Edrik was grateful Mudge had the sense to untie his feet first. He hadn’t realized just how much of his weight was being supported by the ropes until his first arm came loose and he staggered, twisting, away from the bars. When Mudge freed his other arm, the pain that shot through Edrik’s body as his ribs shifted stole his breath and buckled his knees. He caught himself with his other arm before he crumpled completely to the floor and knelt there, panting, while the stabbing pain drew back on itself and settled in his side. An itching burn seeped into his skin from the iron collar, and he sensed the heaviness of the iron ore all around him, but at least the bars weren’t pressed against his back anymore. He drew a steadying breath.
Behind him, tools clicked and rattled as the skinny dungeon keeper gathered up his things.
Faintly, from the next cell, the human prisoner whined, “What about me? Ain’t you gonna stitch me up too?”
“No.” Mudge’s voice was quiet and matter-of-fact, but it held an edge of stone.
“But—” the prisoner whined.
“I don’t like you,” Mudge interrupted conversationally. “You stink. You have fleas. You killed three women, and you tried to kill me.”
“Aw,” wheedled the prisoner, “I weren’t gonna kilt ya, boy. I were jest keeping ya out a them other fellows’ way. Ya see?”
Mudge snorted derisively. “Look on the bright side. Tomorrow, they’ll hang you. After that, you won’t care how many fingers you have, and I won’t care if you tried to raise your victim count to four.” The dungeon keeper’s feet scuffed softly as he rose and started toward the workroom.
“Five!” barked the prisoner.
Mudge’s footsteps stopped.
“I kilt five of ’em.” The prisoner sounded smug this time. “Nobody care if a couple a wharf whores turn up in a gutter. Nobody care ’til it’s respeckable girls gone missing. But I kin tell ya, them respeckable girls ain’t no different from wharf whores under they clothes. Not even that fancy miss from the keep. They all the same under they clothes. All five of ’em.”
Mudge halted. This time the boy’s voice was veined with iron. “If you speak again, filth, I will stitch your lips shut for you.”
After that, there was only silence, except for the soft sounds of Mudge shuffling back to the workroom and puttering about a bit before returning to shove a blanket between the bars of Edrik’s cell.
The surge of adrenaline that had sustained Edrik through the fight had dissipated as he listened to Grabak’s story, and a terrible, trembling lassitude had seeped in behind it. The blanket looked inviting, but the amount of effort he’d have to expend to retrieve it felt absurdly overwhelming, so he just stared listlessly at the crumple of thick wool.
He must have looked pitiful because after a long, silent pause, another blanket landed around his shoulders, startling him into a flinch. Pain stabbed through his side when his muscles tensed, and he gasped. Pathetic.
A furious rapping sound ruptured the quiet of the dungeon.
Mudge drew a deep breath and moved calmly to unlock a door at the back of the workroom. Edrik shifted, careful of his rib, closer to the bars for a better view, as a tall, spindly man with thinning hair burst into the workroom.
“This time you’ve gone too far, Mudge!” The man stuck a bony finger in the young dungeon keeper’s face. That seemed unwise to Edrik, considering what had happened to the human prisoner.
Mudge, however, only bowed respectfully and spoke with controlled formality. “Master Steward, I’m quite astounded to see you. I regret to have caused you displeasure. Would you be kind enough to explain my offense?”
The steward huffed and began pacing back and forth across the room. “You know very well what I mean, boy. Gerd is blistered over half his face and both of his hands, as well as . . . in other sensitive areas of his person. This has got to stop.”
“Gerd?” Mudge’s eyebrows rose in puzzlement.
The steward’s eyes narrowed. “The new night overseer, Mudge. Everyone knows it was you.”
“Sir,” Mudge said calmly. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but I’ve been down here all day working on that one.” Mudge waved a hand at Tait’s mutilated remains. “I haven’t even seen Gerd since he brought his prisoner down last night.”
The steward stopped pacing and rounded on Mudge.
“I know that,” he grumbled. “You don’t think I questioned the door guards? I can’t prove it, but I know it was you. And it has to stop.”
Mudge spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “If you’d like to send Gerd down here, I can try to determine the cause of the blisters and see if I have a salve that might—”
He cut off abruptly as the steward stuck his angry finger in Mudge’s face again, tempting fate.
“Stop!” he snarled. “Just . . . stop.”
A soft creaking noise edged into the tense silence, and both Mudge and the steward turned to look as a lad of perhaps ten or twelve years old peered around the edge of the workroom door.
“Mudge?” he said softly, and then stopped, looking back and forth between Mudge and the steward.
“What is it, Ket?” Mudge asked.
The boy shifted uncertainly from foot to foot. “Quartermaster’s man is here. Needs your mark ’fore he can unload.”
Mudge nodded. “Thank you, Ket. Please tell him I will be with him as soon as the master steward is finished with me.”
The steward heaved an aggravated sigh. “I’m finished. Don’t do it again, Mudge.”
“As you say, sir.” Mudge bowed again, and the steward swept back out through the door.
Ket waited while the steward’s pounding footsteps receded, then cleared his throat.
“Something else, Ket?” asked Mudge.
“Cook says tell ya he dosed the sick pig like ya said, and the remedy is workin’ fine.”
A grin spread across the dungeon keeper’s face. “I just heard. Shall we go see about the quartermaster’s man?”
They went out, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Edrik gritted his teeth and twisted just enough to look for Grabak. The old Drake was still at the back of his cell where Edrik couldn’t see him. Across the aisle, Finn paced back and forth behind the bars of his cell, muttering under his breath and scrubbing a hand over the dark, uneven stubble on his scalp.
“Finn!” Edrik kept his voice to a loud whisper, trying to catch his friend’s attention without drawing the notice of anyone who might still be just outside the door.
Finn stopped pacing and glared at Edrik. Then the muscles of his jaw softened, and he asked just as quietly, “You all right?”
Edrik waved a dismissive hand. “What happened?”
Finn sank to the floor at the front of his cell and scrubbed his hands over his face. “They found our camp the night after you left. We were scouting for firewood and rabbits, and when we got back, they were waiting for us. Tait tried to ascend, but they caught him mid-change with an iron spear, and . . . and he reverted with the spear still inside him.”
Edrik swallowed hard and looked away. If Tait had completed his transformation, the spear wouldn’t have penetrated his scales, but caught mid-ascension—even if it hadn’t killed him outright, the pain and shock of it would have paralyzed him long enough for the humans to finish him off.
They sat in silence for a few heartbeats. Then Finn said, “We have to get out of here. Now. The solstice—”
“I know,” Edrik growled. “Thirty-two days. Don’t you think I’m counting every one of them? We’ll get out. It isn’t as if we haven’t broken out of a dungeon before. More than once.”
“Before, we had Tait. And you had your belt and boots.”
More specifically, Edrik knew, Finn meant they’d had the lock picks Edrik kept hidden in the seams of his boots and the wire saw he had threaded through his belt between the layers of leather. In this dungeon, they didn’t have so much as a boot nail to dig with. And there were the dwarrow runes . . . and . . .
“We’ll think of something,” Edrik said grimly.
He glanced at the workroom door and raised one hand to examine his collar. The twisted band curved around his neck and rested heavily against his collar bones. His fingers skimmed the twining grooves of the dwarrow runes engraved on the surface and stopped to probe the latch point at the base of his throat. The ends of the band met in a complex pattern of interlocking spirals that seemed to be fused into each other. “It won’t come off until I take it off,” Mudge had said. “That’s what the runes are for.” Edrik sighed his frustration and let his hand drop. Blasted, rimy dwarrow magic.
“What are you doing here in the first place?” Grabak had come to the front of his cell and was scowling at Edrik between the bars.
Edrik cleared his throat self-consciously. “Rescuing you.”
“Foolish.” The old Drake snorted. “What was your father thinking to allow it?”
Edrik steeled himself to answer. “My father has been dead these two years past.”
A low hiss was all the response Grabak offered to that. The old dragon’s voice was more solemn when he spoke again. “I take it your plan for getting out is no longer feasible.”
“We’ll think of something.” Edrik leaned against the bars, letting the burn of the iron help focus his mind “What can you tell me that might help? Does the Mudge have a price? Or one of the other guards? Do they ever open the cells to clean them? Or take us out for exercise? Do these drains go anywhere useful if we can enlarge the openings? What about the Thane, would he—”
Grabak’s sardonic chuckle interrupted. “Five years I’ve been asking myself those questions. Nearly six. Do you think I’d still be here if I knew an easy way to get out?”
“We’ll think of something,” Edrik insisted. “Mudge said we have two weeks before the Thane returns. You seem friendly with the boy, what if you—”
“No!” It came out in a rumbling growl, and Grabak retreated to the back of his cell.
After another short silence, Finn cleared his throat and tried again. “We still need a plan.”
“I know.” Edrik glowered at his friend. “I suppose they took all the weapons? My father’s sword?”
“I’m sorry.” Finn hung his head. “There was no time to hide it.”
Edrik swallowed a hiss. “And what happened to Tait’s yot mark?”
“Burned it,” Mudge said cheerily as he bustled in through the workroom door. “Can’t have a thing like that sitting around down here, now can I?”
How much had he heard?
The dungeon keeper locked the door and settled at the desk, making careful notes in a large ledger.
No one in the dungeon said anything after that until the kitchen boy, Ket, returned with the supper kettle, and Mudge set a tin cup filled with water and a wooden bowl of mutton stew just inside the bars of Edrik’s cell. There was no spoon—which he might have used to chip away at the stone at the base of the bars or to make a crude weapon with—but a heel of bread was wedged over one side of the bowl.
Edrik stared at the food for a long moment before he decided that Mudge wouldn’t poison them since he was saving them for the questioner. He gritted his teeth and reached out to drag the bowl closer. The bread was easier on his empty stomach than the stew, so he ate that first, slowly, letting his body adjust.
He was still eating when Mudge returned to collect the bowls. The dungeon keeper frowned down at Edrik, evidently not liking what he saw. Edrik ignored him and kept eating.
Mudge went back into the workroom and returned a few minutes later to set another tin cup on the floor just outside the bars of Edrik’s cell.
“It’ll help with the pain,” he said, “but it will also make you sleep a long time. You decide.” The boy peered up at the white dwarrow light in the ceiling and shrugged. “It’ll be dark soon anyway.”
The light did seem to be dimming; it must be the kind that was tied to the sun. Steam drifted lazily off the dark liquid pooled in the bottom of the tin cup. Edrik’s ribs hurt. The wound in his back hurt. His head hurt from all the iron pressing in on him. His whole body ached from the weeks of hard travel that had brought them here. He needed rest if he was going to be able to travel like that again once they got out—real rest, not the shallow, sporadic dozing he’d managed the last few days. And food; the stew sat in his unaccustomed stomach like a burning stone.
Time was short, though; Finn was right about that. The solstice was drawing ever closer. And their escape plan was as dead as Tait.
Edrik sighed and rubbed a hand over the uneven stubble on his scalp. Tait. That was his fault. He should never have gotten his friends involved in this.
He gritted his teeth and pushed himself to his feet, pretending to ignore the fireball of pain that lanced through his ribs when he moved. He paced the length of the bars, examining every inch of the dungeon that he could see in the dimming dwarrow light. He had to find a way out. Past the bars. Past the runes. Past the strange little human dungeon keeper. But he had no tools. Nothing to work with. And Grabak didn’t seem inclined to help. Did he even want to go home?
Edrik couldn’t think. He couldn’t think. He leaned over slowly, biting down hard on a moan, to pick up the cup. It had stopped steaming. How long would he sleep if he drank it?
Finn saw him pick it up and leapt to his feet. “You can’t!”
“I have to sleep.”
“No.” Finn peered into the workroom, where Mudge’s head was bent over his ledgers, and whispered, “You have to get us out of here.”
Edrik scowled at his friend. “We can’t go anywhere tonight.” He kept his voice low, glancing over at the dungeon keeper. “And I have to sleep, Finn.” He raised the cup to his lips.
“No!” Finn slammed the heel of one hand hard against a bar, making the iron ring out.
Mudge raised his head and watched with interest as Edrik drained the cup and tossed it out through the bars before turning his back on Finn’s disapproval.
Edrik tugged the blanket closer as he shuffled over to the ledge at the back of the cell. He had barely settled his aching, trembling body on the ledge, which was blessedly free of exposed ore veins, when the wave of muzzy darkness washed over him, pulling him along in its current down into a quiet place where the pain faded away and Lissara waited with her golden hair and sweet, secret smiles. He would see her again. Soon. They had found Grabak. Now they just needed to find a way out.