NaNoWriMo approacheth! I don’t know if I can do a full-fledged NaNo this year, what with school and work, but I’ll give it a shot. What do you think this year’s NaNoWriMo should be?
Tag Archives: phaedra
An intensely rocky start back into LfBH, so I hope you’ll forgive me. A more action-packed piece will be up on Monday. Thanks to everyone who enjoys LfBH for your patience. <3 LfBH is nothing without you.
There was little time. The skies, even here, were a dismal gray, as if Blackford Hill was reaching out to offer its misery like a plague upon the people of the small village. Every time a guard entered the village, he brought with him a depressing silence that lasted for hours after he left. Phaedra knew that their presence was wearing thin on the residents here, and so, once they were healed enough to move about safely, she proposed they leave.
Felix was unhappy. He knew his father would be looking for him. He knew that this wasn’t over for him, and if Silas insisted on tagging along (which he knew he would), then things would be very dangerous for him, indeed. As far as the young Count was concerned, his life had been thrown away the moment he set the flame to that temple. The gallows were the place for him, but Silas had a chance at a new life.
Tully, on the other hand, was eager to be out of here; eager to be as far away from their prison hellhole as humanly possible. She wanted to go home. She wanted to be where it was safe, warm, and dry. She wanted Phae and a life of their own.
Standing at the mouth of the village, where the only broad road led in, the stonework ending at the edge of the populated area and melding into packed dirt, Phaedra shouldered a crude canvas bag with a single strap over her shoulder, and glanced to Tully.
“I’m ready…” Tully responded to the wordless request. “I don’t want to leave them behind, Phae, can’t they come with us?”
Phaedra sighed. “They’re a liability to us, just as we are to them. It’s safer for everyone if we split up. We need the best chance possible at not being picked up again.”
“I suppose that means we’re not going back to The Willow?”
“It’s fine, Phae… it’s fine. Let’s go, alright? We’re losing daylight.” Tully turned to face the road, just as Silas came bounding up behind them, a hand falling heavily on Phae’s shoulder, accompanied by a good-natured laugh.
“Thought you’d run off just like that, yeah? I don’t think so,” Silas laughed as Felix sauntered up beside him, and cast his eyes away.
“We didn’t want to make this any harder,” Phae explained, and gave a faint smile as she turned. For as skeptical as she had been of these two men during their first hours together, she had gained more respect and affection for them during their time here than she had expected. They were good friends, even Felix, the mouthy pain in the ass. It was because they were good friends that they deserved a fair chance; it would be selfish to hold them back by traveling with them.
Tully threw her arms around Felix and kissed his cheek. “If we ever go back home, I’ll find a way to let you know. You can come visit. You’d love the bakery, Felix.”
Felix’s cheeks flared a bit red and he smiled faintly. Friendship had never been something he had been good at, but with Tully, it was so easy. She a sweet person with good intentions and a love for just about everyone.
“I’ll come visit with you, I promise. At the bakery, or elsewhere, I’ll find you when things settle, Tully. Maybe Silas will be with me.” Another faint smile.
“Don’t look so grudging. He likes you. Let him stay. You need someone to support you, Felix. You can’t possibly let yourself be miserable forever. Let him enjoy your company, and for the love of the Gods, try to enjoy his, hm?”
Another dark blush from Felix and he laughed. “It makes me feel guilty.”
“You shouldn’t. Go. We’ll talk again soon. I promise you.” She shoved him lightly, and turned to take Phaedra’s hand, a slight wave behind her to signal their departure. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she inclined her head, as if doing so would keep them from falling.
“It’s for the best,” Phaedra stated yet again, giving her hand a little squeeze. “It’s safer for all of us if we split up. And our work will take us to places where they have no business being.”
Sniffling in finality, Tully brought her hand across her eyes and nodded. “I know. And Felix has business with his father. I just hope he comes out of it in one piece.”
Phae gave a grim nod, and kissed her beloved’s fingers. “We all will.”
Felix cast a glance to Silas, his eyes sliding over him head to toe, and he gave a very bare, helpless smile. If Silas were ever to change his mind, Felix knew that it would be now and he would be left alone. Silas was a good man, and he knew that he liked him, but how could the Count expect someone like Silas to suffer his upper-class woes?
“That was hard, yeah?” Silas drawled, drawing on his cigarette and tossing it aside.
“Smoking is disgusting…” Felix muttered and turned toward him, pulling his cap over his head and meandering alongside Silas.
“I know. So, what’s the plan, Count?”
Felix rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know. Go to my father. Kill him. Take what he doesn’t deserve and try like hell to do some sort of good with it, I expect. We need to do something about Blackford Hill.”
Silas slipped a hand discreetly into his and tugged him between two buildings, where he promptly stole his lips in a reassuring kiss. “Let’s do that, then.”
Felix swallowed hard and stared at him, before he dropped his eyes to their clasped hands. “Let’s,” he breathed with a faint nod. “Yes. Well, to my father’s then.”
With a single glance back to the departing women as he came out of the narrow alley, Felix drew a breath and pulled Silas down the road in the opposite direction.
Two posts in one day, I know, I’m flooding you guys!
This is important, though, and it concerns you all, my amazing awesome readers. <3 I have a project in the works in my head, and I need your input. I’m going to be trying a spiffy self-pubbing venture and I need to know what you think. Should I edit and revamp LfBH and put that in print, or do you want to see a completely new piece of fiction from me?
I’ll be using IndieGoGo to raise funds to have the project completed and given decent cover art. This is your chance to see LfBH in hard copy (or something else if you’ve all had enough of LfBH!)
Opinions, please! <3
The small village they’d managed to find was a godsend. The people were so sympathetic and willing to help. Silas was just waiting for someone to yell ‘Surprise!’ and burst in, yanking them out of this safe haven. A safe haven that was a barn. Felix hadn’t stopped complaining since they arrived, but Silas was just happy to have a dry place to lay his head. After all, the townspeople were kind enough to give them first aid supplies and food, even a pile of blankets to soften the hay beds and keep warm.
“If you die, I swear I’ll have you resurrected so I can personally beat you to death,” Felix said irritably as he wrapped Silas’ battered ribs, the bullet hole in his right shoulder was already doctored and patched the best Felix knew how. “I’m not a fucking doctor.”
“You’re not much a conversationist, either, Count,” Silas grinned, his face pale though he was making the effort to keep the other from worrying. Felix was an unpleasant little bastard when he was worried.
“I’ll talk how I want. If you need me to, I can just sit quiet an’ look pretty, but I got no one but you to impress out here.” He poked him in the ribs. “And I’d say you’re pretty impressed by my amazing act of heroism back there, huh?” Another grin.
“Shut up, you could have died.” Felix shoved his companion’s head back on the pile of hay. “You still could.”
Silas couldn’t help laughing, though it was through a grimace, a sense of humor didn’t do well for broken ribs.
“Hilarious, I know,” muttered Felix, shaking his head. “But… you know, thank you… for what you did. We’d never have gotten out without you and Phaedra. Even if we lost that girl they tried to save. I wasn’t happy about her being dragged along at first… but I never wanted to see that happen to her.”
“Me, either, but it’s not like we can go back now. We can’t let losing one person take us down. We have too much riding on this escape…. I’m not going back there, Felix, not for anyone.”
The Count only nodded somberly, patching up his companion to the best of his ability—which wasn’t exactly top notch. He was far from a doctor. In fact, the slightest scratches he’d retained as a child were tended to professionally. Tearing bullets out of living human flesh was nerve-wracking, stomach-churning, grueling and unpleasant work. Besides, Silas’ muffled screams into the folded up bridle they’d pulled off the barn wall were enough to make Felix’s hands shake so violently it was a small wonder he didn’t make things worse.
Once finished, the temporary doctor plopped down next to Silas and sighed, arms around his knees as he looked up into the spider-laden rafters. The whispers of Phaedra and Tully two stalls over caught his attention, though he couldn’t make out much of what they were saying. Sleeping in a barn, on damp hay, dirty and caked in flaking blood, his fingers stained from his tending to Silas…. Still it was better than Blackford Hill.
“You’re thinkin’ too hard.”
Felix glanced to Silas, who used what little strength he had to yank Felix down beside him, his unaffected arm looping around him to pull him against his chest.
“Don’t touch me,” Felix grumbled, though there was little weight behind it.
“Shhh, you’re ruining it.”
Felix rolled his eyes. He’d just ripped bits of metal out of the man, he still he was completely placid and ready to just go to sleep. “Shouldn’t you be in excruciating pain?”
“I am, and you’re making it worse by bitching. Shh.”
Felix had to admit, relaxing against the warmth of another body was a special sort of comfort. Or maybe it was just Silas’ body. If anyone else had put a hand on him at this point—well, it wouldn’t have been pretty.
“You trust me, don’t you?” he asked, tilting his head up a bit to look at Silas, before he propped himself up on one hand to he could look down at him.
“Why wouldn’t I? You planned this whole thing, and here I am, right? That’s not nothin’.”
Felix gave a little nod, though he didn’t seem satisfied. His eyes drifted down to to the bandage on his counterpart’s shoulder, his fingers brushing over the slowly-blooming bloodstain.
“What?” Silas stilled his hand, and kissed his fingers, dried blood and all.
Felix turned away, cheeks flaring red. “Nothing. Just worried. It’s a big plan. I don’t know if we can—”
“We can because you want it bad enough. It’s going to work out.” Again, Silas pulled him down and kissed the top of his head. “I trust you. Go to sleep.”
Felix rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue. “My father will know I escaped. He’ll know I have people with me.”
“Then we’ll compensate. If we can bring down your father, Felix, we can bring down Blackford Hill, and any other places like it in your father’s lordship.”
That was true. Felix wanted revenge more than anything, but his will for revenge was fading now that he was out. Now that the pressure of torture and starvation was lifted. Now that Silas wasn’t dying and he didn’t have the Overseer breathing down their necks about every little thing. Though, if removing his father from the equation brought the ruin of Blackford Hill, then it would be well worth pushing forward.
“Alright. We’ll continue with the plan,” he offered finally, and gave a small, resolute nod.
Silas smiled and gave the Count a firm squeeze. “Good. We’ll plan it out better if it puts you at ease. Just relax and sleep for now. We have time.”
Time. Just last night, time was what they were running short on. Now, they were reasonably safe, even if they had to move within a few days. They had time, and Silas trusted him. Satisfied in that, Felix finally closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Do you guys remember Stitches? It was the first flash fiction I wrote involving Phaedra and Tully. A Letter from Count Malrais was the first, and together, they sparked Letters from Blackford Hill. I had to add and alter a bit, but here’s Stitches, revisited. Enjoy. <3
“You haven’t even flinched.”
Phaedra’s eyes flicked up to catch a dreamy smile on her friend’s lips, before glancing back down again. The gash on her forearm pinched together at the top when Tully pulled the thread taut, tying off the third in a series of stitches.
“Would you rather I were howling in pain?” asked Phaedra, her voice soft as it always was, though for once a light humor crept into her tone. The woman was always so severe, Tully couldn’t help but worry for her sometimes.
“Of course not,” replied Tully, pressing the point of the curved needle through the split flesh. Still, Phae didn’t react. “I just… admire your strength.”
She was still smiling. Phaedra gave her head a light shake. Tully baffled her sometimes. It was a long fight to get out of that colony, free from the fences and the locks, and rifles trained on them every second of every day; still, Tully smiled. Even when they were captured, bound and carted off to that awful place, Tully still managed to smile. Fiona was left at the edge of the woods, lifeless. Phae knew Tully was pushing back the pain that dwelt there; the pain that exploded from her love when Fiona took that bullet. There were tears, tantrums, fury from everyone else, dozens of others all desperate for answers….
Tully tried to stay on the bright side.
Phaedra wasn’t aware of any bright side.
Their lives had gone completely out of control, all because they had chosen to share an inn room while Phaedra helped Tully find a cure for that awful cough she’d had. Fortunately, the cough was alleviated, but they had hardly gotten their things packed to go back to work at the bakery, when the door came crashing off the hinges—
Phaedra shook her head and sighed. Going back to the bakery seemed useless now. Would they go so far as to wait for Phae and Tully where they worked?
The small town they’d stumbled across in their escape had no knowledge of the horrors of Blackford Hill. They knew only that the government had a compound there, but were left in the dark about what was held within it. The soldiers made it clear that they would shoot anyone on sight if they came snooping around. Now, huddled in yet another inn room, together, though this time accompanied by Silas and Felix—two married couples on holiday? Could they pull that off?—Phae submitted to Tully’s pleas to stitch the gash in her arm, and rub balm on the bruises and scrapes.
It killed Phae to see the blond’s arm wrapped up in blood-stained linen. Tully deserved so much better.
“Done.” Tully started packing up her first aid kit, and Phaedra lifted her arm to look over the other woman’s handy work. The stitches were clean, and the cut wasn’t even bleeding through the gaps.
“Thanks,” murmured Phaedra, and grabbed a strip of cloth that had been torn from Tully’s underskirt, starting to wrap the newly-sewn arm. Torn and used clothing was suddenly a luxury she’d never appreciated before. “Where did you learn to do that, anyway?”
A sad smile was cast over Tully’s shoulder as she tucked her things away. “I wasn’t always a baker, Phae. Somehow, I don’t expect you were, either.”
Their eyes met, and a silence passed between them, understanding and steadying. Something in that silence earned a smile from Tully, and Phaedra’s eyes fell to the fabric on her arm.
“No. Not always.”
It took me a long time to write this. I hate it. It didn’t want to be written, and it killed me to trudge through. This is what I came out with, so this is what the blog is getting. Bleh. Onward, ho.
“I don’t trust them.”
Tully glanced over her shoulder at Phaedra as they began slinking through the dark, ankle-deep in mud. She could hardly blame her companion for her doubt, but if they stayed here because of mistrust, then they’d definitely die. At least this gave them some glimmer of a chance.
Or so she hoped.
“No one wants to stay here, Phae…. If we don’t trust them, who will we trust?” she whispered, but heard no response. Phaedra’s mind was more than just in the moment. It was terrifying to see her reacting to the lunacy they put them through here. Tully could see her rash actions, but something always told her there was more to it. Where they saw Phaedra reacting in the heat of the torture, Phaedra’s mind was five steps ahead of them. Nothing was ever put to chance with her.
She was vicious.
“Fine. But if they want to escape, and wind up getting in the way—”
“Don’t suggest it. Please,” Tully hissed, and kept walking toward that rickety porch on which she’d met Felix only hours earlier. Before they even rounded the corner of their own bunk house, Tully and Phaedra lurched forward, a force from behind knocking them both forward several steps. Tully gasped, and Phae spun around and pinned the culprit to a wall.
“Nonono! I’m sorry!” Fiona wailed in a hushed tone, cringing as she struggled against her own weight, Phaedra’s fists balled in her shirt.
“Are you crazy?” Phae scolded and let her go, watching Fiona slump a bit and burst into quiet tears.
“I’m sorry, I really am!” She sniffled, hugging herself against the cold. “You can’t leave me here, please… please don’t….”
Tully sighed, and rubbed her forehead with her fingers, trembling hard. “Come on, then. Be quiet. We can’t babysit you, Fiona, you have to handle this on your own, alright? When we move, you move, and if you fall behind—”
“I won’t! I won’t fall behind, Tully, I promise,” she sniffed again, and rubbed her eyes with the back of her sleeved hand.
Phaedra shook her head, and turned away, motioning them along. She loved Tully for her compassion, but it was likely to get them killed if they weren’t careful. Fiona was a sweet girl, but she was flighty and panicked easily. ‘Babysitting’ was a very accurate word for what this would turn into, Phae was sure.
The gray, illusory feel of dusk enveloped them as they passed around the bunk houses and through the mud pits, braced against the cold. It felt like an eternity before they finally reached that tilted old porch, Tully leading the way onto the sloped platform. Felix and Silas were pressed against the wall, speaking quietly, until Silas spotted the three women and nodded in their direction. Felix turned and drew a breath.
“You made it,” he smiled a little to Tully, and opened the door behind them. It was dark, and Silas slid in on his hands and knees, setting up a few candle nubs and lighting them with a pilfered match.
“We did. We brought Fiona,” whispered Tully, and glanced back to the quaking redhead behind her.
Felix looked them all over and gave a nod. “That’s more than I expected, but I think we can compensate. Come in.”
The three women followed the pair into the shack that had, as far as Tully knew, gone unused since their arrival. When they stepped inside, dusty crates with clothing hanging out over their edges loomed in the dim twilight. Glancing down at herself, Phaedra cursed, touching the filthy bag-like dress she was wearing. It was ridiculous that they kept these things in bulk. How many more people were they expecting here?
Phae glanced over to see Felix on his knees in the center of the room, spreading things out amongst the stubby candles. Pages and even a pencil pilfered from the office were laid out neatly in minutes, and Felix drew a deep, steadying breath.
“We need to make this quick before someone sees the candle light through the windows.” He slid his hands over a page. “These are all parts of one map, and we managed to arrange them together. Look. This is Blackford Hill, here.” He tapped a finger against a fenced octagon on the map. “We’re right here.” His fingers slid over a little black rectangle, and gave it a little tap. “It puts us close enough to the fence to make a break for it. The mud has gotten so out of hand just behind this building that it’s made one of the fence posts sink a little. If we can dig under the fence while the ground is soft, we can make it into these woods here.” Another tap of his finger and he slid it through a patch of puffy-looking treetops.
“Fantastic plan, but what’s beyond those woods?” Phae asked, staring Felix down. “We can’t just run off blindly—”
“The river,” stated Silas, arms folded as he leaned on the wall behind his companion. “If you follow the river north, it leads to a small town—the one I was taken from. I’ve got friends there. We’ll be alright if we can make it.”
Sated, Phaedra gave a small nod, and looked over the map. “What else do we need?”
“Nothing. It’s risky, but it’s now or never,” Felix replied, gathering up the pages and folding them, stuffing them under one of the crates as Silas leaned down to blow out their candles.
Fiona’s hand slid into Tully’s and gave a squeeze, trembling a bit. Tully smiled weakly, and pulled Fiona into a gentle hug, conscious of her injuries.
“It’s going to be fine. We’re getting out of here, I promise.”
“Can… I stay with you and Phae? I don’t have anywhere to go,” Fiona whispered, tears welling in her eyes as she slid her arms around Tully.
Glancing to Phae, Tully offered a pleading look, earning a small nod from her love. “Of course you can,” she answered without missing a beat, pulling back and tucking a bit of hair behind Fiona’s ear.
“Probably shouldn’t dilly dally here, kids,” noted Silas, tugging the door open and letting Felix out ahead of him. “I expect we’ve drawn a bit of unwanted attention. You hear ‘em?”
Phae cringed. “I hear them. Come on, let’s go.” She snatched Tully’s hand, and dragged her and Fiona off the porch at an awkward jog behind her. “We’re ill-prepared. We should have found a means of getting provisions.”
“It’s an escape, not a camping trip,” muttered Silas, wading through the ankle deep mud without a moment’s hesitation. The fence post dipped where they said it would, leaving the chain-link warped and sunk beneath the mud. It was almost imperceptible, hidden behind the storage building with the rickety porch. No one would have guessed—unless they were looking for a way out.
Felix dropped to his knees by the fence and started pulling handfuls of mud away,piling it as best he could at his side. As Felix dug, Silas pulled at the fencing, tugging it back with grunts and groans, his hands bruised and bleeding as he used all of his strength. Phae stood beside him, wrapping her fingers around the links as she pulled along with him. Tully was beside Felix, digging frantically, pushing and pulling mud from under the fence, creating a gap.
“Fiona, slide under…” Tully panted, smearing some mud from her cheek with an equally filthy forearm. “If you can get under, you can push the fence while they pull and Felix and I can get through and push it so Phae and… and—”
“Silas,” Felix corrected as he caught his breath.
“Silas can slide under behind us.”
Fiona gave a faint nod, and crawled beneath the fencing, sliding through the mud with a groan. On the other side, she threw all of her weight into the woven wire, shoving Phae and Silas back a few steps. Though, once they got back to pulling, the fence lifted and Felix shoved Tully through.
Sirens sounded, the five escapees stopped dead in their tracks. Men with guns were pouring in from all sides, schlucking through the mud like a stampede of horses. The night had closed in, and all they could see were the flashes of gun metal, belt buckles, and coat buttons in the moonlight like glowing eyes in the darkness—advancing.
“Felix, go,” Silas said, and shoved the count with his foot. “Go! I’ll be right behind you!”
“I’m not leaving you—”
“You’re not! I’ll be right behind you!” Silas grabbed Phae’s arm, and she swiftly disengaged him. Shocked, he stared at her. “We don’t have time for this.”
“You’re going to need all the help you can get,” stated Phae, unflinching, staring him down. The guards were closing in, and a shot rang out—still Phae didn’t move.
“Fuck! Fine! Felix, take the girls out of here!”
Felix cursed, and sprang to his feet, snatching the front of Silas’ shirt and yanking him forward, their lips crushing together in a quick, frantic kiss. “Hurry the fuck up.” He stated and ducked under the fence, grabbing both girls by the arm and dragging them along.
“Phae!” Tully shouted. “Phaedra!”
“Stop it!” Felix yanked her again, tugging them into the trees where Fiona finally collapsed and wept. “We have to keep moving.”
“We have to wait for them,” Tully snapped, arms sliding around Fiona, rocking gently with her. “I thought you had some grand plan. This was the most half-assed—”
“I did what I could with what I had!”
“And now Phae and Silas are fighting a ton of men with guns! They’re unarmed, Felix!” Tully cried out, holding Fiona a little tighter.
Felix leaned against a tree and scrubbed his face with his palms. Tully was worried for Phaedra, he knew that. He knew how she felt, though his sudden affection for Silas only irritated him a little, on top of making him sick to his stomach when he thought of what might be happening to him right now. Sliding down, he leaned back on the tree truck, and swallowed hard. “They’ll find us here.”
“They won’t. Just… be quiet and wait,” she whispered, stroking Fiona’s hair as the girl finally started settling down.
The gunshots were numbing, Tully only closed her eyes, praying that Phaedra would make it through, and would burst past the trees any moment. She didn’t mind running. She could keep running from those soldiers all night if it meant Phaedra would come through alright.
The knot of soldiers rushing them was a little alarming, but Phaedra didn’t care. They had worked too hard and come too far trying to get Tully better, then make it through this mess. This hellish place wouldn’t survive. It wouldn’t be allowed to keep doing this to people. Good, innocent people, lumping the best with the worst, corralling decent citizens and labeling them, torturing them, treating them like defective livestock.
Glancing to Silas, Phae watched him draw a breath, and take on the first of the dozen or so that were charging them. Everything slowed down. Phae looked around, she could feel her lungs heaving, her heart pounding, the rush of the air around her—and before she knew it, she was in the thick of the fight, throwing men off of Silas, dodging rifles and bayonets, trying to keep behind the men around them to avoid the bullets flying from those that weren’t.
Her eyes darted to Silas, who had yanked up the fence, a stolen rifle in his hand. With a stout nod, she bolted for the fence, bruised and bleeding, aching in places she had no idea had been hit. Rolling under the fence, she darted up the hill as her very new acquaintance dropped the woven metal.
Phaedra spun, eyes wide as Silas toppled forward into the mud. The fence was being lifted…. She darted forward, and hoisted him up, his arm slipping over her shoulder as she dragged him up the hill.
“Felix!” She screamed. In seconds Felix, Tully, and Fiona burst through the trees, Felix helping with Silas as Fiona and Tully held back the branches to let them through. Bullets were flying. Silas was bleeding. The woods were just so far— when they burst through the trees, Phae glanced over… everything seemed still. Too still.
“Phae… Phae!” Tully cried out, holding her arm with blood leaking through her fingers, but her eyes were on Fiona, her expression twisted in horror.
No one had heard the shot… There was no scream… Fiona was slumped against a tree, a clean hole in her neck, her eyes were wide as she choked and sputtered. Tully fell to her knees beside her—
“We have to keep moving.” Phae said reluctantly, trying not to look at the girl they’d tried so hard to save.
“No…” Tully let out a sob as she watched the light leaving Fiona’s eyes. She couldn’t speak. Blood spattered over her lips and poured out of that angry little hole as she fought not to drown. Bullets were flying through the trees again—
Fiona took one more gasp, gurgled, and fell still.
“Tully!” Phae shouted, using her free hand to yank the blond up by her sleeve. Tully screamed and sobbed, fighting even as another bullet clipped just below where the first was lodged in her arm. Phae continued dragging her with Silas under one arm, Felix still trudging ahead with the other half of their wounded friend.
And Fiona stayed by the tree, bloody and broken, a sacrifice to Blackford Hill.
Two minutes after midnight. @_@ So close. Also, if you’d like to catch up on the rest of LfBH, you can read parts 1 – 9.5 right here.
~ ~ ~ ~
Broken and filthy, Tully leaned heavily on the outer wall of the barracks. People milled about, walking in aimless circles, shells of the living, ghosts of who they might have been before Blackford Hill. For some, that was an improvement, of course; rapists, child molesters, the vicious and violent. Tully didn’t mourn those losses, but here it was sometimes hard to distinguish the innocent from the evil. Here, they were all savages on the edge of survival.
“No matter how long you stand there, you won’t get any further away.”
Tully snapped back to herself, the man now standing beside her was very suddenly a part of her reality. “Excuse me?”
“You stand here and watch them, hoping the longer you stare, the easier it will be to imagine yourself elsewhere. Maybe there’s some grass over there,” he gestured vaguely toward the mud pit. “Maybe a pub where the overseer’s office is.”
She stared at him, unblinking, the dark circles under her eyes giving her a pained, hollow look. “I’m Tully,” she spoke after several moments, her eyes returning to the wandering people.
“Felix.” He gave a weak snort of laughter, and adjusted his makeshift sling. “I’m a Count, you know. Could you believe that?”
“Not in here, you’re not,” she stated flatly, unfazed by the claim.
“No,” his eyes fell, and he nudged a pebble with his foot. “Not out there, either, I expect. Not anymore. What did you do to get in here?”
“Nothing. I shared an inn room with a woman.” She paused. “As it happens, I am in love with her, but at the time, we hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“She’s here too?”
“Yes, so if you’re thinking of doing anyth—.”
“No! No, it’s nothing like that. I’m here for the same reason.” Felix made a face, and glanced to Tully, swaying a bit on his feet. “If you don’t count the temple full of Satrean priests I burned alive, I suppose. They had it coming.”
Tully’s flat gaze turned to him, a mild question into his sanity behind her eyes. “You are quite the charmer, Count Felix.”
“I just… meant that I was in love with the wrong person. ‘Wrong’ according to them, anyway. The priests killed him. I punished them for murder and for Dacian’s memory. My father though he was being merciful, denying me a hanging and dumping me off here like one more dirty secret.”
“Are you a lonely man, Count?”
Felix’s gaze faltered a little, and he paused. “I suppose I am. Why?”
“I just can’t fathom why you’re telling me all of this.” Again, she turned to the muddy grounds of Blackford Hill, pulling her bottom lip into her mouth, biting idly.
Heaving a sigh, the former Count nodded and gave his good arm a small shrug. “You looked as lonely as I am, standing over here. Where’s your lady friend?”
The silence that rested between them was heavy, but Tully fought not to sag beneath the weight of her uncertainty. “She was taken to the overseer house ago.” She drew a quaking breath. “I haven’t seen her since, though… others… say she was dragged out… alive and cursing.” Her eyes clamped shut, and her arms folded across her chest, hugging herself tightly. “No one has seen her since then.”
Felix let his eyes look over the beaten down blond beside him, and he shook his head. The guards here didn’t appear to be treating the women with any special gentleness. She was covered in scuffs and bruises, and he could have sworn there was a faint redness around her neck… like a fabric burn. It was a crime, the things they did to people.
“My friend is missing too. He has been since this morning.” Felix confided quietly, having tried so desperately to keep from facing that he cared for Silas. The other man had been taken for treatment, and hadn’t returned; that always meant he’d come back needing at least a day in bed before he could even move. The bruises, the lashings, the scrapes—it killed Felix to see him like that. Silas was a crass man, but he was also warm and caring…. it was a combination one didn’t see in the upper class.
Taking a deep breath, Tully steadied herself, and glanced to him. “I hope they return him soon, then,” she noted, trying to be cordial, though she wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind for pleasantries.
Once again in a deep, awkward silence, Felix fidgeted a little, and turned with a start as he came face to face with a guard. The man was huge, but… most of them were, and he took a few steps back. “Excuse me.” he said.
“What’s going on here?” asked the guard, big bushy brows furrowed, his eyes centered on Felix.
“Nothing. We were talking.” Tully stated, and looked to Felix, and back to the guard. “Your sort aren’t exactly quality conversation, if you don’t mind me saying.”
The bull of a man brought the back of his hand across Tully’s mouth, and her head jerked to the side. In seconds, blood welled in the split, and trickled down her chin. Felix’s eyes were wide, and took her by the shoulders, looking at the cut.
“What the hell did you do that for?” he snapped at the guard, spinning around to face him, seething. “You can’t make it in the world? Can’t read or write? Can’t follow simple commands? So what? Get a job slapping around girls half your size? It’s lumbering morons like you that belong in here, not us!” He shouted, but instead of striking… the guard only laughed.
That was unsettling.
Tully stood behind Felix, shaking a bit, not giving her ground.
“You wait, boy. Tomorrow’s your day.” The guard said, laughing as he turned and walked away.
Tully stared after him a moment before touching Felix’s arm. “What did he mean by that? What’s tomorrow?”
“Another scheduled treatment. I’m willing to bet he plans on paying me back for this then….” He drew a breath. “We’re not waiting that long. We’re leaving tonight, and you’re coming with us.”
“What?” Tully’s jaw dropped and she tugged on Felix’s un-wrapped arm. “You don’t even know me. Why would you—.”
“Shh! We’re all victims here. Do you want in or not?”
Pausing, she drew a breath and gave a stout nod. “I’m taking Phae with me.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to come without her.” Felix patted Tully’s hand, and smiled. “Good. I’ll come back here at dusk. Be ready.” And with that, he walked away, leaving Tully, wide-eyed, staring after him.
Tully had told me to keep my head about me, but it was getting harder. Every time she came back inside, in pain, cold and naked—Every time I saw that look of terror on her face when they came in for her—Every time they came for her… I was just letting it happen. The treatments they gave me were different; I couldn’t even stand beside Tully, or with the other girls, young girls who didn’t do anything to deserve this madness.
“What to they do to you when they take you?” she asked one night, curled up in my bed with me. If we were being punished for being together, then we saw no reason to do something that determined we deserved it.
“The same things they do to you, I suppose.” I wondered if she felt me cringe at the question.
“They return you with similar injuries, but they never lead you toward the places they take us. It’s always the same routine… but they lead you toward the overseers office.” Those bright blue eyes turned up to me, and I tried to ignore the way they bore into me. Questioning. Insisting. “You’re lying, Phae. Why?”
I heaved a sigh, my body tight as I tried to keep the nonchalance as apparent as possible. “We’re in a detention camp, Tully…. What do you expect they’re doing to me?”
A pause, and finally she lowered her eyes. I relaxed as her head fell back on my chest. “It just seemed odd.”
I squeezed her gently—always gently—and twirled my fingers slowly through her hair. It was left at that, and I was grateful.
“Phaedra!” The bark startled me, and everyone else, from sleep, and I bolted upright in bed, eyes wide.
“It’s really too early for this,” I muttered, rubbing my bruised forehead as I swung my legs over the side of the bed. Tully clutched desperately at my shirt, the fabric pulled taut as I tugged away. I heard the faintest, muffled sob, and I knew she was crying into the pillow. It had become routine at this point. No matter how many times I heard her cry, it never hurt any less to know I had to ignore it.
“Get moving,” the guard seethed, his words a growl, lips pulled back over his teeth.
“The overseer’s dogs truly are out in full force today,” I flashed him a smile, “Commendable.” The stars that flashed before my eyes were expected, the chain mail gloves he was wearing were not. I could hear Tully’s screams… somewhere muffled in the back of my head… My vision blurred and the stars cleared, and I realized I was on the floor. Forcing myself to my knees, I looked for her, searching in a disoriented sweep of the room. She was on the bed, Fiona and three other girls pinning her to the wall as she slumped against them, giving in to the restraint.
“She’ll be fine,” Fiona whispered, but Tully’s hysterical sobs didn’t cease.
Hauled to my feet by an iron grip, I felt the world spin beneath me as I fought to gain my footing. Not that I was offered much of a chance to do so before I was shoved forward by that same mitt-like hand. As soon as it released me, the floor slipped from under me, and I went to my hands and knees, hissing at the pain. My knees were already bruised, and now the heels of my hands would match them. Pushing myself up without any help, I staggered onward until my head cleared and I could walk without incident. It was a small victory.
Trudging across the boards that were laid over the muddy ground, I followed the trail to the overseer’s office, a gun muzzle pressed into my back. These games were getting old. These power struggles and taunting, the guns and knives, the screaming residents of Blackford Hill….
No. Not residents, victims.
There were those who deserved their place here, certainly. Rapists, child molesters, those sorts of people. A woman cheating on her abusive husband may have been a moral threat, but how could those who sympathized let her be imprisoned? Was she not entitled to happiness? And the men and women like Tully and me, what moral threat did we pose? We don’t breed like rabbits. There’s no “man of the house” to keep we “silly women” in line. No dutiful wife to cook and clean in a household with two men. The reasoning was asinine, and frogs would rain from the sky before I let them take Tully from me.
“Phaedra Trowden, bastard daughter of Lord Adrian Trowden of Kersa.” The overseer’s voice rippled through me, and I thought my skin might slough off. The chair turned, and a woman in her early fifties stared back at me. The day I’d met the Overseer, I was stunned that it was a woman who could commit such atrocities against good people—I had wanted a fight that day. But she didn’t say a word to me.
‘Take care of her,’ was all she said to my guards. The thought they’d break me. They thought it would be that easy. Since then, every beating and interrogation had been worse than the last. Even lying perfectly still hurt like hell at this point. Though I never let them get the better of me, and when I looked at the overseer, chin tilted up, she glared at me and stood.
“You don’t deny this?”
“Should I? Adrian Trowden has no part in my life. But I was his accident, yes. What are you getting at?” My eyes narrowed, and she met them with equal force, the hatred bubbling between our gazes had even the soldiers shifting uncomfortably.
The overseer stood stiffly and tugged the hem of her jacket to straighten the front. “Let’s not play childish games, Ms. Trowden. You and I both know that you have no claim to any titles, and yet you still carry your father’s surname. There are two reasons a bastard child retains the family name of the father: to be sacrificed as penance to the clergy, or to be sent into the guard. We both know you hardly fit the bill for a life of piety.”
My eyes rolled themselves in an involuntary criticism of her stupidity, and my hands found my hips. “You’re implying I’m an agent in the city guard? I spent a short time in the capital while I was helping my companion recover—“
“You mean your lover.”
“I mean my companion. She was ill. We live above a bakery in Shand, we work for the man who owns it. I’ve never been in the city guard.”
“The King’s guard?”
“No. Nor the local guard, the reserves, or the Holy Order.” My glare never faltered. I didn’t have to know this woman to hate everything about her. Even her eyes were hard. “Whatever reason my father had in giving me his name are unknown to me. I’ve never met the man, and I don’t particularly care to.”
The overseer drew a breath, hands tucking together at the small of her back. “Take her to her knees.”
I knew what was coming, but I didn’t fight it. The butts of two rifles struck each of the back of my knees, and I hit the floor, refusing to go to my hands. It took all of my strength to hold in the moans of pain that welled within me, but she didn’t deserve the satisfaction.
She saw that. And grinned. “You seem well trained to handle interrogation.”
“Am I? And here I thought I was acting out of spite,” I returned, my voice quaking just slightly.
“I want to know who you are, Ms. Trowden. This is your last opportunity to offer the information freely.” She began pacing slowly around me; I watched her feet taking slow methodical steps.
“Go to hell.” I closed my eyes when I spotted a soldier stalking toward me, rifle raised.
“Not her head!” The blow didn’t fall. “I want her conscious for this, imbecile!”
I relaxed just slightly, and let my eyes flick open. The soldier had fallen back to his position.
A laugh burst from me, and I lifted a hand to cover my mouth. “Madam? Honestly?” She stared flatly at me, and I dropped my eyes to the floor as I snickered. “A ‘madam’ is the woman who runs a whore house, am I wrong? It does seem fitting, given the nature of this place. How many whores are here, exactly?”
My laughter was not going over well. The woman made one motion before clasping her hands behind her again. The same soldier came behind me and caught me across the back with… I glanced back, coughing, gasping, spittle coating my lower lip. The object was a short wooden club like night patrolmen carried. Outstanding. This was going to be a long session.
“You say you work in a bakery. What do you tell your employer when you have to take long absences?” She leaned close to my face, despite the fact I was still choking while my lungs tried to remember their purpose.
“For what?” I wheezed. The club hit me again, striking my side and I doubled over, clutching my ribs.
“You know.” She smiled. “You know good and well.”
“I work… in a bakery…”
“For an old man who doesn’t know which end is up most times, yes, Ms. Trowden, I know. I’ve done my research. I’ve been giving you the opportunity to be honest with me. And I also know the only reason you’re allowing these treatments—“
“—is to avoid giving us motive to harm your—what did you call her? Companion?”
My stomach sank. It was only a matter of time before they would use Tully against me, I knew that. I was just hoping I could stall a little longer. They would hurt her. I knew they would. And not like they hurt me. Tully was disposable, but they had dug up enough dirt on me to make me interesting. If I was interesting to them, then I was worth torturing an innocent person over. Not that that was anything new.
“I’ll tell you everything.” My voice felt disconnected from my mouth. “But not yet. I want Tully’s injuries taken care of by a real doctor…. And I want three days to recover.”
An exasperated sigh sounded above me, but I knew she was contemplating it. “You’re in no position to be making demands, Ms. Trowden. Do you think this is a game?”
“Isn’t it? I’m not asking for much…. Full disclosure in exchange for three days and a doctor. You’re interested… because you know what I’m tied to…. you just need to hear me say it.” I shakily forced myself to stand, knees weak and wobbling, one arm protecting my ribs. When I was finally at her height again, I saw the amusement in her face, and the satisfaction that I was backed into a corner. “Kill anyone you want. I’m not saying a word without those three days and that doctor.”
She laughed. I wanted to vomit. “Fine. Take her back to her barracks and summon a doctor. Your friend will be tended. You have no right to the doctor’s services, so I hope you can recover enough in three days to speak. Once you’ve disclosed your little story… I reserve the right to beat that girl to a pulp if it doesn’t satisfy me. Understood.”
“Yes… Madam.” Still I afforded a grin…. and her smile disappeared as she gestured the soldiers to drag me out.
Author’s Note: It’s short. I’m incredibly dissatisfied with this installment. 9.4 will be better, I hope. Blah.
I wanted to blame her.
So intensely, I wanted to push all of the blame for our capture onto Phae; for bringing us to the capital, for booking a single room with a single bed, for not knowing of this threat in the first place. I’m selfish. I know that. All of those things, she did for me without even having to be asked. I could have died, and it’s because of Phae that I didn’t.
Now, standing naked in the center of the compound, I could only focus on this hardship. The waves of freezing cold water hit me over and over, and the girls around me created a chorus of high-pitched squeals and yelps with very bucket thrown. I was screaming, hugging myself against the cold, my skin pale and tight as gooseflesh raised along every inch of me. All this suffering…. and yet I felt detached, a ghost outside my body as they tortured it.
Never-ending torrents of water pelted us, and we were not permitted to move from where we stood. I watched a woman crouch to the ground, curling in on herself, only to be yanked up by the hair by one of the guards. She screamed and I could do nothing.
Phaedra would have done something.
Perhaps that’s the reason I feel such animosity toward my best friend, my love…. She takes action where I step back in fear. I don’t know where that part of me went, but I do remember there were days once when I could stand up for what I loved or be willing to die making my point.
I miss that part of me.
And in that field of filth and mud-spatter, I missed Phae.
They had tied her up when they took me; shackled her to the bed frame, and with much incredible effort, at that. Phaedra terrified me with her strength and will to fight, impressing me constantly since we arrived. The woman I had met in the bakery had been so docile and kind, caring for me in the darkest days of that sickness. The Phaedra I knew here, in this awful detention camp, was filled with fury and willfulness. When others bowed and cowered, she stood in defiance—and was always beaten for it, but never before she got her shots in on a few of the guards. They were growing weary of her, and that was oddly satisfying to me.
It seemed like forever until the water stopped, and a guard pointed back to our barracks. Aching and shivering, we hobbled along to each of our bunk houses. It was becoming routine, with these sessions always serving as my time to contemplate… always feeling just outside myself enough to link my thoughts together.
Once inside, I knelt beside Phae and let out a sob, her free arm coming to slide around me and pull me into her warmth without a word. She may have been shackled to the bed, but her affection was far from lacking.
How could I have ever blamed her…?
I was afraid when the treatment started.
They came for me in the small hours of morning, the haze of twilight still fighting against the sun. That was always my favorite time of day….
“Time for your treatment,” the guard shouted, rousing us from our sleep the moment he burst through the door, three others in tow. It felt like we had only just arrived, sleeping a shoddy excuse for a bed instead of the filthy wagon floor. “Girls, sixteen to twenty. Line up.”
My blood froze. Flicking a glance toward my new friends, I must have given away my terror; Phaedra was on her feet in a heartbeat, her finger thrust a hairsbreadth from the guard’s nose.
“I don’t know what ‘treatment’ you plan to give these girls, but so help me, if any of them return harmed, I will bury you.” there was a growl behind her words, a threat that made me quiver.
The guard leaned forward, pushing Phae’s hand aside, nose to nose with her. “We have bitches put down,” he seethed, though Phae didn’t even flinch. The hair on my neck prickled at the silence that followed, tension so thick it was visible. Phaedra didn’t move an inch, her dark eyes locked on him, glaring into that bastard’s face.
He reminded me of my husband. A shudder ran through me, and I had to look away.
“Phae!” Tully had Phaedra by the shoulders, tugging her back. Finally, she relented and went back to the bed they shared. Tully slid behind her, arms lacing around her shoulders to keep her on the bed.
“March them out.” The guard flicked the muzzle of his rifle from us to the door, and the three he’d brought with him closed around us. Myself and five other girls, quaking and crying, were led from the bunk house.
It’s hard to tell what we were faced with. The doors opened into a large barn, the stalls having been converted and swept out. Restraints hung from the rafters and into each stall like tentacles made of chain and leather. Our marching stopped as we caught our first glimpse into this medieval hell, balking at any notion of entry. Who would cross this threshold?
“Move!” One of our captors shoved a pair of girls with his rifle, knocking them into the rest of us to force us inside. I held still, only to feel that same shove, toppling onto my hands and knees. One of the other girls pulled me to my feet just in time to draw my face out of the path of a guard’s boot.
I mouthed a silent ‘thank you’. She only looked away.
My wrist was the first to be seized and I screamed. It was futile. I knew no one would help me, but I screamed and screamed as the man dragged me through the barn, the soles of my shoes skidding until they caught on a floorboard and I toppled onto my face.
He lost his grip. My heart leapt, and so did I. Bolting for the door, I thought I could make it. I don’t know why I thought that….
Pain wrenched me from my optimism, and before I knew it, my feet were over my head, and I was on the floor, a meaty hand tangled in my hair, jerking me backward. Sobbing and screaming, I couldn’t hear anything but my own voice; I couldn’t feel anything but the force of the guard’s hand in my hair, soon forcing my hands over my head. I was shackled.
I fought… I really did. Being strung up like a side of beef leeched any fight I had left in me, and I just dangled there, sobbing, head hung… Shameful. I valued my life, and I wanted to live it. Why couldn’t I free myself? How did I even get here?
I cried as they left me there. Terrified. Alone. Five other girls in the stalls around me, all too terrified to speak. For hours we were left there, or it felt like hours. My shoulders and elbows ached as my own weight stretched them from the ceiling shackles. It hurt to cry. It hurt to breathe.
“Your new life begins now.” A booming voice silenced the sobbing as we all strained to lift our heads and see the man that was now pacing the central walkway between the stalls. “No more filth. No more blasphemy. No more willful ignorance.” He cracked a riding crop against my stall door. “We will begin with gentle coaxing. You don’t want to be the way you are. No one wants to be different. Or shunned. Or cast out. How many of you pretty ladies are married? Raise your hand?”
He laughed . Sick sense of humor…. That didn’t bode well. I suddenly found myself praying to Satreas to just let me go home. I could sneak around under my husband’s eye…. I didn’t want to be tied up anymore.
“Gentle coaxing… You’ll be here like this until morning. Tomorrow, you get a bath from where you hang. Then you go back to your barracks.” He looked into my stall and grinned. “You, though… have to be taught that escape attempts won’t put you in our good graces.”
My stomach churned, and tears welled again, leaking down my cheeks. I hoped Phae meant what she said to that guard. This was a different man, shorter, with spectacles and slicked back blond hair, but the thought of someone being punished gave me solace.
“Unbutton the back of her shirt.”
A sob slid out of me against my will, and one of the guards began to obey the command, the buttons on the back of the murky gray shirt I was issued, same as all the others, were released from their holes. As long as my front stayed covered—
He had no interest in my front. Rolling up his sleeves, that spectacled bastard came around behind me, tugging leather gloves off finger by finger. I only saw his shadow, lifting the riding crop–
My voice felt detached as it echoed through the barn in hysterical screams, as if they weren’t my own, stopping only when the pain became an inflamed and swollen numbness. I saw him come around me again, pulling his gloves back on, the crop tucked under his arm.
“Rest well, ladies,” he said as he retreated, the guards following. I heard the padlock snap shut, and let out a shuddering sigh… and began to weep.
“F-Fiona…?” one of the girls asked, a girl called Sophie, I think. “Are you alright?”
Mustering my voice, I croaked out a weak ‘no’… and silence fell over the barn.
The treatment center.