CHAPTER 8- At the end of the tunnel
Time passed slowly as the group made their way through the twists and turns of the tunnel.
Arlyne followed the gentle glow of the torch, held by Greyden at the front of the implicitly formed line. Greyden had automatically taken the lead, with his gruff friend- Ymaine- at his side. The two clearly had a history, a close friendship. It was… interesting.
This whole escapade in fact, had been quite the noteworthy experience. Just as she felt she could no longer hold out for a third option, there they were –their expressions dripping with delicious uncertainty, their words promising adventure. So far, they hadn’t disappointed, and leading them the entire way had been Greyden, the ex-guard captain.
Arlyne had examined him at length on their first meeting. He simultaneously appeared tired and worn down, like a man who was on the verge of giving up, but yet somehow constantly on the brink of agitation. But the moment they were threatened he sprang into action, taking the lead like he was born into it. Clearly he was once a man in a commanding position. The change in situation had changed the man’s entire stance. Initially, when they had met he was slouched and sluggish, like every word spoken was an effort and each step was pained. The second that trouble was upon them however, the man underwent an impressive transformation. His shoulders rolled back and his stance straightened, adding an extra foot or so to his height. His eyes were suddenly clear of their haze, and his movements became sharp. More than that though- his voice- it suddenly became clear and commanding. It lost the strain hidden deep within its tone, and spoke out with a ring which made Arlyne feel compelled to heed his every word.
Once they had started their decent through the tunnels however, Arlyne noted that Greyden’s posture had gradually shrunk back down to a slouch, and his voice once again became tight and restricted as he spoke to Ymaine. It was as if the man was aging before her very eyes. Curiosity ate away at Arlyne as she surveyed him, though she suspected that -whatever it was that ailed the man- she would not be privy to his past. The man seemed far too reserved. He would probably shrug off the question, or provide a noncommittal response. Not that Arlyne was ever one for directly asking such questions. No… There would be a far easier way to learn such details… an easier nut to crack… more specifically, a nut by the name of Ymaine –Greyden’s shadow.
He was the oldest of the group- evident by his greying hair and worn face, and stuck by Greyden like the ex-captain was his lifeline. He seemed like an openly emotional man with an uncontrolled tongue unaided by his wild thought process. He would have a far looser tongue than the others. Though her interactions with him had been next to none, Arlyne thought herself quite fond of him. In a way he reminded her of a bear; grizzled and abrasive on the outside, but inwardly caring and good intentioned. It was almost motherly, though Arlyne would never dare say that to his face. That much was at least evident by his interactions with Greyden. Anyone could blatantly see he was greatly concerned for his friend. Perhaps she could goad him into sharing the reason for his concern?
Steven walked beside her, his body protectively close to hers.
Arlyne was no fool. She knew the man’s intentions. He was ‘sweet’ on her- for lack of a better phrase. He had been since they had first met, and did nothing to hide it. Saying that though, he did nothing to hide his affections with the other women Arlyne had seen him with, clearly presenting a major weakness for the entire world to see. He was a –what did they call it- a hopeless romantic.
Women- that was the broker’s big weakness, and he was a fool not to recognise it. Or perhaps he thought he could control his fear? Acknowledge it, but not let it take hold? From Arlyne’s perspective it didn’t seem likely. She had watched him stumbling over himself, making mistakes left and right, leaving his vulnerabilities wide open. Still, rather than be frustrated by the man’s weak obliviousness, Arlyne found it a more endearing trait. It made him interesting, and to her, loyal. It made him a good ally, and even better company.
Not that she had ever given in to his inadvertent propositions. Many times the moment had been there, but she’d been careful enough to let it sail past. Though she found him pleasant enough, it was unwise to grow too attached to another, particularly seeing the situation she had been in, the eyes that were watching. Such a thing would have ended badly, badly for her, worse for him.
Arlyne had no doubt that he had been burned by this weakness plenty of times in the past, but it still didn’t appear to stop him. He was a predictably irrational man when it came to matters of the heart - Damn fool.
Despite all this, Arlyne found his immediate closeness stifling, and wished he would give her a little more breathing room.
Bringing up the rear alone walked Desmond, his aura dark and sulky.
Arlyne had been watching him intently during their makeshift escape, and he proved just as interesting as she’d hoped. He radiated a stand-offish vibe, and took a sulky passive aggressive stance, which shifted to just plain irritably aggressive when he was spoken to. He clearly had little in the way of people skills, as was shown by his short answers and either angry or jeering outbursts. He was a man haunted by perpetual anger- but why? What past nightmares had befallen him? What horrors hid inside the man’s mind?
The question sent tingles of curiosity through Arlyne’s body, and she felt urged to question the man- to toy endlessly with his brusque personality.
There was another instance which she felt compelled to confront him about.
It had been him who she had spied in the Bertha Barhl inn on the night of her performance –the one who had resisted her song. How he had done so, she still wasn’t sure, though her mind had wandered to it almost consistently since the event had occurred. She had a few hypotheses -some seeming more likely than others- but there was one in particular that niggled at the back of her mind. It was a long shot, but each time she thought it over the more she couldn’t let the idea be. There were no holes in it; it was a solid idea, with no inconsistencies. And if it were true… That was at least something she could hold over him… Something she could use to combat the information he now held over her.
It was doubtless that he recognised her from the performance. It had been evident from the moment their eyes met. His bright green iris’s had grown wide as he surveyed her, it was only a slight reaction, but it was enough. He knew about her, or at least enough to raise some serious suspicions.
If the others found out about her abilities… If anyone found out…
That was something she couldn’t let happen. Luckily for her, Desmond had kept reasonably quiet, and Arlyne suspected that he would keep his silence. From what she had gathered he had been simply paid to guide Greyden and Ymaine to Capita, and held no relationship with either whatsoever. He clearly held no strong allegiance to them. Plus, he appeared good at minding his own business and keeping to himself. It was a trait in direct contrast to Arlyne’s own curious nature, but it was a trait she respected. It also presented her with an engaging challenge.
She was confident that if she left him alone, he would leave her alone, but that path seemed far less entertaining.
The conclusion; it was better to blackmail him, just to be safe. Though, that was only an option if her suspicions were correct.
Arlyne allowed herself a sigh.
The desolate trudge through the tunnels so far had been spent in relative silence, with the exception of Greyden and Ymaine, who spoke in hushed voices. Arlyne had attempted to eavesdrop, but soon grew bored. It was mostly Ymaine who spoke, and the content consisted of nothing but grumbling complaints.
As the group descended further into the passage the atmosphere began to grow dense, and the air thick with moisture. The group’s pace began to slow under the harsher conditions. Ymaine in particular appeared to be wheezing deeply, struggling in his heavy armour.
‘You should have swapped out to the lighter leathers,’ was the response Greyden offered at the hulking man’s complaints.
Ymiane continued to grumble into his beard, earning him a faint laugh from his ex-captain. The exchange made Arlyne smile too, though the motion proved a little painful. She wouldn’t admit it, but the trek through the tunnels was beginning to become a struggle for Arlyne also. Her limbs were still greatly pained from her imprisonment, and the battering she had received earlier still left her rather stiff.
Rationally, she should have been grateful that the Shadow Cat had relieved her of her equipment upon imprisonment. Surely carrying it now would have been impossible in her condition. Still, the thought of leaving her lute and pipe caused her to feel unsettled, not to mention her father’s dagger…
Arlyne had long taught herself not to be held down by material possessions, particularly if it was a matter of survival. She had made that mistake once when she was younger, and boy had she paid for it. Her hand made an absent-minded motion towards her stomach, the tears in her clothing revealing the end of a long and angry looking scar. However, despite having learned her lesson, the pull she felt to return, to reclaim her items… It was a powerful tug, though she knew it was completely irrational. In her line of work sentimentalities were stupid.
Besides, on her return to Capita she could commission a new lute. It had been a long time since she had seen the luthier there, but he owed her a favour or two. Plus he had once been a trusted friend; hopefully he would also have the sense to keep quiet about her arrival. It had been a long time since she had been in Capita, but it was foolish to think that the city had forgotten her. If she did venture into its walls she would have to remain ever vigilant.
Up ahead, Arlyne spied Greyden pause in his progression. Ymiane followed suit, and the two turned to the group. Greyden’s face appeared worn and haggard in the flickering torchlight, indicating that his transformation back to his despondent self, had reached its full measure. Arlyne secretly hoped that the ‘other’ Greyden would be back by the time they exited the tunnel. Considering what could possibly be lying in wait on the other side, they’d sure need him.
‘The first tunnel to the left?’
Greyden’s eyes met Arlyne’s, searching for confirmation. She offered a nod in response. Then added an additional- ‘from here on we should start heading back upwards.’
Arlyne swore she heard a sigh of relief from Ymaine, while Greyden simply offered her an empty smile. His expression suggested that he wanted to question her further, but he refrained. He then turned back around, and moved to branch off into the new found tunnel, his pace set a little faster.
Arlyne took a step, and felt her leg give out. Quickly, she braced herself with her other leg, shifting her weight. This wouldn’t do, her muscles were strained and bruised; the uphill ascent would prove difficult.
‘Arlyne?’ Steven was standing over her, his eyes wide with concern. ‘Should I carry you?’
Irritation surged within her; the suggestion was an insult. She was not some pup who could not carry her own weight. Arlyne quickly calmed herself. The man was only trying to help. The suggestion was not overly unreasonable. If she started to slow them down perhaps it would be an appropriate alternative. Still, that was certainly an idea for the back burner.
‘By all means, if you want both her legs to seize up entirely,’ a voice growled from behind, ‘that’s what will happen if she doesn’t walk it off.’
Arlyne saw Steven’s face darken at Desmond’s snide remark, not that the Survivalist took notice. He pushed past them, a glower etched upon his face, only partially visible in the firelight.
Arlyne felt her lips twist into a smile, while Steven still appeared dark, and a little taken aback. She steadied her stance, as she once again evened out her balance.
The survivalist was right, as much as she ached, she needed to keep moving. Her blood needed to keep flowing.
‘Let’s keep moving,’ she said to Steven, not looking at him, ‘we don’t want to slow our new friends down.’
Arlyne then hurried off through the new arching tunnel, leaving Steven to stew in a dark bewilderment.