Sixth Watch: A Guest in the Dustlands
They were big, tall and muscular with broad shoulders and ragged beards, dark and gray in the dusk. Without a word one of them reached down and hoisted Liley onto his shoulder. Her bones and muscles screamed in agony, but she found herself unable to voice anything but the most meager moan. Her view of the sky was replaced with her captor’s chest. A deep scent assaulted her nostrils, but she could resist it no more easily than she resisted the blunt arrows that had rendered her immobile.
Liley could not see her captors’ faces, their expressions or hand signals or whatever else they might have been using to communicate. They said nothing. They began walking.
Every step jolted Liley, but the strength of the dustman’s scent was such that she could focus on it rather than her pain. She lost track of how long they walked. Her senses were flickering. She drifted in and out of fitful sleep as night fell.
She dreamt it was Gregg carrying her. He was seeped in the exotic perfumes of Citadel and boasted better muscle than Meat’n’Men sausage. She was happy to be in his arms, but to be carried like a sack of goods? He refused to put her down.
“Put me down, Gregg.”
He didn’t respond.
Was he trying to carry her to a bed? It didn’t need to be so fancy. She’d have been happy with a closet or discrete corner.
It wasn’t Gregg’s voice. She opened her eyes. Her captors were laughing. The one carrying her adjusted her on his shoulder, causing fresh pain to shimmer down her limbs. She cried out in agony.
“More lively now?”
They were still walking. It was dark, but the way was lit by moon and stars. Moon, stars. It had been a whole day. She wondered if the fighting in the city had quieted down, if Meatery Row was back in business. Her thoughts lingered fondly on the nightcity, and then the starlight disappeared and she found herself on the ground. Again her body screamed and she clenched her teeth. Her captors stood around her, outlined by the firelight. There were walls and a ceiling, both made of what looked like hard-packed dirt. One corner was marked off by rows of metal bars.
One of the dustmen dragged her behind the bars. She was a rag doll in his hands. She heard the sound of a lock clicking. This was her prison.
“Bring food, Dahlia,” one of the men said.
A woman standing by the doorway nodded and left.
“I’ll get the shaman,” another dustman offered.
Liley blinked, surprised to understand their speech. She was thankful for the idea of food, but worried about this ‘shaman.’ The pain, thirst, hunger, and poison had wiped away her levelheaded approach to the dustfolk. Perhaps they were fetching some ritual interrogator who would mutilate her during questioning. Would he use knives? A flail? Coals from the fire? A fresh course of poisons?
She thought to draw her sword, but they had taken it away, and of course she couldn’t move her arm anyway.
The men moved closer to the entrance and whispered amongst each other. Liley got a better glance at the fire pit. A second woman knelt by it, tending the fire. She occasionally looked furtively at Liley, but said nothing.
The shaman arrived before the food. One of the dustmen in the entrance walked him to the cell. He was an old man in heavy robes. His beard was longer than the others’ and white, his face a sea of tired wrinkles. His eyes glinted in the firelight. He held a small pouch in one hand and a gnarled staff in the other. Every step he took toward Liley’s cell rang with bells.
“This is her, Shaman.”
The old man sized her up through the bars. She felt his gaze penetrating her clothes in the same places the blunt arrows had, tracing the bruises. It lingered on her shoulder where Mink’s archer had scored a hit.
“You brutes don’t go easy,” said the shaman.
His voice was soft and earthy. It conjured the only lush image of nature Liley had—that of the slimy humus in the gully along the watchwall. While an unpleasant connection, it was accompanied by relief. Whatever this ‘shaman’ was about, Liley believed it wouldn’t mean more pain.
She was wrong.
He let himself into the cell, leaned his staff against the wall, and proceeded to massage each of her bruises. His fingers dug deep and hard into her flesh through her tunic, retracing the route taken previously by his eyes. The wound in her shoulder reopened and black corruption bubbled forth. She shrieked in agony.
“You don’t go easy either!” laughed the man outside the cell, causing the shaman to shrug sheepishly.
Liley squinted at him through the pain. Why was he laughing? This was torture. She was being tortured.
“Finish me,” she begged.
“Patience,” said the shaman. He wiped his hands on his robes and reached into his pouch, producing a couple small vials and leaves and a roll of bandage. “We’re going to need to get you out of that armor and tunic.”
Liley’s eyes were wet with tears. He wanted to treat her wounds, to prolong the torture. Whatever. In her state, she couldn’t remove her clothes if she’d wanted. She just shook her head. The shaman shrugged again, then whipped a curved dagger out of his robes and sliced clean through Liley’s leather chestpiece. He stepped around her and repeated the motion, opening her back. Liley’s damaged body blossomed from the ruined petals of her uniform.
The dustman by the bars had turned his back on the cell, and those at the door seemed especially occupied in their discussion. The shaman alone didn’t avert his eyes from Liley.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “that among us there are no women of equal skill to tend to you.”
Liley was bemused, but her attention was mostly captured by the continued pain caused by the shaman’s ministrations. When his salves began trickling down her arm from her shoulder, she risked a tentative look at the wound. Her entire shoulder was a sickly green, streaked with black and purple. Her stomach churned.
Sensing her discomfort, the shaman hurried in bandaging the spot.
“Don’t fear. Persist.”
Liley hung her head. She couldn’t make heads or tails of the shaman’s motivations, nor those of any other dustfolk present. She knew she had questions she’d wanted to ask, but pain and fear had long since driven them from her mind.
“Listen to me,” said the shaman, gathering his supplies. “I have restored your nerves. Poisons are not so simple. You will heal, but only if you desire it. The vengeful gods have not answered my calls in years. It is up to the medicine… and your spirit.”
“Rose,” he said, turning from Liley. The woman by the fire raised her head. “Our guest needs new clothing. Something more befitting women than her previous garb. Food is in order, too.”
Rose nodded, stood, and left.
Motor control was returning to Liley as the shaman pushed her tunic scraps into her hands. Her arm throbbed no longer, the raging poison calmed by the shaman’s salves. The aggravated bruising hurt worse than before, but in exchange her hands and arms were hers once more. She sat still with the two halves of her tunic in her hands.
“Cover yourself now,” the shaman said. “You embarrass our fighters.”
He took her hands in his and pressed them to her breasts, draping her front in navy.
Only after the shaman had left the building did Liley realize she was cold. The room was large. The fire was small in the center of the room, its warmth unable to penetrate Liley’s corner cell. Though the summer heat permeated the city and sweltered through the night, it didn’t penetrate the dirt walls in which the dustfolk had placed her.
She shivered quietly in the corner until Rose returned.
The dustwoman entered the cell and laid a pile of blankets by Liley’s side. Leaning forward, she draped a thick cloak over Liley’s shoulders. The loose folds hung down on all sides, clinging to Liley’s clammy skin and insulating her against the cold.
“There’s a dress with the blankets,” said Rose, “for when you can get yourself into it.”
“And here’s some food.” The dustwoman revealed the wooden pail she’d been carrying. “Mutton stew to give you strength.”
Rose spoon-fed Liley something so delicious it drove out the memory of Grace Valence’s slop in two mouthfuls. Liley’s mouth watered for more. The pleasure of the flavor was such that she didn’t notice her hunger abate, and it was only when Rose apologized for not having more that Liley realized she was no longer starving.
As Rose moved to exit the cell, she apologized again.
“For my sister Dahlia not bringing your meal earlier. She is mistrusting of your kind.”
Rose averted her eyes.
“You’re from the capital, right?”
“You wear the uniform,” continued Rose, haltingly, “the colors of the Vanishing Scourge.”
“Enough,” said one of the men by the entrance. “Don’t get too friendly.”
Rose withdrew without further word, leaving Liley no less confused.
The deserter pulled her cloak closer and burrowed into the pile of blankets. The softness of the fabric delighted her, and she recognized it as wool, that Citadel luxury that grew scarcer every year. Then it struck her. Meat stew. Woolen clothes, even for a prisoner. The dustfolk had animals.
She briefly considered engaging the men in some form of conversation, but decided she didn’t have the wherewithal. In the morning, she knew, her mind would be clearer.
The last thing she was aware of as she faded out of her firelit cell was a portly man with the complexion of Citadel nobility entering the building and smiling down at her.
Then she was back in Gregg’s arms.