Caleb didn’t know what he’d been expecting, when Tam talked about visiting the Captain, but this definitely hadn’t been it.
“Are you sure we won’t be waking her up?” It seemed odd that she’d have gone to bed so early, given the moon was barely up, but there was no light coming through the cracks in the door – no light in the whole corridor, in fact, save the thin sliver of moonlight edging its way through the slats of the shutters at the far end of the hall.
Tam laughed, but the sound was hard and ugly. “I’m sure.” She stopped, holding up a hand for silence. “Right. Few rules before we head in. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Stay short, and to the point. She can tell if you’re lying. And don’t say anything you don’t really mean.”
Well, that seemed fair, if worrying. He clenched his fists, trying to stop his hands from shaking. “Anything else?”
“If your nose starts bleeding, don’t worry about it. That happens sometimes. She doesn’t mean it.” She frowned, looked him up and down for a quick second, then nodded briefly, as though making up her mind about something. “Alright, you’ll do. Come on.”
And with that she turned, gave two smart raps on the door, and then pushed it open, stepping through into the room beyond and gesturing for him to follow.
The first thing he noticed was the smell. It wasn’t… bad, exactly, but it wasn’t pleasant either – a sort of thick, oversweet scent, like the time the flowers he and his brothers had gathered for the spring festival had gone rotten in the barn. And there was something else underneath the sweet smell, too. Something sharp and acrid, that burned his nose and made his eyes water.
The second thing he noticed, when his eyes had adjusted to the almost-complete darkness of the room, was the bed. It was the only piece of furniture, bar an empty chair and a chest pushed up against one of the walls, and it was occupied.
Tam elbowed him in the side, hard. “Shut it.” There was no laughter under her words now – in fact, she almost sounded scared. She raised her voice, turning to address the still form in the bed. “Captain? It’s Tam. I brought you-”
I can see what you’ve brought me.
The words seemed simultaneously to come from all around him, and from inside his own head – a quiet, low, female voice, heavy with pain.
The question is, what am I supposed to do with him?
Him? But if she could sense when you were lying, then-
Oh, I know. And now the voice was very firmly coming from inside his own head, as though she’d somehow managed to whisper straight into his mind. Believe me, laddie, you’re not the first of your kind I’ve seen. Though given my current state, you might be the last. She laughed, a dark, rich sound which had no humour in it. There’s not a whisper of a lie in your bones, boy. Pure as the driven bloody snow, you are.
He winced, remembering exactly what he’d said about his skills with a blade – or rather, what he hadn’t.
So you might have exaggerated your skills a little. Who hasn’t? You didn’t make any concrete claims, and you backed down and pushed your actual strengths more when you realised what you’d done. I like that.
Praise? He’d not been expecting that. He exhaled, feeling a smile breaking through the nervous tension. Perhaps Tam had been exaggerating things after all.
That doesn’t mean that you’re home safe and dry, though. I’ll not have my people betrayed a second time.
“I won’t betray anyone!” The words escaped his mouth before he’d even had time to think, instinct riding post before logic. She knew he wasn’t a liar, she’d said as much, so why would she-
YOUR WORDS MEAN NOTHING. A spike of sudden pain shot through his head, sending red sparks dancing across his vision, and he dropped to his knees, hands flying up uselessly to cover his ears as the Captain’s voice roared like thunder through his mind, filled the room with sound and fury. THEY CAME BEFORE ME CLOAKED IN SHADOW WITH THEIR MOUTHS FULL OF LIES AND EMPTY PROMISES AND I COULD NOT READ THEM. AND LIKE A FOOL I TRUSTED THEM. THEY BETRAYED OUR PEOPLE, THEY BETRAYED MY LOVE, THEY BETRAYED-
“Captain!” Tam’s voice rang like a bell, sharp and sudden, cutting through the mounting fog and pain in his head. “Captain, enough! Please!”
And, as suddenly as it had come, the storm receded.
Caleb sat back on his heels, running his hands through his sweat-slick hair, and tried to calm his breathing. There was something warm and wet trickling down his face – he licked his lips and grimaced, tasting blood.
When the Captain ‘spoke’ again, her voice was calmer, though still echoing in that way he was coming to realise meant that she was ‘speaking’ to the whole room rather than purely mind-to-mind. I am sorry, both of you. That was pain neither of you deserved to feel. And then, in Caleb’s mind alone: Especially you, lad. You woke a memory and caught a lash that wasn’t meant for you. I’d hold no grudge if you decided to walk out based on that alone.
He could just walk away now, in theory. Leave the Captain, and Tam, and Dana, and the rest of the crew to whatever their story was, and find a different tale – something brighter, and lighter, and more like the ones in the songs. And if he never found out how theirs ended, well, that was all there was to that. Sometimes that was the way the story went.
But he couldn’t leave, really. Not now. Because yes, it’d got darker than he’d expected. And yes, he’d been bloodied – and likely would be again, if he stayed with this group. But there was an adventure here. He knew that. He could feel it.
And, more to the point, it felt a whole lot like they needed help, even if no-one was saying it. Tam wouldn’t have taken a chance on someone she barely knew if she wasn’t desperate, after all.
He winced, expecting the pain again, but the Captain’s voice stayed calm. Yes. And you’re right. We do need help. Much as it pains me to admit it.
“Don’t see why it should be painful, Ma’am. My Dad always said you can’t expect to put the whole barn up by yourself.” And oh his mouth was going to get him into trouble if he kept talking without thinking.
The Captain laughed again, but this time she sounded honestly amused. Captain, Caleb, not Ma’am. Though I take your point. A pause, and then, to both of them: So then, Tam. I like him. He’s one of ours.
“Thanks, Captain! You won’t regret it!” She turned to Caleb, grinning through the blood staining the lower half of her face. “See? I told you it’d work out.”
Take him downstairs, and fill him in on the rest of the details. And send Talan up to me on the way.
“Aye aye, Captain.”
Oh, and Caleb?
“Yes, Ma’am- Captain?”
Thank you. That was a very brave decision you just made.
But either she’d not heard, or she didn’t feel like answering. You’re dismissed, both of you. Shut the door on your way out.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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