gotten in a bar brawl. But I’ll live, which I wasn’t sure about five minutes ago.” He glanced at the Bone Trader, who hung limply, her feet barely brushing the stone floor. “They were coming for me.”

If this was all still an act, a farce for her benefit, neither Belken nor the Trader showed any hint of it. “But my people came for me, and now we’re here for you.”

Evran cleared his throat behind them. “Hell or high water, Mila,” he said gravely. “We don’t leave our own to rot.”

Belken stared at him for a moment, then turned to Mila. “So you believe me?”

She wished she could give him an unconditional answer. “As much as I can.” She leaned in to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Come on, we need to get moving before an alarm’s raised.”

Belken didn’t move, though. “What about my sister?”

“We’re already stretching our mission, fetching you,” Evran answered. “Do you know if she’s being held here, and not somewhere else? Because as far as we’re concerned, you have equal odds on being a civilian we’re rescuing or a traitor we’re capturing. Unless you can produce concrete information on this captured sister, I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Belken’s throat bobbed visibly as he gulped. “I can’t,” he whispered. “They showed me a necklace, a locket with a miniature of our parents in it. I never saw her.”

Evran stroked his mask meditatively. “So they have her, or they stole it to convince you they did.” Or you’re still lying, Mila thought as Evran paused. “Either way, there’s nothing we can do. If by some astronomical stroke of luck, we stumble into her on our way out, we’ll take her with us. That’s the best I can promise you.”

“I understand,” Belken answered, his eyes cast downward. “Thank you for even bothering with me.”

They were about to leave when the woman on the wall began to laugh. “How touching,” she said, her voice cruel, and her cultured tone and accent confirming Mila’s earlier suspicions. A Bone Trader from the nobility. “As if any of you will make it out alive.”

The smaller shadow took two steps toward the woman and belted her solidly on the chin. Her head snapped against the hard stone wall, and she fell instantly silent, slumping farther in her bonds. The shadow shook out their hand. “Ouch.” Their voice was ambiguous, deep for a woman’s or light for a man’s. “Should’ve taken off the damn mask first. I caught my knuckles on one of those bony bits.”

“Did it puncture your armor?” their companion said, his voice low, booming. Mila almost felt dizzy with surprise to hear them speak; another rumor about Evran’s shadows–and Petralla’s, too, for that matter–was they had taken vows of silence, or worse, had their tongues cut out. No one truly believed the latter, but still, in Mila’s five years of service, she had never heard a single whisper from any shadow.

Evran only smiled indulgently. “They’re fine, I’m sure. Let’s get moving.”

Mila wedged her shoulder into Belken’s side to support him as he took his first limping steps. “Do me one favor, love,” she whispered to him, hoping the others wouldn’t hear. “If I’m wrong, and you’re a Bone Trader after all, show me the mercy of killing me quickly in my sleep some night, so that I never have to know I was wrong about you.”

Belken returned her kiss on the cheek with one of his own. “I swear, Mila. You’ll die of old age, running the Guild someday, rich beyond your wildest dreams, and I’ll be by your side. If your death comes any other way, it will not be by my hand, in your sleep or otherwise.”

Her heart glowed at that, as they carefully backtracked through the compound. By the time they rejoined the others, who were no worse for their expedition, Belken’s limp had eased and he was walking mostly under his own power.

It wasn’t until much later, after her debrief with Petralla, when she tumbled into one of the bunks in the common barracks to sleep off her misadventures, that she realized Belken had quite beautifully dodged every aspect of her request, leaving her no more sure of his loyalty than she had been when he showed up unexpectedly in her cell.

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