Thursday, December 4, 2008

What A Scoundrel Wants

Chapter Twenty Two - Ada

He closed his eyes.
The tumbler turned. The door swung open and struck Will’s back. The hissing song of a torch invaded their cell, sizzling at his ear. Thrusting, he gnashed his heels into the stone floor and trapped the guard’s forearm.
“Now Meg!”
A thunderous crack split the air. The guard screamed. Sharp smoke singed Will’s nose, but he kept his eyes clamped tight. He ground his upper back into the plank wood. His thighs burned. He pushed, finding scant purchase along the smooth dirt. Meg fled her corner and joined him, her back against the wood. The sickening crack of splintering bone and another scream proved their prize.
Will released the pressure, only slightly, until the guard yanked his arm out of the entryway. The door slammed closed.
“Can you see?”
He opened his eyes, blinking. The flickering tease of light from the guard’s discarded torch played along the walls. The room began to materialize.
“Yes.” Crouching, he grabbed the torch and pushed it into Meg’s hands. She skittered away. “Ready for another go?”
A hard thump severed her reply. Will nearly lost his balance at that renewed assault, but he recovered and held fast.
Valuable moments allowed his eyes time enough to align the grays and oranges and shadows. Vision clear, he saw Meg huddled in a corner, knees pulled close and the torch in her outstretched hands. Flames obscured her face.
His legs trembled. The guards’ onslaught against the door became rhythmic, two or three men fighting to open what Will kept closed. His teeth jolted together with every renewed attack.
He bit his tongue, spitting blood onto the cursed dungeon floor. “Ready?”
“Yes.”
He jumped away. The door crashed open, two guards falling into a writhing heap. Their swords remained concealed within scabbards, useless to everyone. He stripped a man of his helmet and grabbed the torch from Meg. While a third guard hunched in the corridor, clutching his forearm, the last breeched the cell with a drawn sword.
She was right. Four men.
Tight confines permitted the soldier little room to wield his weapon. He swung the sword in a truncated arc. Will dropped low. Forged steal imbedded in soft, rotten sandstone. The guard tugged once before wrenching the blade free.
Will exploited the hesitation, springing forward. He clipped his opponent under the chin with the helmet and plunged flaming wood into his face. Screams ripped to life. The man dropped his sword and rocked backward. The stench of charred flesh layered with mildew.
One of the fallen guards tried to trip him, grasping an ankle. Will kicked him in the head and retrieved the burned man’s sword. “Don’t move.”
He bounded into the hallway where the soldier with the crushed arm cowered. Will stripped his sword and poised both weapons. “Into the cell, now!”
Meg removed the other guards’ helmets. As Will contemplated what to do with his unwanted wards, she chanced upon the keys and two sets of manacles.
“I think these were meant for us,” she said.
“Scandalous, how these Nottingham folks behave toward guests.”
“I shan’t return.”
He bound the guards and littered the cell with weapons. Meg turned toward the clamor of metal. “You are leaving the swords?”
“I can only carry two. Better these remained locked in here than in the corridor for others guards to discover.”
“Give one to me.”
“Woman, you’ll cut off a foot.”
“They hardly know that. And I need a walking stick. Anything.”
He sighed and handed her the most graceful of the weapons, one with a lightweight pommel and fullers running its length. “Careful.”
She simply nodded and hustled from the cell, leaving him to lock the door behind him.
His heart shook in a treble beat, but he could not afford to descend from the high of combat.
Enclosed within the narrow dungeon corridor, he could no more stop and rest than he could kiss Meg again. He desired both to the point of pain.
Freedom first.
“We haven’t much time,” he said. “Your sister must be here.”
She gripped his forearm, her expression intent. Trapped together in the darkness, he had almost forgotten her eyes—not her blindness, but the skittering vacancy he used to find eerie.
She was thinking again. “I noticed a single torch, yes?”
The need for action, for flight, pressed to the front of his brain. But he waited. “Yes.”
“Did they bring it or take it from the wall sconce?”
He looked up and down the corridor. Illuminated by a dozen torches, the passage offered few concealing shadows, except for the well of blackness near their cell. One sconce was empty.
“From the wall,” he said.
“Assess the passage and make a mental picture of what you can see.” She blinked. She smiled. “Then put out the torches.”
His head twitched involuntarily. He found no fondness for these new habits, stumbling in the dark and putting his faith in Meg.
“Trust me,” she said, climbing into his thoughts. “Go now.”
The last of the torches hissed and sputtered into extinction. Will cursed. He struck some manner of obstacle. “Such a!”
“How do you fare?” Meg made no attempt to hide her amusement, despite the danger.
“Poorly, and you are well aware of that. How do you daily manage this?”
His grudging compliment tempered her amusement. She tapped the slender sword along the wall to her right. Stone, stone, wood. She stopped, rapping her knuckles against the door.
“Who goes?”
Minutes passed more swiftly than they did, sliding down the corridor without success.
They checked each door only to find empty cells or other miserable wretches detained for some crime or another. The impetus to search every possible crevice for Ada, to move ever faster, eroded her calm. Her fingers flew over the damp stonework lining the passage, enduring nicks and cuts at every negligent movement. Dank air clung to the inside of her mouth. They could not have traveled so far only to fail. The few moments remaining to them seeped away.
Will caught her hand. “Be easy, Meg. We are lost if you cannot concentrate.”
She inhaled deeply. Then the sound came to her unbidden. A call. Her own name.
“Listen.”
He stilled. “To what?”
“A man. He calls my name. And yours.” She leaned toward the call, then walked.
“Dryden.”
She pushed through the darkness with Will shuffling and cursing close behind. Counting, she made note of the four cells they passed without scrutiny. But they would free Dryden first.
From two, they would become three people searching for Ada.
Tapping the sword again, she found the wooden barrier separating them from Dryden.
“Here, Will.”
“Scarlet! Meg! Is that you?”
“Quiet now, milord,” Will said. “Hold fast.”
She tucked the hilt of the sword between her knees and pulled the ring of keys from her wrist. The metal clicked with unnatural loudness in the desolation of the dungeon. She fingered the keyhole, judging the size and dimensions of the lock, and repeated the process to find a suitable key. Failure amassed on failure. Another key. Another turn.
Then a satisfying snap of release. The door swung inward.
Will squeezed her upper arm. “Well good.”
“Yes. Gramercy, Meg,” Dryden said. “But we have no torch?”
She slid her wrist through the metal key loop and gripped her sword again. “It seemed a clever plan at the time.”
“And it remains one,” Will said. “My knees and toes are protesting, but we’ll meet any attacker from the shadows, to our advantage. Dryden, are you injured?”
“No. Angered, outraged—but not injured. You are both well?”
A chuckle tinged with fatigue was Will’s reply. “For the moment.”
“And now for Ada,” Meg said.
Dryden sighed. “Hours ago, I would’ve suggested that we confront the authority behind our imprisonment to effect your sister’s release. But this is an abomination. I was na├»ve to think I could help you with titles and influence alone. We must accomplish this ourselves.”
A rattling clamor at the farthest end of the corridor interjected. Alarm thrilled through Meg’s muscles, but no one approached.
“We have but a few moments more,” Will said. “Your sister cannot be far.”
From down the hall, Dryden hissed their names. “She’s here.”
Meg rushed past two doors, bumping into Dryden. “My apologies.”
“Listen,” he said. A woman cried behind the wooden barrier.
“Ada,” she whispered. “How did you know?”
“I heard soldiers near my cell an hour ago, and a woman’s cries,” Dryden said. “I thought to start here.”
Another host of failed keys delayed progress until Meg finally opened the door. Dryden and Will stood at her back as she entered the cramped cell. Its tight, close walls pressed on her senses, every breath echoing without pause.
“Ada?”
“Meg?” Disbelief shaded the single syllable, the sound of a woman not daring to believe a dream. “You’re here?”
“Yes.” She found her sister, finally, and embraced the thin, trembling woman. Their reunion perforated years’ worth of bitterness.
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