55th day of Harvest, Lufseap, Bechia

Why the cruelty? Why would anyone so love inflicting pain? Perhaps the guards had no love for it at all, though; they could merely be following orders.

It was my Aena, certainly. Same furtive eyes. The cry went out in the late morning – “A spy, a spy for the cage!” Cedric and I ran with the crowd to the main square. The lord of Bechia was there, with a wide ring of soldiers around him and the platform he stood on. Two guards were with him. Aena was pinned between them.

The lord spoke some angry, arrogant words, but I wasn’t listening properly. “Cedric,” I said, “how will we get her out?” Cedric didn’t reply.

Then the guards tore Aena’s tunic until her back was bare. One lash. Two lashes. The crowd jeered and spat and cheered a brutal, crimson cheer. Three lashes. Four. Five. Six. Aena didn’t cry out once. “Put her in the cage,” the lord said.

There was a cage there of ghastly design; roughly man-shaped, it had iron studs on the inside, the arms and legs were splayed wide, and the iron was thick and crude. It was hanging suspended from a chain, the greater length of which was coiled around a winch. The guards shoved Aena inside and snapped the locks in place.

“She is in the gods’ hands now,” the lord said, and he turned the handle on the winch. The cage lowered slowly into what must have been a hole in the platform. The lord kept winding until the cage was completely out of sight, and even then he continued lowering it. The chain ran out of length. For a while, nothing happened. Even the crowds stopped. Then the chain started to shake and jingle, and a scream of horror rent the stillness. The lord slowly raised the cage again. The iron was bent and gouged in places, but was otherwise none the worse for wear. Aena was hard to see. Blood and shreds of clothing peered through the gaps in the cage. Her face was obscured by a sticky splash of her hair. She wasn’t moving. “The gods are just,” the lord said. He turned and walked away, and all except two guards followed him.

“They’ve killed her!” I gasped. I was trembling. Cedric grabbed my shoulder and shook me for no apparent reason. Or perhaps it was to shake sense into me. “They left guards,” he said. His hand was on the hilt of his sword. His knuckles were white.

We couldn’t do anything right then, we knew that. We’d all suffer the same fate as Aena if we did anything in broad daylight, with so many people around. So we went back as soon as darkness cloaked the streets. Cedric, Beren, Caleb, Mercy, and I went out with one purpose. We left the house with unsheathed swords and an oath not to sheathe them until we avenged Aena.

The guards shouted for help the moment they saw us, but their screams died even faster than they did. Cedric and Beren cut Aena out of the cage. “She’s alive!” said Beren. As resolutely as our blood mission had started, it ended. Aena needed to heal, needed protection. We needed to keep her hidden and safe. Cedric pushed the corpses of the guards down the hole, and then we retreated to the house.

Aena’s wounds are terrible, but Mercy says she can heal her. In time. What time have we got? The refugees are starving to death and killing each other in the process. We were supposed to ride out as soon as we’d arrived, and that is already a whole day ago.

Ah, Aena. You saved me from the Midpas assassinations, and now – hopefully – I can see you saved.