Unguilded, p.16

Unguilded, page 16

 

Unguilded
 



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  A big bed, its mattress rolled up to the head board, took up a third of the space. A small table stood beside it, and four chairs were scattered at the other end of the room. A cushioned bench and two comfortable chairs were shoved into the far corner. A big stone fireplace stretched across the wall that was directly behind the kitchen. A few split logs were stacked beside it, but there was no residue of ash in the grate.

  Santos Nimali had made this cabin. At least he had used magic on it—his green mage mist was everywhere. But it didn’t look lived in. Had he forgotten about it in his madness? She was willing to take a chance that he had. It was the best, most secure place to live that she could think of—right under the nose of the mad mage, yet not in his sights. And there was magic here, keeping the structure sturdy and whole, and a source of water.

  She’d bring Pilo, Vook, Sidra, and Mole here—they’d move the furniture around and make it a real home.

  ARABELLA LOOKED UP from her desk when Annya, her Server, announced the visitor.

  “Noula,” Arabella said. She didn’t bother to stand as the other woman bowed.

  “You asked to see me, Master Mage?” Noula asked, twisting her hands in her skirt.

  Arabella waited until Annya left the room, closing the door behind her, before she put down the paper she was reading.

  “Yes, I wanted to see if you were settled.” She’d placed the woman in Castio’s household a few days ago—a favour for a distant relative from her home Villa, she’d said when she’d pleaded for his help. She’d had to hide her amusement when he’d agreed. She’d promised to return the favour of course—and depending on where her interests lay, she might even do it.

  “Yes, Donna,” Noula replied. “I’m settled in. But . . . I’m sorry, I’m not actually in Mage Castio’s home. I’m to help school Mage Etta’s children. They’re little, like my Osten.”

  “Etta, of course,” Arabella said. She knew who the woman was, but hadn’t realized how close she was to Castio. Unless . . . “And has Castio asked you to keep him informed of Etta’s activities?”

  “No, Donna,” Noula paused. “But he did spend last night in her home.”

  “Ah, I see. And the children, they are Castio’s?”

  “I think so, Donna,” Noula replied. “He seems fond of them.”

  “And of Etta as well, no doubt,” Arabella said. She’d ask Valerio if he knew about Etta. On second thought, she’d ask Rorik. No need to give Valerio information. If Rorik already knew this, she could assume Valerio did as well. And if this was news to Rorik, it would be another secret to tie them closer.

  “Noula,” Arabella. “I hope that you appreciate everything both Secundus Valendi and I are doing for you.”

  “Yes, Donna,” Noula said. “I am so very grateful for your help placing both me and my son.”

  “Would you like to visit your son?”

  “Oh Donna, that would be beyond my expectations.”

  “I will arrange it,” Arabella said. “If you let me know if you see or hear anything unusual.”

  “I promise,” Noula said. “Of course I promise. When can I see my son?”

  “I’ll let you know in a few days,” Arabella replied. She had to find out where he was. She couldn’t ask Valerio, but Rorik might know.

  Noula left, and Arabella returned to the papers she had been studying. She didn’t expect the woman to learn anything important—at least not more important than the fact that Castio had a family—but she wanted Noula to be hers, not Valerio’s.

  KARA LEFT FOR the docks at dusk. And for the first time in a long time, her belly was full. She’d eaten tart apples and carrots from an overgrown vegetable garden. More vegetables—squash, potatoes, and chives—nestled between weeds, and there was evidence of small visitors everywhere. If Vook could catch a rabbit, they’d eat meat, instead of their steady supply of fish.

  For over half an hour she followed the rocky shoreline, ducking into the brush once when a boat came close to the shore. The boat, filled with stern-faced men carrying swords, rounded the tip of Old Rillidi Island and headed towards the island across the bay. She didn’t move again until it was out of sight.

  The stone wall that surrounded the estate had crumbled into the bay, and Kara easily scrambled over it. Dense forest edged up to an empty beach that soon gave way to tumbled rocks, and she was forced to move into the trees.

  The moon was up now, but very little light filtered through the trees. Finally, after over an hour, she came across a fence made of familiar metal mesh.

  She followed the fence to the corner—the gate was closed. Who had the key tonight? Pilo? Or maybe Vook? She hoped it wasn’t in Harb’s possession, or, even worse, the clammers.

  On hands and knees she crawled alongside the fence towards the gate. There, that flickering light had to be the fire pit. She crept forward, edged behind a tree, and dropped to her stomach. She could clearly see the fire pit now.

  Three figures sat around the fire. One was Harb. She watched him take a drink from a mug and hold it up to the person beside him. It was a woman—her pale skin shone ghostly in the fire light, and her hair hung down her back in dark, matted clumps. A clammer. Harb placed an arm around her bare shoulders, and she laughed, a low animal sound, and leaned into him to drink from the mug. When she leaned over, Kara got a good look across the fire. Mole sat slumped on a log, his head in his hands as he squinted against the glare of the flames.

  “Fire’s getting low, Mole,” Harb barked without even looking at the boy.

  Mole stood up, and Kara stifled a gasp. There was a collar around Mole’s neck with a rope attached. Dirty-grey mage mist twisted around the collar. The clammers had magic? Mole walked until his rope was taut, and then he stretched his arms out towards a wood pile.

  “I can’t reach it anymore, Harb,” Mole said. “You gotta untie me.”

  “And have you try to run away again?” Harb got up and stomped past Mole to the woodpile. He kicked the wood. “Here, now you can reach.” A piece hit Mole on the knee, and the boy grunted.

  “Next time get out of my way,” Harb said.

  He knocked into Mole on his way back to the fire, sending the boy tumbling to the ground.

  “Make sure that fire is nice and bright by the time I get back.” Harb reached down to the clammer woman and pulled her up. She snuggled into his side as they headed towards the boat.

  Mole spent a few minutes pulling wood over to the fire before he started tugging desperately on the rope.

  “Mole,” Kara whispered as loud as she dared. “Mole.” The boy didn’t look her way.

  She found a rock and tossed it over the fence. It landed with a thud near the boy.

  “Mole.”

  This time he heard her and came as close as the rope allowed. Close enough for her to see scratches and a bruise on his face.

  “Kara?” he asked.

  She nodded, and his small shoulders slumped in relief.

  “Harb said you were dead, that the mad mage got you.”

  “He lied,” Kara said. “Are the others all right? Vook, Pilo, and Sidra?”

  “Mostly,” Mole said. “Harb tied them up on the other side of the boat. He makes Lowel watch them.”

  “How many clammers?”

  “Just two women. One for Harb and one for Lowel.” Mole made a face. “They smell bad. They take them into the boat and afterward Harb and Lowel smell bad too.”

  “Where’s the key?” She had to get in somehow, had to free them. Just two clammers. She didn’t think it would stay that way for long.

  “Harb’s got it. Never takes it off, not even when he’s with one of them women.” Mole glanced over his shoulder. “There’s a way inside the fence. At the corner nearest the mad mage.” He backed up towards the fire.

  “You got that fire going yet?”

  Harb had returned with the clammer woman in tow. His eyes shone dully in the firelight. He stretched and closed his eyes, and the clammer woman kneaded his shoulders. Harb
groaned in pleasure as her hands slid over him. He shifted slightly, and Kara got a good look at the woman’s face. It was feral and dangerous and full of hatred for the man she was touching. Harb opened his eyes, and she smiled sweetly up at him.

  Mole stared across the fire. His gaze met Kara’s for a moment, and he blinked, once. Kara nodded and slowly backed away from the fire pit. She’d head to the corner and search for the way inside the fence.

  EVEN THOUGH HE’D told her where to look, Kara still had a difficult time finding the tunnel that ran under the fence—then it took her half an hour to clear out enough earth for her to fit through it. By the time she’d wriggled through the tunnel she was covered in dirt, her hair was a tangled mess, and most of her fingernails were broken. She dragged her pack out and looked up at the sky. It was almost dawn, and she was exhausted. A few steps away from the fence she wedged herself up against a fallen log and fell asleep.

  Chapter thirteen

  KARA WOKE SLOWLY, lifted her head off her pack, and quietly sat up. The air was still, and she could feel the heat of the sun despite the leafy canopy overhead. She’d slept longer than she’d intended—it was already late afternoon. Harb and Lowel used to sleep right until dark, before they had hostages to watch—or clammers in camp. Would they still be asleep?

  She took a small sip from her water skin and rummaged for the orange she’d put in her pack yesterday. She grabbed a small packet along with the orange. Which herb was that? She smelled it. Thyme—it was good for coughs and indigestion. Too bad Harb, Lowel, and the clammer women didn’t have a bad case of indigestion. She paused. What else did she have in here?

  She quickly spilled the contents of her pack onto the ground and started to sort through her herbs. She sniffed, discarding one after another. She opened one packet and dipped a finger into it. She could not make a mistake, not with so much at stake. She tasted just a little and then spat it out. Squill. She stuffed the rest of the herbs back into her pack, leaving that one small packet at the top. She ate the orange—she was ready.

  Now that she was inside the fence, Kara kept trees between her and the fire pit. Lowel was there. He leaned against a tree and idly watched as Pilo set a pot of water into the fire. Like Mole the night before, Pilo wore a collar that was tied to a rope. The same dirty-gray mage mist swirled around the collar.

  “Is there any fish for the stew?” Pilo asked. She straightened and looked at Lowel. “Harb was pretty mad about not having any for last night.”

  “I’ll find Vook,” Lowel said. “And see what he’s got. Don’t want Harb mad again tonight.” Lowel left his post by the tree and ambled off in the direction of Vook’s favourite fishing spot.

  Kara waited a minute before she crept forward on hands and knees. She peered out from behind a tree.

  “Pilo.”

  The girl’s head came up slightly, then carefully she looked behind her. She backed up a few steps until she was at Kara’s tree.

  “Mole said he saw you,” Pilo said.

  She let her hand trail down the trunk, and Kara grabbed it. Pilo sighed and leaned her head against the tree.

  “I wasn’t sure I could believe him.”

  “I’m here. I’m not leaving without you,” Kara said. “All of you. The rest of the clammers will be here soon, is my guess.”

  “Harb still says no,” Pilo said. “He and Lowel have been rutting with the clammer women so much I think they’ve spilled their brains out along with their seed.”

  “Lowel never had much in the way of brains anyway,” Kara said.

  Any sympathy she’d had for Lowel was gone. He wasn’t very bright, but he knew right from wrong. And keeping Vook, Pilo, and the others tied up was wrong. Once she helped them escape the clammers could come for Harb and Lowel. Then they’d realize what they’d been leading them all into.

  “Pilo, I have something I need you to add to their food,” Kara said.

  “I hope it’s poison.” Pilo’s voice was hard. “I hope it kills them. I hate them. Especially the clammers. I think they really do eat their own babies. The way they look at Mole makes my skin crawl.”

  “Here,” Kara said. She pulled the packet of dried squill from her pack. “Add it to the stew. It won’t kill them, not quite.” At least she hoped it wouldn’t. It could make them sick enough that they’d wish they were dead, though. “Make sure none of you eat.”

  “Don’t worry. They eat first, Harb, Lowel, and the clammers. We get what’s left. If there is anything.” Pilo took the packet and slipped it into her shirt.

  “I’ll come back after dark,” Kara said. “They should get sick right away.”

  Kara crept into the woods. She watched Pilo dump the packet contents into the pot. She hadn’t liked the look on the girl’s face when she’d been talking about killing Harb and Lowel. Even now Pilo’s face was full of fury as she stirred the stew.

  Kara ducked lower when Lowel returned carrying two small fish. He stood a few feet away while Pilo used a small knife to clean and gut them. Had Pilo tried to escape already? Kara had been gone for only a few days—what in Gyda’s name had Harb done to them?

  Pilo continued to fuss about the stew while Lowel dozed, leaning against the tree. The shadows of the trees grew longer, and Kara moved a little closer to the fire pit.

  A clammer woman, one she hadn’t seen before, strolled into view. She cast a disdainful look at Pilo, whose face tightened in anger, and wandered towards Lowel. She stopped in front of him, cupped her breasts, and started to undulate her hips. Lowel licked his lips and turned to face her, a slow, sleepy smile on his face.

  “Yes, you enjoy yourself, Lowel,” Kara whispered.

  Lowel’s jaw went slack as the clammer woman reached out and cupped his groin.

  “This might be the last time you ever feel this good.” Kara shook her head as the clammer woman dropped to her knees, pulled Lowel’s trousers down and pressed her face into him.

  Kara looked from the ecstatic Lowel over to Pilo. The girl franticly stirred the stew, her gaze focused on the pot in front of her. Lowel grunted once, loudly, and Kara glared at him in disgust. Had he and Harb been rutting in front of the rest of them? No wonder Pilo hated them so much.

  The clammer stood up as Lowel fixed his clothes. She gave him a smile and sauntered over to Pilo. Pilo’s face was as still as stone, but Kara could almost feel the fury that she held in check. The clammer grinned and touched a finger to Pilo’s collar. It flared with mage mist, and Kara sucked in a breath. This clammer definitely had magic. How had they escaped the Mage Guild’s notice? Or were they too depraved even for them?

  Pilo’s eyes widened, but she refused to acknowledge the clammer’s presence. The woman simply grinned more widely and leaned over the pot and sniffed.

  Gyda, don’t let her eat anything yet, Kara prayed. They had to all eat together! She sighed in relief when the clammer returned to Lowel and wrapped her arms around him. Lowel leaned down and kissed her, long and deep. When he lifted his head, Kara saw another puff of mage mist around his head. The clammers were using magic on Harb and Lowel. The mist disappeared, and Lowel turned glassy eyes towards Pilo.

  “Stew ready yet?” he called. “We’ve worked up an appetite.” Sleepily, he looked down at the clammer.

  “Me too.” Harb walked into Kara’s view, the other clammer woman pulled tight against his chest. “And it better be good tonight. I’m not in a generous mood.”

  Pilo edged as far away from him as the rope allowed.

  Harb grabbed a mug from beside the fire and scooped out some stew. He blew on it before bringing the mug to his lips. He took a sip and grunted.

  “Fish. Good.” He nodded.

  The clammer woman at his side picked up a second mug and dipped it into the pot. She carefully carried her mug of stew to the log and sat down. Lowel and the other woman came over and filled their own mugs. Soon all four were eating. Harb got a second helping, and the rest copied him.

  Kara relaxed. Two mugs each—th
at should be enough to make them very ill. It wouldn’t be long now.

  Darkness had settled on the fire pit, and Kara started to creep closer, keeping to the shadows. The light from the fire flickered over expressions that changed from sated to uneasy.

  “I don’t feel so good, Harb,” Lowel said. He leaned to the other side of the log and retched.

  One of the clammer women copied him, clutching at her stomach.

  “What have you done, whore?” Harb took an unsteady step towards Pilo. “I’ll kill you.”

  “Not if you’re dead you won’t,” Pilo said. She circled away from him and laughed. “That’s right, Harb, you’re going to die.”

  Harb dropped to his knees and gasped in agony. “You’ll die if we die.” He vomited. “No one will be here to untie you.”

  The last clammer was on her stomach in the dirt, her mouth open and a puddle of vomit in front of her.

  Kara hurried to Pilo.

  “You!” Harb grunted and tried to get to his feet. “I’m gonna kill you too.”

  “No you won’t,” Kara said. She grabbed the knife and sawed through the rope as close to Pilo’s neck as she dared. “You’re going to be spewing and shitting so much you won’t be able to stand up for hours.”

  “You need the key,” Harb sneered. “And I’m not going to let you have it.”

  “I didn’t need the key to get in here, did I?” Kara said.

  Pilo took the knife and ran to the boat, Kara hurrying after her. Harb’s shout turned into a gag, and soon all she could hear behind her was groaning and coughing.

  Pilo was already on the far side of the boat by the time Kara got there. Vook, Sidra, and Mole were tied together, mage mist swirling faintly around their collars.

  She turned to Pilo. “Let me get these off you.”

  “No,” Pilo said. She covered her collar with her hands. “If we try to untie them, they just get tighter.”

  “They’ve been spelled,” Kara said. “At least one of the clammers can do magic.” She lifted a hand and waved away the mage mist. “Let me see.”

 
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