The next morning they were all at their usual places but much to their surprise for the second day running Caroline entered the hut more quietly. It started with a rap on the door with the butt of her cane and a call of ‘ladies’ before she entered.
“Good morning Ladies if you all wouldn’t mind would you line up outside for role call please.” She said politely her cane held lightly in her hand.
“Of course Caroline.” Said Hattie with a yawn. “Are your storms normally so violent I could swear I heard and smelt something being struck last night?”
“Sometimes they are but last night was the worst I can remember.” Caroline replied conversationally. “You were right about a strike it hit a tree outside, now come along ladies.” As Hattie, the last as usual, passed her the cane flicked out and tapped her on the rump. The blow wasn’t hard but just hard enough for it to sting slightly and makes Hattie jump. “You must speed up a little Hattie or you will always be last.”
“You could be right there Caroline you could just be right.” Hattie replied ruefully rubbing her rump.
As usual they lined up but they couldn’t help noticing a plume of smoke still rising from both the tree and the guards quarters roof.
The Camp Commander was already on her dais waiting impatiently for all the other groups to form up and calm down, the devil dogs straining on there leashes their cold breaths steaming in the sultry morning air.
“Prisoners!” She bellowed eventually. “Silence!” All noise stopped instantly as if someone had turned a lock.
“The storm last night did indeed do some damage to the guards quarters, but I’m sure you will all be pleased to hear that it struck a empty derelict part of the block and no personnel were injured.” A sickening grin began to spread over the mutilated features.
“Tomorrow you’ll be glad to hear is eighth day, the day of rest, and as you may have gathered there will be no work details to carry out, but to give you something to think about, tomorrow will also be decimation day. Tomorrow you will select which of your fellow hut mates will be up for terminal eviction and oh by the way it will be you who kills them by a method of my choosing just in case you were thinking of being merciful. Guards take them away to there work duties and show no mercy if they slacken.”
With that she left the shocked arena without a backward glance. As soon as she had gone the moaning and weeping begun, even the guards looked shocked over the announcement but soon pulled themselves together and began wielding their canes again, that is all but Dannia’s group who stood in shocked silence.
“Sorry ladies. Shall we go.” Caroline said quietly as she led them away.
No one spoke as they walked up the pathway passed the smouldering building toward the tannery each lost in their own thoughts.
Dannia schooled herself to calm down and think logically about the situation but it was hard. First of all she discounted herself since she wasn’t into unselfish acts of heroism as well as Beatrix and Fran who both have abilities that would prove useful in the event they managed to escape. Hattie had considerable brain power and strategic skills but on the other hand was old so she was a possible whereas Juliet was too valuable by virtue of her strength. The young sorceress Alice was going to be of use covering their escape and slowing any pursuit but also because both she and the woman, Michelle, from ‘The Two’ were very young and may give away their secrets under duress so that left only Bella the Fishmongers wife as the strongest case but her physical strength was an asset. “
“It was a pity.” Dannia thought. “It’s a real pity I like her.”
Even though Dannia tried to keep it light in her mind, making it just a game, a different version of Battle, her stomach still churned with the thought that the others may choose her, after all what value was a sickly little Halfling called Angel.
They were half way to the tannery when Caroline called a halt. The guard looked and acted ill at ease as she paced up and down before them finally stopping with a massive sigh.
“Ladies you should have overpowered me yesterday and made your escape while you had your chance but I can’t let you do it now, if I do I will be killed in your stead. Your kindness to me yesterday has sadly been the downfall of one of you.” She seemed genuinely troubled and her eyes where shiny with unshed tears. “All I can do is to provide you tonight with the means of randomly choosing who it shall be and I will leave some morphia to dull the pain. It is all I can do and even that jeopardises me. I think you were to suffer a vote instead. I’m sorry I can’t do more.”
“We understand Caroline and thank you for what you are trying to do.” Hattie said soberly.
“I may hate what you represent but I have, against my better judgement, come to respect you all.” Caroline said giving them a crisp salute to her breast with her closed fist. “Hattie, Beatrix will you lead off please.”
As they continued up the hill a swarm of twenty Hag Flies flew into them making Caroline crouch, dodge and flail about but she needn’t have worried as they flew off without touching anybody.
Fran gave a grim smile over her success at calling them up and more so in her ability to control them. At least one of them had their mind on the job which for some strange reason made Dannia inordinately proud of them all, of these women who had become her friends.
The tannery stunk that morning even stronger than normal as its fetid fumes poured out of the freshly opened door. As Dannia entered she saw it as if for the last time with every detail picked out in incredible clarity. The wooded tubs with their paddles, one had a knot hole that Dannia had never noticed before, the metal and wooden tools hanging on the hooks on the wall even down to the bone scraper that she used to remove the flesh from the hide all suddenly had a stark reality, a strange ephemeral beauty to them. Even the sawdust on the floor seemed full of mystic symbolism in its swirls and foot marks. Dannia didn’t want to die but somehow knew that Angel would before all was done.
The morning dragged along with incredible slowness for all the fact that they were busier than usual. An order had came in for an extra three studded leather breast plates which meant the forge was working at full capacity pumping out heat into the already sweltering room.
“Ladies!” Caroline called from the far end of the room where she stood with a tray covered with pewter drinking cups. “Stop what you’re doing at a sensible point and come and get yourselves a cup of cold water and then go straight back to work please.”
Everyone was dumfounded by the gesture which seemed contrary to the Caroline of old.
“Thank you Caroline from all of us.” Hattie told her when it was her turn to take a drink.
A little later Dannia was sipping the water that was so cold it made her teeth hurt but so refreshing for all that that she was tempted to pour it over her head. Collecting the urine and shit for the tannery later she became aware of the guard watching her silently from the doorway. It was a strange feeling being watch without a word being said almost eerie but somehow she didn’t feel threatened by it. Dannia was just wondering if she was expected to start up a conversation when Caroline suddenly spoke.
“Did you speak the truth that there were others like you?” She asked quietly.
“Yes.” The question caught Dannia out for a moment and she had to gather her thoughts. “I have a brother and sister in the military that are like me, that is short by your standards. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. Well no, actually I meant is there a race of people your height out there?”
“Oh I see, well yes there is we are called Halflings in the common tongue but we prefer to be know as the Erin, that’s the name of one of the islands we come from. The main ones are Erin, where I come from, Caledonia, Albion and Manx. They are situated in the cold sea a long, long, way from here. It’s a beautiful place of green fields and gentle soft rains with smiling faces and cheery waves all around.”
“Why did you leave it then?”
Dannia noticed something odd then; Caroline was holding a necklace of small black beads in her hand which she rhythmically moved from bead to bead in her fingers. Dannia was left wondering if the woman was on the verge of some mental crisis and resolved to ask Beatrix and Hattie about it.
“My father is a trader and became our people’s agent in the main city inland from where I was taken captive. He is frail now especially as mother died two years ago, it took all the zest for life out of him.” Dannia paused and sniffed. “I just hope Dannia and Simieon are looking after him. I was at La Mer recovering from an illness and had just been passed fit to go home when I was taken.”
Caroline nodded moving the necklace around until another bead was between her fingers.
“I’m sorry you didn’t make it home.” Caroline said before signalling that Dannia should carry on with what she was doing.
They had surprisingly two further breaks during the day to take on water, one at noon and the other at mid-afternoon, which was unprecedented but was gratefully received.
When the evening came it was a very tired and filthy group that was led down the hills back to the stockade and imprisonment. Caroline’s face was set as if in stone but those beads rotated through her fingers in a clicking routine almost matching their pace.
When they entered the main area before the huts it became obvious that things were not well with the other groups who were already there. Several women showed signs of savage beatings from the guards while others, including a woman with a cut lip and a swollen eye, showed signs of wounds delivered by their fellow prisoners. A scuffle broke out between two of the women which deteriorated into a general melee as more of the women got involved. It was a real cat fight as minor irritations blew up into major grudges due to the confined conditions and the almost constant fear. It took several minutes for the guards wielding their rattan canes indiscriminately to regain order but what was odd was that Caroline was absent during the whole proceedings and only reappeared when order had been regained.
“Why didn’t you help Caroline?” Yelled a burly male guard, sporting a scratch on his face inflicted from a failing woman hand during the fight, who had noticed Caroline’s absence in regaining order.
“I didn’t need to; you were doing alright on your own besides my scum are well behaved. They know what would happen if they upset me.” Caroline yelled smugly before adding quietly through smiling gritted teeth. “Stick that where the sun don’t shine you ugly bastard.”
“I take it you don’t like him then?” Hattie whispered.
“Put it this way none of his hut are virgins anymore even if they were when they entered the camp.”
Once order had been restored once again, the camp commander appeared with her ubiquitous dogs straining on their leads.
“Had a good day you perverted slime, made plenty of friends have you. You’re going to need them by the time the morning comes.” The woman was actually smiling at the fear and loathing she had cultivated. “Oh and if you think you can present me with a corpse tomorrow in an attempt to give one of your fellows a peaceful closure then think again. If that happens I will simply use the whole hut instead. Guards lock them up.”
She left the area as Caroline turned and asked them politely to enter the hut. Unusually she followed them in and with the beads once more in her hand crossed to the table and laid two parcels on the top. She crossed back to the door only to pause and without turning around say.
“I’m sorry Ladies. But I will be with you tomorrow and I’ll try and make it as swift as I can.” Then she left. Then another bizarre thing happened, the key was turned loudly in the lock such that it actually locked with a loud resounding ‘clunk’ only for it to be very quietly unlocked again with a gentle muted click.
Dannia crossed to the door to test it but was stopped by Hattie.
“Leave it Angel. We will check it later. The best thing we can do now is eat.”
“Eat, how can you think about eating, one of us will die tomorrow.” Stormed Bella all aback like her husband’s ship caught in a sudden squall.
“Because we will need all our energy for our escape, that’s why Caroline unlocked the door again to give us that chance and we have to take it.” Hattie said taking the woman arm in a firm grip. Slowly it dawned on them what she had said.
“Tonight?” Alice asked.
“Tonight!” She affirmed.
Dannia was horrified as things weren’t ready yet. The only chance they had of surviving any escape bid was to release fit and healthy sorceresses and mages to create a diversion and to guard their backs. With them on board they would have a better chance of killing the guards and releasing the other women, it was simply safety in numbers. While the large group was being hunted by the guards Dannia could slip away in the confusion with Hattie and the others.
She crossed to the table and carefully unwrapped the parcels that Caroline had left well aware of the eyes of the others on her. One revealed a small quantity of morphine; just enough to dull any pain but not enough to affect the mental processes, the other contained a pack of Tarot cards with the Major Arcane cards removed. The cards now ran from the ace, or one, to the ten followed by the court cards of Page, Knight, Queen and finally the King. The suits ran in importance from most to least, Swords, Wands, Cups and finally Coins all rendered in exquisite pictorial form that showed this was no cheap set and was probably Caroline’s private set. It was with these that Caroline had intended they would decide their fate.
Carefully Dannia laid them back on the table.
“Leave them Angel I’m hoping we will never have to use them, but I’ll take the morphine just in case we have any injuries.” Beatrix said gently putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
Dannia nodded but felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach which she was totally unaccustomed to. Was it fear she was feeling, normally something like this would produce a reckless excitement but this time there was a feeling of foreboding eating at her.
“Angel what have you found out about the traps around the wall from the lieutenant? Anything useful?” Hattie asked with a gentle voice that somehow still held the note of command.
“The traps are spread evenly around the walls and are pretty deadly. The only spots there aren’t any is directly underneath the watch towers. I know because after he had left I shot across there while the guards were looking the other way. You can climb up the frame work underneath to get to the same height as the palisade and drop over the other side. On the other side are the latrines so we will have to be careful not to be seen.” Dannia explained coldly but then let a grin break out over her face. “Caroline was in there suffering the night I looked over.”
All the others save Fran smiled at the thought.
“Well done Angel.” Hattie said soberly. “That’s our route out then. Alice how close do you have to be to use those coloured globes of yours?”
The girl looked shocked.
“I don’t know but not that far I should think, why?” She said timidly.
“Can you hit the guards up in the tower from ground level?”
Alice thought for awhile before answering.
“Yes I should think so if I’ve a clear view of them.” It was strange but she seemed to be stronger now the decision had been made.
“We will use you to stun those in the tower or make them sick or what ever then quickly cross to the tower, up and over the palisade and run for the woods.” Hattie explained but petered out as she saw Dannia shaking her head.
“Angel?” She asked.
“It won’t work Hattie, poor Alice would be a sitting target for the archers in the tower before she could cast her spell beside which even if she was successful the flashing colours would alert the other towers and any guards the other side. No someone has got to dash across while they aren’t looking climb up and kill them.” Dannia explained.
“That is a lot to ask of someone Angel?”
“I know that why it has to be me.” Dannia raised her hand to still the sudden swell of concern from the others. “I’m the smallest and quickest so I stand the best chance of getting across unseen. No offence Hattie but you and Juliet wouldn’t stand a chance in getting across otherwise.”
Juliet nodded sadly.
“But could you kill someone Little Angel?” She asked.
“I don’t think I will have a choice, do you.”
“Very well so be it.” Hattie confirmed. “Beatrix, Fran and Alice see if you can come up with anything that could help her.”
She paused and then continued.
“If Angel is successful she can signal us as to when it will be safe to cross. Alice, Michelle and Fran in that order will be next followed by Beatrix, Bella, Juliet and lastly myself. When we get to the top of the palisade we don’t wait for the others. Fran you will feed them across to the woodlands till Bella arrives then she will take over. Anything further to add?”
“There is a shadow from our hut that extends quite away over to the tower use that for cover as much as you can.” Dannia added. “Fran can you and Beatrix create a fog in the same way you caused the lightning strike?”
Fran closed her eyes a moment and sent her senses out into the sky, feeling the different temperatures and the variations in the direction and speed of the winds high above. She returned and opened her eyes to the hopeful scrutiny of her fellow prisoners.
“I can’t give you a fog but with Beatrix help I think I can create a strong mist, at least strong enough to distort and throw shadows, but it will take at least an hour.” She told them hopefully.
“That will have to do. We must take advantage of all the help we can get. Will you start straight away? Juliet can you get a floor board up so we can get at the dirt beneath, we will use that and the water from the waterfall to darken our skin.” Hattie turned to every one in general. “Top bunk’s take the opportunity to rest for an hour, if you can get some sleep so much the better, when the hours up we swap over so the lower bunks can rest.”
“Why can’t we all rest at the same time Hattie?” Michelle asked a little puzzled.
“Because we are all very tired and liable to sleep in till our normal time, that’s why.”
“I doubt that, the way I’m feeling I’d be surprised if I slept at all but I take your point.” Dannia replied before crossing over to Fran and giving her a peck on the cheek. Fran scowled at her but didn’t say anything but Dannia knew that she was in for a lecture later.
As Dannia lay on her bunk she realised that she couldn’t, with all the activity below, possibly slip away to check on the mages in their hut, If they have been able to counter the effects of the drug and learn their spells there was a better chance of escape all round. She dropped into a troubled snooze from sheer fatigue.
Dannia crouched in the shadows feeling more alive than she had for months as she watched the guards in their watchtowers. Fran had been good as her word producing a warm cloying mist with Beatrix that lengthened and distorted the shadows created by the flickering torch light. Juliet had carefully and quietly removed two wooden panels at the back of the hut allowing her to slip out into the shadow the building provided.
Suddenly as they looked away she was off sprinting across the distance and somersaulting over the trap to land silently in the deep shadows under the tower. Sliding forward on her belly she reached the mechanism of the trap and began to slowly, carefully, disarm it. A trickle of sweat ran down her forehead as she worked knowing any false move will result in her losing her hand. With a barely audible click it was disarmed and Dannia could remove the vials of sticky fire and pop them in her leg pouch, after all they may come in useful.
Quietly she climbed up the wooden frame work of the tower until she was level with its wooden parapet where she paused to withdraw her shard bladed knives. They never even heard her as they died slumping forward onto the rail they were leaning on. They never expected an attack from the rear; they never expected an attack by the cities best assassin, just a swift blow at the base of the neck for each of them had ended the matter.
Dannia slid forward between the two cadavers so she could monitor the guards in the other two towers and see the black shape of Fran low against the wood work of the huts side.
A quick signal from Dannia and Fran was off over the intervening space to vanish under the tower. Even though she was quiet Dannia could hear her climbing up till she was level with the top of the palisade and could watch for any movement the other side.
Michelle was next and was soon across climbing up to Fran before dropping into the shadows on the other side. Alice followed and prepared her spells once she had dropped in to the shadows by Michelle.
Now came the difficult ones the larger and less fleet a foot of the women but fate seemed to be on their side as both Beatrix and Bella made it safely across and over the wall. Dannia’s mouth went dry as she realised that the seven foot Juliet was next. She could see her form hunkered down as if she was a deeper shadow against the wall. Dannia watched with total concentration the men in the other towers but with a stroke of luck a curl of thicker mist obscured her view of them and therefore theirs of her. Dannia signalled frantically to her friend and watched her sprint across to safety her foot falls deadened by the mist.
Hattie took her place and waited agitatedly for Dannia’s signal twice she was almost allowed to go only to be stopped by the assassins raised hand, and then the signal was given.
Dannia watched as if in slow motion as the woman flew out from the side of the hut only to catch her foot and fall crashing to the ground.
“Get up Hattie, get up.” Dannia mouthed as the older woman floundered to get up. Any second she would be spotted, she had to be, realised Dannia as the mist started to thin again. They were dead; all of them were dead, all for the sake of a slip.
She awoke with a start as Fran roused her from the nightmare. An hour had passed but she felt far from refreshed and not in a mood to be lectured at but that didn’t stop the young druid.
“What did you think you were doing going under the watch tower the other day you could have got yourself killed.”
“Funny that, I thought the same thing, but I had to see what was over the other side of the wall, just in case we could use that route to escape, but next time I’ll remember to ask your permission.” Dannia said a little sarcastically.
“Don’t you care about us?! I thought I meant something to you!!” Fran’s face was a furious mask as she thrust it a few inches in front of Dannia’s.
“I came back didn’t I?! I could have sneaked off into the woods but I didn’t, doesn’t that tell you anything!” Dannia yelled back taking great pains to stress the word ‘you’.
“Stop that this instant!” Hattie yelled at the pair of them. “We don’t have time for this I need you both together and at your best, not squabbling like spoilt children.”
“Sorry Hattie.” They both replied.
Dannia lent forward and gave Fran a kiss.
“We’re both on edge.” She said. “Go and get some rest. I promise you I’ll make sure you’re safely with me.”
Fran nodded and kissed her back before climbing into her bunk and pulling the cover over her.
Hattie drew Dannia over to the desk and laid a hand on her shoulder before whispering.
“Leave her Angel, she’ll come round, she’s just tired, we all are. She and Beatrix have done a marvellous job, they’ve created quite a mist outside but it’s taken a lot out of Fran.”
“I’ve sharpened the knife as best as I can, it isn’t great but should do the job.” Juliet said showing her the finished dagger.
“It’ll be no good to me it’s to big I’d drop it on the way over or on the way up. No the punch blades will do the job just as well, I’d just have to get a little closer that’s all.” Dannia said licking her dry lips.
Juliet didn’t argue but simply nodded with a worried look on her face.
A little later Hattie came and sat beside her again.
“Not taking the chance to rest Hattie?” Dannia asked. Hattie’s bed was on a bottom bunk so by rights she should be resting.
“I’m fine Angel at my age I don’t sleep much anyway.” Dannia knew that this was a lie but couldn’t see the point in insisting and upsetting the older woman.
“Did you see what Caroline was holding when she came in with these?” Dannia asked.
Hattie shook her head.
“She had a necklace of beads in her hand which she seemed to be, oh I don’t know, counting.” Dannia tried to explain but somehow she couldn’t quite find the words she needed.
“They are prayer beads Angel.” Beatrix said from somewhere behind them. “Some religions use them as a penance. Each bean represents a prayer. So if for instance the punishment is to say a specific prayer seven times you would know when you have done them all by virtue of how many beads away from the clasp you are. Some people use them as a comfort sort of thing; I can’t see why the Gods would want to punish you in such an odd way though.” Her head appeared sticking out from her bunk. “Hattie no excuses go to your bunk and rest, Clerics orders. We need you as fresh as possible for this to work.”
Hattie groaned and moaned but complied simply to get away from any possible nagging.
Dannia while she waited out the hour used the dirt Juliet had provided to darken her skin wishing she could use her leathers instead but even now it was important to keep the other women on her side.
Out of nowhere there came the sound of screaming and yelling from outside. Dannia swiftly climbed up the bunks to look out of the window and saw to his horror a group of women running for the main gate screaming like banshees. The leader of the group ran straight into a trap and was sprayed with sticky fire which adhered to her skin as it ignited. She tried to beat out the flames with her hands but only succeeded in spreading it further; even her hands were alight now. She dropped to the ground screaming in total agony as her whole body ignited only to rise up again and run straight at the exit from the camp in a heroic attempt to use her burning body to ignite the timber frames of the gates.
All hell broke loose as the archers picked off the women as they tried to break down the gateway. One woman fell with four shafts through her body another had climbed to the top of the gate ready to drop over to the other side when an arrow smashed into her neck shearing her head off. For one macabre moment the headless corpse sat there on the gate spouting blood before slowly toppling to fall amongst the embattled women below. Soon it was over as armed guards flooded the area and finished what the archers had begun.
Dannia looked away into the eyes of those crowded around her and saw reflected there the same feelings of horror and revulsion.
“The escape is off for tonight ladies the camp is too awake and aware to risk it.” Hattie said reluctantly and then as if they were one person as opposed to being eight individuals they all turned and looked with horror at the pack of cards that rested serenely on the table top ready to kill one of them.