The castle at Adelheim was much the same as the others in the region–at least the ones that weren’t heaps of rubble. It was older than the town itself, its basement levels built of entirely different stone. Walking down the corkscrew staircase into its depths was like a journey back in time, or a journey through the sediment of the earth itself. Riss could see the layers where old construction ended and new began. The whole stairwell reeked of damp stone and iron.
“Boy,” she said to Tarn’s back, trying to soothe the tension in her own stomach more than anything. “How many times you figure they’ve knocked this thing down and built it back up again?”
“Hopefully no more now that I live in it,” he said.
She thought back to the attempt on his life. He was so unfazed by it. Was this not the first time?
“Suppose the region’s always been a little unstable,” she said.
Tarn grunted agreement. “There’s a reason why Medao is the closest city of any note. Nothing large enough to constitute a proper port survives down here without someone or another attempting to annex it, even if it’s just the bastard with the next-largest plot of land down the road.”
At the termination of the stairs lay a heavy, iron-barred door. Veslin unlocked it and heaved it open, beckoning both Tarn and Riss inside. A pair of guards in the livery of Tarn’s garrison manned the hallway. Their expressions read boredly professional at first glance, but if Riss looked longer, she could spy the relief that snuck into their eyes upon the sight of their commander. They straightened as Tarn passed.
Only one of the cells appeared to be occupied, judging by the single guard stationed outside it. Despite the fact that logic told her no harm could reasonably come to her or Tarn in this situation, her hand wandered to the sheath at her hip. She hadn’t worn her machete, heavy as it was, but in a pinch she’d made quick work of a man with much smaller blades before.
Riss wondered how the soldiers were taking it, having to watch after one of their own. How Vosk was taking it, being imprisoned by people who were once his brothers and sisters in arms. She recalled the empathy she’d felt for him when they’d shared a fire, when she’d looked into his eyes and thought she’d seen the same loss she suffered. Her jaw clenched involuntarily.
There’s no threat here, she tried to tell herself, even through the wary goosebumps that rose on her arms. He’s going to get his.
“Baron.” The guard outside the cell door straightened.
Through the narrow slits in the wood, Riss saw only inky blackness. The interior of the cell was completely without light. Tarn peeked through, one thick eyebrow aloft, then glanced to the guard in wordless enquiry.
“He cries like crazy whenever we light the lamps,” the guard said, disdainful. “We grew tired of it.” Cruel, Riss thought, but understandable. She was relieved to see they appeared to rightly see Vosk as the traitor he was rather than a figure deserving of sympathy for having once shared their colors.
“Veslin says he’s been causing trouble?” Tarn glanced aside to his houseman now, who simply nodded. Riss felt like an unnecessary card on the table, not relevant to anyone’s hand. But Vosk could cause real harm if he’d somehow figured out a way to share what he knew.
Tarn instructed the man to open the door with a tick of his chin. Riss’ stomach tightened.
Crashing a fist against the door in a warning knock, the guard twisted a key in the heavy iron lock. The sound of it was refreshingly mechanical, secure somehow in a way that set Riss’ pulse at ease: click, scrape, creak. As the door swung outward, an immediate waft of foul air hit their noses. Tarn and Riss both coughed, though the guard did not. Perhaps he was used to it. The cell smelled–atop the usual damp earth and sour, metallic odor–of decades of human filth. Nothing new or fresh, but the persistent odor of neglect and suffering had been all but baked into the stone it was hewn from.
Behind them, the guard helpfully held a torch aloft, allowing light to spill into the interior.
Each cell was designed to house far more than a single prisoner. Sets of disused manacles dangled off the walls, splotched with rust. Straw-stuffed pallets lined one wall, but the bedding had been torn from many of them, scattered around the floor and resembling nothing so much as the floor of a stable. Straw crunched under their boots as they stepped inside, Tarn at the fore.
A lone figure slumped on the pallet in the farthest corner, distinctly human but only half-lit. It didn’t move when they neared, though they could hear the rasp of its breathing.
“He’s restrained?” Tarn and Riss realized it in the same moment, though only Tarn asked aloud.
Behind them, Veslin and the guard stepped closer. Once they did, their fire further illuminated the dark stone walls, which Riss only just noticed were shiny.
She craned her head back for a better view. Slick writing glistened on the walls, warningly dark even against the rock. Her breath caught in her throat. Tarn studied the wall above the pallets, its bricks similarly slippery. Each crudely-drawn character caught the light, gleaming still-wet. Reflecting the fire, the writing looked like molten copper.
The words were completely indistinguishable. Riss wasn’t sure whether that could be put down to the writing surface, the frenzied nature of the strokes that drew them, or unfamiliarity of the language.
The smell told her all she needed to know about what Vosk had used for ink: his own blood.
They stood over the man curled on his heap of straw. Crude bandagings wrapped his arms, and he hugged himself in a loose fetal position. Unlike the rest of the mercenary party, he hadn’t been offered a bath or a change of clothes upon arriving at the castle. He still reeked of the swamp. He didn’t stir when they drew close.
“You’ve sedated him?” she asked.
“Aye.” Veslin spoke behind her. “When they mentioned he was mutilating himself, I sent the house physician down. Once I checked in, I sent for you immediately. Things looked… unusual.” Turns out it wasn’t just Adal’s servants who had a gift for understatement.
Tarn made a sound like he’d just bit into a sour fruit. He beckoned for Veslin’s light, then swung it around, examining the bloodied characters strewn all over the walls. For a moment, worry seized Riss in a deathly-tight, clenching grip–had Vosk detailed her treachery here? Written about all Calay was capable of? But prolonged study of the markings revealed no new insights. She couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Judging by the blank expression on his features, Tarn couldn’t grasp them either.
“Anyone understand this gibberish?” he asked, glancing back to Veslin.
The houseman stepped into the center of the cell, turning his head this way and that. His mouth compressed as he studied the walls. Riss saw recognition flash in his torchlit eyes. She minded her expression, betraying nothing even as curiosity scratched at her innards like a rat in a trap.
“Huh.” Veslin made a soft sound of comprehension. He spun in a slow circle, studying the bloodied walls, then returned his eyes to Tarn and lifted a tight-shouldered shrug.
“It’s just one sentence in Sunnish,” he said. “Repeated over and over again.”
Riss felt an odd sort of relief–one sentence could cause a lot of damage, but it couldn’t reveal all of what she’d concealed.
“Well?” Tarn, impatient. “Out with it.”
Veslin folded his arms across his middle, hugging himself loosely. His voice was soft, reedy, reluctant to speak the words.
“Come unto the ground,” he said.
Though Riss hadn’t the foggiest idea what it meant, the words snuffed her relief like a breath to a candle. If asked, she could never explain precisely why they sent that frigid chill up her back. But now that she’d heard it, she wanted to be out of that basement. She did not want to be in, as Vosk had put it, the ground.
It felt like he’d beckoned them downward and they’d answered. Which felt like playing into someone else’s hands.
Tarn shared none of her worry. His eyebrows scrunched and he glanced back to the prone man in the straw.
“Means bugger all to me,” he said. He directed his next order at Veslin: “Have them call us me back when he’s awake. Restrain him further if you must. Can’t have him slithering free of the noose now.”
Riss was glad to step through the door, though the hallway was only marginally less oppressive. She thought of the heavy tons of earth that pressed in against the dungeon’s stones, had an insane moment of worry over whether the walls would be strong enough to hold it all back.
It was soil. It was completely inert. Shaking her head, Riss palmed at her face. With each step she and Tarn took toward the surface, she could breathe a little easier.
They reached an alcove in the narrow stairwell where light shone through a window. Aboveground again, then. Tarn waved Veslin on, then cornered Riss for a moment, gesturing for her to wait.
“Riss,” he said. He cradled his injured shoulder for a moment, then straightened.
“Yes, sir?” Again, she fell back on the sir. He let it slide.
“You’ve done me a great service.” His stare turned heavy, solemn. “Though the news wasn’t what we wanted, it was close to what I expected. Nobody expected you to retrieve Lukra from that marsh alive.”
Riss, who’d been so wound up in the character of the expedition and what it stood for, had scarcely thought of it in those terms since embarking. Less so since returning. Once they were knee-deep in the mud, the whys behind why she was out there had ceased to matter. Survival had come first. Survival and seeing Vosk brought to whatever justice they could manage.
“There were some close calls,” she said, unwilling to dwell on the details. “I’m pleased you found my conduct sufficient.”
“Never a doubt in my mind,” said Tarn. He released a breath that seemed to settle more of his weight upon his bearish shoulders. “The townsfolk here, they prefer their hangings at midday. They say the further you are from dark, the less chance of ghosts escaping and hanging around or some nonsense.”
Riss gave him a skeptical look, retaining her silence.
“We’ll hang him tomorrow and be done with this. If you and your company fancied remaining in Adelheim longer, I would certainly have use of you. For starters I’d like to track down the swine who did this.” He tapped the dressing upon his shoulder.
“I think Adal would be amenable,” Riss said. They’d have to circle the wagons and discuss it, but for the time being she had no business elsewhere. Adelheim was as good a center of operations as any.
“Thank you, Riss.”
Before returning to the courtyard, she paused and glanced up into Tarn’s face.
“No,” she said. “Thank you. I needed this. You knew I needed it. This is the last I’ll speak of the matter, but I appreciate what you did.” She couldn’t bring herself to say any more of it aloud, how she’d doubted herself and her capabilities. How she’d immersed herself in that wrong-headed, self-pitying thinking for lack of a better exit strategy.
“I chose you because you were the right one for the job,” Tarn said, ever willing to lend her plausible deniability.
“You offered me a drink, back when this all began.” Riss’ mouth curved in a short lived smile. “I believe I’ll finally take you up on that.”
It was halfway through her glass of wine, a viscous and pleasantly sweet concoction that glimmered gold in the sunlight, that the wrongness of come unto the ground returned. Riss sat at Tarn’s side, laughing at one of his long-winded recollections, and then the world around her seemed to still. Color seeped from the tablecloths, the sky, the booze-ruddied cheeks of her friends.
Riss had spent days in the field with Vosk. She’d spoken to him at length.
Vosk had never used the word unto. Come unto the ground wasn’t just an eerie beckoning to something that felt wrong, it was an invitation written in words the man who wrote them would never, ever use.