Kaveri heard a short, sharp bark just outside the window, followed by a deeper wuffling noise.
“We’re here,” she said. “No moonlight inside.”
The little light they had from the window was eclipsed briefly by a small body; he hovered there for a moment, then leaped down to the floor. Not enough light to change, but the cross fox bounded over to Kaveri’s lap and nuzzled her, then looked at Mirren and sighed, with a shake of his head.
“Tyrel?” Mirren asked uncertainly, possibly of Kaveri or possibly of the fox himself.
The fox, whose eyes were luminescent yellow in the gloom, nodded firmly, and Kaveri said, “Yes. Have you found who owns this property yet?”
The fox shook his head in the negative.
“Livery is dark blue with gold. Drugged me with something inhaled. Mirren saw a delivery wagon.” She nodded as Tyrel’s tail went up and his ears perked. “Mirren? Tell what you told me?”
A bit hesitantly, Mirren obeyed. “When I woke up,” she finished, “I was tied really tightly. I think we were in a carriage, under the seats.”
“I heard Ander,” Kaveri said. “We passed his gate.”
Tyrel growled softly.
“I know. We were unconscious. I do not know where they moved us from barrels to carriage. They took us from the carriage. We have been in this room since. I heard voices earlier. I think whoever commands is here or coming tonight. I think they mean to kill us. I feared they would before you could act. So I changed Mirren. Do not ask how.”
Tyrel ducked his head to sniff between Kaveri’s legs, ears flicking, then turned his head to nuzzle Mirren, tail waving. Shyly, she ran a hand over his fur, and he arched against it like a cat.
“Kieran is here?” Kaveri asked, and Tyrel nodded. “Can you get us out?” There was a pause, then Tyrel shook his head. “Can you try?” He nodded. “Good. If you must leave me here, do. Try to get Mirren out. Do what you can. I do not think there is anything else we can tell you of any use. Mirren? You are taller than I. Can you help Tyrel to the window?”
Mirren got to her feet, wincing a bit; Tyrel sat up on his hind legs as she leaned down to scoop him up. Carefully, she lifted him to the small window; he teetered on the edge for a heartbeat, then, with a flick of his white-tipped brush, was gone.
“That’s honestly Tyrel?” Mirren asked, settling back down beside Kaveri.
“It truly is.” Kaveri smoothed tangled honey-coloured hair back for Mirren, out of eyes that had their own very faint greengold light in the darkness. “Remember when they open the door. Close your eyes or keep them down. It will be less obvious in more light.”
“All this waiting is terrible,” Mirren sighed.
“I know. It will end. Not the way they think it will.”
“Tyrel knows everything we do. So no matter what, the people kidnapping women can’t hide anymore.”
“Yes. And Tyrel’s brother will soon know who is in command. Then we will make sure all Galimont knows.” With Sanur as her moon, Mirren would be back the same night as Madoc, only a few days from now; Kaveri herself would have longer to wait, since Lirit’s cycle was longer than any of the others and had nearly half a cycle to go. At least Mirren wasn’t going to be alone with strangers while Kaveri was away. There was no point to resenting Lirit’s long cycle; she faced moondark fewer times in a year than Madoc, much fewer than Kieran and Tyrel under Talir’s rapid cycle that was barely two-thirds the length of Lirit’s. Longer to wait was just the other side.
The chances of them getting out of here anytime soon without dying were, Kaveri figured, extremely thin. And even then, how to do so without raising questions about the lack of a body complicated matters enormously. What could her family arrange?
They’d been quiet for some time, just taking comfort in the company, when the door to their cell opened. In the gloom, Kaveri suspected a human would have been blinded by the lamplight that spilled through the doorway; her own eyes adjusted effortlessly.
The man who stood there looked them both over. Mirren huddled against Kaveri, shivering, and Kaveri hugged her closer with the arm around her shoulders.
“His Lordship wants to see you,” the large man said, and looked them both over. “He likes tarts clean.” The loathing in his voice suggested that he shared the preference. “Disgusting. All piss and blood… See if you can avoid pissing on the floor. Come on. You try to run, we set the dogs on you and take bets how fast they can rip you apart.”
The two women obediently got up. Mirren tried automatically to tuck back her straying hair but gave up immediately, and there was nothing to help with the fact that there’d been no choice but to urinate into the drain hole, nothing to hide the blood on her inner thighs.
The dark stains of red human blood hid the moon-touched blood that, in dim light, showed brighter and paler—which was why Kaveri had actually swept a palmful of Mirren’s blood over her own groin and thighs. Under extreme stress, women did start to menstruate; Kaveri remembered seeing it a number of times in thrall women, had experienced it herself shortly after being captured. It was blood their captors were sure to have seen before, and would never think twice about.
The building that contained their cell was clearly a substantial outbuilding; there were a number of smaller rooms, along with the main area that held an elaborately carved and adorned closed carriage with a coat of arms she didn’t know, a matching open-topped one, and a rougher wagon obviously for cargo rather than people. There were other men around, none of them apparently with anything to do, simply taking the chance to leer at the two women; Kaveri ignored them, but it was harder for Mirren, born in a town instead of a Forest tribe, raised to a kind of physical modesty not practical in the Forest, and Kaveri closed a hand around hers and squeezed reassuringly.
They were taken through the building, across a cropped grassy lawn, to a rectangular gazebo with a peaked roof that overhung the side rails quite a lot, raised off the ground on stone pilings.
The floor of the gazebo was polished oiled wood, Kaveri observed, as they were herded up into it. Easy to clean.
Within the gazebo was a single table, long enough for four men to be seated all along one side. One of them was clearly in charge, his chair so large and elaborate it approached being a throne, and the body language of the others was submissive, the tone of their laughter as much eagerness for approval as amusement of their own. Several lamps illuminated the interior.
“Well,” said the one in charge, a man of average height and a build leaning towards slender, his short and thinning hair grey and his face lined but with no trace of frailty. He laid his fork and knife across his plate, folded his napkin, and crossed his arms on the table to survey the two women measuringly.
Mirren cringed, one hand dropping in a vain attempt to cover her groin, the other arm across her chest; Kaveri simply looked back, keeping her eyes just low enough to shield their light.
“You’re the foreigner who’s refusing to see reason and back down from that rape charge,” the one in command said. “You’ve been given every opportunity to do so. You were warned. Now you get the consequences.”
“To you honour is cheap,” Kaveri said. “To us it is not. To pretend he did not wrong me is not possible.”
“Maybe, but because of that stupid refusal to see reason, now you can expect to be wronged all over again. Repeatedly. You and your unwomanly friend there both. Since I’m told that you’re a good cook, I might let you demonstrate, and if you please me you can have a rest. Otherwise…” He grinned at her, showing white teeth in the lamplight.
Otherwise, you’d like to condemn me to what Tyrel and Madoc rescued me from. What is wrong with men? A few men, at least?
In the darkness outside the gazebo, four-footed shapes moved. Large ones. The dogs they’d been threatened with, she assumed. They were a motley lot, not all the same breed, though all were big as dogs went. Were they leashed? No, not that she could see. It must be only training that restrained them.
The eyes of one of the dogs gleamed yellow, and the others shied away from that one.
Kaveri gathered whatever saliva she could, dry as she was, and spat at the man behind the table, aiming for the plate in front of him. Too bad he seemed to be done eating, and only pushed it fastidiously away from him. “You cannot trust me near your food. Kill us and be done.”
“No. Neither of you is of any use to sell. You’re both used goods. You can be useful in keeping my men happy, though. They get frustrated sometimes, not being able to touch the merchandise. But you two? I’m getting an annoyance out of the way, and it won’t cost me anything to give you to my men. Whether you learn that a woman’s proper place is to be silent and do as she’s told or you fight and get yourselves killed, either way, my men are entertained and you’re out of my way.”
The dog with the yellow eyes tossed its head and let out a low wuff.
Kaveri looked behind her, judging distances.
The man behind the table laughed harshly. “There’s nowhere to run to. This is my estate, everyone on it answers to me. The dogs will ignore anyone walking but they’ll tear anyone running into pieces. Sometimes it takes a while to actually die that way. Judging by the screaming, it’s a horrible way to die.”
Yes, it probably was. But terrestrial animals were of the earth, and it was a way to die that was out there in the shadows, and Kieran must have a way to cover. Compared to being gang-raped, it would last less time and be easier to recover from emotionally. They could no more truly die by anything born of moonlight than they could by anything born of earth, the moons refusing to allow their own substance to do lasting harm, and their own bodies, teeth and claws and bare hands, were all quite literally solid moonlight. With any luck, Kieran could at least make it a quicker escape.
“You are filth,” Kaveri told the man behind the table, giving Mirren’s hand a quick squeeze of warning. “I call the justice of the moons down on you. What you give shall return to you, just as the moons wax and wane. To you and all who choose to stand by you. Let another of your vermin touch me? Better to die in any way. Mirren, run.” She spun in place, not letting go of Mirren, and bolted for the steps down into the darkness.
“Trust,” she told Mirren breathlessly, as they reached the grass. “Scream. A lot.”
Mirren’s scream as the first dogs reached them wasn’t for effect; the snarling and the flashing fangs set even Kaveri’s heart pounding in instinctive fear. Mirren stumbled and went to one knee; Kaveri dragged her back to her feet and out from under a wiry-coated red dog, despite the gash torn down her own thigh by another of the pack. There was one especially large dog with a shaggy dark coat frosted with silver that shouldered itself in to give them an instant’s respite to find their feet. The farther away they were, the less their captor would actually see.
Even with Kieran running interference, they didn’t make it all that far before a grey short-muzzled dog managed to bring Kaveri to the ground, a dark one she couldn’t see clearly holding her leg and a short-coated brindle seizing her arm as she went down with a shriek. The pain was blinding; she wished desperately for Lirit’s soothing violet light.
Jaws closed on the back of her neck, oddly gentle; she felt a stomach-churning crunching, and then the world dissolved into nothing but violet light and Lirit’s loving welcome.