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The Thinning Veil

by P L Nunn


Chapter 7


They tried. They gave it their best effort, but Gavin was nothing if not stubborn. He had a high tolerance for pain and they'd been at him for close to a day. Even lowbrow knights with a grudge had to seek their own rest.

Which left him to some of his own. Of sorts. If a body could find rest when every inch of it seemed to cry bloody murder. Aches and bruises and bone deep pain that throbbed with each beat of his heart. They'd been careful with him. Careful not to tear too much skin, or mark him too gravely. When they got that confession, he supposed they'd like for it to seem not coerced. A man whose body spoke too gravely of prolonged torture might challenge that impression. They weren't even particularly clever, these two knights of Idago's, in their persuasion. Gavin had seen the corpses of men captured by the Icani, who's faces were twisted in caricatures of horror even after death, the subtle, terrible things done to their bodies evident only if one cared to closely examine dead flesh.

Sir Dwayne was of a simpler nature. He preferred the things he could inflict with the simple strength of cumbersome hands. And Sir Dwayne was by far the more motivated of the two. Ribs that had been fractured before were broken now. He felt it with every breath he drew. His shoulder was a throbbing center of white pain, the knight having devoted no small attention to the hurts Gavin already boasted.

It could have been worse. He told himself that, and repeated over and over, as they left him, bound in his niche of a cell, and took the light with them. He stared fruitlessly into darkness after, straining to see some slither of movement, to hear the sibilant shuffle of something he still wasn't sure he'd seen to begin with. He hadn't caught a glimpse of it since that one moment, though the image stuck in his mind. Crooked little man-like shape, no rat or bat or other legitimate denizen of this place. If it had been there at all, and not some figment of an exhausted, overtaxed mind.

He leaned against the stone, not even trying to loosen the bonds. He hurt too much to try. His hands were numb regardless. Useless, as was the one arm. Even if he'd managed to free himself, he'd be bereft of his dominant sword arm. And what then? Fight his way though a garrison of men he considered comrades and friends? Run, and take the blame of Haden's murder with him for it? Hardly better than being tortured to death in the hopes of a false confession.

Well, perhaps not quite. He choked on a bitter laugh that turned into a sob. It was permitted, that show of despair when there were none to witness it but the imagined things in the shadows.

The shadows moved when before the dark had been too stygian to distinguish them. He caught his breath, thinking creatures lurking in the corners, but after a moment, he realized it for what it was. Torchlight coming down the stairs.

Goddess. Too short a reprieve. It couldn't have been more than a fraction of an hour that they'd been gone. Too short a time to have gotten their own rest. Unless they'd sent fresh torturers down to take up where the old ones had left off.

But was only one man, holding a torch aloft. A big man, broader and taller than most. Hard to mistake Liam's bulk.

Gavin shut his eyes, drawing a breath of relief. If not succor, then the first reasonable face he'd seen since he'd been dragged here.

"Gavin?" The big knight hesitated, squinting into the darkness, his single torch hardly illuminating the deepest corners of the chamber. Likely he'd never stepped foot in these deepest, darkest portions of the keep. Likely never known they existed, as Gavin hadn't till he'd been deposited here.

"Here," he called, and his voice was embarrassingly broken. He swallowed, shifting just a little, so that his shoulder rested against the bars of the cage.

Liam lifted the torch, shuffled his way uncertainly until he caught sight of him.

"Xera's tits." Low growl. Angry, as Liam took in the low roofed cell. "Goddess damn them. I wouldn't keep a dog in this dirty pit, much less a man."

Gavin managed a weary grin as Liam knelt outside the bars and reached a big hand through them to clutch his uninjured shoulder. "Perhaps they thought I was too wily to keep in a simple locked room?"

"No doubt you are," Liam snorted. "But I'll knock heads for this, doubt it not."

"They know you're here?" He doubted it. Highly. At least that they'd allow him friendly visitors without supervision.

Liam snorted, the hand still on his shoulder, big and warm on the skin of his neck. He leaned into it. He couldn't help it. "The guards at the door chose to deny me entrance. They'll be pounding the dents out of their helms for days now."

"You in the brig will won't help me, Liam."

"I'll risk it. Damn it, lad. What happened? Tell me the truth of it."

Gavin shook his head, staring desperately through the bars into Liam's tense eyes.

"I didn't do it. I swear on my life - - I didn't do it." That declaration to ears that might actually believe it, made his voice shake and his eyes water.

Liam stared a moment longer, a bear of a man whose intelligence was often underestimated in the face of his tendency to tear through a battle field or drink it under the table. But Gavin knew better. Gavin knew him to be fiercely loyal and intelligent. Not a man who let blind duty sway his sense of right and wrong.

Liam nodded, finally, a grim set to his mouth. Determination in his eyes. "All right. Who did?"

Gavin blew out a breath, releif flooding through him so feircely it made him lightheaded. He pressed his forehead against Liam's thick forearm, shuddering for a uncontrolled moment. "I don't know. Goddess, they used my knife, Liam. Meant for me to take the blame."


"Because I'm convenient. Sekkish. Xera. My mother. He said - - they'll go after her." He felt the panic again, the helpless fury over threat to a home he hadn't seen in two years, but still cherished in his heart. A mother and stepfather who loved him - - who would be victims because of him.

"You mother - -?" Liam drew thick brows. "Who said? Why?"

If he could have clutched Liam's arm, he would have, he pressed against the bars in lieu of it. "Idago. He'll brand me a spy and an assassin, whether I confess or not. He already has. Haden is murdered. You think they won't seek scapegoats wherever they can find them? Don't let them. Liam, promise me you'll warn her. Give her the chance to run."

The big man shook his head, baffled. Not understanding it all, not in one great dollop of frantic information.

"Lad, breathe. It's not so bad as you think. We'll find the man who killed the commander - - clear your name - -"

"Fool!" Gavin hissed. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to lean there while Liam tried to delude himself into thinking this would go away. "They've written my confession already for me! They'll use it whether I sign it or not, do you understand? Haden was no hedge knight. He was the King's sword. The country will mourn and rage and their culprit will be a Sekkish assassin. They won't look further. Ask Niccoli about the boarder treaty and who benefits most if it shatters? I'm dead, Liam, no matter how it goes. Don't let them take my family, too."

And he was. It occurred to him as he said it. There was no reprieve for him. They needed him alive no longer than it took to force a signature on a document, parade him before a suitable group of witnesses and execute him. Alive longer than that and he was a liability. One likely to change his mind and spread doubt among those that might have a reason to doubt. A dead assassin with a signed confession was all they needed. A Sekkish assassination plot would damned sure take attention away from a breached Icani boarder.

Liam sat back on his heels, thinking, scowling as he did. Not quite believing. Maybe right not to. Maybe Gavin was imagining as much of this plot as he had the thing on the wall. Who the hell knew? He hadn't imagined the threat against his mother.

"Just get her a warning," he pleaded, a harsh whisper. "My father - -step-father - - he'll have the resources to take them out of harm's way." He hoped. A chance was better than nothing.

There was a clatter on the stairs. The sound of pounding feet and jangling arms. Liam's unauthorized trip here had finally come to an end. They surged into the dungeon, Idago's hedge knights and garrison men-at-arms, Sir Simon on their heels.

Liam rose, hand on the hilt of his sword, face twisted in that mask he wore when battle-lust was upon him. If he died in this damned grim place or found himself behind bars, he'd be no help at all to Gavin.

There were swords leveled, grim faced guards facing a single knight with a hand clenched on the hilt of a sword half a foot cleared of its sheath.

"Sir Liam!" Simon was wise enough, with that look on Liam's face to stay behind the ring of guards, all of whom did have weapons out. The garrison guards seemed distinctly more nervous of the fact than Idago's two knights. Wise of them.

"Promise me, Liam," Gavin asked softly, levelly, wanting Liam free to walk out of the keep and deliver a message. Then louder. "Promise me, damn you."

The big knight drew a breath and let the sword slip back into its sheath. Held up his hands, even as he turned his head enough to give Gavin his profile and a sharp, short nod.

Then they had the courage to crowd closer, lying hands on him to get him out of there at Sir Simon's orders. One of the hedge knights, Sir Dwayne, jabbed him in the ribs to get him moving when the efforts of a handful of men only barely budged Liam's bulk, and that Liam took offense at. An elbow of his own smashed back, into Sir Dwayne's face and the man howled, blood blossoming in his mouth, spitting a tooth out with it.

Gavin shut his eyes and silently laughed, despite the pain and the pain sure to come once an embarrassed, petty knight had him at his mercy again.

Under Sir Simon's threats of Liam seeing the inside of a brig himself, they got him up those winding stairs. The Hedge knights went with them, small relief, Sir Dwayne no doubt to see the physicker about the lost tooth and the bleeding hole where it had been.

Simon lingered behind, staring at him with angry, exasperated eyes. A look not unlike the one he generally wore.

"Look what you do. Cause good men to shred their honor. Retain a scrap of your own and confess before man and goddess."

"And make your life easier?" Gavin forced a grim smile, staring through tangled hair and bars to meet Simon's eyes. "If you were part of it, may you rot and your vaunted honor with you. If you're not - - then you're blind and a fool."

Simon lifted his chin, and Goddess knew what passed behind his eyes other than derision. Gavin had never seen another emotion from the man thrown his way.

Gavin shut his eyes, shut the man out, leaned his head against the bars and let himself drift, a burden lifted, even if it were a small one. Liam would honor his word if it killed him. Of that, Gavin was sure.

* * *

They'd ferreted out his weaknesses. Sore spots, new and old were exploited. Shoulder, ribs, simple exhaustion.

"Don't you care about your mum?" Sir Dwayne had taunted, when he'd come back down, a swollen lip and a gaping hole where a front tooth had been. "Don't you care that if they get her down in a place like this, that she'll suffer worse than you? Is she pretty, your mum? To look at you I'd lay odds so. They'll bend her over and have at her, maybe with more than fleshy swords, eh? All 'cause of you, worthless coward."

If he hadn't been bound, Gavin might have given the bastard worse than the love tap Liam had delivered. He simply lifted his head and stared. He did care. And if not for Liam, his own honor might have become less of an issue. Liam had saved him that, if nothing else.

They'd cleared the center of the floor, bound his arms behind him and attached a rope to the same pulley that they'd used to half drown him in the tepid tub of water. Pulled the rope taut, drawing his arms up behind him and leaving him there, muscles protesting, shoulders screaming bloody murder while they circled him, relentlessly reminding him how easily he could end it. It was a more insidious torment than they'd used before. Not exactly subtle, but Goddess, the longer he bent here, muscles straining to keep the pressure off his shoulders, the more searing the pain became. It didn't stop them from adding their own brutish touches. A slap here, a kick to the back of the knee there. He screamed now and then, inadvertent sounds of pain. No help for it, exhaustion and agony eating away at internal resources.

He'd stopped baiting them. At least verbally. His silence was as much a defiance, but like this particular torture, subtler.

He wasn't entirely prepared to die, but quick death was preferable to a drawn out one. After hours and hours with his arms drawn up behind him, ears ringing from the blood pounding in his head, he was almost ready to ask for it. He doubted they'd give it to him, without him giving them what they wanted in return.

He hated them both, but Sir Dwayne had a special place in his heart. Sir Dwayne he held fantasies about delivering slow death. Damned crude bastard, with his tiny eyes and his big hands, and a tongue surprisingly insidious considering an intellect that Gavin thought was rather slow. Sir Dwayne always lingered when the other knight grew bored with the torment. The marks on his flesh were mostly those given by Dwayne, the bruises and the burns, the slices or the punctures where blade or hook had pierced skin.

"If she were here," the knight rested an arm across Gavin's neck, putting pressure on his already screaming shoulders. "I'd do her myself. Let you watch."

He leaned close, breath fetid and stale and stinking of blood from the gaping hole where the tooth had been knocked out.

"Is there any other way for you to get a woman? Other than rape?" Gavin had to gasp it. Couldn't help himself.

Dwayne snarled softly, and wrapped his fingers around Gavin's neck, cutting off air. Gavin suffocated, helpless to do anything other than stand there and see black around the edges of his vision, until his knees gave out and all of his weight rested upon his shoulders, and then the black turned to red.

Someone barked stop. He heard it through the rush of blood returning to his head as the fingers on his throat let up. An arm under his belly helped shore up his weight, keeping him from tearing his arms from their sockets. He leaned there, against Sir Dwayne, vision still dancing listening to the sound of boots on the stone floor.

"My lord. Your lordship," the two knights said in hasty unison, Sir Thamas scurrying over to stand near Gavin and Sir Dwayne. Gavin managed to lift his head and see Duke Idago strolling across the filthy floor in his pristine boots and his velvet doublet over silk sleeves.

"My Lord," Thamas bowed. Dwayne shuffled away from Gavin, inclining his own head in respect. Gavin managed his balance, looked up from under his hair at the nobleman's shiny belt.

Idago held out the lantern without looking at either knight. He gently tapped the rolled parchment in his palm and inquired. "Shall we have that confession tonight?"

Gavin said nothing, easier to stare at the high tops of the Duke's black boots and the fine embroidery on his trousers than strain his neck in an attempt to meet the man's eyes.

"He's stupid stubborn, your lordship," Sir Dwayne offered helpfully. "Just as soon die as do the honorable thing."

As if Sir Dwayne would know the difference between honor and a hole in the ground. Gavin didn't have the breath to voice the opinion.

"Humm." The duke idly circled Gavin, the layer of dirt and filth on the floor muting the tap of his boots. He laid a hand on the taut rope above Gavin's bound wrists, leaned a little weight against it and that added pressure made Gavin moan low in his throat. There was more than deep bruising and torn ligaments in the shoulder now, he thought. Ruined maybe. At the very least, he might never gain the range of motion he'd enjoyed before. As if that mattered.

"Well, assassin?" Idago prompted.

Gavin said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Idago waited a long moment, before making some motion to the two knights. The rope was loosened and the pressure on Gavin's arms let up. Without it, his knees buckled, and he went down to them, gasping, the sudden lack of strain to his shoulders a strangely painful relief. The rope lay against his back, a reminder that they could haul him back up at their pleasure. He knelt there, head down, until Sir Thamas tossed a pail of tepid water onto him. He sputtered then, surprised, weakly shaking wet hair from his eyes, staring up in wary expectation of what they'd do next.

"I believe I'd like a private conversation with our Sekkish spy," the duke said, waving a beringed hand at his knights.

"Are you sure, milord? I wouldn't trust the bastard, far as I could toss him," Sir Dwayne warned.

"Go," Idago said with a touch of impatience. "If I require assistance, I shall call."

Reluctantly the two knights moved off, heading up the stairs. The duke waited until the sound of their steps receded then moved to place the parchment on the little table where the knights kept their cups and jug of wine. He circled Gavin when he returned, hands clasped behind his back, step leisurely and relaxed as if he were at some gallery, touring the exhibits.

"Whatever task you set your friend to, it shall only be his downfall," the duke stated.

Gavin caught his breath, sudden fear for Liam curling in his belly. He pushed it down, reminding himself that the duke had only supposition that Gavin had asked anything of Liam. And even if he guessed correctly, Liam was more than capable of taking care for himself. There were no six men that could stop him, nor any in this keep, save from the dukes own men that would be willing to try. Liam might not be a titled lord, only a younger son of a minor hold, but he was not unknown among men of rank who served honorably under the king's banner. Gavin might be a convenient foil for this plot, but condemning Sir Liam would be another matter altogether.

"Send your men against him," Gavin suggested. "Why not lead them yourself?"

Idago laughed, coming full circle to stand before Gavin. "Stubborn and simple. Not much of a spy, are you?"

Gavin glowered. Idago tangled fingers in his wet hair to force his head back.

"But appealing. Very appealing. You don't have the bones of a man of common breeding. A shame to waste such a face."

He moved closer, his other hand grasping Gavin's jaw, keeping his head immobile as he brushed his velvet covered crotch against his lips. There was bulging flesh under the cloth that smelled of perfume and strong soap, masking whatever scent of man lingered beneath.

"What is a quick death worth to you, fallen knight?" The Duke's fingers dug into the soft flesh under Gavin's jaw, nails scoring skin. He drew Gavin's face closer, pressing it against the member straining beneath his trousers. And Xera knew a quick death was preferable to a drawn out one, but Goddess, how much pain would he trade for lack of this humiliation before going to whatever plane existed after this one?

"Not this much," he ground out, against Idago's trousers.

"How much worth then, the promise of detainment in a cell, rather than a poison cup for your big friend?"

Gavin shut his eyes, understanding the duke's comment now about 'stubborn and simple'. He'd assumed they'd try to stop Liam by main force, not subtle treachery. Fighting subtleties was not Liam's gift.

"How much worth your word to me?" His voice trembled. Lost. Just lost. The duke knew it and laughed, already reaching to unlace his trousers.

"Less trouble for me, if a respected knight not turn up poisoned, with the assassin already in custody."

The naked head of Idago's erection sprang forth and the duke wasted no time, pressing it against Gavin's lips. Fingers bit into the hinge of his jaw, forcing the issue when he hesitated to give way. It slid in, thick and musty despite the perfumed soaps the duke lathered himself in. A meaty intrusion that made him gag and clench body over. He let it happen, little enough control over stopping it short of biting down, and that rebellion might only get Liam poisoned and himself punished vehemently for it. And he was tired. The fight that had been in him days ago, leeched away by their efforts.

The duke required little enough from him, though, content to grasp his hair to keep his head at the angle he wished while he pummeled Gavin's throat.

He choked on it, nose pressed against the bristly hair of the duke's pelvis, the duke's hands clutched around the back of his head, holding him fast as his hips spasmed, and bitter, acrid fluid splashed against the back of Gavin's abused throat.

He was light headed when the duke pulled back and air flowed once more. There was a glistening strap of milky fluid that stretched like a spiders web from the tip of Idago's member and Gavin's swollen bottom lip when the duke withdrew. The man grasped his half flaccid sex and wiped it across Gavin's cheek.

"It's hardly proper payment if I do all the work. This next time, you'll earn my mercy in sparing Sir Liam's life," the duke drawled, not stepping back, idly stroking the loosened skin of his member.

Gavin stared up, narrow eyed and vibrating with indignation. The duke smiled down, smug and self-satisfied. Something shifted into reality on his shoulder. Something the size of a small cat and man-shaped, with leathery skin and faintly glowing yellow eyes. Gavin drew breath, eyes widening as a mouth the width of the squat face split into a sharp-toothed grin. The thing lifted one oddly jointed, sharp nailed finger to its lips in what seemed a caution for silence. Gavin gaped stupidly and the duke seemed not to notice at all the appearance or even the weight of the thing that perched on his brocaded shoulder.

"I think," Idago ran a thumb across Gavin's bottom lip, barely distracting his attention from the maniacally grinning thing on his shoulder. "That I require no small bit of effort on your part to stay my hand."

The thing hopped from the duke's shoulder to the rope trailing from the pulley down to Gavin's bound wrists. It scampered down and he felt the whispery touch of it against his bare skin. No weight, but a sense of its presence. A sense of it, oddly enough, picking at the knot at his writs.

He shuddered, swallowing, the flavor of bile mixed with the acrid taste of the Duke's ejaculation. He ought to be horrified at this thing out of some dark nightmare perching on his back. Perhaps the exhaustion and the days of prolonged pain had dulled his capacity. Aside from a faint shiver of revulsion at the whispery feel of the thing, all he felt was curiosity. Something was afoot. Something very unexpected was afoot. He needed the time to work it out. If succor came to him in the form of - - a demon, a twisted little imp - - or whatever this hideous crouching creature was - - he'd not turn it down.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked softly, half a mind on the tingling at his wrists, the ghostly feeling of the thing shifting about on his arms and back, half on the duke's smug presence above him. His hair stood on end, raising pimples of alarm across his skin. It was unreal, ethereal almost, this situation he found himself in. Forced into abject humiliation by the duke while something that should have lingered at the edge of his peripheral vision, or in his nightmares, surged to the forefront and perched with ghostly little feet on the back of his arms as it tore at the rope around his wrists.

"I want you to pretend," Idago said, breaking into Gavin's drift. "That I'm Sir Niccoli, and give my tool the attention you'd no doubt lather on his. Were the occasion to arise."

Gavin bared his teeth in a snarl, cut by that. The duke ignored it, the still slick, blunt tip of the duke's member pressed against his lips. He opened his mouth, taking the head of it, even as he felt the bonds loosening. He strained the weakened muscles of his arms, and felt the knot give. Felt the rope slack enough against his wrists that he could twist them free. The right arm almost fell, so weak he could hardly hold it in place; the left was sore, but usable. There was a knife at the duke's belt. A ridiculously ornate thing, designed probably more for show that plain usage. It hardly mattered. A blade was a blade and Gavin could make due with anything at hand. Where the thing had gone, he had no idea. The feel of it had dissipated.

The Duke's attention was centered, as any man's might, who had a mouth around his cock. Gavin's speed might have been hampered by exhaustion and pain, but he was still fast enough. He snatched the knife from its sheath, left-handed. Bit down on the unwanted intruder in his mouth hard enough to draw blood. The duke howled, but Gavin cut it short, plunging the blade into the man's side, shoving him backwards as he gasped, choking on his scream.

Gavin got his feet under him, crouched for a moment, letting the feeling flow back into his arms, letting his head clear of its spinning. The thing was gone. Simply melted back into whatever shadows it dwelled. Gavin shuddered, looking for the marks of its curved talons on his arms, but finding none. The duke lay weakly clutching the wound in his side. A death wound likely and Gavin held no regret for it. He considered finishing the work, with a slice across the bastard's neck, but a sound from the stairs drew his attention. The clatter of feet. Drawn perhaps by the duke's first cry.

Ignore the pain of body wide aching muscles and move. He could do that. Was trained to do it. He held the right arm close to his body, the dagger in his left and sprinted for the steps. Pray that it was only a man, two at the most that he might surprise and deal with in the confined space of the stairwell.

He came upon them, Idago's two knights, one behind the other and both encumbered by lanterns, and half drawn weapons. Not necessarily men rushing down to a fight. More likely men who thought they'd heard a suspicious sound but were wary of interrupting their duke in his 'pleasures', in the investigation of it.

Sir Thamas was in the fore, his eyes widening as he saw Gavin. His sword cleared its sheath, but Gavin was already under his reach, plunging the dagger into the knight's gut. The leather of his gambeson resisted the blade, but the weight of Gavin's shoulder behind it sent the knight tumbling backwards into his stout companion. They both went down, and Gavin abandoned the ornate dagger in favor of wrenching the sword from Sir Thamas's stunned hand, bringing down the heavy hilt hard against the man's unprotected face. Sir Dwayne was screaming obscenities, trapped under his limp comrade. He could have plunged the blade through Sir Thamas's chest, skewering them both. This sword, battle worn and comfortable in his hand and no doubt honed to the sharpest edge, would have pierced thick leather with little effort. But Gavin had never had the stomach for the execution of downed foes. Even despised ones. He hissed, and scrambled over the pile of knights, pausing to deliver a brutal kick to the side of Sir Dwayne's head, stilling his struggles and silencing his complaints.

With effort he forced his right arm into use, grabbing the guttering lantern and took the stairs as fast as his aching body would allow, having little plan as to what he might do when he reached the top and the guards likely there. He just wanted out.

A shadow moved on the wall ahead of him. A small, crouched form that turned its misshapen head and stared at him with slanted yellow eyes. He breathed a curse, stumbling to a halt, not sure if he ought to hold the length of the blade between him and it. It crooked a finger, beckoning and scurried along the stone like a lizard, disappearing into darker shadow. Gavin took a cautious step. Another, and saw a cleverly recessed door in the shadow of the stairwell.

Following the direction of this thing seemed the greatest of follies. Still, it had engineered his escape. Trying to fathom the reasoning behind that left him uneasy and chilled. But he had no wish to cross swords with the honest men of his garrison. No wish to face them at all, at the moment, truth be told, with Simon screaming accusation at him from the one side and a likely dead Duke backing up the claim on the other.

He tried the door, having nothing to lose by seeing what the thing wished to lead him to. It gave under his hand, long rusted hinges protesting with a grating creak. A small storage room that stank of mold and dust and disuse. A windowless trap once they started searching for him. He cursed again, back to the door, breath coming in great gulping gasps, body starting to tremble past his ability to still it. The sword was heavy in his hand, almost an unbearable weight. His strength was almost gone. He'd used up all his reserves denying them the satisfaction of submission. There'd be nothing left soon.

"What now?" he growled at the darkness, no sign of the thing in the shadows. Xera damned little trickster leading him to a dead end. He should have paid more heed to the tales the old women told around the kitchen, of shadow imps and malicious pisgies who reveled in the torment of unwary mortal men. His own mother had used to set quiet wards against such things, but she'd never spoken to him of them and a boy growing up in the bustle of a crowded city had never felt cheated in that lack of knowledge.

Until now. When a thing from the shadows had made him its business.

He swore under his breath, taking great liberty with Xera's good name and turned to yank the door open and make his escape through another route. The thing melted into existence on the wood of the door before his face.

Gavin gasped, staggering back, bringing the point of the sword up this time and leveling it at the creature.

"Play with me more and we'll see if honest iron will skewer you, imp."

The thing sniggered. Gavin wasn't so sure he heard it as much as sensed it, inside his head. Disconcerting to say the least. It hopped to the edge of his blade, bold little bastard, and balanced there, grinning at him, before it leapt once more to a barrel in the corner and pointed down.

Gavin blew breath through his teeth, swallowing, summoning courage, and moved cautiously to see what the thing wanted him to see.

A grate. A rusted, spider web encrusted grate in the floor. He held the lantern low, and the light barely illuminated a few feet of a narrow opening below. An old garderobe, he thought. Then looked up into the malicious yellow eyes of the thing that still crouched expectantly on the barrel and shuddered.

"You're mad if you think - -" he stopped, hearing the sound of cries outside the door. The distant sound of boots on the stair. Either the two knights had come round, or guards were coming from above. Either way, they would discover him eventually. Damn the thing for boxing him in here.

There was no help for it. No other option, but to use the sword to pry the grate up and pray to Xera that it didn't narrow to the point that he found himself trapped and victim of a death as horrifying as any his torturers could have dreamed up for him. He slid in feet first, hesitated at the lip, weighing the option of taking either lantern or sword. There was no way he could manage both. The sword won out. The sword would always win out. He transferred it to his weak hand and lowered himself with the other, bracing himself with his feet so he could pull the grate down behind him.

A tight fit, and he controlled the decent as best he could with legs and one good arm. Thank Xera it had been decades at best since this particular garderobe chute had been used. Perhaps twenty feet down, it curved outwards and the stone became slick with algae, the air less musty and more acrid. A slick stone and his foot lost its purchase. His body followed, a sudden, faster descent than he'd wanted. A stop just as sudden, as his feet slammed against another grate.

He muttered a curse, swallowing back the knot in his throat. It took him a moment to realize that the rushing he heard wasn't blood, but water. He could smell it, fresh and wild and welcoming. He'd come to the end of the garderobe where the chute emptied its waste into the river. The grate was solid under his feet and the chute narrow enough that there was no bending to work at it with his hands. He shut his eyes, little enough difference in the darkness. It must have been night outside, for no light seeped in from below. Just the sound of the river. Escape if he could reach it.

He stomped down, trying to make it give. Rust grated under his boots, but the grate held. The walls were too damned close, the blackness too complete. He cursed the imp again and for a moment, let panic rise to the fore. He slammed his boots against the grate until the shock of impacts made his legs throb, until something on one side begin to give just a little. He worked the sword down one handed, awkwardly digging the tip into the aged mortar at the edge, prying bits and pieces of it away, loosening its hold on rusted iron.

No easy process. Hours he worked at it, resting at intervals, head against slick stone, bare skin twitching as small, unseen things skittered over him now and then. There was the dullest of grey light silhouetting the black of the grate by the time the mortar crumbled and it gave way beneath him. Almost he lost the sword as he plunged down. The grate scraped a gouge in his back as he fell past it, and that burning pain was quenched as he hit water, no more than ten feet down, and went under it.

Black water, swollen and turbulent from the rains clutched at him, powerful beyond belief, pulling him deeper, tossing him along in its wake like so much flotsam. His lungs burned from it. He fought the weakness that wanted to overwhelm him - - wanted to make him give up and let the river take him. Fought his way to the surface only to slam into something with enough force to make him see spinning lights in the grey tinged dark of pre-dawn.

He clutched at it, ignoring the grating pain in his right shoulder, using the weak arm to anchor himself to the rocking thing he'd impacted. A canoe. A narrow, low lipped boat that had half torn free of its mooring along the shore. Small enough that it probably belonged to some boy, who used it to fish the Sylve.

He flung the sword over, and the effort it took to drag himself from the clutches of the swirling river took what little strength he had left. The last thing he managed, before he collapsed in the bottom of the boat, was to loose the mooring rope. He lay there after, as the little boat spun out into the water, the trees dark shapes that rustled above him, an ever-moving canopy. From his angle, prone on the bottom of the boat, he couldn't see the dark shape of Lockheer, but at the dizzying rate the canoe swept down the river, it had to be receding rapidly.

The movement of the boat made his head spin. It sucked him down a spiral path to blackness that was deeper than the shadows of the forest along the banks. He'd lost the strength to fight it somewhere along the way and with the battle won, the darkness claimed victory and drew him under.



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