“Water,” Kine said. “Please… I need water.” It felt like his insides were on fire.
People were moving around him. He could hear them but was too weak to open his eyes, and just waited for the inevitable dribble of a few drops of water onto his lips. That was the way the Wolf Clan functioned: there was only a certain amount of the precious liquid to go around, but no one would ever deny a person dying of thirst some drops—enough to tide them over until the water-bearers returned from the spring with a fresh load.
An icy shock washed over him and he sat up suddenly to the sound of laughter. It took him a moment to realize what had happened: someone had dumped a bucket of water on him.
He froze for a moment, incapable of comprehending that anyone in the Wolf Clan could possibly have wasted an entire morning’s wait beside the rivulet for the sake of a laugh. And who would laugh at something like that? Spilled water was the most serious business imaginable.
Then he remembered. He wasn’t in Wolf Clan territory. He was among the barbarian animals of the Sol demesne. Nothing should surprise him from them. Hadn’t he learned his lesson from the fact that they’d abducted a defenseless Wolf girl?
The thought of Vianna and her plight brought him fully awake. Kine tried to speak out, tried to ask how much time had passed, but his throat wouldn’t respond. He opened his eyes and saw that drops of water still glistened on his chest and arms. He greedily sucked them down, wetting his hands in them and sucking his fingers.
Most of the water had fallen on the floor. In his desperation, he moved to lap it up.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The woman’s voice was deep and the words were delivered in a strange lilt, nearly singsong, but he could understand them. “If you knew what that floor was covered in, you’d die of thirst before risking it.”
He paused. The water was right there, just below his face. Fresh. Cool.
The smell hit him then, and he pulled away violently. The woman laughed. “If you’re that thirsty, why don’t you just use the faucet?”
More laughter. He turned towards the sound. The brown wall beside him, illuminated by a near-dead torch, had a large circular window in it, crisscrossed with bars. The far side was dark, but he could see the silhouette of a cloaked figure. He assumed that must be the person speaking to him, as all the Sol women he’d seen wore cloaks.
“Over there.” The shape of an arm pointed to Kine’s right. A metal tube emerged from the wall at about knee-height. He recognized it immediately; the Wolf levels were full of them. They might once have had a purpose but were now as useless as all the other mysterious pieces of the Redoubt that they’d inherited from long-dead ancestors.
“That isn’t funny. I’m dying of thirst.”
“Then use the faucet. Don’t drink off the floor.”
Kine realized that he was in some kind of cage, like the ones Amania used to keep her captive birds and rodents, but built on a human scale. Clearly he’d been picked up and confined by the Sol authorities while they discussed what to do with the Wolf intruder in their midst. The woman must have been sent there to taunt him with her talk of faucets while Kine awaited execution. She might as well have told him that the hole in the middle of the floor from which the ungodly stench emanated was a fountain of pure meltwater.
He walked up to the tube and kicked at it in frustration.
Water fell out, spilling onto the floor. A few drops only, but he wrapped his lips around it and sucked the remaining liquid out.
“It’s easier if you turn the knob,” the woman said.
What he’d drunk made him desperate for more, so he did as she asked. A torrent ensued and Kine drank as much as he could, gulping down one mouthful after another until he felt like he would explode, then attempted to catch the rest in his cupped hands, desperately trying to keep any drops from falling onto the floor.
“What in the name of Kasret are you doing?” the woman asked. He saw her come closer to the bars that divided them. “Are you insane?”
“The water,” he said helplessly. “We need to save it. Hold it for the dry season.”
“If you want to save it, just turn the tap off.”
“But then it won’t come any more.”
“You can always turn it back on.” The woman watched him in silence. He felt that he was being weighed and measured, that more than just water hinged on what she concluded. “Please tell me you aren’t insane.”
“Of course not.”
“Good. Then we’ll be all right as soon as you sober up.”
“Yes. You’re obviously drunk. Saying stupid things about faucets, dying of thirst and walking around without your shirt. It’s pretty clear. You’ll be fine in a few hours, and the guards will send you home tomorrow, once you express the right kind of remorse. They might beat you up a bit first, but that’s all part of the fun.”
“I’m not drunk!”
“Then we might have a problem.”
“Because if you’re not drunk, you’re crazy. And if you’re crazy, I won’t be able to trust you.”
“And why is that a problem?” Kine said.
“Because if I can’t trust you, then I have to kill you.”
“Kill me? I think I’m strong enough to keep a woman from killing me.”
The low laughter reached him again. “Perhaps. But maybe you’ll change your tune once you realize who you’ve been speaking to.” The figure in the shadows moved closer to the bars and, illuminated by the dim light from the torch in Kine’s cell, pulled her cloak away from her face.
Kine was stunned, and his face must have shown it. The woman smirked.
“So, do you still think you could keep me from killing you?” she asked.
“Of course. With one hand behind my back.” He smiled back at her. “But I’d be gentle with you. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
It was true. All of the Wolf women were beautiful in his eyes, even though there were so few of them, and some had features just as fine as the woman in front of him, but none had the fire-colored hair and deep green eyes. And certainly, none were as tall as this girl. She was even taller than he was, probably as tall as Lunk.
The smirk had disappeared from her features, replaced by an ice-cold expression of fury. “Tell me your name, boy. That way, I’ll know whose blood it is that I’m wiping off of my hands.”
He pulled himself up to his full height and gave her another smile. His bets, the one the girls at home seemed to find most beguiling. “I am Kine of the Wolf Clan.”
“What kind of name is… Wolf Clan?”
He looked at her defiantly. “Yes.”
“That’s stupid. The Wolf Clan have been dead for generations. You can’t lie to me. I was the one who authorized pulling the guards away from the wall. And that was three years ago—it was my first official act. So tell me your real name. I like to know who I kill.”
Despite his weakened condition, Kine felt the blood rush to his head. “I don’t lie. Never. I know it’s death to be discovered among the cowardly Sol marauders, and still I tell you my true name… only to be accused of being a liar? What could I get from telling a lie, other than a slow death?”
The woman sighed. “All right. You’re clearly insane. Killing you will be an act of mercy, even if I don’t know your name. The gods will understand that I tried to give you the proper honors.”
He backed away and took a closer look at the woman. Apart from the fact that it was darker on her side, she seemed to be contained in a cell identical to his own. Perhaps a little smaller. “I don’t think you’ll be killing anyone. You’re a prisoner, just like I am. And unless you Sols are much stronger than anyone I’ve ever seen, the bars should be able to hold you back.”
The woman just stared at him, a pensive look in her eyes.
Kine studied her robes. They were torn and grimy. “You yourself said that they’ll let me out when I start acting sober. Are you going to be out by then? By the looks of it, you’ve been there a while… How long is your sentence?”
“I’m not serving a sentence.” The voice was as cold as the mountain snow.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting for them to carry out my punishment.”
“And what punishment is that?”
“Oh.” Kine suddenly felt all the emotion that the woman didn’t deign to show. What kind of heartless monster could kill a woman as utterly perfect as this one? “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I knew the punishment for what I was doing.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Because I wasn’t expecting to get caught, that’s why.” Frustration, the first emotion she’d displayed, shone through.
“Well, I’m still sorry. I apologize for being rude to you. I didn’t know.”
Instead of answering, she cocked her head to one side and studied him again. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
“No. I’m sorry. I told you. I just came here from the land of the Wolf Clan.”
She studied him for another few moments. “We’ll talk about that later.”
“Would you tell me your name?”
“My name is Celeste.”
“It’s a beautiful name.”
“Most people curse it. Even the ones who support me.”
“I like it. I’ll remember it after…”
Celeste smirked. “After what?”
Kine nodded and the woman laughed. “Then you should plan on living a very long time because I don’t have the least intention of dying just yet.”
“But the bars…”
The woman was suddenly a blur of motion. She spun around and one of her feet hit a bar in the center of the circular opening between their cells.
“Are old and rusted.” She climbed through the opening between the cells, dusted herself off and stood beside him. She was at least a head taller than he was, with broad shoulders that didn’t quite disguise the feminine contours beneath her cloak. “Now, are you going to try to overpower me? I’ll even let you use both hands.”
“No,” he replied. The woman was even more breathtaking from up close. “I wouldn’t dream of laying a finger on you. Kill me if you want.”
She turned away, muttering under her breath. “I’ll let you live, but if you even think of calling the guards, I’ll break your neck.”
“Aren’t they coming anyway? They had to have heard that noise.”
“No. At this hour, they eat. They can’t hear us from all the way over there.”
“And are the bars in this cell old and rusty as well? Is that how we’re going to get out?”
She gave him a level look. “Yes.”
Celeste walked to the bars that led into a passageway and began to run her fingers over the bottommost. After some study and a lot of soft cursing, she found what she was looking for and, with a sharp tug, tore one of the bars out of the lattice. She squeezed herself through the opening and stood up.
“Well, are you coming or aren’t you?” she said.
He followed her, wondering about the ease with which she’d engineered the escape. Was she truly strong enough to pull bars out a cages meant to hold people inside?
The section he could see of the discarded piece of metal—the circular segment that had given way—sparkled. It wasn’t corroded in the least.
And that meant that either his companion truly had superhuman strength… or that someone had sawed away the metal beforehand.
Kine said nothing as he followed the woman down the ill-lit corridor.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with over four hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and a Full Member of SFWA. He has published six science fiction novels including one trilogy, four monster books, a dark military fantasy and a thriller. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).