Pain of Betrayal: Chapter One
*Warning* This selection contains spoilers from the first book in the trilogy.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Yulda grumbled. "I was trying to get away from this place!"
Aiya could barely make out the girl’s outline in the darkness. With her hood pulled low over her ruined hair and a scarf wrapped around her neck and chin, Yulda’s fair skin was well hidden. She was almost indistinguishable from the bulky shape of the woodpile where they crouched, hidden out of view of the open courtyard of Lord Bolen’s estate. Once the home of a disagreeable nobleman with criminal connections, it now housed enemy soldiers who had overrun the city of Endvar.
A gentle rain fell around them, and the Ardanians moving in the direction of the grand house hurried to get out of the damp as quickly as possible, their wet boots slapping against stone.
A few of the men were small and dark—Khouri mercenaries—and Aiya tensed when they passed. It was absurd, since their fate would be the same if they were discovered by an Ardanian soldier, but she couldn’t help the instinctive response to flee. These were her countrymen, and Yulda said they had been specifically searching for Aiya. Behni knew she was in the city, and he wanted her dead.
"If I had known it would take this long, I would have picked a better position," Yulda muttered, shifting slightly.
"Be still," Aiya whispered, as a gong sounded from deep within the house. "Must you always complain so?"
Yulda sniffed indignantly but fell silent. Over the next few minutes, the traffic in the courtyard slowed, and the night grew still. Another gong sounded, and Aiya idly wondered about the nature of the meeting taking place inside. What secrets might be discussed mere yards away?
But they weren’t after secrets, not tonight. When the enemy soldiers sealed Endvar’s gates, cutting off help from the nearby garrison, Aiya had been trapped with no hope of escape. Her only companion was Dan, a soldier under Captain Strong who had been charged with taking her to safety. Until they discovered Yulda—Lord Bolen’s former scullery maid who had not only been in the tunnels underneath the estate, but had even mapped them out for Rorden. She was their only hope in finding a way out of the city.
A door slammed close by, startling Aiya. Two shapes suddenly loomed in the darkness before them. Yulda gasped, and Aiya clutched her arm, willing her to be silent. If she didn't move or speak, they shouldn't be noticed here in the shadows.
The voice that spoke was unfamiliar to Aiya, but Yulda stiffened with recognition. “You have not yet been released from your contract. It is dangerous to speak to your men of home when you are needed here."
Another voice responded, and a chill crept up Aiya’s neck. She knew that voice. It haunted her memories—memories of fire and death and holding her daughter in her arms as her blood spilled black in the night. Aiya shivered.
"You have your city as we agreed," Behni said in heavily accented Ardanian, his tone full of disdain. “There is nothing further to discuss. It is time for us to look toward home and leave you to clean up your own mess."
"Need I remind you that it was the sloppiness of your men that attracted Strong’s attention in the first place? Had you not brought soldiers down upon us, we wouldn’t have needed to act before we received confirmation from my master. You will stay and help us hold the city until we receive reinforcements. And you will hope that it will be enough and that he won't hold you personally responsible for nearly unraveling his plans."
Behni spat out a curse in Khouri before returning to Aradanian. “Don't think I will listen to your threats. You who couldn’t even manage to take the princess when she practically delivered herself into your hands. Oh yes, I know what happened out there with your bungled ambush. If you want to speak of sloppiness, then I have tales of my own to share with your master. If he ever shows his face in this city. I’m beginning to wonder if his secret army exists or if he’s as impotent as you are."
The other man stepped forward, and light from a nearby window fell across his profile. Aiya recognized Domar who had infiltrated Lord Bolen’s staff as his steward. He looked even paler than usual and moved stiffly as if nursing a wound. "He will come; make no mistake. And when he does, he will reward you if you’ve served him well. You don’t want to risk his wrath."
Behni's posture was aggressive, despite standing more than a full head shorter than Domar. "I am not a fool," he growled. “This is not what we agreed to. I will not wait here until the people of this city grow restless and revolt. My men and I leave in the morning."
He turned and started to walk back toward the door, but the other man's voice stopped him.
"Timar. Rosin," Domar said mildly. "And sweet little Fey."
Behni turned stiffly, his face now illuminated by the lit window. His expression was as hard as steel, but there was a hint of fear in his eyes.
"You may have hidden them from your wife, but my master knows their names. Their ages. And where their mother lives." Domar stepped closer, standing over the Khouri man. "Now, go into that room and explain to your men why they’ll be staying in Endvar until our troops come."
Behni knew he was caught. Aiya saw it on his face. He narrowed his eyes and spoke in a harsh whisper that Aiya couldn't hear. But Domar merely smiled a thin, cold smile, and Behni turned on his heel toward the house.
When Domar followed, Aiya let out a sigh of relief. She realized suddenly that she was still clutching Yulda's arm, and it was trembling.
"Oh, poor thing," she said soothingly, wrapping her arms around the girl and hugging her close. "You’re all right; he’s gone."
"I shouldn't be here," Yulda shuddered. "I should be far away from here."
"If you want to get away, you must come with us," Aiya said firmly. "When the army gets here, this city will be even more dangerous."
"Army? What army?"
Of course. The men hadn’t been speaking Rahmish. Yulda wouldn’t have understood a word. "That’s what those men were speaking of. There’s an army coming."
"I don’t know. That seems to be a matter of disagreement between the two. But Yulda, if any of us is going to escape, we must do it together."
A movement to the side startled her. Dan crept closer in a crouch, lifting his hood slightly to reveal his face. Aiya was struck by how pleasing his features were without a beard. She smiled a little in greeting, while Yulda sighed in exasperation.
"Did you stop for a drink along the way? What took you so long?"
Dan rolled his eyes at her. "I couldn't find them. Not even a sign that they’ve been here."
"I told you," Yulda said smugly. "There aren't any soldiers being kept here."
"But I know what I saw," Aiya protested. “They were men of Captain Strong’s Wall Guard. Jax was there; I’m sure of it! Perhaps they moved them to another place in the city."
"So, what do we do now?" Yulda asked.
Dan blew into his hands to warm them. "Let's go back to the shop. Tomorrow I'll go out into the city and see if anyone has seen or heard anything useful."
"You'll go out into the city looking like an Ardanian soldier?" Yulda scoffed. "You'll have lots of success, won't you? The people will practically flock to you to tell you all their secrets."
Aiya looked back and forth between the two of them. "None of us can go out and not be noticed. Dan looks too Ardanian without his beard, and I am clearly too foreign. Yulda might be able to manage it if she wore a scarf and hood—"
"—and kept her tongue under control," Dan interrupted.
Yulda scowled, and Aiya tried not to smile.
"I'm not sure it matters, though," Aiya continued. She recounted to Dan the conversation she’d heard between Behni and Domar. "If there are more troops coming to the city, this may be our only chance to escape. It would be foolish to delay."
Dan considered this. "If there are more troops coming, this may be our only chance to reclaim the city. Just think of it, Aiya. If we can free Jax and the others, we could mount an assault on one of the gates. We'd just need to seize control long enough for the garrison to enter."
"And somehow get a message to the garrison," Aiya pointed out. "How will we do that without someone on the outside of the city? We still need to find a way out. Besides, those men were not whole enough to mount an assault. Many of them couldn't even stand without help."
Dan tugged his hood forward again, and his face was lost in shadow. Aiya recognized his need for a quiet moment to think.
Yulda did not.
"I'm half soaked in this rain," she complained. “Can we please make a decision and get inside?"
"Just how old are you, child?" Aiya asked her. “Fifteen? Sixteen?"
Yulda's head snapped up. "I'll be eighteen next spring!"
"Ah, a proper woman then. I was married at your age with a child on the way. That is certainly old enough to have learned how to keep unpleasantness to yourself, don't you think?"
Yulda glared in return and fell silent.
"We need you, Yulda," Aiya continued. “You’ve been in the tunnels. If there is any chance of finding a way out, it will be because of you. But you also need us. We can help each other, but you have to stop treating us like we're the enemy. Do you think you can try?"
Yulda shot her a hostile glance, but after a moment, she nodded.
Dan rose up to a crouch. "All right, Yulda. Let's see if we can get into these tunnels without running into any of your friends."
* * *
Revisit the rich world of the Wallkeeper trilogy today!