Date Posted: 16th April 2023
Tasni hadn't been back to the Weyr since she'd left for her apprenticeship, but the quarry reminded her of the Hatching Grounds, with the stepped terraces like the viewing stands, and the stone dust under her feet in place of sand. It was easily deep enough for a gold dragon to crouch at the bottom with her head below the upper levels.
Another way it was like the Hatching Grounds was that there weren't many good places to hide. During daylight hours, guards were stationed on the rim, carrying bows. Others - usually the bigger, meaner ones - patrolled lower down, alongside the workers, to make sure they weren't slacking.
She peered out from behind a stack of roughly cut stone blocks. Usually it would have been difficult to approach the quarry without being seen. There was no cover and the surroundings teemed with workers loading blocks onto pallets and wagons, bringing in ropes and wood and tools, tallying supplies. The men that did that work lived at the hold, though, they weren't prisoners. Today, they would all be at the tournament, so this area was deserted. Even the ever-present chipping and scraping of picks and wheels on stone had stopped.
If Gil was here he'd have been put to the harder labour, the hacking and hauling that went on below, out of sight. She crept a little closer. Down at the base of the pit, she could just make out a rough-walled, windowless structure with a dusty metal roof.
Tasni thought back to the Hatching Grounds. There wasn't anywhere to hide on the face of it, but there were ways in. The secret ways that weyrbrats found, to glimpse the eggs on the Sands, and dream of Impression, one day.
She could only see two guards, the unlucky ones who'd drawn watch duty today. They were stationed at the top of the main ramp, with a canvas stretched over wooden poles to protect them from the sun's heat. Rather than looking down at the silent quarry, they were crouched beside a discarded stone block, intent on some game - cards, or dice perhaps. Presumably they'd decided that if they had to be stuck out here on tournament day, they could at least amuse themselves when their superiors weren't watching.
They might be distracted, but there was no way she was going to talk her way past them. Lady Agriona's maid didn't have any reason to be here. But if she looked carefully, narrowing her eyes against the glare of the lowering sun, she could see something poking up from the edge a quarter-turn around the rim.
She glanced one more time at the guards, then ran, silent and light-footed, towards another stack of stone blocks, and then on to an abandoned cart. Here, she paused to draw breath, then peered around the cart wheel. Yes - it was a ladder. A way in.
The guards' heads were still bent over whatever it was they were playing. But there was a dragonlength of empty ground between her and the top of the ladder. One had his back to her, but if the other looked up, he'd see her at once.
Tasni let out a breath, and stepped out from the shadow of the cart. **Slowly.** She placed her feet cautiously, avoiding loose pebbles, anything that might make a sound. Step by step. The sun felt warm on her back; it should be in the guard's eyes, if he looked.
Then, all at once, came the roar. Tasni's heart jolted, and for one brief moment she knew she'd been seen, that they'd catch her, it would all come out, her background, her purpose... But the guards weren't looking at her. Their heads had turned to look in the direction of the hold.
It was the tournament. The crowds, cheering the outcome of a fight.
She didn't hesitate, but sprinted for the ladder, swinging herself over the edge before the men could look back and see her, sliding down the rungs until her head was below the top level, and then she hung there, gasping for breath, waiting, listening.
Cautiously, Tasni raised herself up a step, peered over the edge. She heard a laugh, but it was a good distance away. One of the guards. They were still at their post. They hadn't seen anything.
**Careful now.** She lowered one foot, testing the ladder for creaks or scrapes. One step down, then another. There was a rope hanging alongside her - it looked like some kind of hoist and pulley system, perhaps for lowering supplies. She wondered if she found Gil - Gilbek - if he'd be in any condition to make this climb. If he'd survived this long, perhaps. Even better, if he was as good in a fight as Davika had claimed, he might be able to help her take out the two guards.
She still felt exposed, against the white stone of the quarry. The ladder took her down to the first level, and from there she stayed close to the walls as she descended, but she knew if the guards remembered their duty and looked down they might spot her. Closer in to the building where she'd guessed the prisoners were kept, she saw another problem. There was only one main door, and beside it, a third guard was seated on a low stool. He was leaning against the stone wall, his head tilted back and his mouth hanging open. A jug lay on its side just out of reach of his slack fingers, with a trickle of liquid pooled around it. As she crept closer, she heard loud snores issuing from his throat.
Tasni bit her lip. He might be in a drunken stupor, but there was a heavy, padlocked bar across the door. She could steal his keys, but could she unlock it without waking him? It would be better to be sure Gil was actually in there first.
Along the sides of the building were narrow windows, fitted with heavy metal shutters, but since there was no Thread due they'd been left open, perhaps to give the people inside some air. Bars were set into the sills to keep anyone from climbing out. They were more than a man's height off the ground, too high for Tasni to see in, but there was enough of a crack between the rough stone blocks of the walls for her to get a toehold and hoist herself up to grab at the bars. She chose the window furthest from the door and near the walls of the quarry, hoping the dicing guards wouldn't look down.
She looked down into darkness, and the sour smell of unwashed bodies, urine and rotten food.
"Hello?" she whispered, as loudly as she dared.
For a long moment, there was silence. Her arms were starting to ache from the effort of holding herself up to the window. She wondered if she'd found an empty cell, or even if she'd been wrong about what went on here - but then, she heard the soft clink and rattle of a chain, and a hoarse voice.
"Hush. I'm... from the Hold. Emerald Falls." She thought for a moment. "I know you're not supposed to be here. I can help you."
Dimly, she caught sight of movement. A man's face, lined and gaunt, and behind him, other, indistinct shapes.
"I can tell the Lord Holder." She'd be telling Hallsecond Jayala, anyway - if she made it out of here. "The Hold can investigate this place. What's your name?"
The man's eyes narrowed. "What good would that do?"
"If you've been kept here unjustly, you could be released."
Another long silence. "Who are you?"
"I'm a friend." Tasni kept the impatience from her voice. Better not to say anything about harpers, even to the prisoners. "I'm looking for someone. But I could help all of you, if I'm right about what's going on here."
The man shook his head, slowly, and faded back into the dark. Tasni gritted her teeth and hung on, wondering if she should try another window. But then, another voice spoke.
"I'm Thondrel. I was Holdless - but I never stole anything, I was looking for work. I've been here three Turns." There was another rustle in the dark, a clank of chains. "Pirrik was a cotholder, there was a bad winter, then he had to pay protection to the guards and there wasn't enough for the tithe. He's been here paying his debt eighteen months, but it's made no difference."
Other voices spoke up, and Tasni had to hush them again, glancing nervously back towards the snoring guard.
"I'll tell them. I can't help now, but...don't lose hope." She felt painfully inadequate, leaving them here, but even if she could find a way to get them out now they'd only end up recaptured once the guards raised the alarm.
"Who are you looking for?" the holdless man asked, keeping his voice low.
"A man called Gil? He used to be a guard, but they stripped him of his rank and put him to work here. Early thirties, fair hair...he would have had lash marks on his back."
There was a pause, and she heard whispering, but couldn't quite make out the words. Then the man spoke again, wary. "We remember him."
"Are you his wife?"
Tasni blinked. That was another voice, sounding younger than the others, more hopeful.
"Don't be stupid," the first man hissed. "She's in the North."
They were talking about Calenta! Despite her perilous position, the journeywoman felt a rush of triumph. Finally, she'd found him, in this impossible hiding place. Her search was over.
"I have a message for him," she said, cautiously, hoping Gilbek hadn't also told them his wife was a harper. "Is he there?"
"No. He's long gone."
The elation drained away. "Is he - dead?"
The holdless man hesitated. "N...no. Not dead. Least, not that we know of." He paused, weighing up whether or not to speak, then made a decision. "He escaped."
"What?" Tasni nearly lost her grip on the sill. From here? How was she supposed to find him now? "Escaped? How?"
There was more whispering among the prisoners, then the younger voice spoke again. "It was at Turn's End. The hold was celebrating, you could hear the music faintly, and the pit was lightly guarded. The man on the door, I suppose he'd been paid off, because he let someone in. I heard them unlocking his shackles. The next morning, the guard on the door was out cold, and Gil was gone. We were locked in here three days while they were searching. The Holder was furious."
"Idiot," the cotholder muttered. "What if she's Obriel's spy?"
"Who cares? He's far away from here by now, if he made it out alive. And if she isn't, he'd want his wife to know."
Tasni's fingers tightened on the bars. The prisoners clearly didn't know where Gil had gone, but if he'd had an ally in the hold, that person might. "Who was it? Who helped him?"
"I don't know...it was dark, and he was in a cell on his own. But...they had soft shoes, and I heard a skirt sweeping on the floor." The young man's face turned up towards the window, pale in the last of the sunlight. "It was a woman."
Last updated on the June 25th 2023