Date Posted: 14th May 2023
Tasni hurried back up the ramp of the quarry, considering her next move as she went. She'd seen the prisoners with her own eyes, and it seemed at least some of them hadn't committed any crime. She needed to get that information back to Master Jayala at the Hall, as well as what she'd overheard between Holder Obriel and his brother-in-law. More than that, she now knew that Gilbek had been held there too, but he wasn't there any longer. Someone had helped him escape.
That was frustrating, but at least she knew he'd been alive as recently as Turn's End. If she was to continue her search, there wasn't much use in her being here any longer. She'd have to make plans to leave...
Someone stepped out from behind a heap of discarded rock and snatched at her arm.
Tasni's heart jolted. She knew who it was instantly, despite the gloom of the quarry pit. The bulky shape, the smell of sweat and leather, the fingers digging into her skin.
"Now where have you been?" Dallo's smile broadened. He backed up into the shadows where he'd been hiding, pulling her along with him. "I saw you, leaving the Hold, and I wondered where you could possibly be going."
He'd followed her. Tasni cursed inwardly, trying to think, to push down the rising panic. If he'd loosen his grip for a moment, she could run, she was lighter and maybe faster, but then...
"Sneaking down here, past the guards. Down where all the dangerous convicts are kept." He turned, pushing her into the corner between the rock heap and the cliff, where she really didn't want to be, and raised an eyebrow in mocking enquiry. "It's really not a place for a good girl to be, all on her own with night coming on."
She tried an apologetic half-smile, placating. "I know. Thank you for looking out for me, but I'd better be getting back. My lady..."
"That old bovine? She can do without you for a while." He relaxed, casually barring her way back out of the quarry to the dubious refuge of the Hold. "Besides, I doubt she'd be pleased to know where you've been. Or the Holder. He doesn't like people poking around down here."
**I'll bet he doesn't.** Tasni thought of the men in that prison block, kept there only for the crime of being holdless or in debt. "I was looking for someone."
"I thought that might be it. Who was it? Father, brother? Or is your husband really dead? Maybe he's locked up down there with the other scum." Dallo's body blocked out the light, pressing her back into the rock wall. There was a sour scent of beer on his breath. His free hand moved to her waist, slid down, greedily caressing. "Still, I don't suppose it matters..."
"No. I'll call out. The guards will hear me."
"I saw them on the way in. Told them I was meeting you." He grinned. "They'll be expecting it...to hear you scream."
"NO." The anger boiled up inside her, hot and fierce, as he bent his head, crushing his mouth against hers. The sevendays she'd spent here, keeping a low profile, trying not to catch the attention of Dallo and those like him. The story Davika had told her, about the girl who'd been lured out by Loxan and his friends, and how it had taken blood spilt in the old quarry to scare them off.
Gil might not be here any more. But she was a Harper, and she didn't need Gil.
She bit down on his lip, as hard as she could, and Dallo screamed. His cry was surprisingly high-pitched, echoing off the quarry walls as he stumbled back, clutching at his mouth, spitting curses through a spray of blood. Tasni slipped out, ducking under his flailing arm.
"There's a scream for your friends." She didn't run, but stood her ground and smiled, licked blood from her lips. "I can see how they'd think it was a girl."
The guard's face darkened, purpling with rage, and he charged at her, feeling for the belt knife that was already missing from its sheath at his side. She dodged easily, and held up the blade between her thumb and finger, taunting him. "Looking for this?" Turning, she threw it in a high arc over the edge of the ramp, the last of the sunlight glinting off the blade as it tumbled into the pit.
"What..." Dallo's gaze followed it, his brow furrowing as he tried to comprehend why she'd just thrown away a weapon, and it was all the distraction Tasni needed. Her fingers closed around the long handle of a shovel that someone had left, propped against the heap of stone, and as he turned back to face her, she gripped it with both hands and swung with all her strength at his forehead. The flat of it connected with a thunk, and he dropped like a felled herdbeast at her feet.
Standing over the fallen guard, catching her breath, she waited for sounds of alarm from above, but none came. They'd have heard a cry, a scuffle. Nothing they wouldn't have expected, as he'd said. She hadn't been sure she could stop him with the knife, with its short blade, not without going for his throat.
She'd not been sure the blow with the shovel would work, either.
**Concentrate.** She needed to move quickly now. Tasni crouched over Dallo, pressing her fingers to his throat, and felt a faint pulse. He was still alive, but out cold. She replaced the shovel and gripped the fallen man under his arms, dragging him back into the shadowy corner behind the stones with an effort. There hadn't been any shouts from the fighting grounds for a while, so everyone must be heading for the feast. If the guards didn't patrol the lower depths of the quarry, and they showed no signs of doing so, then no one would find him until morning.
She returned the way she'd come, keeping close to the walls until she got to the base of the ladder, climbing up and peering over the edge to see that the guards were still busy with their game. Past the quarry, the road led back up into the hills, and she was tempted for a moment to follow it, put as much space between herself and this place as she could. She'd got as much as she could out of White Hollow Hold. But then she remembered the journey with the trader, the bleak empty landscape they'd passed. She needed supplies...and there was still one question that she wanted to have answered before she left.
"Headwoman? Could I speak with you for a moment, please?"
Marsena looked up from the accounts she'd been working on. The Hold was deep into dinner, and the kitchens had quieted down, with only a few of the cooks left preparing the dessert for the Holder and his visitors, while the noise from the dining hall had grown louder and more boisterous. It seemed the Headwoman had chosen hidework over joining the rest of the hold for the meal.
"Elayni? I thought you were with Lady Agriona." She frowned, noting that the young woman had changed her clothes. She was wearing the travelling dress that she'd brought with her, and boots rather than shoes. There was something about her manner that was different, too. Less - deferential. As if she was speaking with an equal.
"She's resting in her room." The young woman closed the door of the office behind her. "I'm sorry for the short notice, ma'am, but I'm going to have to leave White Hollow. Immediately."
"But..." Marsena blinked. "How? The trader's not due for another sevenday at least." Her brow furrowed. "Has something happened?"
"It's impossible for me to stay any longer." She took a seat. "I thought you could help me. I think...you might have helped someone, before."
The headwoman sucked in a breath. "I don't know what - "
"Someone from the quarry." Tasni met her gaze with a certainty she didn't feel, but her instincts told her she was right. No one else among the female staff here would have dared, or had any reason to. No one else had shut down all of the talk when Gil's name had been mentioned. "Someone who - perhaps, you were asked to help. She couldn't go there herself, in her health, with her fine slippers. But she could give you the marks to pay off the guards."
Marsena's gaze flicked upwards, towards the quarters, where the Holder's wife now slept. "You're a sharp one, aren't you? Though a little clumsy with maid's work."
"I know it's not right, what happened." She might not have spent her life working as a maid, as Marsena had now surely guessed, but Tasni had learned to observe Lady Agriona closely. Her reaction when she'd seen the fair-haired man in the fighting ring, when Dallo had beaten him, how she'd retreated inside with a headache, had reminded her of something Davika said about when Gil had been flogged before the whole Hold - except for its lady, who had stayed away.
A good-looking man, though low born. Like someone out of one of Agriona's harper romances.
"I know she - felt sorry for him."
"That was all it was." Marsena said swiftly. "I don't think he had the faintest idea. Some men don't notice these things, and besides he had a wife somewhere."
"I know." Tasni could hardly blame the lady; it wasn't as though her husband was one to inspire much affection. She wondered if Holder Obriel had noticed it too, if there had been more than one reason for the savage punishment he'd inflicted on his guardsman. "I've no intention of spreading gossip. I just want to go. The same way he did."
"It's not an easy journey."
"I'm prepared for that. And I'm in better health than he would have been. I'm tougher than I look."
"I don't doubt it." She appeared to make a decision, and reached for a blank scrap of hide and a pen, began to sketch swiftly. "Here - the hold, and the quarry. The road goes out past the guard post, but there's a herder's track, here, near a rock and a clump of thorn bushes. It goes up into the hills. Follow it and you'll come out to a hut - it's empty in this season - and down into the next valley. If you keep on you'll meet the road to Emerald Falls. I don't know where you'll be headed after that."
Tasni took the hide from her, blew on it to dry the ink. "Thank you."
"I'll give you a flask from the kitchens, and there's leftovers from the feast. You shouldn't have trouble for water, there's plenty of streams even if it doesn't rain. And a knife. I gave him that, too." Marsena got to her feet. "Anything else I should know about?"
She thought for a moment. "If anyone wonders where Dallo is? He's had a little too much ale, and he's lying down. Sleeping it off."
"Ah." The older woman gave her a long, considering look. "Best you be on your way, then." As they left the small office, she sighed. "I don't know what Lady Agriona's going to say when she wakes up and finds you're gone. She can't seem to keep a maid."
**She should try being less rude to them.** She kept that thought to herself, though. There seemed to be an alliance, unlikely as it was, between the Headwoman and her mistress. It must have been risky going down to the quarry, even with the marks to bribe the guards. "Please give her my apologies. A family emergency?"
Marsena nodded. "Go and get a warm cloak and a bag. I'll meet you at the entrance - and try not to run into the guards. The Holder might grow suspicious if any more go missing."
Half a candlemark later, she was at the top of the hill track, breathing deeply after the steep climb, and looked back down on the quarry hold. Moonlight gleamed on the white pit cut into the far side of the valley, and the smaller one nearer the Hold, the scene of the fights earlier that day, now abandoned. The air felt fresh in her lungs, her muscles burned pleasantly, and her head was clear. Though she'd been awake since the previous dawn, she wasn't sleepy at all. The oppressive weight of White Hollow had lifted from her shoulders, and she was free.
She wondered how Calenta's husband had felt, looking back from this place at the hold where he'd served for Turns, which had asked more of him than he was willing to give, and turned on him at last. Where he would have gone, and how she was going to find him now.
That was a problem for another day. Passing the abandoned hut, she set off down the track the herders had made, already composing in her mind the report she'd make to Hallsecond Jayala.
Last updated on the June 25th 2023