Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 2 of 69

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She froze. Even her mind refused to make a sound for a long time, although she couldn’t stop her heart from pounding in her chest. I am locked in a room, alone, with the Hawk Mage. She couldn’t stop the idea from spinning in her head. At any moment she expected those skeletal fingers to dig claws into her skin, to peel the flesh from her cheeks. They moved away from her face, and she could see the fingers choking the life from her throat as vividly as if it were actually happening. The hand was cold, too cold to be human. She really believed it could be a demon. She shut her eyes as the fingertips trailed down her neck, all too aware of the vulnerable veins the razor-sharp demon claws were a heartbeat’s distance from. She froze, and the hand disappeared. There was no more weight on her shoulder, no alien touch. It took her a long moment to will herself to look around, but when she did there was only the bird, asleep, or at least hiding, under its wing.

She reached out to touch it, as she would any animal, and then drew her hand back. No, it wasn’t really a bird. And she was fair certain it wasn’t really asleep, either. She looked at it instead, seeing again the too-rapid breathing and the way its feathers were puffed up against the cold. Its feathers were dull and dusty, as if it were old rather than sick, and even though it was too big to be a normal bird, it was also starving-scrawny. She bit her lip and wondered what on earth she was supposed to do.

Well, what did she have to work with? She squared her shoulders and stood up, looking around the room. The fire in the tiny grate was struggling to stay alight, but the scuttle beside it only held a few damp pieces of wood. They would smoke and spit, and she would have to be careful if they were to last the night. Beside the scuttle was a barrel of water – one of the waterbutts that gathered rainwater from the courtyard. She dipped her fingers in to taste the sweet, fresh water with a sigh. She was only allowed a little water each day, and that was usually the leavings from boiling potatoes. It was for the same reason they had for everything: a thirsty prisoner was less likely to run away. It was human instinct to stay near water. She cupped her hands and drank the water until she felt sick, her stomach protesting at the unexpected fullness.

Next to the water was some stale bread, a little cooked meat and some cheese. It was all broken into small pieces already, as they didn’t trust her with a knife. There were rags, and bandages, and a tiny clay bottle which, when she opened it, smelled like cleaning alcohol. There was the threadbare grey tunic which all the prisoners wore, marked with the insignia of the King. And there was a chain. It was gold.

She stared at the chain, an odd smile quirking at her lips. She finally understood. This was why they’d chosen her. Sure, they might respect her healing skills – even the smallest bit. But they wanted him alive, and they didn’t care if she died to make that happen. Why not lock her in a room with a dangerous, insane killer? She wouldn’t be able to defend herself, so she couldn’t hurt him. Unlike her, he could still use his gift. Until that chain wrapped around his wrist, he would still be able to draw on his fire and burn the stone walls into ashes if he chose. They hadn’t put them on him already, even when he was human shaped.
She remembered the pain, the agony, when her own chain had first been latched around her arm. It was the healer’s job, the one who sneered. She remembered pleading, crying, using real words and stupidly thinking they might be listened to. I’m sorry! She said that one a lot, and meant it sometimes. Who are you people? That one never had an answer, not even a single person’s name. And Why are you doing this to me? didn’t deserve an answer. She already knew.

When the door had opened she’d had to shield her eyes against the bright candlelight, after so many months in the dungeon. She’d been raving, angry, furious and yet childish in her rage. They had let her scream until her throat bled, and then she had begun to sleep the dark sleep of the hopeless. They were never going to let her out. The healer’s eyes were gleaming yellow in the flame, and she didn’t even see the chain until he had looped it around the wasted muscles of her arm and snapped it shut. Then she had noticed. The sensation of having her ears suddenly shut up, of being blind and deaf and mute all at once, flooded over her, and she screamed in terror. Then the pain- from her heart, from the core of her, a heat which grew to scalding, tearing pitches and tore through her flesh mercilessly. Her fingertips blistered, her skin dried and cracked, and when she writhed on the cell floor her hair was left behind in singed coils. It was agony, far worse than any beating she’d had before or since, and it seemed to last forever. Forever, a fever of burning torture lit by the yellow light in those sneering eyes...

...she had woken up in the room that was now her own, several weeks later, with no memory of time passing, and with the silence echoing in her head. Her magic was gone. She had reached up to feel the soft strands of new hair, already a few centimetres long against her aching scalp, and the chain had clinked against her ear. It was a thin chain, looped twice around her left wrist and then crossing the back of her hand in two lines. Tiny circlets had been fused around her first and third fingers, and the chain was connected to the rings by artless blobs of solder. The bracelet part of it held a few disks chiming against each other, marked with symbols she didn’t recognise. And that was it: from then on, she was considered harmless. No more was said about it, and her slave-life had begun as soon as she was strong enough to stagger to the kitchens.

She had worked hard, thinking to redeem herself, and not realising that it made no difference to them. She had even, stupidly, thought they were going to take it off once, when she was fifteen and she saw the healer again. She hadn’t recognised him. He smiled thinly and took the chain in his clammy hands, not saying a word as he inspected each charm. Daine held her breath as he opened a box, wondering if he would take out something to cut the thing from her hand. But he had simply taken out another disk, pressed it to a free link in the chain, and muttered a few words under his breath. The glow of his gift linked the new charm onto the chain, and he waved her away without another word. She stopped to examine it when she’d left the room, and a vague memory of a lifetime ago resurfaced. For the last time, she had let herself cry where other people could see her. It was a pregnancy charm. That was the first time she had really understood how little she really meant to these people.

She shook the memory away fretfully. After all, her chain was silver. She was a curiosity, if anything. Worthless now she’d been tamed, and treated like it. The Hawk Mage’s chain was gold. He was valuable. But the fire from the chain would kill him if he was already ill. They needed him to be healthy before they could put him in a cage. They wouldn’t risk having anyone important around while he could still use his gift, now, would they?

The thought made her look around, her eyes accusing as she stared at the bird. I could kill it. She thought. So easily. I could smother it, or drown it. They wouldn’t know it was me. I could say he died from the sickness.

As quickly as the thought had risen in her mind she swallowed and chased it away, feeling sick. It was a horrible thing to think, even of a murderer. And whether or not they knew the truth, however he died, they would kill her.

She stood up and picked up the frayed tunic, carrying it over to the bird and wrapping it up warmly. She didn’t touch it, just the fabric, and even that as little as possible. She put a few scraps of meat onto a rag and set them next to the cocooned creature’s head. She soaked a rag in the barrel and dripped water onto the hawk’s head, ignoring the protesting sound as it was soaked and seeing with relief that it opened its beak and swallowed a little of it. Then she sat back down next to the fire, threw one of the few precious logs onto the embers, and wrapped her arms around her knees to wait.

It must have been many hours later. She had used up all the wood, and was writing with a piece of charcoal onto one of the rags when the door rattled open, and the soldier strode through it, jangling his keys. He took in the wrapped-up bird with a glance, and laughed at the girl huddled as far away as possible from the mage, next to the fire.

“That’s right girl, you should be scared of that one.” He drawled. He hooked his hands into his belt, taking his time before he spoke. For all his bluster, he wasn’t as bad as a lot of the other guards. If you didn’t say anything back- and, obviously, Daine never did- then he ran out of steam quite quickly and just got on with his job. Today that seemed to include fetching Daine down to the kitchens to heave a full basket of the same damp wood into the Hawk Mage’s room. As soon as she was out of the room and the door locked behind them, Daine took a deep breath and felt herself start shaking. The soldier looked at her with something close to sympathy, but didn’t say a word as he escorted her down the stairs.

“Is there anything needed?” He asked gruffly, gesturing around the room with awkward hands. Daine nodded and handed him the scrap of cloth she’d been writing on. She’d thought they might ask, and had spent a long time thinking of things she might need. She didn’t dare ask for something to defend herself with, though. The guard read through the list slowly, lips pursed, and shook his head at a few things.

“I’ll have to get this checked,” he said, “Approved, like. But I’m sure some soup wouldn’t be missed. Birds don’t chew, do they?”
Daine shook her head, surprised enough by the question to actually make eye-contact with the man. For a brief second she saw a flash of another person inside his eyes. She looked away. She couldn’t think of the guards as people. It made her life seem so much more wretched. Still, she was surprised and grateful when the guard brought her a cup of the thin broth that always simmered on the stove and told her to sit down and drink it while he found some of the other things on the list. It was the first hot food she’d had in weeks, and she could feel the warmth spreading through her body deliciously after the cold night.
The guard returned and handed her a bulging bag without a word. She took it, confused- she hadn’t asked for this much, she wouldn’t have dared! He didn’t give her a chance to open the bag, or any explanation, but picked up the basket of wood and carried it back to the tower room for her without another word. She felt the cold of the tower and her fear of the room making her shake again, but the guard’s compassion seemed to have faded with every step he took. When she hesitated in the doorway he shoved her through, and threw the basket after her so that the wood scattered among the rushes.

“Same time tomorrow.” He said curtly, “And if he’s no better you’ll be whipped.”

She stayed huddled where she had fallen on the floor until the door clicked shut, and then sighed and started picking up the wood. It was best to keep busy, at least until she could stop herself shaking. She filled the basket, and then used a flat piece of wood to sweep the mouldy reeds into one corner. If the mage was hurt- and the bandages told her that he probably was- then the reeds would welcome infections into the room. She could sleep on the soft rushes, now they were piled up. She dampened another rag and cleaned the exposed stone floor, scrubbing it with a vengeance. When the floor was clean the rag was worn into holes, and she threw it into the fire to hiss and curl into flames.

She looked up at the bird from time to time, but it seemed no different. It hadn’t opened its eyes, or tried to escape from the tunic she’d wrapped it in. The food was untouched, and she frowned. If it wouldn’t eat then it would die, as sure as sugar. She unpacked the bag the guard had given her, finding the canister of soup nestled at the top with a small wooden spoon. It was made of such flimsy wood that it could never be a weapon, but it was perfect for spooning the still-warm liquid into the bird’s protesting beak. She found if she thought about it as an animal then it was easier, since she could never be afraid of a simple hawk. It had shown no sign of wanting to become human again since the night before. When she released it the bird gurgled down its last beakful of food, swallowed, and fell asleep.

Daine took the time to open the bag. She gasped, almost smiling for a moment as she realised why it was so heavy. The guard had found a thick blanket, the kind lined with fleece and braided wool, and stuffed it into the bag for her. She’d asked for a blanket, but she’d never dreamed it would be something this fine. Oh, she knew it was meant for the mage, but still she couldn’t resist wrapping it around herself, feeling almost warm for the first time in months. She lay near the fire, almost ashamed of how comfortable she felt, and tucked her frozen feet into the rich folds of soft fabric.

The fire spluttered and one of the new logs burst into flame, but she didn’t think to bank the flue. She was already asleep.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 2 of 69

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