After they finished, they took Sigrun to a cramped, windowless room. She caught only scattered impressions—wood, a small bed half-collapsed against a wall, Tuuri, Tuuri rising up from the floor with her mouth shaped into a surprised “o” behind her mask, looking completely unharmed—before they shoved her inside and the door shut behind her, swallowing up all of the light.
But that brief glimpse of Tuuri buoyed her, enough so that she almost didn’t care about the sound of the lock in the door clicking shut. She’d spent hours wondering where Tuuri was, if their captors were treating her like they’d been treating Sigrun; their lack of response when she’d demanded to know where Tuuri was had made her fear the worst.
“Sigrun?” Tuuri’s voice rose through the gloom, echoing a little. Quick footsteps, then Tuuri’s hands were on her, reaching up to touch her cheek. “Was that a bruise I saw? Did they hurt you?”
The snap of her head as a fist drove into the underside of her jaw when she hadn’t answered their first question fast enough. The ache of her teeth, how she’d needed to run her tongue along them to make sure they were all still there. The blows that had followed when she’d started demanding answers of her own, raining down all over her body.
“I’m fine. Just got asked a few questions.” Sigrun’s voice came out hoarse. At least their captors hadn’t bothered gagging her again, after, though they’d left her hands bound. Her wrists ached; the corners of her mouth still burned where the cloth had dug into the skin. Focusing on that made it a little easier to ignore the rest of her pains. She wished she could see Tuuri’s face. “They untied you?”
“They didn’t untie you?” Tuuri sounded horrified. “Wait, let me—”
The knots had been tightened by Sigrun’s earlier struggles, but Tuuri still managed to make quick work of them. When she was finished Sigrun turned around and put her arms around her, ignoring her squeak of surprise as she drew her close. She buried her face in her soft hair, breathing deep, and ignored the way Tuuri’s mask cut into the bruises on her chest, how it ached to move. She’d gotten worse from trolls. She’d be fine. They’d both be fine, just as soon as she got them out of there.
“I’m fine,” Sigrun repeated. She pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Tell me what happened to you.”
Tuuri still sounded hesitant, but she obeyed. “Me? Nothing. They just threw me in here and locked the door. I’ve been here ever since.” She paused. “I did explore the room. It’s not very big. There is a window, I think, but it’s been boarded up. And… there are scratches on the wall.” Tuuri’s voice dipped, took on an odd note. “I think this was a quarantine room, once.”
And now it was their prison. Sigrun tightened her grip, saying nothing.
For a long moment, they simply stood there, holding one another. Then Tuuri spoke up again, her voice muffled against Sigrun’s shirt. “Do you—do you think they’re actually from here? From the silent world?”
Sigrun thought of how surely their captors had moved as they’d marched her and Tuuri through the city ruins, the way they’d handled her rifle like it was something new and precious. She thought of the questions they’d asked her, the way they’d focused on her crew’s pitiful excuse for food, and the strange tenor to their voices as they’d asked her where it came from over and over again. The way they focused on where she came from, how they treated her not as an ally against the Rash but as some unknown threat.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I think they are.”
A careful test revealed that the bed wasn’t stable enough to hold so much as a kitten without risk of collapse, let alone two grown women, so they ended up tugging the mattress to the floor and sleeping there, curled up against one another. Food and water came in the morning, pushed through a slot in the door that Sigrun hadn’t noticed the night before. Tuuri’s theory that it used to be a quarantine room before they were locked up in it was looking more and more likely. They were given plenty of water, but not much food. Sigrun paced herself with both.
They came for her not long after. Sigrun heard the footsteps before they arrived, but it didn’t prepare her for the sudden glare of the light as the door swung open. She threw an arm up over her eyes, wincing. Her mind raced, and for the briefest space of time she thought about rushing them. If she knocked enough of them out, she could grab Tuuri and make a break for it...
But she only considered it for a few seconds. There were four of them, and they were all armed with knives while she didn’t have so much as a rock to her name. If she were alone, maybe she would have risked it anyway, but she had Tuuri to think of. It would do her no good if Sigrun got herself killed now. Even if she did survive the attempt, there was no saying how their captors would respond.
They hadn’t touched Tuuri yet. That could always change, if Sigrun wasn’t careful.
So she followed them without a fight, her jaw clenched. It pissed her off, but there wasn’t anything else she could do. Not if she didn’t want to be stupid.
Her irritation didn’t stop her from noting the way. She’d been too woozy from the beatings the night before to properly follow it, but now she added it to the mental map she’d started when their captors had first dragged them into this place.
Maybe she couldn’t just make an immediate break for it, but she wasn’t going to give up either. She was going to get them out of this place, both of them. There was no way she was going to fail Tuuri. Not again.
They took her to the same room where she’d been questioned last time. Someone different had come to interrogate her, but that was all that had changed from the day before. Again, they tied her to the chair, and again, they began asking their questions. And again, when she wouldn’t or couldn’t answer them, the beatings began.
One punch knocked her and the chair down together, her head striking the hard the ground. Her vision blurred.
I’ve been fighting trolls for nearly twenty years, she thought at them fiercely, even as she gasped for breath under the force of their blows. You think this is anything? She wanted to say it aloud, taunt them with it, but good sense held her back. She couldn’t give them any reason to think it a better idea to go after Tuuri instead.
A booted foot struck her stomach, and then again, and then again, until her vision went white.
If Sigrun had had any thoughts of hiding what was going on from Tuuri—already a long shot after she’d seen that bruise—they died that day. Her captors had to half-carry her back to their shared prison, and when they threw her in she only managed to stumble two half-steps forward before she collapsed to the ground.
The door closed behind her.
“Sigrun!” Immediately, Tuuri was at her side.
Sigrun rolled onto her back. Even that small exertion left her sucking in her breath at the pain. She gave herself ten seconds to catch her breath, then lifted her hand, feeling along her ribs. She hadn’t felt any of them break, but she had to be sure.
She checked twice, but they all seemed fine. Whole. Good. She thought she probably could manage to escape with a broken rib—she’d gotten out of plenty of nasty troll fights with worse injuries—but it’d be easier to do it without.
Tuuri was talking. How long had she been talking? Sigrun blinked, trying to focus. Worried. Tuuri was worried. She lifted her hand, searching the air until she bumped into Tuuri’s face. Her nose, to be precise, and she let out a soft huff of what might have been laughter had it been less choked, before moving her hand so that she was cupping Tuuri’s cheek.
“Hey, don’t go doubting me now,” she said. She paused, more because she needed a moment to catch her breath than anything, then went on. “Do you think there’s anything these guys can dish out that can measure up to a troll? This is nothing I can’t handle.”
Tuuri covered Sigrun’s hand with her own. Sigrun could almost feel her thinking, and though she couldn’t see her face, she knew just what expression she wore. She always wore the same face when she wanted to disagree with Sigrun but couldn’t bring herself to do it aloud.
Sigrun waited for her to speak. But Tuuri didn’t say anything at all.
Another day passed, much like the previous ones. It was beginning to take on a familiar tenor, that which had been shocking transforming into an awful new normalcy. Food and water, in the mornings and the evenings. In-between came the questions and the beatings, while the evenings were dedicated to waylaying Tuuri’s concern and trying to think of a way out.
On the fourth day, something changed. Some of their captors came to escort her, just as they had every other day, but this time there were more of them. Sigrun had already been standing, mostly because there was no way she was going to let the bastards think they’d managed to beat her down, but Tuuri had to scramble to her feet to avoid being stepped on as they all crowded into the little room.
That too, was different. Usually only a few of them went in to fetch Sigrun, while the others stood guard at the door. Granted, it was unlikely that Sigrun could actually get passed all of them and to the door, but the change didn’t sit well with her. She eyed them, her muscles tense, as her usual escorts—a tall boy younger than Emil had been on their first expedition, and a hard-faced woman whose bones clung to the skin of her hands—reached for her.
And then she saw that some of the newcomers were reaching for Tuuri too.
Sigrun jerked forward, smashing her head straight into the boy’s face. He cried out, clutching his nose as he staggered back, and Sigrun took advantage of the opening to rush at the two trying to take Tuuri. Screw waiting for the opportune moment. She hadn’t played the good captive, hadn’t let them spend the past three days beating and kicking her, just for them to hurt Tuuri in the end anyway.
She pounced on the nearest one from behind, wrapping her arm around his throat and squeezing. His hands scrabbled at her arm, but she had a good grip: she didn’t let go. From the corner of her eye she saw the hard-faced woman reaching for her, and she lashed out at her with her other fist.
Sigrun froze. She hadn’t been fast enough. There’d been two going for Tuuri, and she’d only gotten one of them. The second one was the one who had spoken, and he now had his arm wrapped around Tuuri’s shoulders, pinning her against him, his knife placed carefully against the line of her throat.
If she acted, they would kill Tuuri. If she didn’t, they would hurt her. It was a shit choice to make. It wasn’t a choice at all.
Slowly, Sigrun let go of the other man’s neck. There was nothing else she could do. Not if she didn’t want to watch Tuuri’s blood soak into the floor.
They bound Sigrun, quickly and efficiently. The knife remained at Tuuri’s throat. A cold fury crawled into Sigrun’s belly, made only more bitter by her helplessness, as their captors led the two of them out the door.
Both of them being taken meant that Sigrun could see Tuuri properly for the first time since they’d been captured, a realization that only added to her anger. Now she could see how pale Tuuri looked, the stress-lines that had been drawn around her eyes.
When Tuuri saw her looking, she smiled, or tried to. The knife kept her from speaking, but Sigrun didn’t need to hear her voice to know what she was trying to say. It’s okay! I’ll be fine!
Sigrun felt sick. She couldn’t help but remember their first mission into the silent world, when she’d let a troll slip passed her and get into the tank. Tuuri had given her that same smile, in the uncertain weeks that had followed, and Sigrun had hated it even then. Never again, she had promised herself then. She wouldn’t fail Tuuri ever again.
They were taken to the same room where Sigrun had always been taken before. The chair she’d always been tied to had now disappeared, and a broad table stood in its place.
It went against every instinct Sigrun had to let her captors tie her down to it. With the chair, she might have had some mobility if they tried to seriously harm Tuuri, but with this… But that knife meant she had no other choice. They pinned her bound wrists above her head, with more rope binding her around the waist and legs. Through it all, she kept her eyes on Tuuri.
Once they’d fully secured her to the table, the woman who’d been her main interrogator on the first day stepped forward. She was tall and thin like a birch; both her hair and eyes were grey. Not once had Sigrun heard her speak in anything other than a calm, inflectionless tone.
She opened her mouth. “I hope this demonstration will make you more willing to speak.”
It took Sigrun a moment to realize that she wasn’t looking at her when she said that. She was looking at Tuuri.
Her confusion only lasted a moment. Then the tall woman made a gesture, and the boy who Sigrun had headbutted slammed his fist straight into her face.
More blows followed. There were three of them there, counting the boy; this was the first time he’d joined in on the beatings, but Sigrun was familiar with the other two from previous days. The height of the table meant they could no longer kick her, but her attackers made up for it by aiming their blows to every weak point they could find. One aimed his blows towards the bruised mass of her stomach, and Sigrun gagged and gasped under the impact.
Tuuri’s frantic voice rose above it all. “Stop! Stop it!”
A sharp word from the tall woman, and the blows stopped. Sigrun, breathing hard, opened her eyes and saw Tuuri struggling to break free from her captor’s grip, one of her hands reaching towards Sigrun, her eyes rounded with horror. The knife had vanished. Because they wanted her to talk, some distant part of Sigrun’s mind supplied.
“Now are you ready to tell us what your people have planned for ours?” the tall woman asked coolly, her gaze fixed on Tuuri.
Something about the way she spoke sounded odd to Sigrun. Like she was continuing a conversation rather than beginning one. But more importantly… Her mind worked. Beyond the threat of the knife, which had been more to threaten Sigrun than Tuuri, not a one of them had made a single move to harm her. All the violence had been focused on Sigrun, not Tuuri. And now the tall woman was questioning Tuuri, as though the aim of causing Sigrun pain was to try to make her speak, not Sigrun.
The first stirrings of hope unfurled within her.
“I’ve told you, there’s nothing! We didn’t even know there were any survivors here!”
“Still holding on to that story?” The woman tsked. “Perhaps you need a little more encouragement.”
She flicked her fingers, and before Sigrun could so much as form a coherent thought, one of her attackers flipped a knife from his belt and drove it into the meat of her shoulder.
For half a second, Sigrun didn’t realize why. Her heart jolted; she thought, what did they do, as she tried to raise herself up, her teeth bared—and then her shoulder burned, and she tasted the slick, coppery taste of blood as she clamped down on a cry.
She’d been bitten and clawed and gored before, but that had always been in the heat of battle. No adrenaline distracted her now; the wound throbbed, radiating pain all the way down to her aching fingertips.
Don’t be a baby, she tried to tell herself. You’ve been hurt worse than this.
Then the man twisted the knife.
In the end, Sigrun didn’t know how long it went on. At least once, she blacked out from the pain. They didn’t stab her again; later, Sigrun had a vague recollection of the tall woman saying, “Now remember, we don’t actually want to kill her,” in her dispassionate voice. That didn’t stop them from snapping one of the fingers on her right hand. Near the end, they even brought a bucket of water in and, untying her limp body from the table, forced her head into it until she was choking for breath.
And through it all, she heard the sound of Tuuri’s screams.
Sigrun woke to complete darkness. Her head rested on something warm and soft; a hand carded gently through her hair. She blinked, disoriented by the lack of change, then realized: she was back in their prison again. She couldn’t remember leaving the interrogation room, could scarcely remember being untied from the table, but there was nowhere else this could be.
“Tuuri?” At least, that was what she tried to say. The name rasped against her throat, coming out in a garble of mangled syllables. She coughed.
The hand paused; Sigrun felt it trembling against her forehead. “Oh, thank the gods, you’re awake.”
The sound of Tuuri’s voice helped orient her. It came from above, further away than she was used to hearing it from, which meant that the soft thing her head laid on had to be Tuuri’s lap.
Sigrun tried to grin, though she knew Tuuri couldn’t see it. “And raring to go.”
She could barely say the words. Everything burned. Even blinking sent sparks of pain skittering across her skin, the movement tugging on broken capillaries. Her right arm was the worst: the entire thing throbbed, from shoulder to fingertip, like she’d stuck the whole thing into a bonfire.
With her left hand, she cautiously prodded at her injured shoulder. She let out a low hiss, the wound pulsing at the touch, but her fingertips came away dry. It looked like it’d been given a perfunctory bandaging at some point while she was unconscious, which was more than she could say for her broken finger. At least she wasn’t going to be bleeding out any time soon.
Even that small effort took more out of her than she wanted to admit. She closed her eyes, her breath sounding ragged even to her own ears.
Apropos of nothing, Tuuri began to speak.
“You know, I used to dream about finding survivors in the silent world. I knew it was impossible, but… I still used to think about it. How exciting it would be to be the one to find them. What they might be like. What memories they had of the old world that we might’ve forgotten. Things like that.” Her voice sounded watery, odd. “I never thought…”
She fell silent.
What could she say to that? All of Sigrun’s earlier reassurances fell flat, even to her own ears. Tuuri had seen it now, what they were doing to her. She’d been relieved, earlier, when she realized that their captors hadn’t intended to harm Tuuri, that they were focusing on making an example out of Sigrun instead. She still was, but…
It was only the other day when she’d told Tuuri that nothing their captors did could measure up to a troll. It was still true. A stab wound, bruises, a few broken bones? She’d seen worse every summer. And yet...
The memory of Tuuri’s screams almost hurt more than her arm did.
Trolls never cared about causing pain. They’d only ever wanted to kill her. She’d never have thought there was a difference, before.
“That woman,” Sigrun rasped suddenly, her mind catching onto a stray recollection. She’d nearly forgotten with everything that had followed, but it came to her now. “She talked to you like she thought you knew what she was talking about.”
Still holding on to that story, she’d said. It could have been that she assumed that the two of them had conferred with one another. But Sigrun couldn’t help but think about how the woman hadn’t always been there during her beatings. Or how Tuuri had spoken back to her, like she understood what the woman was on about despite Sigrun not having said a word about it.
Tuuri didn’t answer straight away. Then:
“...They’ve been questioning me these last couple of days, while you were... away.” Quickly, she added, “I’m sorry! I know I shouldn’t have hidden it from you. I just—they never hurt me. I don’t know why. Maybe they realized I’m not immune, and didn’t want to risk dealing with an infection if things go wrong.” There was an odd clink. Fingernails tapping against plastic. Tuuri, tapping the mask she still wore at all times, save for when she ate or drank. “I just… I knew you’d worry. And I didn’t want you to.” Another pause. She took a breath. Exhaled. “You can put me on your mutineers list later, if you want. I’m sure Mikkel would like the company.”
She was trying to make a joke, but she didn’t quite manage to capture the right tone. Her voice was too strained. The words collapsed in on themselves in the empty air between them.
Sigrun knew that the attempt at a joke was at least half-meant to distract her. That Tuuri expected her to be upset about the deception, or at least irritated. After all, she’d never liked her crew hiding things from her. And she was annoyed, at least a little bit. But mostly, she just felt uneasy. She was starting to see the game their captors were playing with them, and she didn’t like it.
Maybe Tuuri was right about their captors’ reasons for not harming her. Maybe she wasn’t. Either way, that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t change their current approach when they realized that it wasn’t going to get them any results. If they decided that the risk of having to put down an infected potential source of information was worth it.
She’d been silent too long. She tried to inject a smile into her voice, smooth it out into something low and teasing. “Might be a waste of time, putting you there. I’m sure your crafty little brain will figure out how to get back in my good graces quick enough, pigeon.”
Tuuri made a soft, choked sound. Sigrun couldn’t tell if it was tears or laughter.
Sigrun stayed awake long enough to drink a little and eat her share of their evening rations, but soon she was drifting back into a sleep so light that she could have sworn that she didn’t sleep at all. Even in her dreams, she was in that little room, cemented to that thin mattress like a stone.
It couldn’t have been more than a few hours later when she awoke to Tuuri frantically hissing her name in a low whisper. “Sigrun! Sigrun! Wake up!”
Sigrun sat up immediately, or tried to, letting out a quiet but sharp curse when she accidentally jarred her injured hand with the movement. She matched her volume to Tuuri’s. “What is it?”
“The door! I just tried it—it isn’t locked!”
If Sigrun hadn’t been fully awake before, she was now. Her gaze sharpened. “You sure?”
It seemed almost too fortuitous. Was this just some ploy by their captors?
Or had they really forgotten to lock it that night?
It was possible; Sigrun doubted they had much practice holding captives, as isolated as they were in the silent world. Either way, she decided a second later, it didn’t matter. The odds were stacked against them, and Sigrun definitely wasn’t a fan of going out into the silent world without even a single weapon, but they’d be stupid not to take advantage of this. They weren’t going to get a better chance than this. She wasn’t going to get healthier the longer they stayed, and if leaving the door unlocked was a mistake, it was one they couldn’t count on their captors making again.
“What are we waiting for, then?” she said.
Tuuri helped her to her feet. The blood rushed to her head, and she squeezed her eyes shut, digging her fingers into Tuuri’s shoulder and desperately trying to stay upright. The dizziness passed, but when Tuuri stayed besides her, her arm wrapped around Sigrun’s hips to give her support, Sigrun didn’t resist.
At least she could still walk, mostly.
Together, they carefully pushed open the door, and peeked out into the hallway. There wasn’t anyone in sight. Sigrun strained her ears, but she couldn’t hear anyone either. They closed the door behind them just as carefully as they’d opened it—neither of them were eager to alert their captors of their escape.
“Where now?” Tuuri whispered.
Sigrun pulled the mental map she’d made of the place up into her head. There were a lot of blank spots she wasn’t sure of—she was no scout, after all—but she did remember how to get to the entrance. “This way.”
Making their way through the halls was torture. Not just because of the physical pain, though her skin did feel like it’d been set afire wherever she leaned against Tuuri for support, but because of the silence. It was worse than making her way through a troll-infested building. At least then she had her knife to depend on. Every footstep was carefully placed, and every breath seemed to thunder in her ears, until Sigrun felt herself ready to snap. Sweat beaded at her temples; she couldn’t tell if it was from her injuries or her fear.
If they got caught, she wouldn’t be able to make a run for it. Not in this state. If they got caught—she just had to hope that she could slow them down enough for Tuuri to escape. And that Tuuri wouldn’t be too stubborn to leave her behind if necessary.
Somehow, they made it to the entrance undetected. Sigrun’s eyes darted around. She’d half-hoped to stumble on some sort of weapon along the way—a dagger, an axe, a butter knife, she wasn’t picky—but it seemed her luck hadn’t extended that far.
No matter. If they really managed to escape their captors, Sigrun was still going offer the gods every kind of thanks she could.
She held her breath as they pushed open the door. It didn’t make a sound. Cool air drifted through the gap they had made, their first taste of fresh air in nearly a week, and for the first time Sigrun was aware of just how hot and sticky she felt. The air felt soothing against her skin and in her lungs.
But there wasn’t the time to savor it. They slipped through the door, and stumbled across their second bit of good luck: it hadn’t snowed in the time since they’d been captured. They wouldn’t be as easy to track, now.
In the distance, Sigrun could see the city where they’d been taken from, lit by starlight.
Going into a city unarmed was just about the stupidest thing she could think of, but they’d be harder to find there than in the flat open spaces around it. There was a chance that they’d find the tank there, too, which would make surviving a hell of a lot easier.
Sigrun wasn’t going to depend on that, though. Once they made it to the city, she’d need to plan what their next step would be, because if the others were smart, they would have taken her and Tuuri’s disappearance as the warning it was and left the city days before.
If they were smart. Her crew did have a bad habit of putting their hearts before their heads.
Before they left, she took one last look at the building they’d been imprisoned in. She looked at its thick stone walls, the way it rose tall into the sky. At any other time, she would have thought it perfect for a troll’s nest. Dangerous. She would have been half-right, at least.
Together, guided by the light of the moon and stars above, they began to make their way back to the city.