White flecks drifted down from the dark sky, covering the dense pines in a thin blanket that would melt by morning. They had yet to reach the true Freezing season, for which Nicole was grateful. For now, she could admire the beauty of the falling snow without the worry that she may lose a finger or an ear to the cold, even with the black gloves covering her hands and the dark, wool cap on her head that hid her bright locks from prying eyes. Her breath still came out in clouds in the cold night air and the tip of her nose was redder than her hair, but at least she didn't have to make the trek through banks of snow up to her hips.
Her companions—a young, bright-eyed man named Fish and his partner Levi—weren't as cheerful about the situation, but she could only roll her eyes at their muffled complaints. It wasn't like complaining about the weather would make their journey any easier. Instead of joining them in their sour moods, she let their voices fade into the background and focused on the soft crunch of icy grass beneath her feet instead.
They had known when they left that it would not be an easy journey. The cold weather was upon them and patrols had increased to discourage desperate farmers and villagers from robbing those in less desperate situations. The Resistance itself had also caused an increase in patrols. As their numbers grew, their attacks had grown bolder—destruction of armories, raids on supply caches, the occasional skirmish with the nobles' soldiers—and in response, their beloved Duke Robert sent more soldiers to stomp them out.
Some ruler, Nicole thought with a sniff.
He couldn't be bothered to provide for the people in his lands, yet he could take their only strong citizens to send off to fight his wars. Wars that would gain him more territory and more villages to neglect, even as he reaped the benefits from securing their resources. But the winds of change were howling, and if Nicole had anything to do with it, they would not be ignored.
Not even by a man who claimed to be a god.
Through the sounds of her footsteps and the muffled conversation between her companions, a different noise caught Nicole's attention and she slowed her steps until she was level with the two men who had accompanied her.
She kept her voice low as she said, “Eyes are on us. Stay alert. Could be bandits. Could be worse.”
Her gloved fingers twitched, wanting to reach for the worn blade that hung at her hip, but she also wanted to keep their observers clueless for as long as possible. She didn't know how many eyes were on them. She tried not to think about it. Thinking about it would make her antsy, so she focused again.
The crunch of her footsteps.
The sound of her breath.
The twang of bowstrings.
Her brow furrowed at that sound, but her confusion only lasted a moment. Then she was yelling at her companions to get down.
All three of them hit the ground as a barrage of arrows sliced through the air, but only two of them remained unscathed. Nicole gritted her teeth against the burning pain in her shoulder and forced herself to her knees, only to waver a moment later due to a wave of dizziness. She swallowed down the fear and bile burning in her throat and staggered to her feet. She managed to draw her sword with her left hand, but her grip was unsteady.
No one was supposed to be on this route tonight.
Their whole mission had hinged on it.
But the arrow protruding from her shoulder bore Robert's red and white colors, there was no denying that, and the soldiers who now poured forth from the trees wore Robert's crest on their polished armor. Nicole found herself hating that silver falcon more and more as the soldiers rushed them.
They were swarming her. It was the smart thing to do. With her injury, she was the weakest of the three. She tried to hold them off, but each time she met an opponent's sword, the contact sent a jolt through her body and jostled the arrow lodged in her shoulder, and she would have to bite back a curse.
Another hot streak of pain lanced across her back, from the curve of her right hip up to her left shoulder, and this time she did cry out, unable to stop the sound as she stumbled forward and landed on her knees. Her sword fell from her loose grip. Beside her, her companions were forced into similar positions. She knew it had been foolish to hope that she would be able to hold off the soldiers long enough that they could escape, but their capture still weighed heavily on her shoulders.
A rough hand tugged the wool hat off her head and a moment later, that same hand was tangled in her bright hair and yanking her head back.
“You and your friends have been caught in an attempt on the Duke's life,” the soldier hissed in her ear, though she could barely hear him over the thundering of her heart. “Your lives are forfeit.”
Nicole couldn't help but think they always had been with Duke Robert in power. At least she had given hers up fighting, and not waiting for sickness or starvation to come for her like they had come for her family. Despite the pain in her shoulder and the increasing agony spreading across her back, she straightened her posture and turned her head so she could look her executioner in the eyes.
He scowled at the defiant expression on her face, then drove the pommel of his sword against the side of her head.
Not quite the move I expected, she thought as she slipped into a welcoming, painless darkness.
Waverly watched from the castle's high window as a line of soldiers approached the gate in the dawn's light. Even from such a height, she could hear the lead horses snorting in the cold as they pawed at the frost-covered ground. They called their greeting to the guards on duty and she cringed at the screech of the gate that was brought up to allow them passage.
The last of the foot soldiers hurried inside to the warmth of the castle walls, but they weren't without cargo of their own. They held chains in their hands and those chains were bound to three bodies that were tugged behind them. Two of the prisoners held up another in the middle, whose head lolled from side to side as they struggled to walk even with the support.
Once the soldiers and their prisoners were out of sight, Waverly pulled away from the window and the brisk air. As she descended the stairs, she could hear the groan of the gate as it was lowered. Guards greeted her with a nod as she passed them by and she responded with a nod and a smile of her own.
When she approached the throne room, she slowed her footsteps until she came to a halt at the doorway. Pressing herself against the wall, she peered inside, only to find an empty room. Her brow furrowed. They had always been brought here before.
“And just what are you doing, Little Waverly?”
The familiar, deep voice startled her and she valiantly fought to muffle her shriek of surprise. By the sound of the laugh behind her, she hadn't done a very good job. She turned on her heel and found Bobo looming over her, an amused smile on his face.
“I... the prisoners. The ones I saw—”
“Come to protect me in case they made one last attempt?”
Waverly opened her mouth, but promptly closed it, her teeth clacking together. She looked away from Bobo and studied the floor instead. A heavy hand on her shoulder made her look up again.
“I'd say you've protected me enough for one night.”
“Yes,” he said. “I have nothing more to worry about from them and you shouldn't worry yourself either. They've been taken care of.”
“If you're sure...”
“I am,” Bobo said. “Now no more wandering about the halls. We have guests later, and you know what that means.”
Waverly sighed, and nodded her head.
“To bed with you then, so you're not underfoot.”
He gave her a gentle push away from the doorway and she glared over her shoulder, but he only laughed and waved her away. She grumbled under her breath, but started towards the long hall that, after several twists and turns, would lead her to her quarters. Her fingers glided along the cool stone as she aimlessly walked down the familiar hall, but as they trailed along the warm wood of the door to the dungeon, a flash of red entered Waverly's thoughts and she stumbled over her footing.
She winced as she stood back up then shook the thoughts from her head. When she started to walk again, another image flashed in her head. Warm brown eyes framed by dark red hair. A kind, bashful smile.
Waverly's gaze drifted to the heavy door.
She should be in her quarters. She didn't want to be in the way when Bobo had his guests over. A moment of debate, then she pushed the door open and slipped inside. As long as she wasn't wandering the halls, she wouldn't be in the way. Besides, she wanted to get a look at the people who had planned to attack Bobo.
A look couldn't hurt.
Her footsteps bounced off the walls as she descended the staircase. The smell of sweat and unwashed bodies overwhelmed her senses. She made the mistake of trying to breathe through her mouth and nearly gagged, so she stuck with breathing through her nose even if it made her eyes water. When she reached the landing, the dim light from a single torch was all that illuminated the cells and the few prisoners they held: the three captives she had seen brought in. Two guards sat at a rickety table in the corner, squinting in the light of a lantern to see the cards they held in their hands. One looked up at the sound of her footsteps and immediately stood at attention.
“Miss Waverly,” he said. “This... You shouldn't be down here.”
“And you two shouldn't be gambling on your watch,” she said, quirking an eyebrow. “I'll pretend I didn't see you, but only if you pretend you didn't see me.”
The guard rubbed the back of his head and shared a look with his partner.
“They're chained up in cells, Luca,” came the gruff response. “What are they gonna do to her?”
That seemed to put the man's mind at ease and he slowly lowered himself back down to his chair.
While the two of them continued their game, she approached the cells that held the three would-be assailants. All of them were shackled to the wall, thick chains threaded through thick loops protruding from the stone. One of the captives was a grey-haired man with a wide-set face and drooping features. The other was another man, younger with dark hair and the beginnings of a beard. Both of them glared at her, resentment making their eyes hard, but she paid them no mind. Instead, her gaze wandered to the last, a woman who didn't look at her at all. Didn't look at much of anything, actually. She was slumped forward, the chains the only things holding her up, and even in the dim torchlight, Waverly could see the beads of perspiration dotting her skin.
Waverly chewed her lower lip for a moment, then approached the guards at the table. The gruff one looked up from his hand and she gave him a sweet smile.
“I need to take a look at one of them.”
He dropped his gaze back to the cards. “Can look at 'em just fine from outside the cell,” he said, only to yell a moment later when the cards were taken from his hand. “What do you think you're doin'?”
“I need the keys to the cell,” she said. “And if one of you could get me some supplies from the healer, I would appreciate it.”
“Supplies from the... Just what are you going on about?”
“Look, it's like you said. They're chained up. They can't hurt me,” she said. “But one of 'em is in there half-dead, and I doubt His Grace will be happy if he loses a source of information.”
“Nice try, but he's got two perfectly good ones left if we lose that one there.”
Waverly placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side. “And how do you know either of them know a damn thing?”
“How do you know she does?”
“I don't,” Waverly admitted, “but I do know if she dies and the other two don't know anything, His Grace won't be pleased that he lost someone who could have given him answers because you let them die.”
“Miles, just give her the damn keys,” Luca hissed.
The gruff guard held Waverly's gaze, only to curse under his breath and pull the keyring from his hip a moment later.
“You should take up cards sometime, Miss Waverly,” he told her as he handed her the keys. She only smiled and handed back his cards in response. He returned his attention to the younger guard, whose hands shook in the lamplight. “Maybe I'll go grab the supplies,” Miles said with a sigh. He pushed his chair back and glared at the other man. “Damn fool here'd just drop 'em with how much his hands are shaking.”
“Thank you,” Waverly said, and Miles grunted in response before he headed for the stairs she had descended not long before. Once he was gone, she returned her attention to the younger guard. “Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.”
“N-No. I wasn't frightened. Not at all.”
“Okay. You weren't frightened.”
She left the conversation at that while the guard still held some dignity and approached the cell that held the woman. After a quick round of trial and error, she found the key to her cell and slid inside. As she approached the injured woman, chains rattled as the prisoners from the other cells jerked forward.
“You stay away from her!”
“Don't touch her!”
But Waverly tuned those voices out and focused on the woman in front of her. She reached out a cautious hand and placed it against the woman's forehead, frowning at how hot the skin was to her touch. Blood caked the side of her face. Waverly gently brushed aside red-stained tresses and found the knot on the side of the woman's head. Another few seconds of inspection, and she found the remains of an arrow shaft embedded in her right shoulder. Blood stained the fabric of what remained of the woman's makeshift armor.
It was the the deep, angry wound that traversed the woman's back, however, that made Waverly's brow crease with worry.
Heat radiated from the area and even though Waverly's fingers only grazed the skin above it, a soft groan reached her ears and chains rattled as the body stirred beneath her touch. Warm, brown eyes met hers and Waverly's breath caught in her throat as they held her gaze, only to close again a moment later.
The door to the dungeon opened and closed, and at the sound of footsteps approaching, Waverly looked away from the prisoner to find Miles standing at the door to the cell with an armful of the supplies he had promised. She took them with a grateful smile that he didn't return, choosing instead to join his partner at the table. Her arms full, she returned to the prisoner and slowly started to lay out the supplies. Thankfully, Miles had thought ahead far enough to bring a clean linen down as well—or maybe the healer had suggested it—so once Waverly had spread that out—a bright, white spot on a dirt-covered floor—she returned to the woman bound to the wall and, after another round of trial and error, she undid the manacles that held her.
A whimper reached her ears as the lanky prisoner fell against her. She was lighter than she looked. The fever was more obvious with the woman's body pressed against her, but Waverly tried not to think about that as she laid her on the clean linen, careful to keep her on her side at least until she could get the rest of the arrow shaft out. She pressed the back of her hand against the prisoner's cheek. She was surprised when the woman leaned into the touch.
She was supposed to die in the ambush.
Waverly had Seen that, just as she had Seen hundreds of other deaths before. Yet she hadn't died. She was here, in Bobo's dungeon, breathing in the same putrid air as Waverly. She had defied the fate that Waverly had Seen for her, and she wasn't quite sure what to make of that.
She had never been wrong before.
As she knelt at the woman's side and studied her soft features a moment longer, Waverly couldn't help but think that, just this once, she was glad she had been wrong.
It was too dark.
That was the first thought that sprang to Nicole's mind when she started to regain consciousness. The second thought that came forth was how much she wished to go back into that blissful state of unconsciousness if it meant she could escape what surely had to be someone dragging a burning coal across her back. It did not come to claim her though, and she was forced to pry her eyes open to at least solve the darkness issue.
It wasn't much brighter with her eyes open, but there was enough light for her to see the low ceiling above her. She let her head fall to the side and she wasn't surprised to find iron bars beside her. Foggy memories from a clear, cold night begged to be remembered, but she pushed them away for the moment and closed her eyes. Obviously the night had not gone as planned, or she wouldn't have woken up in a prison cell, her head wouldn't feel as if it were splitting open, and a trail of fire wouldn't be blazing its way over her skin.
“I don't know how you keep ending up on your back.” Nicole opened her eyes at the unfamiliar, feminine voice that was followed by a soft sigh. She felt movement at her side and tried to control her breathing the way Xavier had shown her back at their camp, but it was so much harder for her to focus when it felt like an ax had been driven into her skull. “Oh! Are you actually awake now?”
A strange woman's face blocked her view of the ceiling. On instinct, she started to scramble away from the stranger, but the searing pain that shot through her back and her shoulders stole her breath and what remained of her mobility, and she dropped back down to the floor with a painful thud. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip, trying to hold back the whimper that wanted to escape.
She wasn't as successful as she had hoped.
The stranger tsk'd and placed a hand on Nicole's uninjured shoulder. “Don't do that,” she said, “you're going to make things worse.” Searching fingers plucked at the fabric covering Nicole's shoulder—whatever it was, it certainly didn't feel like the raggedy armor she had been wearing when she left—then dropped it again. “You're in luck. You didn't tear anything open up here. But you should really be on your side.”
Nicole released a shaky breath through her gritted teeth and slowly opened her eyes again to get a better look at the woman prodding at her. Light, hazel eyes—one of them marred by a dark bruise—and a sharp jawline were the first things Nicole noticed, but the furrow in her brow and the scrunch in her nose softened the woman's features. She let the stranger roll her onto her uninjured side, only to hiss a moment later when her fingertips pressed against her back.
“Sorry, sorry,” the woman said. The next touch was softer and, while not pleasant, it wasn't nearly as crippling as the one before. “That one is taking longer. Probably because you keep rolling over. Every time I come to check on you, you're flat on your back again and I have to roll you back onto your side.” Nicole struggled to keep up with the steady stream of words, but the other woman didn't seem to notice. “Tried to prop you up by the bars. Rolled right onto your shoulder instead and that wasn't any better.” She stopped fussing with Nicole's back—thankfully—and her face popped back into Nicole's line of sight. “Tried to prop you up on my lap so I could make sure you didn't roll over, but...” She laughed, high-pitched and maybe a little nervous. “Well, that time you woke up, and you weren't exactly calm.”
That explained the bruise.
Her voice, scratchy as it was, abandoned her.
“Oh! Water! You need water.”
Retreating footsteps that returned a moment later. Then, the woman's skinned knees in her line of sight. She glanced up and found her caretaker holding a pouch and regarding her thoughtfully, as if determining the best way to help her drink. Unable to take another slight to her already bruised pride, Nicole solved the problem and slowly pushed herself into a sitting position despite the woman's protests. She was breathless by the time she was upright, and the fire blazed along her back again, but she was not about to let a stranger hold the waterskin to her mouth as if she were a newborn. She tried not to think about how many times that had probably already happened as she accepted the waterskin with a shaky hand.
As she took long drinks from the waterskin, she tried to get a better idea of her surroundings.
There were several more cells that surrounded hers. At first, a pit formed in her stomach when she didn't see Fish or Levi. Maybe they had been killed in the ambush after all. But then her eyes adjusted to the darkness across the hall and she saw their familiar figures in the cells across from her, and the knot loosened. What caught her attention, however, was that they were chained to the wall and she was, well, not.
She lowered the waterskin from her chapped lips and wiped the excess water away with the back of her hand. A giggle at her side drew her attention from her companions across the hall.
“Sorry,” the woman said, but the amused smile remained, “you're just... you're very different.”
Nicole tilted her head. This stranger was calling her different, as if she weren't the odd one sitting in a cell, fussing over a prisoner who probably should have died out in that forest. As the memory of the botched mission pushed its way forward, demanding to be remembered, Nicole shuddered. Her odd caretaker must have taken it as a sign she was cold though, because she disappeared from her side again, only to return a moment later with a blanket. Nicole eyed it for a moment before her gaze shifted to Levi and Fish in the cells across the hall again.
“Don't do that,” the woman said as she knelt beside her. A soft hand on her arm coaxed her into looking at the other woman. “They've got their own blankets. I promise they won't freeze to death in here. And they've been transferred to the cells with the longer chains. They have enough slack to move around and sit against the wall to sleep.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment then said, “But I can't get the guards to unlock their chains completely. Not like I did for you.” She lowered her voice as she said, “It was a fight to get the guards to let you out of yours anyway. The only reason they allowed it was because... well...”
Nicole's eyes hardened and she pulled her gaze away so she could look at the cell bars instead.
She knew exactly why her manacles had been unlocked and the others' hadn't.
She had been injured. She had been too weak to protect her friends, and now she was too weak to even be considered a threat or a flight risk.
She was nothing.
“You're very stubborn, you know?” The woman sighed and shifted so she was in Nicole's line of sight again. “Listen,” she said as she brushed a limp strand of hair out of Nicole's face, “that hard-headed attitude of yours pulled you out of your fever, but you're still hurt. That same stubbornness is only going to make things worse again if you let it.”
She offered the blanket again. Nicole eyed it for a moment, then sighed and took it from the woman's hands. Once it was around her shoulders, her caretaker guided her back down to the floor, and Nicole tried not to wince at the movement. When she was settled on her side again, she lifted her gaze to stare up at the woman kneeling beside her. Curiosity finally got the better of her.
“Who... What's your name?”
“Waverly,” the woman said, “and you're Nicole.”
Nicole furrowed her brow. She didn't remember giving her name. She wouldn't have given her name.
“Sorry. That's just the fifth time we've introduced ourselves to one another in three days.”
Nicole dropped her gaze back to the floor. “Oh.”
“Don't worry about it,” Waverly said as she stood up. “You seem a bit more lucid this time, so I doubt we'll have go through introductions again. Not that I minded. You were always quite sweet whenever you asked.” Footsteps retreated again, this time accompanied by the creak of the iron door. “I'll check up on you again later. Maybe you'll be hungry next time.”
The footsteps faded away and Nicole squeezed her eyes shut. She tried not to think about her failure or about the cell she had been locked in. She tried not to think about the way her body ached or what the future held for her once it healed. Still, the thoughts pushed through and a tight, uncomfortable knot formed in the pit of her stomach.
She doubted she'd be hungry any time soon.