Edrik landed belly down on the stone floor of the Shrike’s Keep guardhouse hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. Probably just as well since, otherwise, he might have yelled when the guard’s boot slammed into his back, gouging hobnails into the shallow sword wound just below his shoulder blade.
The ropes cut into his wrists behind his back as he writhed, and the sting of the iron mixing with his blood scorched through his body, drawing behind it a hot, twisting nausea that forced its way out of him in a violent retch. It wasn’t enough for the humans that they’d built their filthy town on top of a massive deposit of iron ore, they had to grind the poison straight into his flesh as well.
His brawny captor laughed. “Burns a mite, do it?”
Edrik was too busy retching to answer.
Another voice said, “What you got there, Benit?”
“Dunno,” said Edrik’s captor. “Some mannish thing what don’t take well to iron. Jumped Egil down by the delvers’ quarters.”
“Springing from the woodwork of late,” muttered the newcomer. “Big fella this time, looks like. Give you much trouble?”
“Took three of us to knock ’im down.”
Benit’s friend prodded Edrik in the ribs with the haft of his spear like a little boy poking at a dead bird to see if it would move. “Sure looks to be down now.” The man chuckled sourly. “Best clean ’im up. You know how the Mudge is about vermin.”
Benit mashed his boot into Edrik’s wound one more time before drawing his knife and crouching beside his prisoner. “Oh ach,” he agreed. “I let a fella through with lice once, and I’m fair sure the Mudge picked ever one of ’em off and left ’em in my bed.”
The iron blade of the knife skimmed across Edrik’s skin, not cutting, but leaving a burning itch behind as the guard sliced Edrik’s clothes off as efficiently as if he were skinning a kill. The smoldering coals in the watchmen’s brazier woke up to lick at the shreds of linen tunic Benit tossed on top of them, sending flickers of firelight skittering across the floor.
A hawking snort, followed by a hiss as Benit’s friend spat into the fire. “You got off easy. Mudge dosed Terren’s dinner when he done it. Couldn’t leave the privy for a week.”
“You seen that scum the new night overseer took down there yesterday?”
“I seen ’im. Overseer says he’s the monster as has been grabbing them women down by the river. Crawling with fleas at the very least.”
“That’s the one. Mudge ain’t letting that slip by.”
With Edrik stripped down to his breeks, Benit yanked the rope that stretched taut between his prisoner’s shoulder blades, running from Edrik’s bound wrists up around his throat. Edrik choked and struggled to his knees.
Benit grunted. “Best stand back from the overseer for a few days.”
“Ach, I’ll say.” Sardonic laughter. “You want help with that one?”
“Meh.” Benit grabbed a fistful of Edrik’s hair and began shaving it off close to the scalp with his knife. “Fight’s gone out of ’im. Think I can manage.” He tossed the pale locks into the fire, and the gagging stench of burning hair rolled through the already musty room.
Edrik gritted his teeth and let the man do his job. Grabak had to be in Shrike’s Hollow; they’d looked everywhere else that made any sense. And the only place in Shrike’s Hollow they hadn’t already looked was in the dungeon beneath the keep.
When Edrik had been suitably stripped, and shorn, and splashed with some vile herbal decoction, Benit yanked him to his feet and shoved him through a door on the far side of the guard room. Beyond, a short corridor led between two narrow holding chambers.
The room on the right contained three women: a ragged beggar and two women dressed in a manner that advertised both their profession and their wares. One of these smiled invitingly at Edrik, eying him up and down, and made a lewd gesture. Edrik winked back at her and tried to pretend that being paraded through a dungeon in his smallclothes didn’t bother him at all.
On the left, several men in various stages of dishevelment and intoxication regarded Edrik suspiciously from behind the iron-barred gate. None of them had been given the same decontamination treatment Edrik had been subjected to. And none of them was Grabak. But that was to be expected; nobody in their right mind would keep someone like Grabak in a temporary holding pen. Edrik needed to find the cells where the Thane housed his more permanent prisoners.
When they reached the end of the corridor, Benit slid an iron-capped cudgel from his belt and used it to rap smartly on the heavy, iron-bound wooden door. A brief silence was followed by a rattling of locks and then a dour-faced guard pulled the door open from the other side.
The squat stone building that held the guardhouse and the temporary holding cells had been constructed with its back against the massive stone escarpment on which Shrike’s Keep had been erected, overlooking the town. The corridor that waited for Edrik behind the iron-bound door had been carved into the scarp face itself, as had the cells, fronted with iron bars, that lined each side of the passageway, all of which would make escape more difficult.
Not for the first time, Edrik was glad of the invisible yot mark on the bottom of his foot that would allow Tait and Finn to track him.
Ten days: that was what they’d agreed on. Ten days to find Grabak, and then Tait and Finn would get them out. The yotun who’d made the yot mark for them claimed the magic was good for twelve days after the mark on the wafer-thin, waxy disk had been absorbed into the skin. But two days had already passed. He gritted his teeth. Eight days left. He could handle eight days, even in an iron-plagued cell. If his friends hadn’t come by then . . .
That wouldn’t happen. They would come.
And they had the other yot mark—the wooden one that would burn through stone and metal. They’d get him out.
Benit gave him a shove, and the two of them started walking down the corridor as the other guard locked the door behind them.
Edrik peered more carefully into the cells in this gallery as he passed. Twelve cells, six on each side of the corridor. Five men—none of which were Grabak—settled in their cells for the long term.
Grabak had to be somewhere! They were running out of time. And Edrik could not fail. Not at this.
At the far end of the gallery, an open archway led to a small watch room where a guard sat whittling beside a glowing brazier. He looked up when Benit and Edrik approached, frowning as he took in Edrik’s state of undress. “What’s this? Another for the Mudge?”
Benit grunted an affirmative.
The guard rose, shaking his head. “Won’t please ’im. Likes it quiet down there.”
Benit grunted again and waited while the other guard unlocked yet another door at the back of the watch room.
The new passageway was more a narrow tunnel than a corridor. The stone was roughhewn and veined with the deep red of the iron ore that ran through the surrounding land like tainted blood. Edrik stumbled as Benit shoved him through the door, and his skin crawled when the rattle of the key in the lock behind them echoed back from the darkness ahead.
Something felt wrong.
Benit paused just inside the door, swearing softly, and Edrik realized the man must be waiting for his eyes to adjust. Edrik, whose eyes were better suited for darkness, could make out a faint glow coming from around a curve in the tunnel ahead.
Benit shoved, and Edrik moved toward the light, wincing when his shoulder brushed against an ore vein in the wall. The curve in the passageway turned out to be the top of a winding staircase that spiraled down into the heart of the stone beneath the keep. The light was a pale, reflected beam that made its way up the staircase by way of a series of bronze mirrors embedded into the stone walls.
Edrik sensed the weight of iron pressing in all around him, and the thought of going deeper made his stomach churn. But if Grabak really was in Shrike’s Hollow, this was exactly the sort of place they would keep him. And Finn and Tait would come for him. Eight days.
Edrik drew a deep breath and ground the yot mark on his foot against the stone, just to be sure, then moved ahead down the stairs before Benit could shove him again. At the bottom of the stairway, Edrik froze, breath catching in his throat. The low archway that led into the next block of cells was covered, lintel, posts, and threshold, with dwarrow runes. And something smelled of death. He staggered back a step.
Benit had anticipated the move and prodded Edrik in the back, grinding the iron-clad end of his cudgel into Edrik’s still seeping wound.
Edrik staggered and nearly fell as fire seared through his veins and bile rose in his throat. Benit shoved him again, and Edrik careened through the arch and crashed to the ground, unable to catch himself with his bound hands.
Benit laughed. “Can’t run now. Door only goes one way for your kind. ’Less you’re dead.”
He caught hold of the rope that circled Edrik’s neck and yanked him up to his knees, then bellowed, “Hoy, Mudge!”
While Benit waited for a response, Edrik took stock. He hadn’t expected the runes. But Tait’s yot mark would burn through stone; it would get them past the dwarrow work. It would have to—unless there was another way out. He scanned the room. There were four big cells, two on each side of a wide central aisle. Rough stone walls formed three sides of each cell, but the front walls consisted of iron bars running from floor to ceiling, spaced a hand-span or so apart. The light came from a glowing orb fastened to the ceiling in the center of the aisle—more dwarrow work.
One of the cells on the near end of the block was occupied by a leering bearded fellow who reeked of unwashed human. In the cell on the opposite side of the aisle, a well-muscled, dark-haired man wearing trousers and an unbuttoned shirt lounged comfortably on a stone ledge at the back of the cell, slowly turning the pages of a book. He looked up in annoyance at the interruption, and Edrik’s heart surged in triumph. Grabak!
Edrik’s exultation was short-lived, however. A movement in the cell beyond Grabak’s caught his eye, and his heart froze in his chest.
How could Finn be here?
Edrik stared. Even stripped and shaven, the man couldn’t be mistaken for anyone but Finn. Edrik’s mouth popped open, then closed when Finn frowned grimly. Edrik looked to the cell across from Finn and back again. Finn gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and flicked his gaze toward the far end of the aisle.
There, another rune-carved archway opened into what appeared to be a workroom of some sort. Shelves lined the walls, filled with books, boxes, and jars. A fire burned cozily on a small hearth. A desk stood in the middle of the floor, cluttered with odds and ends. And off to one side, a robed figure straightened from bending over something that was laid out on a long work table. The robed figure was presumably the Mudge, whoever or whatever that was.
And the thing on the table, half flayed, with its innards pulled out and carefully arranged around it on an oilcloth was—or at least had been—Tait!
Kneeling on the cold stone floor and staring at what was left of his friend, Edrik worked to master himself enough to keep his expression neutral and assess the situation. His escape plan was in ruins. Tait was dead. They’d all be dead soon if he couldn’t come up with another way out. What happened next was important; he had to focus. He shifted his gaze to the Mudge and forced himself to breathe.
Edrik didn’t know what he’d expected a Mudge to be, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t this. The Mudge was probably human. His softly bronzed skin, thin, angular face, and shrewd black eyes certainly looked human, though most of the humans in this town were fairer. Edrik thought the fellow smelled like a human too, but it was hard to tell through the stench of the human prisoner.
The Mudge seemed unaffected by all the iron, and that narrowed the possibilities. But he was too slight to be a dwarrow, too short to be a yotun, and not nearly elegant enough to be alfkin. Maybe some kind of hobgoblin. The tangled mess of black hair would certainly fit with such a creature, as would the dingy, shapeless garment the Mudge wore. But a thing as hairy as a hobgoblin would certainly not have smooth cheeks that looked as if they had never met a razor. No, the Mudge was human—but he must be a rather young one not to have a beard, still just a boy. Too young for this sort of work, surely.
The Mudge gave Edrik a quick once-over and then directed an impatient scowl at Benit. “Another one?”
Benit grunted and tugged the rope around Edrik’s neck a little tighter.
The Mudge sighed and scrutinized Edrik more closely. “Almost pale enough for a draug, but that might just be from the iron. Bit lumpy in the face—more likely from rough handling than nature, though, I think.” The boy frowned. “Three says he’s another drake. What say you, Benit?”
“Meh. Could be, but we already got two dragons this week, what’s the odds another drake would show? And the way it jumped Egil . . .” Benit paused, thinking. “Ach. I’ll go two it’s a troll. Look at the size of ’im.”
The Mudge shrugged. “Big for a dragon, small for a troll, but I’ll take it. What about you, Stig? I’ll give you mutton to music he’s a drake.”
From the corner of his eye, Edrik saw Grabak slide off the stone ledge and move to the iron bars at the front of his cell. “That’s not a wager I’ll take,” the old Drake said in a low rumble. “He looks too much like his father. But I’ll play for you later if you like.”
The Mudge grinned, a flash of even, white teeth. “Mutton tonight anyway. Spoke with Cook earlier.”
Grabak grunted. “Remind me sometime to teach you how to lay a proper wager.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Mudge shrugged and turned back to Edrik’s captor. “You heard the man, Benit, he’s a drake. Pay up.”
“Pah!” Benit exclaimed. “You expect me to take that thing’s word for it?”
Mudge rolled his eyes. “Fine, then, check his teeth.”
“You check his teeth.” Benit protested. “I ain’t getting bit by a drake. Or a troll neither.”
Mudge shrugged again. “Hold him.”
Benit tucked his cudgel behind his belt. Then he cinched the rope so tight Edrik could hardly breathe, braced his hip against the back of Edrik’s head, and placed his other beefy hand on Edrik’s forehead. Mudge prodded Edrik under the chin. “Open up, drake.”
When Edrik clamped his mouth more tightly closed, Mudge grabbed him firmly by the nose, cutting off his air. Edrik wriggled. He should have been able to throw the guard off easily, but between the ropes and the oppressive iron, he only succeeded in making Benit laugh at him before he had to open his mouth, gasping for breath.
Mudge’s fingers deftly caught at Edrik’s lips, pushing them out of the way. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Double canines. Definitely a drake. Pay up.”
Benit swore. “I’ll bring it round tonight. You know I’m good for it. Where you want this baggage?”
Mudge shrugged and turned away, pulling a wad of keys from some pocket in the depths of his robe. Edrik thought he saw a rat poke its head up out of the robe’s hood, which hung down the boy’s back, but before he was certain, whatever it was disappeared into the nest of tangled hair that straggled over Mudge’s shoulders.
“Only one cell empty,” said the Mudge. “You bring any more in, and we’ll have to start stacking them like cordwood.”
Benit shifted back, tugging the rope to get Edrik to stand up. Instead, Edrik twisted and dropped. The rope wrenched his shoulders and clamped down on his neck, strangling him, but his sweeping leg knocked Benit’s feet out from under him, and the rope slackened again as the guard crashed to the stone floor.
Edrik continued his motion into a somewhat awkward roll that still managed to put him in position to launch a kick at Mudge when the boy turned back.
The Mudge was quick and twisted aside in time. Unfortunately for the boy, his dodge brought him too close to the human prisoner’s cell, and with a shrieking cackle, the filthy creature snagged a handful of the Mudge’s robe. Mudge drew a breath to yell, but the prisoner slammed the skinny dungeon keeper against the iron bars and clamped a grubby hand over the boy’s mouth. With a terrified squeak, something furry squirmed out of the Mudge’s hair and landed, scrabbling, on the stone floor.
Edrik blinked, startled. It had been a rat.
Benit was cursing and scrambling to get up, so Edrik kicked the guard squarely in the face before squirming over to press his back against Finn’s cell. His friend’s nimble fingers went to work on the ropes as Edrik used the bars to lever himself to his feet, ignoring the burning itch of the iron against his skin.
“Hurry,” Edrik said.
“What about the runes?” Finn muttered back.
“Sun and stars, Finn, one thing at a time!”
Benit was scraping himself off the floor again, face thunder dark, blood streaming from his nose.
Across the aisle, the Mudge thrashed frantically, trying to get free of the big hand that now covered both nose and mouth, suffocating him. Edrik almost felt sorry for the boy—until he remembered Tait.
One hand came free of the ropes, and Edrik rapidly worked the cramped muscles of his arm while Finn’s fingers played over the knots that still bound Edrik’s other wrist to the cord around his neck.
Benit was back on his feet.
“Too late,” Edrik muttered.
Finn swore as the guard pulled his cudgel from his belt and started for Edrik.
Edrik dodged Benit’s blow, and Finn leapt back as the cudgel struck sparks from the iron bars.
Edrik and Benit circled, watching each other warily, poised for the next attack. Behind Edrik, the human prisoner bellowed, and Benit’s eyes refocused beyond Edrik’s shoulder. Edrik took advantage of the guard’s distraction and lunged—only to be brought up short as the rope around his neck snapped taut. The unexpected check threw Edrik off balance, and he landed flat on his back, staring up into the blood-smeared face of the Mudge.
The Mudge spat out blood—and something else that thumped softly against the stone. “Stay down,” he suggested hoarsely, dropping the rope just before Benit’s boot slammed into Edrik’s ribs.
Edrik rolled again; pain lanced through his side as he scrabbled to get back on his feet, but Benit’s boot landed between his shoulders, crushing him to the floor. The iron tip of Benit’s cudgel mashed into the open wound on Edrik’s back, sending the sickening burn of iron scorching through his body. Benit held him there until Edrik’s convulsive retching had subsided into weak spasms, and Edrik found himself dimly grateful that he hadn’t eaten properly for the past few days.
At last, Mudge’s quiet voice said, “Enough, Benit.”
The guard left the cudgel in place a moment longer, then backed off, leaving Edrik trembling on the floor. He lay there for a heartbeat, panting, then used his free arm to try to push himself to his feet. He barely made it to his knees.
The Mudge crouched down, keeping a safe distance, to look him in the face. “Finished?” he asked.
Edrik only glared back at the boy. He wouldn’t be finished until he got out and took Finn and Grabak with him. But it didn’t seem wise to say so.
“Have you got a name?” the boy asked.
Mudge shrugged. “Meh. Magic things never do. At least not that they’ll answer to. I think I’ll call you . . . Rolf.” He turned to Grabak. “What do you think, Stig? Is Rolf a good name for him?”
Grabak chuckled but didn’t answer.
A scrabbling sound off to one side announced the return of the rat. Mudge held out a hand, and the creature scampered up his arm to his shoulder, where it snuggled into the curve of his neck. The boy stroked the rat and made soothing noises. Then something on the floor caught his attention—the thing he’d spat out earlier. He picked it up and offered it to the rat, who took it and began to gnaw.
Edrik realized with horror that the thing was a man’s finger, bitten off at the second joint. His gaze flew past Mudge to the cell behind him. The human prisoner huddled, rocking, in the back corner, clutching one hand in the other against his chest; blood seeped out between his fingers. So that was how the Mudge had gotten free. Edrik looked back up at the young dungeon keeper. Had he underestimated the boy?
Mudge grinned back and wiped the heel of one hand across his blood-smeared mouth. Then he rose and stretched. “Let’s get Rolf into his new quarters, Benit,” he said nonchalantly. “I don’t think he’s feeling well.”