“So, hey, you Javanese wreck, which of these ropes is mine? Which have you fiddled with?” The bandit Mallen stood between the two ropes, taut across the gulley, his hard eyes appraising.
Boddy smiled. “Whichever. Your choice. Though if it helps, I found the rope to your right discarded back at the gulley’s mouth. So I’m thinking that likely is yours. The other rope is mine, I was carrying it.” It was the finer of the two. Light, it was made of hemp. The other he guessed was jasckte-hair.
Mallen took his time to decide. He tugged and jerked at them both. He inspected, as far as he could reach, for cuts and breaks that, with his weight and the ultimate height, could prove fatal. It didn’t bother Boddy. As sure as Rementh released the souls, he’d do the same.
“I’ll take this one. Jasckte-hair, can’t get stronger,” Mallen said.
Boddy held back on the smile. But it was as he had hoped – the hemp was less hard on the hands.
“Who says the off?” Mallen asked.
Boddy shrugged. It made no difference to him. “You’re the defender, you say.”
“Me,” Mallen said.
“Fine. As long as we’re both in position first.”
Mallen’s deep frown almost crunched his sun-reddened brow. “What are you up to? You’re being too fair.”
“Natzo. I’m Lubanthan. Equality. Fairness. It’s how we are.”
Mallen snorted and laughed. “Nats, what a hindling. A fine knobless bandit you’ll make – if you survive to your first killing. And Sifadis agreed to . . . you, this life? Bay-yo, the bladder’s saying this ain’t adding.”
“Love,” Boddy said, and smiled.
“Aye, they do say it’s befuddling. Nut-numbing, I’d say. But I’m thinking, now. If she’s outcast—a wreck along with you—what of Shore House?”
“Can’t take it with us,” Boddy said with a shrug. “Her wealth is tied into boats and fish, not into gold. I guess it goes to Breken Lafard. Thence to his heir.”
Mallen laughed, and slapped Boddy playfully hard on his back. “Hey, Bay-yo, seems I win both ways, eh. So, now, should we take our positions?”
Boddy nodded, a silent thanks to Ryal for telling him the intrigues of Citadel Lecheni. Mallen had been the rightful heir to the legere-chair, but Affalind Lafdi had pushed ‘her devoted’ Breken to pass exile upon him. Yeah zo, now there was a tale for the troubadours, hey.
~ ~ ~
Boddy was slow to the off.
It was intentional. And so was how slow he then shinnied the rope. He wanted to keep them neck-and-neck till two lengths off the top. It wasn’t only to see Mallen struggle in the vain hope of his winning – though, yeah-zo, there was satisfaction in that. It was more that he didn’t want to reach the top only to be stranded, perched on the pinnacle, when the malignant Mallen slithered back down and severed his rope. Natzo, not laugh-worthy. Not laugh-worthy at all.
Keeping track of his opponent was easy at first. Since they started at opposite sides of the gulley, he need only to look ahead. But as they climbed higher, towards their goals, so the ropes crossed. Boddy then had to twist to see behind him. It slowed him, though it didn’t overly bother him.
He waited till the pinnacle seemed to rise directly above him. He checked again on Mallen, across the gulley. Alas, poor Mallen, he’d reached his limit and ground to a halt. Hardly worth Boddy’s last minute spurt. Yeah, but what if Mallen was swinging it, waiting for Boddy to get complaisant then, zoom, up to the top..Boddy had to play it as it that Mallen intended it.
He kicked off. Hand-over-hand, legs pulled close, kick-off, hand-over-hand. It was almost as easy as the trip down. In no time he was sitting cross-legged atop the pinnacle.
“Heill! Yoo! Heida!” he called across the gulley.
Mallen’s grunt was barely audible. He hadn’t moved.
“Hey! Look round you neshy franyan. Witness it, yeah, your great defeat,” Boddy called.
Mallen grunted again, but at least he turned. His grip start to slip, he started to fall. He caught himself, but not before burning his hands. His choice, the jasckte-hair rope.
“Hey listen,” Boddy said, tingeing his voice with consideration. “You don’t need to complete, yeah. I mean, I can see that you’re finding it hard. Just admit that I’ve won so I can come down.”
Mallen grunted a single word. “Aye.”
Boddy grinned. Yeah zo! He’d won Disa’s freedom. He pulled a strip of plaited hide from his pocket, looped it over the rope and zoomed straight down. At the bottom he turned to watch Mallen go, gingerly, hand-over-hand. Boddy almost could feel the pain for him.
“Now,” Boddy said when both stood on the ground, “where is my wife?”
“Not here.” Mallen panted, sounding exhausted. “You think I’d keep her where my men could ravage her? You know Byhen Cliff?”
“The Tube?” That was some distance away. The sympathy Boddy had for him rapidly leaked.
“There’s a quarry beyond, and some old workings beyond that. You’ll find her there. In what you with your words might call an oubliette – not that I’ve forgotten her. Leal will take you and show you. Leal’s safe with her, know what I mean. The rest is for you to do. Just . . . don’t get her killed along with you.”
~ ~ ~
“If you’ve seen enough,” Leal said, voice sharp with sarcasm, “we’ll be moving along.”
But Boddy didn’t want to leave, both fascinated and repelled by the quarry. So much gouging away of the noble Ridge Mountains. So, the wind also gouged – witness ‘The Tube’ as Byhen Cliff was locally known: a long curving hollow, wind-eroded. But that was nature’s doing, and had taken millennia. This was man’s doing, and done for his greed. It was Murky’s Curse. And, hey, what a surprise, the men hauling their winnings were Rothi.
No doubt the stone was intended for their citadel warisons, to defend their precious citadel Houses. Yeah, such as Shore House. Ryal had enthused of Lecheni’s warison, of its towers, its height, its thickness, its hidden cells, its carvings, how it shone different colours depending on light, its grace, its . . . great, yeah, fine. Yet to create such splendour they’d created this hideous sight.
A klaxon sounded, startling, loud like a bull with nasal congestion. Boddy spun round. Seconds later ten thunderbolts cracked, shattering his ears. The ground rocked. For a moment he wobbled before regaining his balance. The air filled with dust.
“As I said,” Leal said, “if you’ve seen enough, we should be moving along.” He led Boddy away from the quarry – and into another.
It was old and no longer used. Tufted grass softened the scar-lines, some of it reaching six inches high. But there was no variety, only two species: one vivid green, the other with an orange blush like Stheino when eclipsing Medusa.
“ Great, yeah, fine,” he said. “But where’s Disa?” He could see no place she could be kept.
Leal nodded up at the scarred quarry face. Boddy just could make out a dark shadow that could be the mouth of a cave.
“You are jesting, right?”
“Oubliette,” Leal said, and led the way. At the cave’s mouth he turned to go.
“Whoa, wait!” Boddy caught his arm.
Leal scowled. “I bring, I go.”
“Yeah, great, I understand that, and may Dizpeter bless your—oh, nats! May he bless you. But before you go, I’m perplexed. Mallen says he wants Sifadis as wife, so why does he keep her here? Not exactly the best of treatment.” He assumed she was tied up somewhere within. “And someone has to come here daily to feed her. So why?”
“What, clever Lubanthan angel?” Leal jeered. “Thought you’d have figured it. You might want her to love and cherish, but to Mallen Hadd she’s merely the key to the legere-chair. He is exiled but she is not. But I’ll warn you, Lubanthan angel, you keep a guard on her.”
“Because Mallen will try to snatch her back?”
Leal shrugged. “Mayhap. Mayhap other reasons. You won’t be thinking of returning her to Lecheni, would you?”
“That wasn’t my intent,” Boddy lied. He couldn’t imagine her relinquishing her House and her fisheries, to live in Raselstad with him. “Why your concern?”
“Only that she’s supposed to be dead. We’ve been paid for the job.”
The man had said hardly a word all the way from Mallen’s stronghold. Now he says this. What was he, a cauldron of information now come to the boil?
“And who paid you for that?” Boddy asked.
But the cauldron had gone off the boil. Leal darted away, almost running despite the terrain, slipping and skidding down the old quarry face.
Boddy pondered on what had been said, trying to click the cogs into place. According to Ryal, Lorken and Kullt were known to be spies. But working for whom? Ryal hadn’t known – or he wasn’t revealing. Could it be same person who wanted Disa dead? Someone at Citadel Lecheni, he guessed, from what Leal had said.
In which case Leal’s warning was met. He couldn’t take her there. Spew on it, man, what would he do with her once he’d fetched her out of the cave? He had plans for a life together that involved neither Raselstad nor Lecheni, but it couldn’t begin yet. It would take time to organise. The sane didn’t saunter into a savannah with nothing but a flask of water and shoes. In the meantime, he’d no choice but to take her back to Raselstad. Natzo, she wouldn’t want that. He already could hear her screeching about it. Ghats and rats! So much indecision he hardly could move.
You might effect the rescue first, Roo, his little god, said.
“Yea, yea, yea.”
Then after you might give thought to Jonesi.
“Ghats, you’re right, Roo. What he was doing with Mallen?”.
First, Sifadis. She is waiting, Roo said.
“Is she? Waiting for me?” He grinned, a tickle of pleasure wandering his body.
He entered the cave.
He had to crouch to pass through its small mouth and inside there wasn’t much room. Worse than the cramped space, it was facing the wrong direction – east, when the sun now was to the west. Beyond the first couple of steps the cave was totally lightless. One wrong step, a hole might open and swallow him down. Best, too, not to stray far; he didn’t want to get lost. Best, really, to stand where he was and call out her name.
No answer, only an echo, faint and rolling.
He shuffle along, just a little bit further, feeling his way, hands to the wall.
“Sifadis!” he called, this time louder.
Likely the cave was a warren, like Mallen’s hold. Was it natural? Or did the quarry-men cut it?
Boddy, does it matter?
Natzo. Just find her and get back out.
He wasn’t happy at being in there, in the dark (though his eyes were slowly adjusting). He talked to himself, and disguised it as talking to Roo. His voice whispered and bounced off far distant walls and rolled back, sounding hollow. That didn’t help diminish his fears.
“Natzo, what fears? Get away from here, man. Boddy Felagi isn’t prey to fears.”
But it was spooky in here. Eerie.
“That’s it. I’m a poet, it’s eerie, not spooky.”
He suddenly stopped. He’d heard . . . A cry? Human. A voice. It was. “Yeah zo, it was!” But it sounded somehow distorted and not very close. Was it Disa? “It has to be Disa. How many women does Mallen hold captive?” But where was she?
“Disa?” he called again.
This time she answered. “Is that you Boddy?”
“Wow, that sounded like . . . faraway, man.” He called to Disa. “Listen, Disa, I’ll fetch you out. Just stay where are you.” Though first he had to find her.
“I’ll be here,” she called back. “I’m not moving.”
“Great, yeah, fine.” She sounded joyful, maybe laughing. But, again, there was a distortion. “Disa, where are you?”
“Down. They lowered me down. I’m in a pit.”
Great, yeah, fine, in a pit. Then he’d need a rope. Why hadn’t he untied his rope when he won the wager? So did he know he’d need it? He needed some light. He must have turned a corner. Again it was totally dark.
“Disa, I’ll be back.”
“Cruds! Nats! Don’t go. Wait,” she pleaded. “Talk to me, Boddy. At least for a while. Before you . . .”
“Yeah? What? You want me to tell you I love you?”
“Why, do you?” she asked.
“You nugget,” he said. “You know that I do. You think I’d come for you . . .?”
“I was coming back to you when Mallen’s men—”
“You were?” he asked. Her words, though distorted and distant, zinged through him.
“Ay, you Javanese lorel. I want to marry you.”
“You do?” She did? This wasn’t just him being swell-headed Boddy? Wow!
“But now I’m stuck down here.” She sounded so . . . vulnerable. Frightened.
Huh, he chuckled, but she’d never admit to that. He wanted to wrap his arms round her and . . . but she was stuck somewhere in a pit.
“I’m here now, I’ll get you out. But I need a rope.”
“There might be one near the pit,” she said. “They lowered me with it. I heard it drop. There are probably lamps as well. Mathon-lamps. I was blindfolded but I could see there was light.”
Joyous! Yeah zo. This wouldn’t take long. “Just stay where you are, Beym-mine.”
Of course there would be Mathon-lamps. Why hadn’t he thought of that. Mallen, or whichever of his men were sent to feed her (Leal most likely), wouldn’t want to stumble around in the dark. Besides, chances were the cave was used to store equipment, if not their booty.
He groped around on hands and knees feeling for the Mathon-lamp batteries – no small contraptions, not easily missed. Once he had light he would find the rope and, yeah zo, the pit. That is if he didn’t fall into it first while he crawling and groping.
There! His fingers touched upon the battery. Now where was the switch? Lo!
There was light.
He found himself in a passage of no great height or width – yeah, he already know that: his head and shoulders and shins had found it. But, Ghats and rats, three tunnels led from it. Which of the these led to the pit? The Mathon-lamps were no clue: all three were lit with them.
“Hey, Disa,” he asked, “you know what might be in these tunnels?”
“I think I might be in one,” she called back.
He smiled. “Yeah, got it, the one to the right.” That’s where her voice sounded strongest. “I’m on my way.”
The tunnel wormed into the mountain. Far deeper than he’d expected, and still no sign of the pit. The rock around him changed from reddish to greenish to black. This wasn’t his knowledge, Eshe would have told him what he was seeing. Such caves, familiar to her, were a mystery to him.
“Hey, Disa, am I on the right track?”
“You sound closer,” she said.
She sounded clearer. He could hear the smile in her voice. His wife – he grinned at the thought. Would she laugh when he told her how he had won her off Mallen? Natzo, probably not. And he hadn’t known of the betrothal, she had not told him of that. She must have been a child at the time. Mallen was, what. . . well he was older than Boddy by some. So, she had been intended as the lafdi legara? Natzo, that’s not what Ryal had said. The Two Boars House only held the chair because of Breken’s marriage to Affalind. So Mallen’s marriage was an alliance only – yeah, allied to the wealthiest House. But that Two Boars House had ambition. Best keep a wary eye on them. He wondered, was that who Lorken spied for? The Two Boars, the lafard-legere?
Rope! Yeah zo! And there was the pit.
He peered into it to see Disa look up, her hair like blood-red clouds around her. He noticed the pots of water and sacks of food down there with her. How long did Mallen intend to keep her? She smiled. He felt like he’d been punched in the guts. Gammer Haspra was right: Disa had captured him.
“I’ve something to ask before I throw you the rope,” he said, then waited a moment, not wanting to ask it. “Disa . . . do you love me?”
“I said I was coming back.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the answer. Do you?”
She bit her lip, stubborn about answering. He could feel his palms sticky with sweat.
“I . . .”
“Just say it, Disa. It’s not so difficult. I. Love. You.” He held the rope where she could see it. Teasing. Yeah as if he’d leave her down there to be Mallen’s prize.
“Boddy, I . . .”
”You’re having trouble saying it, huh?”
“I have . . . fear.”
“What, you’re afraid of me?” He couldn’t belief it, he laughed.
“I’m afraid when you know who I am—”
“But I know who you are, Sifadis Lafdi, Bel Hade of Shore House.”
Her eyes opened wide. That almost amused him.
“You know that? Then how can I know that you want me—me—and not Shore’s wealth?”
“Disa! That’s so much lanterloo and you know it. Didn’t I love you before I knew who you were? And your wealth, it turns me; it doesn’t attract. Now, just answer me. Do you love me?”
She didn’t say it. Instead she screamed. And Boddy flew backwards, knocked off his feet by the blast.
~ ~ ~