The Wordwitch

by Joanne Anderton
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She was silent when the knights dragged her in. Her head sagged, a waterfall of charcoal hair rippling to cover her face. Her emerald gown was torn at the bodice and skirt, and I could see skin, ivory and pink.

Sharp, metallic footsteps reverberated from the stone walls and steel doors. I repressed a wince. Instead, I smoothed my red tunic with a hand gloved in mail.

Knights were a rarity on my wing. I tended to a higher class of prisoners, those whose influential relatives did not want their punishment to involve filth and other such unpleasantness. While they were an arrogant lot they did not lean toward violence and I had never met one who required two knights to keep them under control.

“My lords.” I bowed. “Such a pretty present to bring me.”

“That will do, Therin.”

I leaned to the side and nodded to Gryme, my captain. His short body was well hidden behind the knights’ bulk, despite the brightness of his tunic and his similarly colored hair.

“Just unlock it.” He was scowling. I can’t imagine he appreciated the presence of the knights; the prison was his domain, after all. Yet, they were nobility, and he was bound to obey them.

“Sir.” I turned to the cell door, running a fond hand over the numbers engraved there. 13.

Icy blue eyes watched me from behind a visor as I worked the stubborn lock with expert hands. I met them as I pushed the door in, revealing a small straw-littered room, and resisted an urge to wink.

The knights stepped forward, but I stayed in the doorway. One raised a hand locked in armor, ready to knock me aside. A familiar tickle excited my stomach. How would I fare against knights of the realm? My greasy mail against solid steel?

But this was business, not pleasure. I held my ground and did not react.

“Lords!” Gryme’s voice stilled the knight. “All prisoners must be checked before entering this prison. My Lords.” He hurried to stand between us. I could see over his head with ease and kept my expression firm. “We don’t just throw them in into the cells and hope they will survive. You want this one to live, do you not?”

The knights hesitated. I breathed deeply of the damp air; moldy straw, mixed with salt on a breeze coming in from the barred window at my back. How I would have liked to bloody those noble faces, to crack them from their cowardly shells and face them as an equal.

But I would never dishonor my captain or fellow guards like that. Never bring shame onto the prison.

“You have read the missive.” The knight had a voice cold enough to match his gaze, but he still tossed the unconscious woman to me. “His Majesty does not want her harmed, she must…”

Tension gone, I could ignore them. I looked down into the woman’s hair. Her face was still hidden, and I wondered if it was beautiful enough to match the skin I held in my palms.

“Let’s have a look at you, little Thirteen.” I bushed hair to the side, gripped her chin and tipped her face toward me. And frowned.

“Sir.” I interrupted the knight’s droning instructions, and received a glare from Gryme. “Sir, she’s gagged.”

The knight looked up from my captain to me. “The gag must remain.”

Gryme straightened. He did not grow any taller, but seemed to become wider, bulkier. “Thirteen cannot eat or drink with the gag in her mouth. Unless we are permitted to remove it, I will not accept responsibility for her welfare.”

The knights shared a glance. “For food and water only, captain.” The second knight was worried. “And your guard must plug his ears before he goes in to feed her. Do you understand me?”

I realized he was looking at me again, and bowed as best I could with my hands buried in Thirteen’s bodice. “Of course, My Lord.” As if I would let them tell me how to run my wing.

“These are unusual precautions.” Gryme was not a subtle man, but a curious one. “Perhaps if we knew why…”

“The bitch is a Wordwitch, captain. She will ensnare you in her voice if you let her.”

“Ah. I…I understand. We will take great care, My Lords.” I marveled at Gryme’s composure.

The knights nodded, and both Gryme and I bowed again. I watched them walk down the corridor and snickered at their departing backs. A similar chuckle echoed from one of the cells as they passed, and the knight closest knocked his gauntlet against the steel door. The sound of metal upon metal stung my ears.

“Damn them.” Gryme pressed a hand against the side of his head. “Inbred dogs with fancy collars.”

“Sir?” I repressed a grin as he glanced at me. “Aren’t you even a little excited? We have our very own Wordwitch. Next it’ll be fairies, just you wait and see.”

Gryme rolled his eyes. I pulled the gag from Thirteen’s mouth. Full lips and fine cheekbones greeted me. Her eyes fluttered but remained closed. I wondered if they had drugged her.

“Who can understand the nobility and their games?” Gryme pocketed the gag. “Just do your job, Therin. And don’t mark her.”

“Sir, of course.” A composed nod before I released the reins on my smile, and Gryme looked away.

“I’m a bit worried by the smell of Eleven.” He gripped my shoulder, but kept his gaze on the stone floor. “Get her settled, then check him out. The duchess would not be happy with me if her daughter’s lover died before she had the chance to watch his execution.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Gryme nodded, and headed down the corridor. Deeper into the prison, the opposite direction from the knights.

I swung Thirteen over my shoulder and took her into the cell. Gray, shapeless clothes lay on the end of her bed, but I decided against forcing her into them just yet. I wanted her to be awake for that.

#

The boy arrived months later, in the middle a cacophonous storm. I was standing by the window in the cell he would occupy, staring out into the darkened day. Clouds, so heavy they were more black than gray, concealed the midday sun. This wing of the prison, as removed as possible from my old patrol, looked down to the courtyard. I watched them bring him in.

His body was limp and trembling as they carried him into the building. He looked no older than the lads the ladies of the court employed as pages, all gangly legs and arms. After a moment I could hear his feet scraping, leather on stone. He would not keep those boots for long.

“Therin, stop your dreaming.”

I looked away from the window, shocked I had been standing there the whole time. Ever since the day of her maiming, my mind had a tendency to wander. I was not the guard I used to be, and the prison had become a darker place. Less like home.

“Sir.” I straightened and saluted.

At the captain’s signal two other guards hauled the boy inside. They dropped him onto the straw mattress I had set up earlier. He did not move.

Without comment I crouched beside him. I knew there was no point in protesting their violence. No one cared about the luckless souls who found their way into these walls.

Trying to be as gentle as I could, I rolled the boy into his back. He was breathing steadily enough, though the bruises on his face were starting to purple. I began to unbutton his shirt, noticing the fine weave of the material that persevered beneath the grime, and Falis snickered. He was a stupid one, that guard, and brutal.

I looked up and silenced him with a scowl. He laughed at me now, for my thoughtful silences and gentle hands, but I was still large enough to dissuade him from anything more violent than laughter.

I turned my gaze to Gryme’s shoulder, the closest to his eyes I could handle. “I can take him from here, Sir.”

The captain and his guards left me to my charge.

Beneath his shirt the kid was pale, his skin too smooth to belong to a peasant child. I wondered what he was doing in this distant, dirty wing of the prison.

A large bruise darkened one side of his chest; perhaps a day or two old. I ran my fingers over his ribs, checking for breaks while he was still unconscious. His soft skin reminded me of her. I was glad the boy could not see my face. I must have looked a fool, touching him and remembering a woman’s touch instead. A fool, or something worse.

His pants were just as well tailored as his shirt, the hems embroidered with leaping deer, an extra layer of leather stitched into the inner thighs. He had been riding, then, when they arrested him.

It was odd. They did not usually send the wealthy down here. Only the lowest rungs of society, the poor, the abominable, and the outcast enjoyed my hospitality now.

There was nothing more I could do. I dressed him in the plain wool all prisoners were given, and arranged him on the straw that would be his bed. His body was light in my arms, delicate and small. He reminded me so much of the one person I was trying to forget.

I locked him in his cell, gave him one last look through the grill, and left him to sleep off his injury. It was so difficult to put those memories to bed and keep them sleeping. He had already disturbed them.

#

“You’re a lucky one, Thirteen.” I peered through the grate. She was standing by a barred window, staring out at the harbor. “You know that, don’t you?”

When she did not turn around, I unlocked the heavy door and stepped inside. Her shoulders tensed, and I looked down to the mass of crumpled green fabric on the floor. Perhaps she was remembering the last time I stood inside her cell and watched as she changed her clothes.

“There aren’t many cells with a view like that.” I closed the door loudly. She remained still, but her fingers clenched the wool on her arms.

“Come now, Thirteen. Can’t you show me that pretty face?”

She scowled at me from over her shoulder. “That is not my name.”

“We’ve had this discussion already, haven’t we?” I stepped closer to her. “What did I tell you about that?” I held out my arms, and she did not try to run as I wrapped them around her shoulders.

Thirteen was a small woman, and my embrace pressed her face against my chest. Still, she managed to stare up at me. There was no fear in her brown eyes, just anger. “You don’t frighten me, so don’t bother to threaten me.”

I tipped back my head and laughed. Holding her tightly with one arm, I pulled the glove from my hand and ran fingers over her cheek. “You’re very soft, Thirteen. Are you soft everywhere?”

Her eyes slid from mine, but did not look down as any modest woman should. Instead, they strained to look outside.

It was easy to pick her up and carry her away from the window. I dropped her on the bed, satisfied by a rush of breath from her lips, and forced her to sit. Kneeling, I held her head still with one hand.

“I think you should look at me, don’t you?” I pulled off my second glove. The skin of her neck was even finer. I moved my hand lower, brushing cloth out of the way.

Thirteen smiled.

I stilled my fingers. “Enjoying this, are you?” It made me angry. They weren’t supposed to enjoy it. I was their prison guard, and this was punishment.

“I’m just wondering whether you were ordered to treat me this way, or if it was all your idea.” She tipped her head slightly, so I gripped it harder. She winced, and my anger subsided a little.

“This is my wing. While you are here I do what I want to you.” My prison, my rules, my pets.

“Ah. Well, I’m surprised, I have to say. It just seemed like something Gregor would want done to me.”

It took me a moment to realise who she was talking about. Who was she to speak about the king that way, as though she knew him?

But it did not matter. Once they were in my hands the prisoners had no past. No connections, no family, no status. No name.

“Name-dropping won’t help you here.” I leaned into her neck. I wanted to run my tongue down its curve.

Thirteen laughed. A rich sound that filled the cell and sent my head buzzing.

“I wasn’t trying to, let me assure you! Gregor would do nothing to help me.”

Anger was rising from my gut again. I gripped her head in both hands and pulled her close to my face. Her breath was steady against my lips, warm.

“You really don’t fear me, do you?” Something new was rising with my anger. Lust, it had to be. Just having her so close…

Our lips were almost touching. I could feel her smile. “Should I?”

“I can do anything I like to you. There is no one to help you, not here. And I can make it hurt.”

“Yes, you probably can.”

“Then you are a fool, Thirteen. Most women, sensible women, would be begging for mercy by now.”

“And you like that. I can tell.” She tried to move her head, but I held it steady. Thick, heavy hair fell across my fingers. Its scent only added to the buzzing in my head. To the feeling building so low and tight. “I am not most women. And that is not my name.”

I should not have asked. In my prison, on my wing, no one had a name. But I wanted to know, needed to know. Not to ease my gathering ache, but to fuel it.

“What is your name then, if I cannot call you by your number?”

“Jianna.”

I released her head as she kissed me. Her lips were fire.

#

I heard the boy weeping from halfway down the corridor. The hallway expanded with the sound, grew darker with each sob. Somehow, crying always made the prison seem so much larger, so hollow.

At least he was alive.

I noticed Two Twenty Seven laughing as I hurried down the corridor. I opened his door and pushed the old man against the wall. “Don’t let me hear you again.” I leaned so close to him our noses were almost touching. His breath, foul and hot, struggled against my knuckles as they pressed into his throat. He nodded, and I dropped him on the floor, closing the door on his silence. No one should laugh at another’s pain.

I unlocked the boy’s door and stepped into the cell. The lad was still lying on the straw where I had left him, but had curled onto his side, facing the wall. His dark hair shook as he cried.

“Two Twenty Eight.” I tried to keep my voice low, tried to sound calm. But Two Twenty Seven had made me angry.

The crying stopped, and the boy grew still.

“Turn around, boy. I know you can hear me. Learn to do as you’re told and you will save yourself a lot of pain here.”

He rolled over in small, careful increments. His body must have been aching.

“Sit up. Don’t lie there when I speak to you.” I should have told him to stand, but could not bring myself to demand such unnecessary cruelty.

His arms shook as he sat on the edge of the straw. He did not meet my eyes.

“Are you in any pain?” The routine question seemed pointless, considering his bruised face.

The boy nodded.

“Have you broken a bone before, boy?”

He looked up at this, his face paling before my eyes.

“Have you?”

He nodded again, his eyes pleading for clemency.

“Well, does anything hurt as badly as that?”

“N…no, Sir.” His voice cracked. I wondered if he’d had enough to drink in the last few days.

“Good. There is water in the bucket near the door. Leave it there, and I will fill it each day. You will be fed at sundown. Do not ask for more than you are given. The bucket in the corner is for your waste. When it is full, it will be removed. Do not leave it near the door until it is full. Do you understand?”

Fresh tears were marking his cheeks. He nodded, drawing a shuddering breath.

“Good. If you hear your name, respond. Don’t make me come in if I don’t have to.”

I used to love this part. I had enjoyed taking their names away. It hurt more than any physical torture.

Until I had tried to take hers.

“Your name is Two Twenty Eight.”

A small frown. I knew that expression well. The last vestiges of resistance fighting to stay alive. I fought a tide of pleasure, knowing it would only leave guilt when it receded.

“I…I’m Gavin.”

“Not any more. In here, if I hear that name, even if you whisper it, you will be punished. And I have very good hearing. Do you understand?”

He was sobbing now, his body shuddering. I saw him nod, and turned my face away. I used to revel in those tears.

I shut the door and left him to mourn.

#

Jianna propped herself up on one elbow and smiled down into my face. Light from the window caught auburn highlights in her hair. A breeze ruffled them, and I considered pulling the blanket I had brought up to cover her shoulder. But it would conceal the mound of her naked breast as it pressed against my chest, so I left her skin bare.

She ran small fingers through my light hair, twisting it back into the curls my helmet had crushed. “That’s my favorite Wordwitch story. The one with the Silent Ones.”

I drew her face down and kissed her. “Tell it to me again. I love the stories you tell.”

She laughed and settled down beside me. “These are children’s stories, Therin. You must have heard them before.”

I pressed my face into her hair and breathed in. “But not the way you tell them.”

“Well thank you, kind guard.” I could hear a cheeky smile in her voice. “But my storytelling is what got me in this problem in the first place!”

I snorted a short laugh.

“What are they going to do to me?” Her voice was suddenly small. I shrugged.

“I don’t think they’ll do anything, Jianna. You’ve been here for months. If the king wanted you dead, he wouldn’t have left you for so long. I’ve lived and worked here since I was a boy. I’ve seen this many times.”

“Well, that’s something. But it still makes me wonder.” She propped herself up, exposing her breasts again. It was difficult to keep my eyes on her face. “Why is he keeping me alive? If he believes the stories, if he thinks I’m some Wordwitch come to end his reign, wouldn’t I be dead by now?”

“I guess that depends on which story he thinks you’re from.” I did not want to think about the theories of a mad king, her skin was too distracting.

But she would not let me draw her down. “But it doesn’t make sense. If they’re not going to kill me, then what…”

“Jianna.” I kissed her cheeks, her nose and forehead, while my fingers played with her soft skin. “I keep telling you. I’ll never let them do anything to you. I promise.”

A sudden, vibrant smile banished the worry from her face. She leaned her breast into my hand and brushed her lips against mine. “Of course you won’t.”

Even as she spoke the steel door to her cell screamed open. Gryme stood on the other side, flanked by two knights.

“Therin.” Gryme’s voice was hollow, echoing disappointment. “I think this has gone far enough.”

I pushed Jianna from my body and stared up at the face of my captain. He was sharp in the hazy room, as though everything was locked in sleep, but for his chiseled frown.

“Sir…”

“Put these on.” He was holding out my clothes, watching me even though Jianna still struggled to cover her nakedness, and did not let me speak.

I felt numb as I drew rough fabric over my skin.

“You shouldn’t have let this get so far, Therin. What is wrong with you, man? You’ve done this for too long to behave like a lovesick fool.”

Lovesick? I blinked, still struggling against the fog.

“To neglect your work, to deceive your brothers.” Gryme was relentless. But even as I opened my mouth, I could not find the words to argue with him. I could not remember the last prisoner I had fed, except for Jianna.

Gryme was talking, even as I stood in silent stupor. “How far are you willing to go? Would you have helped her escape? Turned your back on us and gone with her?”

The prison was my home. The guards my brothers, Gryme my father. They had always been. And in each cell, a pet of my own.

Would I have betrayed them for her? I had promised her, a hasty promise yes, but…I realized with slowly dawning horror that I had meant it. She had asked me to defend her, and I had intended to.

But Gryme eyed me with quiet regret, and those promises seemed unreal.

“These most noble knights believe their Wordwitch has ensnared you, and truth be told, I almost agree with them.” He shook his head. Silver shined among the red hairs, and I wondered why I had not noticed it earlier. “I have never seen you act this way, neglect your duty, your prisoners. Make silly promises in the heat of the bed. Promises to betray your king.”

I blushed, a deep warmth that spread right down to my toes. How much had Gryme heard? How much had he seen?

“You could destroy your life here, and those of the guards who trust you. I won’t let you make such a mistake. The knights have come for her, Therin.”

I could feel Jianna’s eyes on the back of my head, feel the weight of her trust.

“Will you try and stop them?” Gryme’s voice was level, calm. He did not sound angry. He sounded as though he understood me. My desire for her fiery lips, my love of her soothing words. Understood, but would never approve. So, he had brought the knights…

I shook my head, my ears felt clogged, my thoughts heavy and sluggish. No, he was right to do this. I should have stopped myself weeks ago.

“Therin?” Jianna’s voice was small again. Not the rich tones I loved, the laughter that heartened me, or the defiance that warmed my blood. I did not turn around.

“A guard who defies his king is of no use to me.” Gryme watched me, carefully, as I felt my hands tighten into fists at my sides. They wanted to reach for the knights, to stop them, to hold Jianna safe, to protect her. But I held them still. She was just a woman, no, less than that. A prisoner. Could I risk my life, and those of my family, for garbage? Despite how beautiful her voice was. Or the promises I had made.

“I await your orders, Sir.”

Gryme squeezed my shoulder and nodded.

The large knights stepped further into the cell, filling it with their silver bulk. Behind me, Jianna whispered. “Therin?”

My hands twitched at my sides and I fought to keep them still. I had to get out, if I stayed I might not be able to control them. “May I await your orders outside, Sir?” I could not keep my voice steady, try as I might

One of the knights snickered, and I stared at the floor. Shame at my weakness flooded my face, but I could not stand there and listen. I had seen the knife in the knights’ hands.

“Go, but wait for me there.”

I bowed to the knights and left Jianna’s cell. Outside I leant against the cold stone and resisted the urge to block my ears. She screamed, then gurgled, as they cut out her tongue.

#

I did a sweep of the entire wing, fed the second floor, and removed waste from the third. Then I headed back to Two Twenty Eight. He was still crying.

I stopped outside his door. I felt helpless, heartless, and remembered a time when I had stood outside another cell door and done nothing about the noises coming from within.

Perhaps it was his soft skin. Maybe it was the innocence in his young eyes. He continued to remind me of her, and I could not leave him to cry alone any longer.

“Two Twenty Eight?”

The sobs became sniffling breaths.

“Can you hear me, Two Twenty Eight?”

Silence broken by moist, crackling gasps.

“What did I tell you? Learn to respond when I call your name. There are many not as kind as I, and you should know what they will do if you upset them. You have the bruises to remind you.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He was so young his voice was still high. I did not look inside his cell, but closed my eyes and touched the door. She could have been on the other side. Even his voice sounded like hers. “That’s better. You need to be strong and stop crying. Can you do that, Two Twenty Eight?”

“No, Sir. I…” His sobs began anew.

He was only a child, and this was far too cruel a place for him. I wanted to help him, to ease the pain in some small way. I had seen too much of it here, I had visited it upon too many people. And now I paid for it, every night, when her emptiness by my side was filled with self loathing. A dour, soul-crushing companion.

I said the first thing that came to mind. “Do you know who the Silent Ones are?”

As soon as I said it I felt stupid, but could not take back the words. Her stories had soothed me once, given us both joy in this grey place. Perhaps they would help him too.

The boy was quiet for a moment, but at least his tears eased. “That’s a child’s story. Sir.”

At least he had some strength left. “Yes, but I always liked stories with Wordwitches in them.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Perhaps I expected too much of him. Sitting in a filthy cell, nursing the bruises from several days’ worth of beatings, how could he be enthusiastic about a nursery tale?

But maybe I could distract him from his pain.

“There once was a boy, his name was…ah…” I could not remember the details. She had told me the story with so much flair, and I was already putting it to shame. “Well, his name isn’t important. He was held captive by an evil emperor, who ruled the kingdom through fear…and…magic…”

“I remember this one.” Two Twenty Eight’s voice was louder. He must have been standing on the other side of the door. “I’m not sure if that’s how it goes.”

That made me smile. I should not have let him talk back to me like that, but my attempt to console him seemed to be working.

“Help me tell it if you’re so smart.”

He actually laughed. “Yes, Sir. The emperor knew the boy was destined to be a hero, and would overthrow him for his evil ways. So he locked the boy in his lowest dungeon, knowing none could escape from there.”

Yes, that was it. “But the emperor was just a man and could not unpick the threads of fate.” I picked up the story. “For years the boy lay in his cell, and the emperor grew complacent. One day, a beautiful woman entered his court.”

“The emperor was so beguiled with her he had her sit close to his feet and tell him stories. Her words put him and his court to sleep, for she was a Wordwitch and had come to free the boy.”

I hurried the story along, thinking of another who matched that description so well. Who suffered for it. “She walked to his cell; all the guards were asleep and did not stop her. When she found the boy and told him she would free him he asked, ‘How can your words break these bars for me?’ She replied, ‘I will give you words of power. They will summon those who have the strength to free you. The Silent Ones.’”

I stepped over so I could look through the grill. Sure enough, the boy was standing beside the door, his face close to mine. He was smiling, and as he met my eyes I realized I was too. “‘This is what you must do,’ she said. She opened her arms wide and cried, ‘Come to me, you who are the power behind the words. You Silent Ones!’” Grinning, I imitated the gesture.

The boy stepped back from the grill and did the same. “And he followed suit, crying, ‘Come to me, you who are the power behind the words. You Silent Ones!’”

For a moment, the boy stood in the center of his cell, arms wide and head tipped back. His words echoed from the stone, and he slowly lowered his head. Again, I matched his smile.

“And then…” His voice cut off as the stones at his feet began to roll. They lifted from their mortar and swelled toward the boy like waves.

He screamed, teetered on the moving floor and fell to his knees. I looked back into the hallway, expecting to see the rest of the dungeon moving too. It was an earthquake, surely. What else could turn the floor to water?

But the hallway was normal. Nothing moved.

Heat on the back of my neck made me turn again. A bright light engulfed the boy and the straw it touched was already on fire. Two Twenty Eight was still screaming, but he did not seem to be burning.

I fumbled for the keys with heavy fingers. They dropped from my grip. I swore and bent to pick them up. When I stood, the boy was no longer alone.

A thin figure stood beside him. It was almost lost in the burning light, but I could make out an elongated head with large dark eyes. It wrapped long fingers around the boy’s shoulder, and he stopped screaming. He looked up into that otherworldly face, and smiled.

“Gavin!” I banged against the door with my mailed fist, still trying to force the keys into the lock.

He did not seem to hear me, and stood beside the figure for what felt like an eternity. Finally, I heard the key click, and forced the door open. Even so, I could not step inside. The light was too hot, and flames were scattered over the floor.

I held up a hand to shade my eyes and called his name again.

The creature that held him looked through the smoke to catch my gaze. The light was growing brighter. Its eyes were all I could see.

Your task is over. You may go.

I could not see if it moved its mouth, if it even had one to move. But somehow, I knew it had spoken.

The light intensified further. I was forced out of the cell as smoke clawed at my throat. In the hall, where I could breathe, I coughed and spat to clear my lungs.

I looked up again as the light dimmed. The cell was empty.

Without a thought for the open cell or the fire within I ran down the hallway, a horrible realization driving me forward.

#

The new guard had tried to stop me. He lay against the stone wall, blood seeping from a wound at the back of his head. I did not recognise the man, and he obviously had not heard of my reputation. I wondered if he would wake up again to hear it.

I took the keys from his pouch and opened her door. She was standing at the barred window, staring at the sea. I felt a pinch deep within my gut at the sight of her. She was thinner.

She turned slowly, no surprise on her face. Dark hair, somehow beautiful beneath a layer of grime, blew across her face. She brushed it back with an easy hand and smiled.

I swallowed the lump in my throat.

“What did you do to me?”

She expelled a short, disdainful breath of air, and began to turn back to the window.

“You are a Wordwitch, then. Like they said you were.”

She stopped and nodded, the smile gone from her face. My hands began to shake with the desire to hold her.

“I used to laugh at that. Because there’s no such thing as a Wordwitch, they’re just fairy-tale characters. And you laughed with me!”

This time, in her gaze, an old spark of defiance. She walked toward me. I could see the bones of her chest, but despite her weight-loss the body that moved beneath that shapeless tunic was the same. I stepped backward, afraid of the strength of my need to touch her.

But she would not let me retreat. With slow steps she made her way to stop in front of me, her face mere inches from my chest. She touched my cheek with a steady hand. Her eyes were peaceful, her smile full of hope.

I glanced around the cell, at the squalor, then back to her voiceless face.

“You couldn’t give him the words, could you? Jianna? So you gave them to me instead.”

She nodded and moved to kiss my face. I jerked away from her touch.

“You used me. From the beginning…was that all this was?”

She pressed a hand against my chest. I found myself up against the wall and could not retreat any further. The wind spread her hair in a dark halo and dipped her face in shadow. Her breath on my neck was hot, her hand so heavy I could not breathe.

She had no words to answer me.

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