Jason awoke with a groan, his body sore from a night of restless sleep on the hard prison cot. As he yawned he noticed the rancid taste in his mouth and the foulness of his breath. A guard had come by with a meal in the evening, which he had devoured before Yulevi was even half done. He had fallen asleep shortly after, feeling lost and exhausted.
“The things I would do for a toothbrush,” Jason muttered to himself.
Silence was his only answer in the quiet cell. Golden sunlight leaked through the squat window where he had surveyed the city earlier, and some ambient light from the hall spilled in through the iron bars of the door. Jason took a few moments to take in his sparse surroundings once more, already feeling intimately familiar with the bare walls and floor. Not one line of graffiti marred the cell.
He wondered if Yulevi was marking the days in her own cell.
The thought sparked a sudden sense of urgency in him, spawned by the realization of a single fact: Yulevi was gone.
“Yulevi?” Jason asked through the bars. As he leaned against the door his body depressed the handle and the door swung open, rousing a hissing curse as Jason all but tumbled out. Panic soon gave way to irrational curiosity. What sort of security would an elven jail have? Were there cameras mounted in the ceiling, watching him?
Jason’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard soft footsteps from down the hallway. Panic mounted once more, and he retreated back into the cell. The iron barred door crashed shut behind him, after which he heard the footsteps momentarily cease before echoing again with the sound of running footfalls.
His heart hammered a staccato beat, outrunning the pace of the footsteps outside.
A breath he didn’t realized he was harbouring escaped Jason’s lungs with a heave when Yulevi’s figure filled the spaces between the bars. Her eyes were intense, her hands clenched around the hilt of a short sword.
They stared at each other unspeaking while Jason’s heart slowly resumed a regular pace. Yulevi opened the cell door after a glance in each direction, and then asked, “Are you alone in here?”
Jason only nodded, his nerves still fried.
“Was that you slamming the cell shut, then?”
“Yes,” Jason stammered back. He started to ask a question, but Yulevi stopped him midway.
“Calm yourself, man,” she whispered. “I can’t understand when you babble like a scared child. Remember what I said last night: speak to be heard. In the meantime, follow me.”
Jason complied, nodding.
I think I’m starting to understand this whole “speak to be heard” business. Gotta keep a rein on my emotions or some Zen mumbo-jumbo.
He followed her down the hallway, having left the cell door quietly closed. Yulevi seemed unworried about attracting attention and moved quite quickly through the barren halls. All the cells they passed were empty.
Where are the guards?
The pair ducked into what can only be described as a closet, and Jason’s unspoken question was suddenly answered. Two crumpled shapes were propped up against the opposite wall, heads lolling and jaws slack. Jason could see no wounds or evidence of violence, but he knew without a doubt they were dead. Despite everything he would have expected about himself, he felt no sense of revulsion in the presence of the bodies, nor did his heart thunder in panic. He was oddly calm, which Yulevi informed him of pointedly.
“Not your first encounter with the dead?”
Jason shook his head Yes, misunderstanding the question due to the negative. Yulevi seemed not to notice and refrained from pressing the subject. Instead, she knelt beside one of the fallen guards and began to undress him.
“Yulevi.” Jason’s voice cracked from being silent so long. “What are you doing?” It was a dumb question, as Jason knew full well what the elf woman was doing.
“Helping you blend in,” she answered between tugs on the guard’s leather over clothes. The limp body was giving her trouble in removing the form-fitting vest, despite the zippers and straps. “Either help me with this one or strip yourself.”
“There is no way I’m wearing a dead man’s clothing!”
One of the arms slid free of the vest and slapped dully against the body. Yulevi said nothing until the vest was completely removed.
“Then put this on over your shirt,” she said, throwing the vest at him. The leather was dark and firm, but clearly more decorative than practical as a piece of armour.
Jason did as he was told, sliding into the strange clothing. While he didn’t have the same bulk as the guard, the leather was still tight enough over the cotton over his shirt to be a little uncomfortable. To compensate he pulled the zipper down to mid chest, revealing the jade pendant at his breast. Remembering the events of the previous day, he tucked the stone behind his shirt instead.
Yulevi tossed two more pieces of leather at him, bracers for his forearms. He managed to strap the left one over the sleeve of his shirt, but had to have Yulevi do the other.
When she was finished she curtly instructed him to remove his pants.
“There’s no way the rest of the gear will fit over that thick cloth. At least not in a way that won’t hamper your mobility,” she continued.
“Do you have any idea how much I paid for these jeans?” Jason questioned. “And what part of ‘I’m not wearing dead people’s clothing’ did you not understand?”
“Have it your way and be found, then.” Yulevi glared at him, and then added, “Did I tell you what the king does to escaped prisoners?”
“Fine,” Jason growled as he undid his belt.
“Good.” Yulevi turned back to the partially undressed guard and went to work on his legs, removing both the leather and fabric pants he wore.
Jason took the pants, not waiting for Yulevi to hand them over herself. He pulled them on without a word, but was then left looking at two thin straps on the cuffs.
Yulevi followed his gaze downward and then supplied an answer. “Stirrups, Jason. They go under the arch of your foot so that you can put on the leather gear.”
She then helped him finish dressing, pulling the buckles tight and making adjustments to where the padded leather pieces sat.
“Almost done,” she breathed.
Luckily, one of the guards had feet only slightly larger than Jason’s, so he was able to complete the outfit with a leather boots rather than coloured sneakers. There were, of course, more protests over leaving the shoes behind. And as was becoming the trend, Yulevi won out on the argument.
“Now that you’re outfitted,” Yulevi declared, “it’s time you were armed.”
Jason shot her a blank stare.
“Can you fight?”
“Like, can I throw a punch?”
Yulevi stifled a laugh. “No, can you swing a blade?”
There was a moment of silence between them, Jason’s eyes wide and locked with Yulevi’s cool gaze.
“You’re serious,” he whispered.
The elf nodded her reply.
“Of course not!” Jason hissed through clenched teeth.
Yulevi sighed and rolled her eyes, clearly impatient. “Can you shoot?”
Jason shrugged. “I did a little archery in summer camp, but that was years ago.”
Silence again descended on them, but lasted only a few seconds before Yulevi burst into laughter. “Is everything you say a joke, Jason? You’re the only man I have met, but I wouldn’t complain if you were the last! No, man, can you shoot a gun?”
“Oh, uhm,” he fumbled for words, dumbfounded. “Maybe? I’ve never fired live rounds before, but my aim shouldn’t be too bad. I think.” I hope.
“Take these, then,” Yulevi said after fiddling at the waist of one guard. She presented Jason with a leather belt, complete with hip holsters and a few small satchels. He secured it around his waist and then investigated the contents.
From one holster he pulled an ornate pistol. It was almost bronze in colour, and the grip reminded him of ivory. He replaced it in the holster and retrieved his second weapon, a translucent dagger with a similar ivory hilt and carved pommel, from the other.
“What, no sword?” he joked.
“Why give you what you say you cannot use?” Yulevi replied with no humour of her own. “Now because you say you can’t fight,” she smiled at this, “stay behind me and protect yourself if necessary. But keep that gun holstered, I don’t want a bullet in my back. No hero business either, man.”
Jason nodded grimly, wishing for the thousandth time he was just dreaming.
“Wake up, Jason,” he whispered to himself. “Please wake up.”