even in his rags

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"Who asks?"

"A friend," said Duncan, going over to the door. Peering in showed that the room was as full as the others. Impossible to discern who had spoken.

"Friends are few in this place," said one of the men, standing.

"Are you Salomao?"

"I am he." The general was a big man and proud, even in his rags. Duncan recognised his resolute chin from the glimpse he had got in Kain Aelas. "Is it time?"

"I would like to try and free you," said Duncan. "I support the Samiochi resistance."

Salomao squinted against the glare of the torch. "Are you Shayn?" he said. His People was heavily accented. 

"Halfblood," Duncan replied.

"Ah," said Salomao. "How do you think to free us?"

"With stealth," said Duncan. "And only you. I'm sorry."

The General held his gaze steadily. "I thank you, friend, but I will stay here with my folk."

One of the others in the cell grabbed Salomao and said something in Samiochi. There followed a heated argument that Duncan did not understand. Someone called a contribution from the cell across the way. 

"Please be quiet," said Duncan, glancing worriedly back towards the main door.

Salomao held up his hand. "What is your name?" he said.

"Duncan."

"Hm," said Salomao. "Duncan, you have the keys to all these cells?"

"I do," said Duncan.

"Then you will release us all, and we will take our chances with these High Rock men."

"I--"

"We will wait in silence until you are free of the place," he said, "but there is one that I wish you would take with you. A boy, who has become the..." Salomao frowned. "I don't know how you say it. He has become the lover of one of the guards. This is not his wish."

"I understand you well enough," said Duncan. Oh, he would kill Ayal again in a heartbeat, and Maran, and all the others of their vile ilk. "All right. There is another I must find in this place, then I will come back and release you."

"Thank you, my friend," said Salomao.

Duncan nodded. He hesitated with his hand on the door back to the chamber, listening. He could hear nothing. Had the guards heard his conversation with Salomao?

He unlocked the door and pulled it open, placing himself behind its wooden bulk. Silence greeted him on the other side. When he peered around the door, the guards were all still at the table, oblivious. He locked the door behind him.

"What did it sound like when the Samiochi cursed you?" he said.

The guard looked up. "A lot of hacking and spitting."

"Then Prophets help us," said Duncan, finding a wry smile, "because I think she did the same to me."

"In sooth, don't all Samiochi utterances sound like that?" said Maran, frowning at his cards.

The others sniggered. After a moment, Duncan joined in. "True enough." He went to the next door. The lock here was newer, and the door opened to reveal a staircase, leading deeper into the rock. Duncan locked the door behind him and took a torch from the sconce. 

The stone stairs spiralled downwards to another narrow gallery. Here, the doors were closely packed and showed single-prisoner cells, scarce-lit by the intermittent torches, some of which had guttered since a guard last visited. Duncan re-lit them as he walked and peered into the cells.

"State your name," he said, going past each. In some, the pitiful occupant crawled forward to the door, babbling his name and begging for release. In others, there was a sullen growl. In most, silence. These were all People, as near as he could tell, although their general state of filth made it difficult to tell. Sometimes he trod on wood rather than stone. At the end of the gallery was another winding staircase, and another row of cells.

He went to one door and said, "State your name." A middle-aged man with relatively clean aspect came to the grate. His eyes still held sentience. 

"You'll be looking for the spider they brought down here a sennight ago, I reckon," he said.

"I am. Which way is he?" 

The prisoner sized him up, then with a tired sigh, said, "Further along. Not too far, I don't think."

"My thanks," said Duncan.

The prisoner turned and ambled back to his stone pallet. Duncan hesitated a moment, his fingers loosening and tightening around the keyring. 

"Don't bother," said the prisoner. "Be on your way."

"Thank you," said Duncan again.

He kept walking, studying each prisoner closely, and reached the end of the row without finding Fearghill. Another staircase led no doubt to another gallery, but the prisoner had said he thought Fearghill was near. He might have been wrong, or...

Duncan took four steps backward and his foot landed on wood again. He crouched down to the trap door and brought the torch low to find the keyhole. There was no grate on the trap door: no way to know what waited underneath. 

It took him some time to find the right key. He had stepped on other doors in the floor; opening all of them would take sometime. Finally, he found a key that rasped into the lock and turned with a groan. The lock sprung open, and Duncan lifted it away and opened the trap door.

"Who's down there?" he said. 

Silence was the response. The oubliette was empty.

Fighting back disappointment, Duncan leaned closer and brought the torch down into the gap. The oubliette was deep enough that the light scarcely illuminated the floor. 

Nothing.

Then, a movement. A blond man stepped into the circle of light thrown by the torch. His face was puffy with bruising, and his clothes, skin and hair were filthy with dirt and blood. His amber eyes stared up at Duncan, challenging.

"Lord Fearghill," said Duncan, leaning into the oubliette. "I am here to rescue you. Your sister and Clara sent me."


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