When the poison faded and I could move, I clawed at the pit walls in complete darkness, searching for the smallest crease. All my fingers bled, and I lost two nails. I formed a loop in the line I’d made, tossing it up blindly to see if it would catch on anything, but it never did.
The portal above clanked, and light flooded inside. A wooden slat dropped, a skinned and partially cooked rat tied to it, and complete darkness returned. I tore into the rat, pulling apart its bones and picking them clean.
I examined the slat and tried scraping into the wall with it. It did nothing for me, so I sat against the side and jammed it into the dirt where it stuck, halfway embedded. I pulled on it, and dirt pulled loose. With a spark of an idea, I pushed myself to my knees and dug furiously. The gash in my side ached and tortured me with every thrust.
Sweating and filthy, I loosened the dirt almost as deep as my forearm. I stacked the rat bones neatly on the slat as if I’d dined with care and set the wood plate next to the wall. I had no sense of direction for which side it was on. I then pulled up the dirt from the middle for the length of my body, raising the sides some, then pulled the rest into a mound. I lay down in the cleared trench and pulled the dirt over the top of me, doing my best to keep the ground level. With all but one arm and my face free, I pulled the slat over my face and burrowed my arm into the soil.
One good thing about waiting for execution—you know they will come for you. Light reached me beneath the plate. A gasp. A yell.
“He’s gone! He’s escaped.”
Patience. The voice faded, still yelling. Patience. More shouting. Louder.
“He is gone.” Tumat’s voice. “How? You were on guard. How did he get away?”
“I swear he did not come out of there.”
The voices continued, but soon faded again. I freed my arm, pulled off the plate, and sat up, dirt tumbling off. The portal stood open. With the light I could see half of the underside of the portal and three latches around the edge of the pit.
I pulled the line out of my shirt and tossed the loop. On the third go it caught a latch. I pulled it tight and tested my weight, a little worried, though I’d tried it on a beam in the barrack. Arm over arm, I had my hand on the pit’s edge, and I pulled myself up to peer out.
The holes were in their own enclosure, and they had no keepers on the walls. There were six pits, all of them with their portals open, and no guards. The only thing I could think of was getting out of this hole before the next group came back and finding my next hiding place.
Outside the small gateway of this section were the walled-in keepers’ quarters and a staging or logistics area further on closer to the gate. I had to get to the staging area. It was full of wagons, crates, chains and shovels. Many things.
I clambered out of the hole, unhooked the line and wrapped the thicker parts around my head like a bandage, concealing a good part of it, then with the dangling end rigged it under my forearm like a sling. I hunched my shoulders, drooped my head, and walked with purpose toward the gate, hoping my unassuming gait and the excitement of the escape would prevent anyone from being too curious about me.
The gait was unlocked, so I ambled through. No hurry. Keepers and slaves raced every direction. No hurry. I passed the keepers’ wall, and turned into the staging section, behind a wagon, careful not to look up and bring attention to myself from the wall. I squatted and peaked through the wheels. I couldn’t believe no one came my way. My own escape had become my best diversion.
“You picked a good spot.”
I whirled toward the voice. Stebby leaned against a few water barrels.
“This was one of the first areas they searched, so they believe it’s clear.”
“Good to see you, Stebby. Why are you here?”
“I’m going with you.” He straightened and walked up to me. “At least until we’re clear.”
“Why would I do that. Two of us will be harder.”
“You think?” Stebby smirked. “Because instead of finding a moment to fight your way through fifty keepers—don’t give me that look, I know you were going to—I think it will be easier for you with a plan to open the gate and a way to get to it.”
I grinned. “You have that?”
“Oh, yes.” Stebby handed me a bunch of milkroots.
“What are these?”
“Shouldn’t you be out in the scrub?”
“I faked illness.”
We edged around the wall until we came upon the horses standing in a row. Five of them. They hissed. One of them growled.
“Wave the milkroot in front of you.”
I did as he said, and they quieted.
“I softened them up for you,” he said. “Feed them.”
I gave each one a full root, and held back a few, keeping them attentive. “So how do we get the gate open.”
“I signaled for it as soon as I saw you coming. By now, Pag has told a keeper that he saw you going over the wall in back. Even if they don’t see you anywhere, they’ll send men for a closer look.”
We watched it go as planned from behind the horses. A keeper trotted up and engaged in a lively exchange with the others.
“Choose one,” said Stebby.
“A horse, you idiot.”
“I like this first one,” I said.
“Well chosen. That’s the warlord’s.”
“Stebby, what is with you? Instead of your usual sniveling manner, you’re acting like a mentor.”
“My name is Tulleru. I’m kin to the warlords of Amorca. To act as such would not go well among the slaves, and I didn’t want to be ransomed.”
I wanted to challenge him on the matter, but the keepers opened the gate.
Stebby—Tulleru—untied the warlord’s mount. “Get on. Then lift me in front of you. When I say ‘go,’ dig your heels as hard as you can into his side.”
With some trouble, I climbed on while he fed the beast a root, then grabbed his arm and swung him in front of me.
“Have you ever ridden?” he asked.
“Wrap around me and hold on tight.”
I did so.
I dug my heels and the horse bolted forward. Tulleru steered the horse to the gate. Keepers scattered as the massive hooves pounded the ground toward them, then we were through.
“Dig! Dig! Dig!” said Tulleru.
I worked so hard to keep from falling, I could not look back. The sun baked us until it went down, then the wind froze us. Tulleru didn’t stop until it was completely dark. He took us slowly up a hill into a copse of dead trees. From there we watched and listened, but no one came.
We stuck together with the horse for a few days in case we both needed him to escape. The third day we came across a kuriet and his wagon, pulled by an okry, reinforced with steel and an extra escape compartment built with gobahr shell. We left him the horse to deliver to Breshkan. It’s one thing to escape a warlord’s execution, quite another to steal his best steed. He would never tire of hunting us.
“I have business back in Amorca,” said Tulleru. “I hope you find your girl.”
“Thank you, friend.” The word seemed strange to me, so long it had been since I’d used it. “She is my reason to live.”
My first mission, however, was to go to the trader’s city and find a man named Chirmus to retrieve my guns and gear. Perhaps with a little interest.