Strange Place to Make New Friends

Author’s Note: Feeling a random sharing moment, so I opened up a file and took the first scene. If I’m honest, this is probably another novel that spends its time establishing a world and not really finishing. It’s not to say that it doesn’t tell a good story or have an ending, but I suspect that story is only one part of a much, much bigger journey.

Strange Place to Make New Friends

“I’m surprised there’s anything left of you after that.”

Jereth grunted, not opening his eyes but welcoming the water the woman dribbled into his mouth. He swallowed it down, fighting against the dust and the persistent cough that never seemed to leave him no matter how much he healed. “If you think that is the worst they do to their prisoners, you are mistaken, though how that is possible I don’t think I want to know.”

He rolled over, ignoring the old aches in his arms and cursing the sting of fresh cuts in his side. He had to figure out how long he’d lost consciousness this time and then get himself where they expected him to be. If he wasn’t working when they came looking, the pain would start all over again. Not that he’d been lazy to bring this set on, he just knew he couldn’t afford to fight the guards right now.

“Sit still a minute and let me look at those wounds.”

“To what purpose?” He reached out and caught the woman’s hand. Her eyes darkened, and he knew she didn’t belong here. No amount of torn and soiled clothing and disheveled hair, not even layered in the dirt so common around here, could hide the truth. “You should go. Whatever you’re here for, you won’t accomplish it. If you’re working with them, I’ll kill you myself. If not… They’ll know as soon as they look at you, and I won’t need to kill you. They’ll do it for me.”

She yanked her arm free. “You’re weaker than a newborn babe, and your words do not frighten me. If you don’t want my help, there might be someone else who does.”

He studied her. The way she watched him, the stance she’d taken when she pulled away—she was military in some way, trained and poised to attack should he make any move—and he didn’t see how she’d managed to slip in without the jailors noticing, but she didn’t reek like the other traitors they’d tried to use against him in the past. Her anger was a good touch. Most of the others had fear or greed exposed in their eyes, and that made them easy to avoid.

“There aren’t many of us left.”

“Intel said four, but I rarely trust their numbers, especially when they’ve been fed ’em. You have a better count for me?”

“Closer to forty. Most of them work the mines until they die. Down that way. Don’t get any heroic notions about that, though. Only one way in or out, and if there’s a problem, the brutes have a simple solution.”
“They collapse the mine and kill everyone in it?”

“Well, you are smarter than I thought you were at first. Yes, they’ll collapse the mine.”

“Why aren’t you there?”

“I am the head guard’s favorite toy. He likes to abuse me in front of the others to demoralize them. Your turn. Why bother to risk your life on a mission you won’t return from when you know our government won’t negotiate for our release—even if those bastards were willing to admit that they had us here.”

She adjusted her rags, and he found himself wondering where she’d managed to stash her weapons. She did have something—no one would have come in here unarmed. “The four they said they had… They gave names.”

“Family, then. Only thing that could make a smart soldier be so stupid. Right. One of your parents, was it?”

“My brother. I suppose he’s well enough to be in the mine, if he’s here at all.”

Jereth studied her face for a moment, reaching up to hold her wild hair down and get a better sense of her features. She frowned at him, but he nodded. “I know where your brother is. It’s not the mine, but if you got in, maybe you can get him out.”

Her lips thinned, and she looked around. “It’s that bad, is it?”

“Your orders say you’re only supposed to look?”

“Get in, confirm they have our people, get out.”

“You already did the first two. Take care of the third.”

She shook her head. “The hell with my orders. You think I can walk away and leave anyone to this? To let their fate be decided by politicians who don’t give a damn about them? Even if you’re wrong about my brother, I’m not leaving without doing something about this.”

“That’s the kind of attitude that gets you killed.”

She gave him a look. “It’s the kind of attitude that got you trapped here, isn’t it?”

His lips curved into their first real smile in years.