Edel woke Dustan at dawn the next morning, and told Dustan to crowd in next to him. The other man, now that Dustan could finally see him, was very thin and delicate-looking, almost like a woman. His skin was dark and chocolatey, and his hair was silky and black though it could have done with a thorough combing. His eyes were an oceanic blue-green. All of this Dustan noticed while his face was basically pressed into Edel's, a blanket over the both of them as the other prisoners climbed down the sides of the bunkbeds. Dustan could not see how this could possibly work, but Edel was insistent.
"It works," he whispered, "it always works."
To Dustan's shock and disbelief, he could hear the guards checking the lower bunks. They seemed to climb up just a few, "All right. I don't see anyone. Do you?"
"Nope. Got 'em all, I reckon."
He could hear them leave, and the thundering footsteps of the rest of their roommates as they were led down the corridor to the central chamber to join the rest of the prisoners. Dustan glanced all around, before his eyes met those directly in front of his own again. "Is that it?"
"Yes." Edel was still whispering, despite them being alone. Dustan could feel his breath against his own lips, and it made his spine tingle.
"Er," he said eloquently, and shifted away from him, lifting a hand to plough through his own hair. He frowned and looked over at his bunkmate again. "So did you think of a way for me?"
Edel nodded, though he didn't look thrilled about the idea. Crawling to the edge of the bunk, he grabbed a ladder and slipped onto it, pointing straight up. "On the roof there is a latch. It can only be opened from outside. If you let me through the window and give me your arms, I can climb the short distance over the lip and onto the top. From there, I can let you up."
"Okay, but how will we get down, then?"
Edel nodded vehemently, indicating he'd already considered this, "well, you were going to lower me with the bedsheets, right?" Edel held up a rope of knotted, braided sheets that must have taken him weeks to make. Dustan just stared at him as his answer, "Alright, well, so. We attach it to something up there, instead of having you hold it, and then we can both repel down it."
"It will work!" he said again, and began to climb up the ladder. "Now hurry! You want to get out of here, don't you?"
There was no arguing with that logic. He did, certainly, want out of this prison. Grasping one of the rungs, he followed Edel up the ladder, the sheet rope smacking him in the face as it dangled down. Several times it caused him to almost miss the rungs of the ladder, but he wasn't about to grab it—it would have pulled Edel down on top of him. Dustan saw Edel disappear onto the top bunk, and hurried to catch up with him. It was then that he heard the sharp yelp.
"I, I'm sorry! I didn't realize you were up here…"
"I knew someone'd been in my bunk!"
Dustan recognized Faern's voice instantly, and mounted the top bunk. Faern was holding a bewildered Edel by the thin fabric of his shirt and shaking him a little bit. He grinned when he saw Dustan. "What's this?"
"We're escaping, old man. Care to come along?"
Faern rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful, before cackling a little and smacking Dustan on the shoulder so hard he was almost sent over the edge of the bunk. "Mighty fine idea, Dustan my boy. Don't mind if I do."
Edel looked at Dustan with an expression matching what he might have made had Dustan whistled for the guards and turned him in as an escapee. Dustan shrugged. Edel groaned, which ended in a soft squeak as he was let go.
"Them metal shavings in my bed. I saw they were comin' from the grate, so I pulled it clear out the other day. That's how I knew someone'd been up here." Fearn looked proud at his own deductions. "So how are we doing this?"
Dustan explained the plan to him, and Faern's expression melted from one of excitement and curiosity to one of skepticism. He jabbed Dustan in the sternum with a finger, "I dunno if this is gonna work, boy. You're gonna get us all killed."
"Hey, it wasn't my idea." And frankly, though he'd only been there less than a week, Dustan already felt that he would rather die attempting to escape this place in his Queen's best interest than to work another day down in that godforsaken forge.
"It will work!" Edel chimed in optimistically, before pulling the grate out of the window. It was barely as wide as his own shoulder span, if even. Edel, however, was a very small person. Several inches shorter than Dustan, and a great deal less nourished—he seemed to be in an advanced state of illness—he tied the sheet rope around his waist "for safety!" and easily began to fit himself through the window, Dustan nervously grasped the rope. His hands still burned from the previous day, and he'd forgotten so until he was forced to grip this lifeline. Edel was almost all the way out, before he gasped and abruptly backed back in, his thin, boney rear end colliding with Faern's face. The older man fell over, cursing, and Edel plopped back down onto the bed in Dustan's lap.
"Ow," said Dustan and Faern simultaneously, both sounding various degrees of annoyed.
"Shh!" Edel warned, "There are guards riding up to the fortress from outside!"
"Yeah, shh!" Faern repeated, smacking Dustan on the side of the head as he righted himself.
Dustan leaned forward, peering through the window, below, he could see a few horses—not very many, really—approaching the fortress. A loud, deafening grinding sound came from above them as the gear mounted on their tower began to turn. Faern was unphased, but Edel and Dustan clasped their hands over their ears.
"Ain't that the General!" Faern called out, not worried about being heard over the sound of the wheel turning above them, and jabbing one of his boney, accusatory fingers toward the man in the lead, who was only distinguishable from this distance by the fact that he was wearing something red on his shoulder. Edel nodded slowly, frozen and staring. "Yes. Yes, that's the General."
"We'll wait until they're inside, I guess," Dustan offered. The other two nodded, Faern more enthusiastically than Edel, now. His confidence seemed bolstered by the knowledge that Edel could, indeed, fit through the tiny window.
"What is he doing here?" Edel hissed as the grinding above them came to a ringing halt.
"Who knows?" Faern shrugged. "They're in now. You'd better hurry."
Edel hesitated for a moment, before nodding and carefully climbing back out the window again. Pretty soon, all of his thin, boney form had disappeared from sight.
There was no sound.
"You reckon he came untied and fell and died?"
Dustan rolled his eyes , yanking slightly on the rope, to which a soft "Ow" responded outside the window. Faern shrugged, and leaned forward to stick his nose out into the fog-filtered light of early morning. "You ready for phase two?"
Dustan handed Faern the rope, and the old man leaned back to steady the dangling young man. Leaning forward, he looked down. The ground was blurred by dewy fog, giving the sensation that they were even higher up than they were, having passed some clouds. Edel's fingers pawed at the wall as if to get purchase on it, but it gave none, so he squirmed helplessly on the end of the rope.
"Hurry!" he whispered to Dustan, who put his knees against the wall inside for balance, and leaned his upper body out, his arms reaching down toward Edel. His shoulders caught in the tiny window, scrunched, his arms out. The smaller man grasped at his arms, hissing at him to keep them still—which was very difficult when a person was climbing on them, mind—and slowly worked his way up until Dustan could firmly grasp his thin, boney hips. From here he hoisted him slightly until Edel could put a foot on the lip of the window,and grasp the edge of the roof. Faern kept the rope perpetually drawn in as much as possible, giving slack only where necessary, should the other slip and fall. Dustan didn't exactly like the idea of that happening regardless, because he suspected that the knot that Edel had tied around his waist wasn't exactly the safest, most slip-free sort.
A very dirty, black-bottomed foot pushed onto Dustan's head. "watch it!"
"Sorry," said Edel, not sounding it much, before he at last disappeared over the edge of the roof.
"Okay, now let us out!" said Faern, banging on the ceiling a little for good measure. Edel hurried around slightly, ducking under the gear and kneeling.
"I just need to find the hatch. Hold on." Edel ran back and forth across the top, ducking under the gears for the door a few times.
"I can't seem to find it!"
"Isn't that it?" Faern pointed a knobbed hand toward the very center of the ceiling, where the outline of a circle and a couple of hinges was visible.
"Oh, yeah. I think that is."
"Fantastic," Dustan grunted. Of course, it'd be in the most inconvenient place.
Edel unlatched it and pulled it open, before leaning his head down, mass of long, tangled black hair hanging down through it as he looked at them. "What do we do?"
Faern rubbed his jaw again, then smacked Dustan with a grin. "We can swing over, yeah?"
Dustan stared at him, totally not buying it.
"I'm not a kid, I'm nineteen."
"Kid, pull this rope up to you, and then toss it down through the hole. Use yourself as an anchor and swing it on over here!"
"Myself?" Edel sounded utterly bewildered, "You'll snap me clean in half! I'll find something else to tie it to!"
"That'll take forever!" Faern argued, beginning to load the rope out the window. Edel, despite his protesting, begun pulling it quickly over the side of the tower and onto the roof, before beginning to lower the end of it through the hole. "Just hold on." He stopped, retracting it, and ran in what looked like circles to Dustan, before returning and beginning to lower it again.
"What the hell was that?" Faern asked, motioning for Edel to swing the rope. When he did, Faern grabbed onto it and doubled it around his arm.
"I wrapped it around the wheel so it would take some of the weight off me!"
Faern shrugged. Apparently, that was good enough for him. Dustan wondered if he would be so reckless when he was that old. A lot less to lose, at that point, wasn't there? The old man swung out, letting himself stop somewhat, suspended in the center, before beginning to pull himself up. He had spectacular upper body strength for anyone, let alone a man of his age. He was up and over the lip before Dustan could say "holy shit, old man." Now it was his own turn, the rope swinging toward him. He caught it, and when he did, the door down at the bottom of the room swung open with a loud bang.
"How can you lose a prisoner?" Frozen still, Dustan couldn't bring himself to look at who was speaking. But this voice was one he didn't recognize—cold and even, verging on monotone. Up top, Faern was boldly looking through the hole. Edel was peeking through one of the tiny circular openings that let light in in the morning.
"I didn't lose 'im! I see 'im every day. I do." This one was the guard.
"But where is he now? He wasn't down there, he never checked in. And you say you checked the beds…"
"I can check 'em a little bit better, I imagine."
Dustan could hear the guard's voice wheeze a little, accompanied by a strained creaking as he began to climb one of the ladders on the other side of the room. Neither, apparently, had noticed Faern or the rope. Then again, they were very high up. Faern looked from the floor over to Dustan, and tugged the rope earnestly. Dustan swallowed a lump in his throat and wrapped the rope around his arm. The fabric strained against his skin. It was rough, and the stained sheets were even dirtier from their respective hands being on it.
Peeking over the edge of the bed, he could see the man with the red cape watching the larger guard climb the ladder. It was a little cruel, really. But at least he seemed distracted. With a deep breath, Dustan leapt from the bed, letting his legs draw up toward the rope slightly, and he swung there silently. Chancing a glance downward showed simply that he went undetected, the soft, subtle sound of the rope straining from his swinging not loud enough to alarm the ones below. He waited until he swung to a relative stop, just as Faern had, and began to slowly climb up.
"I just don't know where he could be!"
"You do realize that if you've been lying, there will be serious consequences."
"I'm not lying! I saw 'im! He doesn't look quite…like that though. I mean, he looks…he doesn't look Terthian! But that face. That's definitely his face!"
"How dare you accuse His Royal Highness of not looking Terthian!"
Dustan continued to make his way up, the burning in his hands shooting through his arms, making it difficult to grip. It was lucky that the rope had so many knots—he would never have been able to pull along it if it hadn't. Faern extended a hand toward him as he drew near. Dustan lifted his to grasp it.
Just then, there was a sharp ripping sound, and a scraping. Dustan could see Edel slide across the roof of the tower, smacking backward against the wheel he'd wrapped the string around. Then, the pressure on Edel was released, and Dustan began to fall. The rope had torn at the wheel.
Helplessly, Dustan continued to grasp the rope, attempting to climb the falling braid of sheets and going nowhere but down. Hastily, Faern grabbed ahold of the rope, once again wrapping it around his arms, and stopping Dustan's decent with a quick and uncomfortable jerk. He was left swinging somewhere between the second and third-to-top rows of beds. He'd fallen more than twice his own height in distance from the hole. He stayed there silently, his body tense.
"Hey, what is…? You there! Stop that!"
Below them, apparently they'd been spotted. Dustan glanced down to see the General pointing up at them. The guard was still clutching one of the ladders, and appeared to be loathe to let go of it or move too much. He was stuck about halfway up it.
"Get him!" commanded the red-caped man, before he nimbly began to ascend an opposite ladder. The guard stayed still for a moment, looking hopeful that he'd be passed up in mere seconds, but the General growled at him a repeated command, and he began to climb as well.
"Hurry!" said Faern, no longer seeing the point in silence of anonymity. Faern began to pull the rope up by backing away from the hole, causing Dustan to swing slightly each time a knot bumped over the edge of the hole. Dustan began to climb as well, the hole within feet. Dustan heard a sharp whirring sound, and the air in front of his eyes became distinctly distorted, warping around a translucent orb. It slid by, barely missing his left thigh, and hit the wall, which then exploded, a spray of stone dust hitting Dustan in the face.
"Shit!" Dustan rammed his eyes shut, coughing and turning his face away in an attempt to keep himself from breathing the stone particles in. Something rough smacked him in the face. Squinting open an eye, he saw it was Faern's hand. He grasped it without hesitation, just as another orb smacked into the rope and blew the end of it apart in front of him. It fell away in ribbons toward the ground. Kicking his feet upward, his knees bent toward his chest as he tried to push the air out of the way. That was ineffective, however it did cause his upper body to flex more, allowing him the needed strength to grab onto Fearn's shoulder with his free hand. His head and shoulders passed the porthole, and he smacked his hands onto the ceiling, fingers digging into the circular cutouts, clawing the rest of the way out. Another translucent orb blew past his foot, lost in the clouds.
He sat panting, feeling relieved. Faern, however, was smacking him in the face as if he were unconscious and pulling him to his feet.
"We have to get down from here!" He hissed. The only way down that Dustan could see was, well, over the side, or across the bridge that connected it to the other gear tower for the door. There were two sorcerers over there, but they seemed preoccupied. They were standing close together, hidden in the shadow of the wheel. One of them had their leg wrapped around the back of the other's.
"Don't worry about them," Faern grinned, wiggling his eyebrows, "We shouldn't go past them, but I don't think they're gonna come over here any time soon." Edel was tying the good end of the rope to the wheel this time, before throwing it over the edge.
"Stop this instant!" The voice of the high-ranked man echoed up from inside the tower. Damn he was a fast climber. Dustan looked through the roof. He could see glimpses of red through the holes. The circles filled up with it more and more by the instant.
"Quickly!" said Edel. He was speaking to Dustan. Apparently, Edel thought he'd be the last to go this time.
"You should go first," Dustan suggested, but Edel shook his head and pushed Dustan toward the edge. It was only a little bit effective, his thin, sweaty, boney hands nudging him in the chest. "This was my idea. This is all my fault. If anyone gets caught, it's going to be me."
Dustan shrugged—he wasn't about to argue that with him. This plan had seemed faulty from the get-go, yet Edel had been so sure of it. Then again, perhaps they should have waited for a time when the head of the Terthian Forces wasn't snooping around the camp.
Glancing over the side, Dustan could see Faern getting smaller and smaller, easing himself down the rope like it was nothing. Placing a foot on the raised edge of the tower, Dustan crouched to grasp the sheets by a knot, then let himself over. His hands, sweaty from the climbing before and burning from the blistering and chafing, refused to grip. He slid down several knots before gripping the sheets again. Glancing up, he could no longer see the roof, or Edel. "Hurry!" It was his turn to cast this warning, before beginning to lower himself down the rope as carefully and quickly as he could. On the knots his hands touched, he left blood behind—the blisters on his palms had broken open. He could feel the fibers of the rope burning against the rawness of his hands. He was halfway down before he looked up and noticed Edel. He was climbing down the rope above him.
The general appeared over the edge, and pointed his gun downward. "Halt or I shoot!"
Edel turned his face upward, and the General paused, his gun extended, but did not shoot. Dustan couldn't see the expression on their pursuer's face. He became a silhouette of blackness against the foggy, backlit sky.
"Don't stop!" Faern called. Dustan hadn't realized that he'd frozen as well. He continued to hurriedly climb downward, distracted by what was happening—or wasn't happening—above him. Then, Edel began to continue to descend, the gun still pointed at him. The form of the General disappeared away from the edge. "What the hell was that?"
"Don't know," Dustan breathed. He looked down and saw that he was only about a body's length from the ground, and so let go, landing in a crouch on the ground, which felt fantastically firm. Edel was rapidly descending. Dustan figured it could have been the fact that Edel was lighter, but he also seemed to lack upper body strength. Or at least, he should have. However, when he paused to look down at them, his mess of chocolate-colored hair fell into his face, and he was momentarily blinded. Halfway from the bottom, he reached for the rope, and missed. It slid away from him, and he began to fall.
"Oh shit! Oh fuck!" said Faern, rushing forward a few steps, then pausing, knowing that catching him might just injure himself, and not help Edel.
But Dustan couldn't keep himself from running, putting himself beneath the smaller man and holding his arms out. Edel fell onto him back-first, the majority of the weight smacking onto his upper chest, causing him to fall onto his back, the wind being pushed out of him from both sides.
Edel sat up immediately, apparently totally uninjured. "Oh my god! Are you okay? I'm so sorry!" he spoke rapidly.
"Can't breathe…" Dustan protested, and Edel looked panicked smacking his hands on either side of Dustan's cheeks. "Get off."
"Oh!" Edel gasped and jumped up, climbing off Dustan and stumbling like a foal learning the use of its legs.
Dustan rolled to his feet, his head simultaneously rushing and numbing as pain shot through him. "Fuck," he hissed.
"Are you hurt?" Edel stared at him, his olive eyes wide and imploring. They looked more yellow than they had before, somehow. And he looked so much paler, the warmth leaving his skin. This panic hadn't served his health well.
"I'm fine. Let's just go."
Apparently, the General had alerted the two gear operators that prisoners had escaped, for the wheels were moving. They could hear the clatter of horse hooves on the stone within the gate. Faern had taken it upon himself to help Edel—who he assumed was weakend from the fall—to the forest, an arm slung around his back, dragging him along like a doll. Dustan followed hastily, his feet pounding the grass, the clammy fog dizzying him as it iced his face, the inside of his head feeling searing hot from the pain that was shooting through him every time he moved his arms even a little bit, made worse with each footstep. He picked up the pace, sprinting to reach the line of trees as the gate finished rising. Just within the shroud of knotted trunks and underbrush, he tripped over a root, and fell into a shrub. Faern and Edel were sitting beside him. Faern placed a hand on his head to keep him down. Consequently, it also kept his nose pushed into a layer of sopping wet leaves.
He couldn't see what was happening. He could hear voices and horses. They began to draw closer—surely they weren't hidden enough to keep themselves from being seen. Yet they grew distant again as soon as the path turned away. In disbelief, Dustan listened as the voices faded, disappearing long before the rumble of the horses' paces. Pretty soon, it was silent.
It was the silence that made Dustan realize how loudly he was breathing.
In a fit of fearlessness, Faern whooped loudly, jumping to his feet and punching at the air, cackling, his feet sweeping the twigs and leaves as he danced through them. "Fuck you all, ya gray goblins!"
Dustan felt a laugh roll through him, and he let it escape, though winced at the pain it caused him for his shoulders to shift or his chest to rise and fall. Hell, even just laying there breathing hurt. He rolled over, hissing in distinct agony. Edel remained seated beside him, not laughing and staring at him worriedly.
"We need to move a little further from the camp… but as soon as possible, you need to let me look at that."
Dustan nodded, deftly agreeing. They stayed there for about ten or fifteen minutes, then made their way deeper into the woods. The trees were spaced out to the point that travel wasn't so difficult, even without a path. The underbrush was abundant, but wet enough that it bent easily around them. Dustan was glad the camp had given him a pair of boots (it was dangerous to have prisoners working the forge without them), but he missed his own.
They came to a small clearing. Faern kicked the leaves around in a few places, to "check for booby traps" under the leaves, exposing the muddy, suffocated grass beneath. Once he was done and cleared the area as "safe enough—for now" the three of them sat down together, Dustan moving to lay in the leaves. They stayed quiet for a long time.
"So where are you hurt?" Edel asked quietly. Faern was laying with his eyes closed near the edge of the clearing, propped between some outcropping roots. He was snoring a little, though Dustan wasn't totally sure if he was actually asleep or not.
"I'm not totally sure..." Dustan admitted honestly, "I just know it, well, when you landed on me…"
"I'm so sorry about that," Edel said, and unlaced the top of Dustan's tunic. Dustan watched his bunkmate's face as he grimaced in reaction. "It looks like you broke this bone here." He moved to touch the broken one on Dustan, but thought better of it, and instead tapped his own corresponding bone—his right clavicle. Though Edel's was undoubtedly much frailer-looking than his own, jutting out, thin and delicate.
Yet his own had broken. Fantastic.
"Not much we can do about that. It's fine. Don't sweat it." Yet with a pain like this, he could barely imagine making it to another town, let alone all the way back to Gladyn. His eyes slid closed.
He felt Edel's hand on his chest, the weight of it adding pain to him. His breath hitched, and he coughed a little, even more pain wracking his body. But the clammy little hand was growing strangely warm, and he could feel that warmth spreading through his chest, tingling in his bones. It made him drowsy. Maybe he was dreaming it. Or perhaps he was dying. Once again, Dustan let unconsciousness close its hands around his mind.