It was far from the first time he'd been inside a prison.
The cells of Mountather were below the fortress, and with his sight attuned to the bright mountain daylight he could barely make out the shape of the walls. The smell of rotten straw assailed him, and he was coughing even before his captor grabbed him by the neck and dragged him struggling and arguing his way down the stone stairs. "It wasn't me," he protested, with some difficulty. "I've never even been there." The only response was an indifferent grunt. In silhouette, he saw the duty watchman salute and unlock the iron door, and he was dragged down the hallway to a tiny cell and dropped on the ground without ceremony. He heard his captor slam the bolt closed and stride away, and he tried to breathe in the mouldy, foetid air. He was too tired - physically and mentally - to do much else. In the cell he had enough room to lie down, but little more; the iron cage was perhaps eight feet by five feet, one of a row of a dozen.
He turned his head, and tried to pick straw from his hair and his threadbare clothing. A little light shone through a tiny, high window, falling on the grey stone beyond the iron-grate door. His sight brightened slowly, until he could see his neighbours in the dismal prison. In the cage to his left, a young man sat on his heels and watched him curiously through the bars. He turned, almost feeling his body creaking; to his right, an older man slouched and smiled darkly at him. "Ne'er been where?" the older man whispered, scratching at a trimmed beard - too neat for him to have been long inside here, that's for sure.
His neighbour had sounded amused. "Horstine," he muttered. "They swore they had a warrant for a man matching my description in Horstine. But on my life, I've never been there."
This was an incredible statement. His cellmates all knew that the only safe road that led east through the mountains to Mountather passed through Horstine, and in truth he had been there before, but not for many years. It was a great stroke of luck that he'd passed through Mountather so long ago, and remembered the keep well enough that he'd been able to find his way back. But no, he hadn't come east by any safe road today.
From elsewhere in the dimly lit jail, he heard a laugh. "Warrant for what?"
"I can't imagine what iniquities they would lay at my door," he snapped, indignant, and then paused for effect. "I believe smuggling was mentioned." With his eyes closed, he heard several chuckles through the dark. Smuggling was a petty part of their world. They were thieves, enforcers, hired killers. Just the people he needed to talk to. "I was merely travelling to Cul Aber," he continued mildly.
Iron creaked as the man to his right shifted his weight against the bars between them. "Oh, that so? All kinds of chances there, if you know what you're doing. But if you don't, mind..."
Someone hissed, darkly.
"Sounds like you know it well," he offered respectfully.
"Tsh, Dower know the scale, ain't got a clue what else goes downriver," interrupted a man too distant for him to see clearly.
"Watch yourself, mornsman -"
"Or you'll what? Drown me with tears for yon Polly -"
He heard bars grabbed, shouts, iron rattling futilely. He heard the watchman strike her spearbutt on the floor, and then the man to his left whistled a few tuneless notes and yelled, "Truce, fools."
Close on his left, he heard Dower thump his hand down into the straw. "Arright," and he spat.
When the quiet had gone on long enough, he pulled himself up and rested his back against the wall, trying to see what he could of his companions. He'd hoped that the gaol would be the right place to meet with a few colourful personages of the area and hear a little news. The prisoners were awaiting their hearings before Mountather's magistrate, and wouldn't be lingering much longed than he would, though most were familiar with the cells from previous visits. Four men, one woman, all grimy and scuffed, but with his adjusted sight he noted that some of them dressed quite well; the kinds of things that got you arrested on the roads near Mountather could also bring a handsome living. The three he could easily see were all tattooed with simple symbols, though Dower's was hard to notice; a wavering blue line so high on his neck that his beard largely concealed it. The woman wore her mark proudly on her bare shoulder; a semicircle, the flat side facing down, radial lines coming from it like wheelspokes. Gang marks?
He was content to play the fool. "Anything I should watch out for down in Cul Aber?"
"Who you piss off," spat the lone woman, ten feet away from him behind two thickets of iron bars. "And who you don't. These days, I wouldn't mess with the scale less you got another score -"
"Cheth, watch your damned mouth," snapped the man to his left. "He could be anyone. What if he's a songbird?"
Songbird - an informant. The irony didn't escape him, but his face stayed blank. "Who'd bloody bother?" asked Dower. "We ain't shit. Who you think you is, Duchess Poll on the river?"
"You wish I was." The others laughed. "Won't say you're right but if he needs to be told, I ain't sure we should be so good. I not seen him around. He ain't covered by song truce -"
"Horseshit," croaked the man furthest from him - his throat sounded constricted, and his thin, ragged form was still little more than a shape far away. "Everyone gets song truce. That's why it's truce."
There were murmurs of assent to this riddle; its wisdom escaped the newcomer. He was not inclined to admit it. "Is there anywhere, uh, particularly rowdy I ought to, well, beware of?"
Laughter. A game, not least for the benefit of the watchwoman, who was doubtless charged to report any signs of conspiracy among the prisoners. "Well, you know the docks are quiet enough by day this time of year, but they're mighty dangerous at night..." trilled Cheth. "The scale trade upriverways - that's south side of the city." That much he knew - he'd once forded his way over the border, far upriver of Cul Aber. The great river ran north from Karse's mountainous region up to the northern ocean, far beyond the Ice Wall; at Cul Aber, it swept a curve to the east and back, embracing the ancient port city. "The morn stay north of there - we used to live on the river, but Loa's crew goes as we please. But it's not like an innocent sort would have any reason to mix with that kind."
"But of course not - I don't mix with smugglers," he replied stiffly, to more hilarity. "Do many visitors pass over the border?"
He heard Dower spit. "Our way, just runaway slaves. Their way, few traders, mostly the morn and their special friends, sometime." At that, he heard a low chuckle from Cheth. "Course, this time of year it's not so easy. Culway's in a rage with the snow running off. They couldn't pay me enough to take a boat out, not even with Duchess Polly's word on it."
Cheth grunted. "Like she tell aught except what's good for scale."
"Would you set to river if she said you were going down?" Dower asked her smugly.
Cheth didn't reply. He had too little time to consider her words or her silence - he sorely-needed more direction. "Anywhere else I should, ah, avoid, if I don't want to get mixed up with smugglers and miscreants?"
"In Cul Aber? Might find your work cut out," grinned the man to his left. "Especially down by Lighthouse Market, and the old Inn Row. Pinter Square's a mess too."
"It's not even worth it no more," muttered Cheth. "Nary a song now. He used to sing there all the time. Now it's all for truce and coin."
Songs. They keep speaking of songs. He stored the mystery away, as if folding a paper and slipping it in the pockets of his mind. "I didn't catch your name," he asked his neighbour, and extended his fingers absurdly through the bars - the gap was too narrow to admit his whole hand.
He hesitated - but it's all to the good for this particular reputation. "I'm Valdir. Pleased to meet you." Truly, what you've all told me was worth the manhandling, if not the awful smell.
He'd had enough. He sent a weak mental appeal to Tantras, who appeared within minutes to drag him out again, grunting something about the magistrate and interrogations and his many previous offences while the unfortunate Valdir protested his innocence. Atop the stairs, Tantras kicked the heavy jailhouse door closed with a thud.
And that is the last my new friends will see of poor Valdir. May they assume the worst of his fate.
Vanyel found himself almost blind again, in the full sun in Mountather's castle courtyard. None of the colours made sense - sky, stone, air, a thin palette of blue and grey. His head still felt like the place between Gates, bereft of warmth or energy, thrumming with hurt. He slumped against Tantras, who was gracious enough to support his weight as they walked toward the stables where Yfandes and Delian were being tended. "And I thought you were enjoying a little rest down there," Tran nudged him, and Vanyel glared. The Death Bell had sounded at almost dawn; as soon as the Council had allowed it, he'd Gated them to Mountather, and he'd not taken near as much rest as he needed before paying his visit to the prison. In truth, he should have taken days of rest. It hurt to think of the hours of riding ahead of them before they'd reach Cul Aber. So Tantras knew full well why he was tired. "Hear anything worth hearing?"
"A lot." He shook his weary head. "More importantly, I'm maybe starting to understand their manners. Some of what we know suddenly makes more sense. Remember what Captain Audley said about how little violence there's been between the bandit groups lately? The prisoners were talking about a gang truce. And there is crossborder traffic among at least one of the gangs - but even they don't like it at the best of times, which this is not," and he sighed heavily. "Can you imagine a worse time to be searching along the border?"
"Midwinter. In a war," suggested Tantras optimistically.
"Midwinter, we might have been able to walk across the river. I could have held the ice together under us," he grumbled. Tran's eyes widened with unease at the thought. "So yes, even smugglers are too scared to make the crossing to Hardorn right now because of the spring snowmelt. But they do cross sometimes, which is more than almost anyone else will admit to." The treaty Valdemar had negotiated three years ago allowed for trade, but the ongoing war left Valdemar with few spare resources to trade away. Randale had set steep export tariffs. Little wonder that most of the crossborder trade was in stolen and illegal goods.
Tran shook his head. "How did Harren get into Hardorn?"
"Same way I did ten years ago. It's easy to cross if you go far enough south of here, before the point where the Sijar flows into the Culway from the east. There's many places shallow enough for a Companion to ford across," explained Vanyel. "He headed north from there, and when we spoke yesterday he was in Lydra - that's not five miles from Cul Aber, just over the river and a little uphill." About half of one of those miles were occupied by the vast, treacherous Culway. They'd spent half the morning in Council going over the landscape of Valdemar's eastern edge, and Vanyel had been past frustrated by it long before they'd got there. "If anyone saw Harri reach Valdemar, they're in Cul Aber and from all we've heard I doubt they make their living doing anything savoury."
"So you're going to go pretend you're a scruffy street minstrel," Tantras said sceptically.
"We're running out of time," Vanyel reminded him. "We have to find Harri."
Tantras stopped walking. "Harri's dead."
Vanyel stepped away from him, so tired and frustrated he wanted to scream. "And if we want to know why, we're running out of time to find out," he repeated. Tantras stared at him with a hurt that made Vanyel feel like the bell was still reverberating in his bones. It's not fair. You didn't feel him die. There's one last thing I can do for him and I have to do it. "Tran. There aren't enough of us left that we can afford to lose a Herald-Mage and not know how or why. I have to find Harri. I don't have a choice -"
"Don't kill yourself," muttered Tantras, and he resumed his path to the stables.
I may need that advice before this journey's through. For all his pain and fatigue, he couldn't chance to rest until there was nothing left in him. He had days, at most, remaining in which he could cast the spell that would reveal Harri's final moments.
Unlike Tantras, he was beyond the point of thinking of Herald-Mage Harren as a friend and comrade. Harri was now a time-candle, burning at both ends. Harri was one last dispatch in fading ink; if Vanyel could only find where he fell, he could summon the facts of his death, the face of his killer.