The young man may as well have been cast in stone, so still did he keep himself. Except for the panting. And whimpering. He flinched, as the creature’s teeth nipped the flesh at the base of his thumb. Not hard enough to break skin. The boy’s sudden movement caused the bindings around his wrists to snap, most of the rope having been chewed through.
He turned to swing at the beast, but it danced out of reach, chittering and hissing, before scuttling away into the darkness.
“And don’t come back!” he whispered harshly after it.
Only after he was sure the creature wasn’t going to return did he work at the knots at his ankles, and then turn his attention to the ropes binding the girl. She politely ignored how much his hands shook.
They climbed to the top of the pile of hay and grain below the trap door, but it was well out of reach. After a second tumble when the boy tried to lift Jasna onto his shoulders, they lay, panting, staring up at the faint square outline of light.
“Why don’t we try finding where that rat disappeared to?” Jasna asked.
“How about we try one more time to boost you up?”
Jasna hauled herself to her feet, placing her boot in the young man’s cupped hands, her hands on his shoulders.
“Ready?” he asked.
There came a sudden flurry of squeaking, and the young man glanced feverishly about in the gloom. But the squeaking came from above them.
Lantern light flooded the cellar, and Jasna squinted up into familiar face.
“Brynne! Fancy meeting you here.”
“Hullo, Jasna. Oh, is this a bad time? I didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”
The young man blushed, and leapt away from the younger girl.
“I didn’t-- I would never--” he sputtered.
Jasna frowned at him. “So I’m ugly, as well as fat?”
“Hurry up, already!” another voice called from above. “I can’t hold this shield up all night.”
The young man leapt at the knotted rope that Brynne had lowered. “Allow me to assist you!” he called, as he hauled himself up.
Jasna swarming up after him.
They emerged into what looked to be an inn or taven kitchen, long since boarded up and disused. While most of the surfaces were clear of dust, the cobwebs and grime had simply been pushed to the corners, rather than truly cleaned up.
“Brynne!” The other girl’s voice called from the front room. “It’s slipping!”
They rushed into the common room, lit by two oil lamps on either end of the single long table. A group of adults sat in a circle, their backs to each other, hands bound, with wads of what looked like their own cloaks stuffed in their mouths.
One man, with wavy red hair and coppery skin, glared around a mouthful of his yellow longcoat. A slender woman with long blonde hair slumped next to the man, her own glare just as withering.
Their attention was directed at another blonde girl, who stood with her hand outstretched, unfazed by the scrutiny of the captives. She wore a simple flowing white dress, the sleeves long and billowing. The cuffs, like the bottom of her dress, was embroidered with seven colored bands.
The young man blinked. “I don’t understand. There is no armor here…”
Brynne pushed past him, snatching up a polished oaken staff another six inches taller than her. With a practices twirl, she brought one end down on the red-haired man’s head, and then did the same to the woman. Both slouched, their features going slack.
“You just beat defenseless prisoners!” The young man made to grab for Brynne’s wrist, but she stepped back, batting his hands away with another twirl of the staff.
“And they are hardly defenseless,” the girl in the dress said. She spoke as if she’d just spent the past hour hauling water up and down flights of stairs.
Jasna ignored them, kneeling on the bench, looking over the sheaf of papers that covered half the table. She pushed several aside, revealing a stained and age-spotted calfskin.
“Ah! Finally something without so many words on it!”
The girl in the dress breezed past the young man, and then stopped. “Show me your hands,” she said, her tone sharp. When the boy did -- without hesitation -- her gaze flicked to his right side. He gave a shiver, tried to snatch his hands back, but the girl tightened her grip.
“Hold still, it won’t take but a moment.”
“Don’t you dare use your witchery on me!” the young man gasped. He sucked in a hissing breath, and the crease in his brow lessened. He took another breath, and another. The snarl faded into slack-jawed amazement, which just as quickly crumpled into suspicion. “What did you do? Why doesn’t it hurt any more?”
“I just mended your third rib, which was badly cracked. I also soothed the two torn muscles in your shoulder, as well as the bruises that would have made for some very painful fists in a few hours time. Oh, and dear Petra’s little bite from this morning, as well.”
“Little?” the young man said, wrenching his hand free. “Look what she--” He stared. The gap-toothed marks were gone, as if they’d never been there. Again, the amazement warred with suspicion. “You--” he began.
The girl held out her hand. “You may call me Katarin,” she said. “Company healer.”
The boy took her fingertips, bowing over them. He looked up. “Company?”
“Yes, we are the ‘Company of Maidens.’”
“No, no no,” Jasna said, looking up from the calfskin map, waving her hands. “We are called the ‘Handmaidens of Petra.’”
“I thought we were going to be the ‘Defenders of Threshold,’” Brynne said.
“That is Brynne, our Sergeant at Arms,” Jasna said. “Our treasurer is snowed in at Verge. The secretary-- where is Petra?”
The two other girls glanced at each other, and then through the slats of one of the windows, where Matera’s waning moonlight painted dim silvery lines through the dancing dust motes and on the floor.
“It’s her … time of the month,” Katarin said.
The young man rubbed his hand. “No wonder her temper was so short.”
All three girls stared at him.
“There’s no going near my sister during the new moon.”
“That’s not precisely--” Katarin began, but Brynne gave her a nudge in the ribs with her staff.
Jasna frowned. “Well, we’ll just gather all this up for her to go through in the morning.”
“You could try reading some of it,” Brynne said.
The girl at the table pouted. “But there are so many words! Look at this: page after page of them! What could possibly take so many words to say?”
“If you bothered to read them, you would know, Jasna.”
“I’m supposed to be the wise one,” Katarin said. Brynne stuck her tongue out at the girl.
“Um, excuse me…” the young man said.
Jasna looked up at him. “We recognize Lord Stableboy of Penhaligon. What is it?”
His cheeks colored, but he took a deep breath, his lips moving, as if counting to himself.
“I told you. I am no lord. My name is just… Justin. Justin Promethian.” He bowed. “At your service.”
Jasna’s eyes narrowed slightly at the slight hesitations at giving his name. But she smiled brightly nonetheless.
“Very well, Lord Stableboy. You can start by herding all of them into the wagon outside.” She pointed past him, to the group of bound Glantrians.
Sergeant Arthol looked up at the ringing of the bell by the guardhouse’s front door. It had been a long day -- first the business with the orphan and the young lord, and then the debacle they caused in the market square. He was not yet halfway through the vendor’s petitions for recompense to the baron, and the moon was well past it’s zenith. It was most definitely not how he meant to spend his Year’s End eve.
The bell rang again, sounding as if the ringer was using the bell pull for a skipping rope.
He snatched up a truncheon as he made his way through the front guard room. It never hurt be too careful at this time of night-- unless you were on the receiving end of the club, that is. The sergeant chuckled at his private joke, and unbolted the door. He nearly tripped over the tangle of bodies on the stoop.
He reached down, and picked up a note, written with charcoal on a scrap of old paper. The neat, courtly lettering read:
“Happy New Year. A present from the” -- here, several different groups of words were crossed out: “Company of the Maidens” and “Defenders of Threshold” -- the words “Handmaidens of Petra” was spelled out in a different hand, much bigger, the letter ‘e’ having been scribed in reverse. It was signed “With Apologies, Lord Justin, et. al.”