It was dark when Jerica woke. Her eyes were crusted shut and her face was pressed against the ground. Her entire body was broken and battered and she was certain that she had never hurt as badly as she did now. Every piece of her ached – her shoulder – her head – her back; she groaned. She heard shuffling. She strained her eyelids, pulling some of her eyelashes out as she forced her eyes to open.
Straight ahead of her were three, four, Nykerians with their swords drawn. One of them shouted. His words sounded like they were all in a chamber, voice echoing around her but not quite making sense. Kill him. She put her right arm under herself, trying to push herself up, but it trembled and then gave out, making her collapse back on the ground. Chains clanked.
Light flared into the tent as someone burst in through the doorway. She took a deep breath, ribcage screaming as she did. Armor? Her brain still wouldn’t link together complete thoughts. She looked at the faces of the swordsmen in front of her. Nykerians. That was why she hadn’t understood their words; she had to really focus to understand the language. She took another breath. What’s on my face?
“On your feet, apolvosgua!”
Her brain reeled. The sentence started out in Nykerian but ended with an Atraian word. It was the worst word in the Atraian language to describe a woman. She’d never been called it in her life, at least to her face. Even Biryn didn’t dare call her that. Even Levin. Rage flooded through her.
It was fleeting.
Pain drowned out every memory of anger as someone grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet. She groaned again, falling against the soldier that had hauled her upright. Her left knee couldn’t support any weight at all. The soldier grabbed her left arm. Her vision splotched white with the agony that her bodyweight caused her shoulder.
She looked down, desperately trying to get her right leg to bear some of the weight. Her armor was gone. The only thing left was the thin tunic and shorts that she wore under her armor, and they were ripped and completely covered in the foul-smelling sludge. It was dried and cracking across her entire body. There were streaks of her own blood on the shoulder of her tunic, barely visible past the sludge. She couldn’t tell if she was still bleeding or not.
Her wrists were chained together and secured to a metal wring that wrapped around her waist. She realized her ankles were shackled together as well, and a chain secured them to the back of the ring at her waist so that she had just enough slack to walk, but no more. A third ring was around her throat, pulling her head back as it was also connected to the back of the ring around her waist. Her chains rattled as the soldier shook her.
“Help me with her,” the man ordered in Nykerian. Her mind was finally agreeing to process the words that they were barking, even though she imagined that the sludge was sealing her ears closed, too. Why else would they sound so far away?
“Sir!” Another soldier rushed forward and grabbed her left shoulder. The first soldier grabbed on to her right arm, just below the armpit. She swung her gaze around the tent and realized there were even more soldiers that had been behind her, swords drawn and staring at her with wide eyes.
“With me,” the first soldier barked.
He started for the entrance of the tent, dragging her forward. Her chains clanked again. She stumbled after him, but her leg still wouldn’t support any weight. She grunted as the soldier on her left yanked on her arm as he tried to support her weight. Her mind still wouldn’t work. What happened to me?
The soldiers funneled out of the tent. A moment later, they’d formed a circle around her, swords still drawn. Soldiers walked backwards in front of her, the tips of their swords mere inches in front of her abdomen. Other soldiers watched her intently from the sides, grasping their swords tight. She could feel the presence of men behind her and was sure the swords were probably hovering just as close to her back as they were her belly.
She tried to run through things she was sure of. She was Jerica Ainsley. She was Atraian. She was a soldier… an officer… General. She was in the Nykerian camp in chains. So, she was a prisoner. She was covered in sludge. So… she’d fought something… or fell in something? Which was it? Does it even matter at this point? Probably not. She just needed to figure out what was happening to her. To get the sludge off her brain so it would actually work.
The soldiers hauled her down a path that was about fifty meters long. Other soldiers filled in the spaces around the tents, gawking at her as the group passed. Ahead of them was a huge tent that was glowing with all the lanterns lit inside. War Council. Of course. If she was a prisoner of war, they’d be bringing her before the War Lord… Femola. She bit back a groan. Femola bad. The whole situation was bad.
The soldiers stopped at the entrance of the tent, the two holding on to her dragging her the rest of the way into the tent. Her eyes watered with the sudden change in brightness. The sludge just under her eyes was dampened now, turning back into a paste instead of the dried crust that coated the rest of her body.
The tent was bright as day. The soldier threw her down in a chair before she could see past the blinding light. She blinked, struggling with the tears that made the sludge still clinging to her eyelashes turn to paste as well. Her eyes burned even worse. She tried to rub her face on her shoulder but she couldn’t reach. Why does it stink this bad?
“Clean her eyes.”
Femola. Her chest felt tight. Femola had been waiting for years to get a shot at her, and now he had her here. Alone. In chains. She felt fear creep into the echoey void that had closed in around her. Pure, unfiltered terror was swirling around her now, rather than the vague uneasiness that she’d awoken with. Her life had gotten bad while she was unconscious and it was about to get a whole lot worse.
I’m going to die.
The thought hit her like a blow to the gut. This wasn’t supposed to be how it happened. She wanted her death to be on her own terms: a battle with a fearsome warrior who deserved to be the one to kill her or maybe liquored up with just herself and a knife in a dark room. Not chained up and slaughtered by an idiot like Femola. She deserved better than this.
Someone grabbed the hairs at the tender part at the base of her skull, yanking her head backward. A rag was dragged across her eyes roughly, then the hand thrust her head forward. Jerica blinked again, clearing her eyes. She took a deep breath, swallowing hard as her eyes focused and locked on Lord Femola’s scowl.
She straightened her back. Her joints snapped. She resisted the urge to cringe as she looked around the circular table. Lord Femola sat directly across from her, with Josef on his left and their General of the Swordsmen on the right – though she couldn’t remember his name for the life of her. He was glowering. They all were. Four additional men were seated around the table, presumably the newly appointed Generals and their Lieutenants. The soldier that had dragged her here sat down to her right, throwing the rag onto the table.
“Not feeling so tough without your uncle, huh?” Lord Femola sneered in Nykerian.
This was bad. Her memories rushed into her mind in huge waves. She’d killed their officers. They’d threatened her – Kieran. She shook the thought from her mind. She couldn’t focus on him. Right now, she needed to focus on keeping herself alive. She’d worry about him when she was back to a position where she could actually help. If he was even still alive.
She glanced around the tent again.
Nykerians were far less prudent about hiding their Rangers than Atraya was. Their Rangers all wore dark green tunics and black trousers, and had a vaguely grouchy demeanor about them at all times. At the moment, a Ranger stood in each corner of the tent with a bow drawn and arrow fixed on her. That put her chances of escape at exactly zero.
She wouldn’t feel great about her odds against four Rangers at once under any circumstances, whether Derik was there or not. Adding the War Lord and six additional officers only made her stomach feel that much sicker. Especially since she was chained and weaponless. She was going to have to talk her way out of this, not fight.
And she was much worse at talking.
“I assume—” she started, in the Trade Language, but her voice cracked. She coughed. She tried to swallow some spit, then realized her mouth was as dry as her throat was. She took a deep breath. “That contact has been made with War Lord Ainsley?”
That was the next step. The sole hope that she had was Derik’s negotiation skills. He was much better at talking than she was. If anyone could fix it, it would be him. She certainly wouldn’t be able to make it out of this mess alone. She had no leverage. She was entirely at the mercy of the whims of an angry War Lord who made no secret of the way he felt about her.
“It has.” Femola inclined his head, switching to the Trade Language as well. Jerica was grateful. It was much easier to remember how to speak that one than it was Nykerian.
She took a deep breath. It was impossible to tell what time of day it might be, or get any of her bearings about her. It had been just before the midday meal when she’d been knocked unconscious… she thought. The only thing she was sure of was that it was dark now. Whether it was early evening or late, she didn’t have a clue.
She just hoped Derik would show up soon.
“And?” Jerica asked.
“And what?” Femola hissed. “You’re a prisoner of war and the only question you have is if Derik knows and ‘and?’?”
“I know how this works,” she answered tiredly. At least, she thought she remembered how it worked. “You’re not going to kill me, at least not before the negotiations are over, or you would have already. You’re not going to tell me what your plans are for me, even if I asked. And we all know you’re not going to bargain with me. So, you’ve spoken to War Lord Ainsley… And?”
“What do you think?” he spat. “If you’re so smart and know everything.”
She sucked in a deep breath, then sighed loudly. She cracked her neck, considering the question. Her head pounded. She must have gotten knocked in the head, hard, right before whatever that had happened, happened to her. “I assume that he offered you an obscene amount of money for my return. I also assume you declined.”
“Solid guesses so far,” he sneered. “And where do you think that leaves us now?”
Jerica thought for a moment. That was a harder question. She doubted Derik had started low with a bounty for her, so a refusal certainly wasn’t to haggle over how many gold bars she was worth. They hadn’t been taking any Nykerian prisoners to offer to exchange for her return. That only left—
“You want to trade me for Lyiaza.”
“What do you know? You’re not as stupid as you look.”