With cold-stiff fingers, Ottilde Drönswick rubbed the prisoner number tattooed on the side of her neck. Her other hand gripped the heartstone suspended from a leather cord just below her breastbone. Its gentle, steady warmth provided some respite from the frigid air, though not enough to keep her body from giving an occasional shudder. She kept her eyes on the An Dùn Mountains in the eastern distance as the guard who walked around her block counted the prisoners, calling out identification numbers. The great mountains were coated in snow down to their foothills, their tops ringed with thick veils of mist.
Even here, below the mountains’ feet, frost already tinged the ground and trees, rimed the prisoner houses and administrative buildings of Lachlas Prison Camp. And it was barely autumn.
“Least it smells better ’round here,” the woman next to Ottilde grumbled in Roanaan. Several of her comrades muttered their agreement, and Ottilde had to concur. Silently. The only benefit to the glacial temperature was it tamped down the usual stench of the prison. In high summer, a disgusting mélange of unwashed bodies, piss, food, and animal droppings drifted like a fog over the houses and their occupants. It mattered little how often or thoroughly everything was washed.
Angry hisses and mutters rippled through the assembly at the announcement of Ottilde’s number. More than two years had passed since her crime and their rage still burned hot enough to scorch her.
The guard at the front of their formation watched with a bored expression as the other inmates spat at her feet. “King Killer,” the woman to her left cursed. Ottilde swallowed and her grip on the heartstone tightened. Chroy had not been a king when she threw her knife into his throat, not yet. But he had been their future, their hope.
Ottilde raised one hand into the air. “Here.” The commotion died down after he called a few more numbers and Ottilde let out her long-held breath. She loosened her fingers from around the heartstone. They came away aching with the force of her hold.
When all the prisoners were accounted for, several inmates broke formation to walk to the dinner house for breakfast. The guards, however, growled at them to remain in line, shoving some of the slower ones back into place.
Ottilde frowned at the change in routine, and peered around. Prison Chief Wilder Coomb strode towards them across the frozen ground of the camp. She caught glimpses of him through the slatted wooden fence that formed the front of the yard, his adjutant close at his side. One of the guards unlocked the yard gate and stood back as the Chief entered.
Wilder Coomb was a formidable man. He might once have been handsome, but life had bullied him viciously. His shaved head sported a deep, curling scar on one side of his scalp, while his face and neck carried similar gruesome marks. One earlobe was missing, which gave his head a cock-eyed appearance when viewed straight on. A jagged horizontal line along his neck indicated someone had tried to cut his throat at one time. But Ottilde believed the most impressive scar lay behind the patch over his left eye. The silvery tail of the wound snaked down his cheek and neck to disappear in the stiff collar of his forest-green Brigade coat.
Upon reaching the front of the prisoner formations, he folded his hands behind his back and swept a contemptuous eye over them. Ottilde could only imagine what he saw as he stared at them, the ragged, unlucky soldiers taken prisoner during the recent Pleinour War. For a moment, Chief Coomb’s hard, dark eye settled on her and she lifted her chin, refusing to show him how much he intimidated her. But his gaze moved on, and she sensed the subtle shift of discomfort in the prisoners around her when one of them felt the whip of his gaze.
He held up a sheaf of folded papers: a letter, judging by the regular creases.
“Queen Kuonrada has fled and Liséree has vanquished her armies.” He spoke slowly, succinctly in Inish, which most of the prisoners understood to some extent, though few could utter more than few words in the language.
The prisoners shuffled and muttered. A few whispered hurried translations to the more ignorant among their ranks. The cold air warmed with the force of their anger and humiliation. Ottilde kept her eyes on Chief Coomb’s face, though she felt a good portion of their collective rage focused on her. She knew she held blame for breaking the back of Roanaan’s fighting spirit.
“Over the last several weeks,” Coomb continued, “those with authority in such matters have considered what to do with you all. I have a list of officers and knights to be traded for Liséree soldiers now held by the remnant of Roanaan’s military as an act of diplomatic faith. Step forward when I read your number. You will be readied immediately for transport to the exchange point.” He snapped his fingers and his adjutant took the letter from his hand, replacing it with a single sheet of paper. Coomb scanned it and shouted out prisoner numbers.
Ottilde’s breathing grew irregular with hope as each man or woman came forward in answer to the prison chief’s summons. But he reached the last number on the list without calling hers. Her stomach soured as she watched a contingent of guards escort the fifty or so fortunate prisoners from the yard.
Once the gate had shut again. Chief Coomb’s adjutant handed him another paper. “Now, King Talin Sercier of Liséree has decided to offer those of you with reports of good conduct and no criminal past the opportunity to swear fealty to the Liséree crown. Talin has granted you permission to return to Roanaan or settle in Liséree; also, you will be given a small subsidy to start your new life. However, if you are reported in connection to misconduct of any sort or severity, you will immediately be arrested and sentenced to immediate execution. If you wish to accept this offer, step forward when I read your number.” He sounded off another list of prisoners. Again, Ottilde listened tensely for her number, though she knew how unlikely it was she would hear it this time.
Coomb must have called a hundred numbers or more, but Ottilde estimated only forty prisoners stepped forward. They averted their eyes from those who remained in the formations. Another handful of guards led this group from the yard.
“As for the rest of you,” Coomb said, “you are to be moved to a civilian prison facility where you will no longer be my concern.” He folded his arms behind his back. “Remember, as long as you remain in this camp, or in the custody of my staff, you will obey Lachlas regulations. Everyone will appear for morning roll every day. You all know what will happen should even one of your numbers go missing.” He gave them a last menacing glare then stalked to the yard gate.
Ottilde did not watch as he departed. She no longer felt the cold autumn wind or the bump of her fellow inmates pushing past on their way to breakfast. She did not know how long she stood in the yard, clutching her heartstone and trying to breathe over the painful lump in her throat. But at last she wended her way to the dinner house. She glared at the horse fetish bowl nailed to the side of the door - a small symbol of Inor’s horse-worship. The damned creatures were everywhere: door knockers and knobs, topping every fence post, sewn onto the breast of every uniform - staff and prisoner alike. They were even burned into the bottoms of all the cups, bowls, and plates. She was sick to death of the blasted beasts - not to mention the muttered prayers that went with them. “Horse-fuckers,” she muttered as she pushed into the moist reek of the dinner house. Taking a wooden tray from the neat stack on a sideboard, she shuffled past the cooks, who slopped gruel and watery fruit compote into a bowl before handing it to her. Still in a slight daze, she claimed a seat in the back corner, well away from the other prisoners, though she felt their eyes on her. Their stares prickled, chafing her already raw nerves.
Ottilde caught the shadow of movement to either side of her. She sighed, then glanced up as her short-lived solitude came to an end. Hetch Bilo, her former cavalry squad’s lieutenant, and his two companions, Tanna and Hyrman, lurked over her. She watched them sit; Bilo opposite, the other two flanking her.
The lieutenant reached across the table and stabbed a stubby finger into her soupy porridge before bringing it to his mouth. “Guess your high-born family wants nothing to do with you either, eh King Killer? Otherwise, they would’ve put in some pull with our military.” Ottilde schooled her face into a blank mask.
Tanna leaned close and stroked the prisoner number running down Ottilde’s neck. Ottilde resisted the urge to jerk back. “And as long as your body shows up at roll call, I don’t think anyone’ll mind if you aren’t moving or breathing, no?”
Ottilde examined the disgusting food on her tray. She curled her hands into tight fists on the table’s planked top. Her eyes fixed on the ugly crosshatch of scars decorating her forearms, angry reminders of her stay in Lachlas. They throbbed with the memory of being held against the hot stove. Her lungs burned recalling the many times another prisoner held her head under water in the bathhouse. The smack of wooden boards from prisoners’ bunks against her back and head rang in her ears. She had kept still and taken their vicious punishments to stay inconspicuous and secure her release. Coomb had destroyed that prospect this morning. Snatched away the solace of home and her sister. The time for silent acceptance was at an end. Her heart picked up its pace, now a war-drum in her chest. Ottilde met Tanna’s sneering stare. “I think you need to keep your filthy hands to yourself.”
Tanna’s nasty smile twisted into a snarl and she raised her fist to attack, but Ottilde struck first. She rammed her elbow into the other woman’s face, smiling at the satisfying crunch of bone followed by a spray of blood. On her other side, Hyrman let out a shout of surprise but Ottilde had already risen and swung a leg over the bench to steady her body before delivering a sharp punch to his throat. He flailed back and tumbled from the bench. The next instant Bilo leapt over the table, sending her tray and its messy contents smashing to the ground. He clipped her on the cheek with his meaty fist. She spun and slammed into the wall but recovered enough to swipe her spoon from the ground and ram it with neat precision into Bilo’s eye socket as he came at her again.
Her opponent let out a blood-chilling scream, leaving the gory spoon still clutched in her hand. Like an uncorked bottle of wine, his eye socket spouted a red fountain from between his fingers, staining the table beneath him. Ottilde flinched as a few stray drops landed on her cheek, filling her nose with a metallic tang.
Tanna and Hyrman had recovered enough to try for her again, but by then the guards, alerted to the uproar, had rushed into the fray, truncheons swinging. Ottilde ducked one swipe but caught another in the ribs. She sucked in an agonized breath and crouched against the wall. Tanna and Hyrman tried to lunge at her, which earned them each several knocks about the head. Once subdued, the guards dragged them from the dinner house along with their still wailing comrade. The three remaining guards eyed her uneasily. Beyond them, the rest of the prisoners watched her too. This time, it was not hatred that radiated from their wide eyes, but fear.
One of the guards cleared his throat and reached forward to grab her arm in tight fingers. “Seems you want another trip to the black house, 2-9-6.”
Pride kept her quiet as her escort hauled her through the dinner house and across the yard. But when she saw the four-foot tall, two-foot wide wooden stall standing at the center of the camp she snapped out of her mental paralysis enough to pull against the guard’s grip. “No,” she whispered. But the guard shoved her inside and slammed the door shut.
As she listened to the guards depart, Ottilde braced her forehead against the painted walls, fighting the angry, frightened sobs rising in her throat. Crying would only kick up the fire in her aching ribs and worsen the sense of suffocation the black house elicited. The fear of enclosed places she had developed since coming to Lachlas swelled until her lungs felt twice their usual size. She panted and pushed against the walls, trying to hold them back in their imagined march towards her. There was no telling how long the guards would leave her in the box, and the absence of windows made it impossible to tell the time of day. Even the tiny cracks between the boards had been plugged with a mixture of ground black shale and mud. The only ventilation was where the roof and walls joined together, but the break was too narrow to allow her to look out. Pride and bravado, the only weapons she had left, would not allow her to cry or scream for mercy, even as the black box’s constricting grip tightened. Damn her if she would let anyone know her weakness. She clenched her teeth and dragged her knuckles down the box’s walls until they were wet with blood.
One of her shaking, bloodied hands swept through the heavy air and brushed the heartstone. She grabbed at it and squeezed. Oriabel. The warmth and sense of company in the darkness calmed her and helped drain away the fear. Exhausted, she leaned against one wall. Short and narrow, the box forced her to stand hunch-backed with her head bent and braced against the wall.
As the hours wore on, she dozed in and out of a fatigued sleep. Occasionally, she heard the ping of stones against the outside of the black house. Another petty revenge from her fellow prisoners.
At last, the door opened and Ottilde stumbled into icy early morning darkness. Her cramped legs gave out and she fell to the ground, clutching her side and trembling. One of the guards standing above her said, “Get her to the infirmary. Looks like she sustained some damage in the fight yesterday.”
“Not as much as she handed out.” The other guard helped her stand and supported her to the camp’s infirmary that stood near the prison chief’s quarters. Inside, the trenchancy of astringent overlaid the cloying odor of sickness. Oil lamps bathed the wood-paneled walls in a warm glow and made the twin rows of clean, empty cots seem almost inviting. A set of double doors beyond the cots shielded private rooms used for surgery. Through dazed eyes, Ottilde saw Doctor Hazelspur, Lachlas’ physician, bustle towards them, bushy white eyebrows raised. As usual is plush beard stood out in a white cloud around his face. He was the only member of the prison staff that did not wear the dark green coat of the Green Horse Brigade. Instead, he favored embroidered waistcoats over white shirts with the sleeves folded over his elbows. Today, as usual, a messy stock kept the neck of the shirt haphazardly closed.
Dr. Hazelspur inspected her grimly as he helped the guard ease her onto a bed. “You realize she might have cold sickness.”
The guard shrugged. “Wasn’t my idea to put her in there this long.”
Ottilde listened to footsteps coming and going, felt blankets pile on top of her. The doctor urged her to swallow a mouthful of wine, warming her from the inside out. After a while the shaking lessened, and feeling flooded into her limbs, accompanied by shrieking pain. The doctor returned and ran impersonal hands over her swollen cheek then down her arms and sides. She hissed when he reached her ribs and tried to pull away.
“There, there. Be calm.” He pushed the blankets off her body and probed more gently under her rough wool shirt and jacket. “Bruised rib,” he muttered to the orderly standing behind him. He picked up one of her hands and tutted over the crusted sores on her knuckles. “Treat these with salve and bandage them. Wrap her ribs and dose her with some poppy tea. Not too much, though. She has morning formation in an hour.” The orderly nodded and went off for supplies. Doctor Hazelspur leaned over the bed and smiled. The overpowering sweetness of his shaving lotion stung her nose. “We haven’t had the pleasure of your company for at least two weeks, Ottilde.”
Her vision blurred as she tried to focus on him. He was the only person in the camp who used her first name. Not Drönswick or 2-9-6, but Ottilde. “I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, Dr. Hazelspur,” she croaked.
He chuckled and patted her shoulder, his kindly brown eyes dancing. “Your cheek is a lovely blackish-purple but nothing permanently damaged. I can’t say the same for the man you sent here yesterday. He lost his left eye and almost died.”
Ottilde closed her eyes, longing for sleep now she was calm and warm. “He stuck his finger in my porridge. What would you have done?”
“Well, if I had learned my imprisonment was extended for an indefinite period of time, I think I would have tried to see the long-range effects of my actions.”
Turning her face towards the wall, she said, “There is no ‘long-range’ anymore. Not for me.”
Ottilde felt the tickle of the doctor’s beard as he leaned closer to her upturned ear. “An interesting fact about wars, Ottilde: their aftermaths are full of cracks through which people can… slip.”
Now she did open her eyes, blinking them to focus on the doctor’s face. His white whiskers trembled above his lips. She opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but the doctor stepped away as the orderly rejoined them. “Stay and rest until first bell. As long as you avoid any more tussles, you should heal fine.” He left, Ottilde staring after him, her forehead creased with tired puzzlement.
A few minutes after the wake-up bell, four guards came to collect her and the other invalids from the infirmary. Bilo was carried out on a stretcher, his cronies following close behind. One guard gripped Ottilde’s arm, keeping her back several paces from her fellow prisoners. He ushered her into the yard where she took her place in the block. Ottilde noticed the space around her seemed wider than usual and when she glanced at the other women, they hastily averted their eyes. Two years of passivity had deceived them about who and what she was. Yesterday had shown them the truth. With the exception of Bilo, none of them had ever seen her fight. And, as a woman and aristocrat, they must have imagined her nothing but an armored sheep. She forced down a smile at the thought. A thorough knowledge of human anatomy combined with twenty years of pitiless battle training did not produce a sheep.
Roll was called quickly and, for the first time in two years, no one said a word when her number rang through the air. She kept her eyes half-lidded and her face relaxed, though she wanted to smirk at the change in her fellows. Let’s see if they try drowning me now.
The guards dismissed them and lines broke as the inmates started towards the dinner house. Ottilde’s stomach growled; she had not eaten anything for more than a day and a half. She hurried towards breakfast when her number was called over the low din of the other prisoners. Turning, she saw the guard who had earlier escorted her from the infirmary waving her over to the yard gate. She trudged towards him, clutching her sore ribs. “Yes, sir?”
“You’re wanted in the Chief’s House.”
Her eyes widened as he manacled her hands behind her back and led her away. Strictly off limits to prisoners, the Chief’s House served as both prison headquarters and Coomb’s private residence. Meetings between staff and inmates took place in the yard, the infirmary, or in one of the interrogation rooms located at the back of the largest storehouse. Nowhere else.
Inside the long, low building, the interior was much the same as in the prison houses. Thick wooden walls, unvarnished and bare of decoration; wood plank floors; and small barred windows. The furnishings were the most noticeable difference. Where the prison houses contained only rough-hewn wooden bunks and the odd stool for the guards to use, this building was filled with polished wood furniture, including a small settee and matching armchairs facing a lit hearth that kept everything blissfully warm.
Ottilde was shown into an office and pushed into an elegant chair, padded with green velvet cushions. The guard stood behind her, one hand on her shoulder, despite the fact that her hands were still bound. Before her stood a massive oak desk covered in neat stacks of papers and ledgers. Quills of differing sizes lined the top edge and beside them sat three spotless inkwells. Coomb’s adjutant, Lieutenant Foss, sat at a smaller desk off to the side. He nodded to her escort and then dropped his eyes to give her a curious stare.
Behind her the door opened and closed. When she tried to turn and see who entered, the guard squeezed her shoulder and shoved her forward again. She glared at the hand, longing to break its fingers.
Chief Coomb came around his desk, interrupting her savage thoughts, and sat with a heavy sigh. He excused the guard then opened a ledger. His eye scanned several pages before he folded his hands over it and regarded her. This close, she saw the slight crook in his nose, evidence of a past break. The thick lines of his scars reminded her of skeins of silver lace, almost beautiful. And, for the first time, she noticed his eye was a dark green. Almost the same color as his coat.
Irked by his continued silence, which had led to her too intimate perusal, Ottilde cocked her head to one side and regarded him mischievously. “Good morning, Chief Coomb,” she said in Inish, only the trace of an accent flavoring the words. “You look very militant this morning.”
He did not speak or react to her mocking tone except to lean back in his chair and shift his hands to his abdomen. The carved brass buttons running down the front of his coat winked in the lamplight. Lieutenant Foss shot her an apprehensive glance.
“Seems like a lovely morning,” she continued. Still no response. “May I ask you something?”
Ottilde smiled. “You need to stop being such a chatterbox. How can anyone keep up with your linguistic acrobatics and endless gossiping?”
Coomb scowled. “Foss, please fetch breakfast.”
Ottilde swallowed as the adjutant rose from his desk and quietly left. Once they were alone, one side of Chief Coomb’s mouth lifted in a humorless smile. “You have a smart mouth, don’t you, 2-9-6?”
“One of my finer qualities. And my name is Ottilde Drönswick.”
“Along with a penchant for troublemaking: breaking noses and scooping out people’s eyes with spoons,” he went on, ignoring the latter part of her reply.
“One must have a hobby.”
Coomb’s eyelid drooped to shutter his gaze. “And slaughtering entire communities of innocent people? Do you count that among your hobbies as well?”
Ottilde compressed her lips into a thin line, and gritted her teeth. Seeing his barb had hit home, Coomb’s green eye gleamed. A soft knock on the door preceded Foss letting himself back into the office carrying a tray. He set on the nearly spotless desk before his commander.
“Get yourself something to eat,” Coombe said in a toneless voice. Again the adjutant left them alone. “You must be hungry.” He gestured at the wooden tray where a fragrant steam drifted from the spout of a carafe. Cheese pasties and meat pockets were piled in a glistening tower on a plate. Cream and honey waited in pewter pitchers.
Ottilde’s stomach growled again, defying the refusal that had budded on her lips. Coombe poured dark coffee into one of the pewter mugs standing by. “Cream, honey?”
He pour generous dollops of accompaniments into her cup, gave it a stir, and pushed it towards her. Ottilde gave him an expectant smirk and jiggled her manacled wrists.
Coombe stood and came around the desk. As he bent to unlock her manacles with his master key, she noticed the tang of pine from his clothes. His fingers were callused to near stone when they brushed the swell of muscled beneath her thumb. He took the manacles with him as he reclaimed his seat. Licking her lips compulsively, Ottilde snatched a meat pocket and a cheese pasty from the plate. It took every ounce of her will power not to stuff both in her mouth at once.
Coombe rested his elbows on the desk and leaned towards her, fixing her with an intent gaze. “Allow me to clarify your situation, 2-9-6. A Liséree border patrol interrupted your squadron’s massacre of a civilian community. Lieutenant Bilo and you are the only two of your fellows left alive. He claims you murdered the heir to the Roanaan throne, Prince Chroy, during the raid. Thus far, you have admitted to killing the prince but insist you did it in defense of one of the community’s women—who you were sent to kill. Your government, before its subjugation, declared you an outlaw and stripped you of your title, inheritance, and citizenship. Had I called your name this morning along with the other prisoners, you would have been executed as soon as I handed you over to the remnants of your military.”
Ottilde swallowed a barely chewed bite of pasty. The recitation of her recent past had turned the food to ash in her mouth. “Why should you care what the Roanaan military does with me?”
It was his turn to tilt his head to the side and study her, like a cat studies a mouse it is considering whether to kill. “I don’t care.”
Coomb picked up a piece of paper and held it out to her. She took it and saw a rough rendition of her face and below it a list of her crimes. “There is a bounty on your head. If you set foot in Roanaan, you will be killed by any farmer or merchant with an axe or pitchfork handy. Since Liséree is now conqueror and thus beyond the common man’s reach, your people have found a new target for their considerable rage.”
“You.” Coomb put a hand on his chest. “It is not I who cares what becomes of you, 2-9-6. King Talin Sercier has requested the Iomere government offer you sanctuary. He reviewed your case personally, you being of noble birth, and found certain inconsistencies.”
“For one, the fact that you killed your prince while on a witch hunt. For another, the unmitigated hatred the other prisoners in this camp hold for you. The testimony of the woman you saved, corroborating the story that you killed Chroy to save her. And lastly, the Roanaan military’s willingness to trade all of our people for just you.” His long, thick forefinger jabbed in her direction, underscoring his words as though they were an accusation.
Ottilde bit her lip and studied the bounty notice. So, her people had not disowned her. They wanted her back desperately, in fact. But only to tear her to pieces before a ravenous crowd. She set it back on his desk next to the remnants of her breakfast. “And so now I must stay in Iomere forever?”
Coomb spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Until I am told otherwise, you will remain here, in Lachlas.”
“As your lone prisoner?”
“As a… reluctant guest.”
Ottilde gripped the heartstone. This was an impossible situation. She could not stay here indefinitely. Her sister was waiting for her, needing her. But she would do Oriabel no good if she died as soon as she set foot on Roanaan soil. She regarded the prison chief. “Is there anything else?”
“Not at the moment.” Coomb called for the guard, who entered and grasped Ottilde’s upper arm to lever her from the chair. Coombe handed the man the manacles and they were locked around her wrists once more.
She turned to the prison chief before the guard could hustle her out the door. Coomb had leaned back in his chair again, his lips puckered in a thoughtful expression. “Yes, sir?”
“I suggest you leave people’s eyes alone in the future. Think of it as a personal favor to me.”
Ottilde bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from smiling. “I’m at your service, Chief Coomb. May I ask you a personal favor?”
“You may ask.”
“My name is Ottilde Drönswick, not 2-9-6.”
“As long as you reside here, your name is 2-9-6.” He flicked his hand in dismissal.
Ottilde allowed the guard to pull her through the door and all the way back to her cell.
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