No one stirred at my proclamation. Who could possibly be sleeping in the middle of the night? I gestured to Quill and he picked a cell and unlocked it. The scrape of metal elicited some shifting among the men stretched out on the stone floor. Quill held the barred door open and I stepped inside, pausing while he closed and locked it behind me, then approaching one of the sleeping forms. I prodded the man with my foot. His uniform was dirty, but when he rolled over I saw the rumpled black dragon of the Nether Queen.
He blinked in the lamp light. “Is it time?” he asked, wearily.
“Yes,” I replied.
Confusion filled his face. “You’re a woman.”
“How keen you are,” I said drily.
“No, I am not your hangman. I have come to offer you your lives.”
He rubbed his hand across his face. “What?”
“Wake up the others, I’m only going to explain once.”
He looked bewildered, but thwacked the man nearest him, who grunted in protest. “Someone’s here,” said the first, turning to kick another. “Hey, someone’s here.” Slowly, the prison filled with the sounds of sleepers groaning and cursing to wakefulness. I waited, breathing and willing peace and authority into my body. It had been my idea, but I still didn’t want to be here. We gathered more attention than just the four cells full of Gillenwater’s disgraced men, but that was alright. As long as no one saw Quill’s face we’d be fine. When I judged that most of the doomed detachment was awake, I asked, “Where is your officer?”
“I am their captain,” a man in the back of my cell struggled stiffly to his feet and I turned to him. He was chained to the wall, unlike the others, and his face was bruised and bloodied. All the men in the cells were suffering from prison-hair and a couple weeks without shaving…or bathing, for that matter. I imagined this man was probably in his thirties and not horrible to look at when he was clean and his face wasn’t mottled purple.
“You will all be killed in the morning by order of Narya Magnific.”
“We know that.”
“I’m not overly fond of any of you, given your treatment of my family,” I let venom fill the words easily enough, “But while the Nether Queen wants to stop the rumors of the Galhirim, I don’t.” I tossed back my hood and shook my curls free, letting the light from Quill’s lantern illuminate the likeness they all knew so well from weeks on the road with my sister. I turned to make sure that all four cells got a good look.
The men stared at me with wide eyes.
“You!” said one of the men in the next cell.
It was the man who’d tackled me in the woods by the Cymerie. I looked directly at him, my eyes cold, and tilted my head to one side, “Didn’t I tell you I was your last prisoner?”
Raising my voice, I continued, “I want the rumors of the Galhirim to grow,” I drifted my gaze around the cells, lingering on any man who met my eye. “So, I give you a choice: Swear fealty to the Galhirim, and I will do everything in my power to get you out of Dalyn safely.” I paused. “Or, you can stay here and die.”
Silence swallowed long seconds before one man protested, “Fealty? What about Gillenwater?”
I bit back a snort. Barely. “Right now, you serve your oppressor, not your city. I would see all the cities freed. But if you want an assurance; when the Nether Queen is defeated, your debt to me is paid and you may return your troth to your city.”
The captain crossed his arms. “What’s to stop us from overpowering you here and trading you for our lives?”
That had been Namal’s objection, too. I shrugged one shoulder, hopefully emoting complete unconcern, “Then my guard will kill each of you like fish in a barrel.”
All eyes shifted to the hooded and silent figure at my back.
“How will you get us out?” asked the first protestor.
“They know who we are,” said another, “we can’t go home.”
“We’d never get out of here alive,” scoffed a third.
“You’re right. You can’t go home. With the Nether Queen in power you will never go home. Come fight with me and there is a chance you someday might.” I leveled my gaze on the captain, “What say you?”
Their captain regarded me for a moment before saying, “A chance is better than nothing.”
Tension released in my chest. “Swear fealty to me.”
He hesitated. Then, collecting himself, he met my eye, “In sight of Eloi, I swear my loyalty to the Galhirim.”
Stepping back to the door, I extended my hand to Quill. He handed me a key and I walked through the men—most of whom were still sitting—to the captain.
I stopped in front of him and held aloft the key. “Know that if you break this oath and betray me—even if the Nether Queen somehow spares your life—Eloi will know what you have done. And,” I added darkly, “my brothers will find you.” Then I crouched and unlocked his shackles.
As soon as he was free, he stepped away and bowed. “Princess.” Then he surveyed the men under his command. “Make your choice,” he said gruffly.
Shuffling sounds filled the prison as the men around us got to their feet. I moved to the door of the cell. Quill allowed the captain to step out, then I planted myself in the doorway. The men approached hesitantly. The man I had first awoken came first, bowed, then made the same pledge the captain had made. Then they came one after another, each making the same pledge before I would let him step out into the aisle. It was exhausting. I stared each man in the face as he pledged, holding my chin high and trying to read their souls. Some were more sincere than others. Some admired me. Others did not. They were all grim. When they stepped past me, Quill took over. I heard him behind me, his voice deeper than I remembered as he gave terse instructions to my new soldiers.
We had just finished emptying all four cells when one of the other prisoners, not one of the men from Gillenwater, piped up. “Hey! What about us?”
I felt Quill stiffen even as he gave the last soldier an order. I looked over at the speaker. He was a lanky man, utterly disheveled with a long scrappy black beard that testified to months in prison. He leaned on the bars as if he were in a tavern, not a prison. Stepping closer I asked, “Why are you in prison?”
The man smiled, “Lots of reasons.” He straightened and pointed at one of the others in his cell, “I’m a master thief. Shayn killed a guard, Haystack vandalized a statue, Moonie stole a horse or six.” He swiveled back to me, still smiling. “And that’s just my cell. There are a few others down here I haven’t had the pleasure of making acquaintance.”
I arched a brow. “Why should I release the likes of you? You had better talk fast. I don’t have a lot of time.”
His smiled faded and he stepped close to the bars again. “You’re starting a rebellion, right? I should think you’d need as many men on your side as you can get. We’re smart—well, some of us are—and able bodied. Most of us don’t expect release anytime soon—if ever. We have very little to lose by following you, and a lot to gain–potentially.”
“You must swear fealty to me,” I replied coldly. “And do not think that freedom from this cell means you can do whatever you like. If you leave this prison, your life is mine to direct. If you betray or desert me, it will be better for you to have stayed here.” I could sense the disapproval rolling off Quill and could only imagine what Namal’s reaction would be.
The scrappy man inclined his head, “A chance is better than none.”
“Very well.” I stepped forward, my eyes boring into him. “Swear.”