[Eight years ago]
Ethan heard the boy’s sobbing from down the tunnel. Swinging the pick back and digging it into the rock wall, he tried to drown it out. He didn’t know who it was or why he was crying, but he didn’t really care. He couldn’t let himself care.
He’d been there long enough to learn it was safer to stay by himself, mind his own business.
After all, it hadn’t been all that long ago that he’d been the new kid, thought that the big man who came up to him was trying to be his friend. He had talked to Ethan at first, been almost nice to him. Ethan had been suspicious, but after a while thought that maybe, for once, he’d found somebody that would look out for him.
Boy had he been wrong, the 18-year-old told himself.
The pick was heavy in his hands as he tried to take his mind off those times, the beatings and brutalization that he could never really forget. Yeah, it was definitely better to be alone.
There came the sobbing again, and Ethan sighed, realizing he was annoyed by it. He’d gone through the same thing two years ago when he’d come there, he thought. This kid would get himself through it too, whoever he was.
He realized he still hadn’t seen the newcomer yet — but it didn’t matter. That feeling of loneliness would go away for him too, just as it had for Ethan. Or at least, he told himself it was gone. There was no point to dwelling on it — it’s not like he’d ever really find a friend down here.
Later that night, when his shift was over, Ethan retired to his little space by the back wall, where one of the security lights was. There weren’t many of those lights left in this barracks — the others had all gotten blown out during the brawls that broke out every now and again. But this one still worked, and there weren’t any occupied bunks immediately nearby, so he had made it his own little section, where Garn wouldn’t bother him anymore.
Lying down, he decided to get some sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day. Another long day. Like every day before, and every day after. He sighed.
Every day was the same. It wouldn’t be long before he completely lost track of how long he’d actually been there.
More cries, overwhelmed by laughing, came from a few rows of bunks away, and Ethan tried to cover his ears. He didn’t want anything to do with it.
It wasn’t his problem, he kept telling himself. Nobody had looked out for him. Ever. He wasn’t going to pretend to be anybody’s hero now.
But the cries kept coming, seeping through the fingers he held over his ears. He tried to ignore them, but he somehow couldn’t quite manage it. And they didn’t seem to be letting up.
The longer they lasted, the more he found himself listening to them.
And the more he listened, the more he noticed how familiar they sounded. And yet — different.
That’s when he realized — yes, they sounded like himself, from not that long ago — but younger.
Finally, he couldn’t ignore it anymore. Standing up, he sneaked over towards the sounds of the amateur Coliseum. Except this wasn’t the gladiator version, where both had a fairly equal fight. This was more like the innocent and the lion; the boy didn’t stand a chance.
Peering around the edge of a bunk post, Ethan finally laid eyes on the newcomer for the first time. And even though he told himself he wouldn’t get involved, his heart twisted in his chest.
Ethan saw the tear stains streaking his face, the blood already running from his ear where the lion had bashed him to the ground. And now, Garn was standing over him, reaching down, going in for the kill.
Except he wouldn’t actually kill him. Ethan knew that. He would just toy with him, keeping him on the edge of survival so he could play with him the next night, and the next, and the next, until he got tired of him.
Or until his audience got tired of him. Ethan glanced around at the observers cheering on their champion, waiting for their turn in the arena to take a shot at this new prey. After all, it was only fair that Garn share his spoils.
Ethan turned back toward the boy, where he lay trembling on the ground. He saw the fear in his eyes, the pain on his face. A pain he knew himself, all too well. The tears wouldn’t stop coming, which only gave Garn more motivation to play. The more reaction he got from the boy, the more he would torture him. That’s just the way it worked.
Which Ethan knew. He had learned that, and that was why Garn eventually got bored of him and left him alone. He had refused to give Garn a good show, failed to be entertaining — and that’s what saved him.
But from the looks of things, this kid didn’t have any idea that’s what was happening. He was too young to understand it. He just kept crying, and kicking, and screaming — inviting more attacks.
Ethan turned away, trying to shake the images out of his mind. But he couldn’t. He knew he should just mind his own business, his own survival. But at the same time, that kid was so young…
He tried walking away, but his feet just wouldn’t budge. Something about the look in that kid’s eyes haunted him, like an invisible chain rooting him to that spot.
But he was just a kid himself, only 18. There was nothing he could do. The only people Garn was remotely afraid of were the guards, and Ethan couldn’t exactly expect them to back him up. What happened in the barracks between slaves wasn’t their concern. They didn’t care about this kid, or anyone else, aside from how much ore they mined. That was the only thing that would ever get them to punish Garn, if he didn’t fill his quota. But it wasn’t like Ethan could get him to not make his quota tomorrow.
He stopped. Wait, maybe there was.
The next thing he knew, he was pushing his way through the entertained onlookers. His stomach was in a knot, but he had made up his mind — this was something he was going to do, no matter how scared it made him.
He said it as loudly as he could, without risking his voice cracking. He had to try to make as strong an entrance as he could, act as confident as he could, act like he totally knew what he was talking about. The idea worked in theory, but tomorrow would be the actual test.
Everyone turned to look at him, as he stood just on the edge of the arena, the area between the bunks. Garn stopped mid-pummel, and straightened up, dropping the boy to the ground. The kid hit hard, and blinked, trying to see through his tears what was going on.
“Demarc,” Garn said. A wicked grin spread across his face. “Well well, can’t say I ever thought you’d be back here again.”
“What, this kid?” the man reached down and jerked the boy up by the front of his shirt. “Now why in Trythia would I do that?”
And with his other hand he struck the boy’s face again.
Tears came fresh. “P-please sir, n-no….”
“You shut up now!” Garn yelled, throwing him to the ground again.
The little body banged against the floor, and Ethan winced. It took a moment, but eventually he managed to raise his head from where he fell. And with his face wet with tears and blood, he looked at Ethan through swollen eyes.
Ethan met he gaze, and his heart wrenched again. Those eyes were so scared, looking up at him as if he were his only hope in the world. And Ethan knew that, honestly, he was. If this didn’t work, the kid wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Tell me, Demarc,” Garn took a step toward him. “What makes you think you have the right to tell me what to do?” He was still a few feet away from him, but it was close enough for him to demonstrate just how much bigger he was than the well-built but lean teenager.
Ethan pretended not to be intimidated. “Because if you don’t, the guards will be whipping your sorry hide by the end of the day tomorrow.”
It was silent for a moment. Then Garn broke out laughing, and the rest of the men followed suit.
“The guards?” he laughed. “What makes ya so sure about these things, boy?”
“You don’t believe me?” Ethan challenged.
“Why should I?”
“I’ll make a bet with you.”
That got Garn’s attention. “A bet, ya say?”
“If you don’t let him go now, I’m betting that the guards’ll beat you tomorrow. If it happens like I’m saying it will, then you gotta swear you’ll leave him alone, and me, and whoever else I call out.”
“Uh huh,” Garn nodded condescendingly, restraining his laughter. “And if you’re wrong?”
A smirk crawled across the man’s face. Taking another step closer to Ethan, he bent at the waist to look him square in the eye. Ethan could feel his breath. “A word of advice, boy,” he said in a low tone. “Keep your nose outta other people’s business, ya hear? You got out of the firing line with me. Don’t try to get back into it, if ya know what’s good for you.”
“So you’re saying you’re not gonna take a bet?” Ethan taunted. “The big Garn’s backing down?”
The evil eyes narrowed. “Backing down?”
“What have you got to lose?” Ethan asked. “You don’t believe it’ll happen anyway, right?”
The men around them watched to see what would happen. Ethan knew that. He knew that if he got Garn embarrassed enough, he’d take the bait. Ethan just hoped there was a hook somewhere underneath it.
“You say they’ll beat me, eh?” the big man repeated.
“Yep. Worse than they have in a while. Unless you let the kid go now.”
He laughed at the suggestion. “And how would you know these things?”
Ethan shrugged. “That’s not part of the deal, now, is it?”
Garn hesitated, looking around at the audience. Ethan waited, trying to tread the line between being confident and being stupid. The audience watched Garn, anticipating his decision. And the boy remained silent, a bit of hope edging into his eyes.
Suddenly Garn threw out his hand and grabbed Ethan’s. Ethan almost pulled away before he realized it was a handshake. “Done,” Garn said, shaking his hand to seal it.
Ethan nodded. “Last chance — you’re not gonna let him go now?”
Garn smiled wickedly. “Wild guess.”
“Fine. Then brace yourself for tomorrow,” he warned knowingly.
“Right,” Garn laughed.
Ethan turned to leave, but a few of the men stood in his path.
“Ah, let ‘im go,” Garn swiped his hand through the air carelessly. Then he laughed. “We’ll get ‘im tomorrow.”
As the onlookers parted for him to pass through, he stole one more glance back at the boy in the arena. He lay there, alone. Staring after him as he left, the hope fading in his eyes as he saw him walking away.
Ethan swallowed. He didn’t think this would be so hard.
But he had to leave. Staying there would only get Garn angry, and he would eventually lash out at Ethan too. He felt so selfish for leaving, but he knew that he had no choice. He would have to be on top of his game if he had any chance for succeeding tomorrow.
As they walked to the mines the next morning, Ethan was nervous. He only had one shot at this.
The line of slaves marched through the front entrance, each receiving his pick as he came in. Ethan made sure he stayed close to Garn so he could keep an eye on him — but not so close that he knew he was watching him. He had to plan this right. Timing would be everything.
They approached the scaffolding, and single-file began the descent to the tunnels. The men behind him jostled him forward, and he wondered which of Garn’s friends were back there.
When they got to the bottom, he started to walk away toward the same tunnel he had seen Garn heading for.
For his plan to work, all he had to do was find an opportunity to speak to him — taunt him, mock him, or otherwise generally distract him — meanwhile switching picks with him without his noticing.
Because Garn didn’t know about the energy signatures each pick carried. He had no idea how the mines’ management kept track of each slave’s quota, but he didn’t exactly care, either. He just worked each day, and turned in the pick at the end of each shift.
But it hadn’t taken Ethan long to figure out how the system worked. Having not much else to think about during the long shifts and the even longer nights when he was first brought there, he had realized that there must be something about the picks that identified the ore as mined by each particular slave. When he had developed what he thought was a fairly plausible theory, he broached it to a guard one day that hadn’t been in a particularly bad mood, just out of curiosity.
When the guard had simply laughed it off, denying it, Ethan knew his hunch was true. And that was how he planned to get Garn on the guards’ bad side. By switching the picks, Garn would work all day with Ethan’s pick — work for which Ethan would get the credit. And Ethan would simply hide out somewhere with Garn’s pick, not using it at all — failure for which Garn would get the blame. When his quota would be severely unfulfilled, the guards would see to it that he learn his lesson and never be so lazy again.
Of course, Garn would have no clue what had happened. All he needed to know was that the guards had beat him by the end of the day. Proving Ethan’s warning true.
Ethan grimaced as he entered the dark mouth of the tunnel. This was a big risk, and he knew it. Even if he did manage to get the picks switched, he was gambling on the basis that his hunch was actually correct. In all honesty, he wasn’t completely sure about it. Yes, it seemed like the only logical explanation, but there was the chance he was wrong.
He shuddered at the thought of having to take the blame himself at the end of the day.
Throwing his hands out to break his fall, he spilled forward onto the ground. As he fell, his pick flew out of his hand and spun across the packed dirt — until it was stopped by a big booted foot.
Ethan jumped back to his feet amidst the laughter of the men behind him, and of the big devil in front of him. Looking around, he realized there were no guards nearby —
Suddenly, several of those behind him rushed up and seized his arms, binding them behind his back. He caught his breath, struggling against them —
“Lose something, Demarc?”
Looking up, he saw Garn in front of him, lifting his pick from where it had landed under his boot. With an evil grin, he began walking toward him.
“Garn what are you doing?” Ethan fought against the hold on his arms.
“Call it … warm up,” the man smirked. “Before I win our little bet tonight.”
Ethan’s eyes widened.
“Oh this won’t hurt,” he reassured him. “Not like you think it will.”
Ethan’s breath came in pants, his heart racing.
Slowly Garn advanced toward the boy, the point of his pick gleaming in the unnatural greenish light of the bulbs along the tunnel walls. That point got closer and closer — Ethan held his breath.
Garn laid the point against Ethan’s throat, and Ethan didn’t dare move.
“Hold your breath, boy,” he whispered menacingly.
Ethan didn’t need anyone to tell him that.
Then suddenly, Garn hooked it over the collar of Ethan’s shirt, and ripped it straight downward. Ethan caught his breath as his shirt was torn right down the center.
And Garn laughed. But not in amusement. This laugh was different, and Ethan knew it. He’d heard it before — the last time Garn tore his shirt and saw what was underneath.
“Haven’t seen that in a while, have we now?” he laughed, and was joined by the rest.
He understood now. Garn knew just how to get to him. Of all the things he could have chosen to humiliate him, this was one that would haunt Ethan the most.
“See boy,” he addressed Ethan as he proceeded to slice up the rest of the shirt, “you should never cross a man like me. That whole little act last night — that was just a bad idea on yer part. I’m gonna win our little wager, but I figured to give you a little preview of what the rest of yer life’ll look like after that.”
And with that, Ethan’s shirt hung in strips off his shoulders. He felt his stomach sinking, knowing what was coming next.
“And now, I think we need to add one to your … collection,” the man sneered, and the rest of the men laughed.
Ethan lost his breath, not wanting to think about what Garn obviously was thinking about. He hadn’t seen this coming last night when he showed up at the Coliseum’s doorstep, but he clearly should have.
“Get it off him,” Garn ordered.
More men came up and ripped what was left of Ethan’s shirt off of him, throwing the shreds to the ground. Ethan struggled again against their grip, but it was no use.
Garn came up to him, staring at his chest. “It’s been so long, I forgot how many there are,” he said, as though he were counting something much more innocuous than scars on a teenager’s flesh. “My my my. Weren’t you the troublemaker, eh?”
Ethan tried to yank his arms free again, even though he knew it was hopeless. But no matter what, he knew he couldn’t open his mouth. The second he did, Garn would have him right in the palm of his hand again.
But his eyes still widened when he saw Garn carry the pick toward him again. He felt his chest rise and fall in shallow breaths, bracing himself for this.
“You’re overdue,” Garn whispered, laying the point against Ethan’s chest.
Someone behind him grabbed his hair and jerked his head back, forcing him to stand still. Ethan didn’t let himself shut his eyes.
He stared ahead, trying to act braver than he felt, as the point raked across his chest.
When Garn finished, he held up the bloodied tip in Ethan’s face and sneered, “See this?”
Ethan saw it.
Ethan got it.
The man behind him harshly released the grip on his hair, throwing his head forward, but no one was as generous with his arms just yet. He swallowed, trying to ignore the sharp burning from the gash.
“From now on, yer mine, Demarc,” Garn said, taking a step back. “The boy’s mine too, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. Come tonight, you’ll both be wishin’ you were never born.” He waved the pick dangerously close to Ethan’s face.
But Ethan didn’t flinch. He forced himself to just stare straight ahead, straight past Garn, as uninterestedly as he could muster.
“Oh, so you still think yer gonna win. I see. Yes yes,” Garn hooted. “That’s right. So yer the silent type, are ya? The boring, quiet one,” he mocked. “But come on now. We both know that ain’t the truth. We all, know it, don’t we, gents? You ain’t the strong and silent type, Demarc. You want more than anything to batter me to the ground, don’t ya? Don’t ya?”
Garn was getting animated, but Ethan didn’t budge. No reaction, no reaction.
“Whaddaya have to say for yerself, boy?” Garn yelled gruffly. “Huh? No more threats for Garn?”
Staring. Silent. Ignoring the blood dripping down his chest. Ignoring the increasingly agitated murderer in front of him.
Which struck a nerve with said murderer. Throwing both picks to the ground, he stormed right up to Ethan and with one hand grabbed his chin roughly, shoving the finger of his other hand right up in his face.
“You think you got it all figured out, don’t ya, boy? You think you can mess with me and get away with it, huh? Well think again, ‘cause I ain’t through with you yet. One little scratch ain’t all you’re gonna get outta me before today’s through, you hear me? By the end of tonight, you’re gonna be crying for me to let you go — and when I do, then you’ll watch your little brat get the same thing. Yeah, you thought yesterday was bad for him? Oh he ain’t seen nothing yet — and you’ll have the pleasure of knowing that you’re the reason he got it so bad,” Garn seethed.
Just then, a blaster shot exploded above their heads. Garn released Ethan’s face and whirled around — but his pals still didn’t let go of his arms. Ethan looked up just in time to see a guard standing right there, his patrol blaster in hand.
“What’s going on here?” the guard’s voice echoed through the tunnel.
Garn stared at him. “Just handling a little personal matter,” he replied.
The guard didn’t want to hear it. “A personal matter? You fool! Do that on your own time!” Then he saw Ethan. “Is this your ‘personal matter’?” he asked Garn.
“He was causing us trouble,” Garn told him. “We had no choice but to restrain him —”
Persuaded by the order, the men roughly let go of Ethan, throwing him to the ground in the process. Ethan stumbled to the dirt and landed right in front of the two picks Garn had dropped.
“I mean it — let’s go!” the guard ordered them along, waving his patrol blaster as incentive.
Ethan quickly reached forward and grabbed the pick closer to him — the one with his own blood on the tip.
As the men passed by, a few of them delivered a parting kick to his side, which didn’t help the slash across his chest feel any better — but he didn’t care. He watched Garn bend over and grab the other pick, glare at him for a moment, then storm off. The other men followed, the guard supervising them strictly as they filed by.
But as Ethan stood to go down the tunnel as well, he let out a knowing smile. Glancing down at the pick in his hand, at the red-stained tip, he knew that Garn had taken the other one. And he knew he had done what he set out to do — Garn had taken the wrong one.
A short while later, Ethan was down the passageway, a few turns off the beaten path. Nobody else was around, so he had sat down and was enjoying his self-imposed day off. Holding the pick out in front of him, he inspected it for the first time. Before, his hunch had just been in theory, but now that he actually had some down time, he could try to find evidence that such energy stamp technology actually existed.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps coming down the passageway. Standing up, he immediately started swinging at the wall, pretending to be busy.
As soon as he swung back, his chest reminded him just how much it hurt to be stretched like that, so soon after being carved up. But he told himself it wouldn’t last long, hoping that whoever it was would just walk right on by.
The footsteps were quiet, which seemed strange, but they kept coming. And just as they passed Ethan’s tunnel, they stopped. Ethan swung harder at the wall, his heart starting to race. Who was this, and what did they want?
It was silent for a moment, except for the sound of Ethan’s hits, echoed by the distant rhythm of the picks of other miners. Then the footsteps resumed — but they weren’t walking away. They were coming down the tunnel towards him.
But it wasn’t Garn. It was a boy, the boy from last night. The kid stopped a dozen feet from where Ethan stood holding the pick.
Neither said a word, just looked at each other for a moment.
At last, the little voice broke the silence. “What are they?” he asked.
The boy didn’t answer, but took a step closer to him and pointed to Ethan’s chest. Which reminded him he needed to get his hands on another shirt.
“Oh, those. Just scars,” he said.
“Oh.” The boy paused and was quiet. The two stood there silently again, til he spoke again. “Do they hurt?”
Ethan half-smiled. “Not anymore. Well, except for the new one.”
The boy stared at the angry bloodied mark Ethan referred to. “Why’d he do that?”
Ethan sighed. “Because that’s just … what Garn does. He gets bored, so we’re his entertainment.”
The boy looked away, and seemed to be thinking. “Why’d you do it?” he finally asked.
“Come last night.”
He didn’t really have a good answer to that. He shrugged, “I had to.”
“No you didn’t.”
Ethan blinked, surprised.
Ethan glanced back at the rock wall, trying to think of how to phrase this. “Yeah, but … you shouldn’t ever have been put through that. Nobody should.”
“Neither should you.”
Ethan just barely smiled, but didn’t know what to say.
“You didn’t hafta do that.”
Ethan shook his head. “It didn’t work, though. Not last night.”
“But you tried. That’s … that’s more than anybody else would do.”
And with that, the boy fell silent and walked up to the wall. Swinging the pick back over his head, he dug it against the rock, and set to work.
Ethan just watched him for a moment. The kid must’ve followed him from the scene that morning. He was so small it was probably easy for him to hide somewhere and see it all.
He stood still as the little figure awkwardly handled the big pick, holding it with both hands and raising it high above his head for each stroke. Ethan set his own tool down and walked up to him, catching the pick before he struck the wall again.
“Here,” he said, “do it like this.”
He helped him hold the pick off to the side and swing it over his shoulder instead of above his head. “It’s easier that way.”
The boy looked up at him and smiled faintly, then took a few more swings the right way before Ethan stopped him again.
“That’s better. But you know what?” he said. “I’m gonna switch with you.”
“Here,” Ethan handed him his — Garn’s — pick, and took the boy’s. “You hold this one, but don’t use it, okay? I’m gonna work with yours, and you rest a while.”
Seeing the confusion on the kid’s face, Ethan smiled. And he explained the plan to him.
“By the way, what’s your name?” Ethan asked.
The boy grinned. “I’m Terrell.”
When the day was over, all the workers filed up the scaffolding the same way they had come in. Terrell stayed by Ethan, and the two of them got in line with the others. As they walked, Ethan heard someone coming up behind him, shoving through the other men.
It was Garn. Surprise surprise.
The big man fell in step next to Ethan and Terrell as they climbed up the stairs. “So, how’re you getting along with your little friend, Demarc?” he said as they walked. “Have you told him what you got him into?”
Ethan stared straight ahead.
“I’m sure he must appreciate your stepping in and all, seeing as I’m gonna wring his little neck tonight. Just as soon as I finish with yours.”
“Don’t count on it,” Ethan said boldly, not looking at him.
The big man laughed. “Yer still carrying on that game of yers, huh? Still trying to bluff me. Hah!” He bent closer to Ethan’s ear as they walked, and lowered his voice.
Ethan didn’t flinch. “We’ll see about that.”
Garn seemed slightly thrown off by Ethan’s unwavering confidence, and looked at him strangely. Ethan knew he was staring at him, but he didn’t return the glance. Terrell looked up at them both, but quickly shifted his gaze forward again when he saw the big man look at him.
They were almost at the top now, and Ethan’s heart was racing. There wasn’t much time left before they’d be outside the mining complex and on their way back to the barracks. If they got through those gates without anybody stopping Garn, then…
He swallowed. Then Garn would have been right. Then he would have won, and Ethan and Terrell would be at his mercy as soon as the guards locked the barracks doors behind them. He was acting confident to mess with Garn’s head — but if he was wrong, Garn would be the one doing the messing up.
They climbed the last stretch to ground level, and Ethan could see the exit just a few yards away. This was it. It was now or never. They kept walking, silently, step by step taking them closer and closer to the end of the road, the finish line for Garn’s victory.
Suddenly, several guards began to approach their spot in the line.
“There he is!” Ethan heard one of them shout, and point towards them.
He wanted to feel relieved, but somehow he couldn’t. Not just yet. There was still the chance that his whole scheme hadn’t worked — that the picks didn’t operate the way he thought they did — that the guards were right now on their way to get him, and not Garn.
There was only one way to find out. He held his breath as the guards got closer. Now Garn saw them, and his eyes widened. Turning on Ethan, he appeared to be getting nervous. “Boy…” he growled. But Ethan just watched the guards, waiting to see which of them was their target.
Finally, they got to them. Shoving several other men out of the way, they got to the trio in the middle of the line.
The big man stared at Ethan, suddenly looking more scared than Ethan could have imagined. “Lemme go!” he struggled loudly, trying to pull away from the guards’ grip. “No, you’ve got the wrong guy! I didn’t do nothin’!”
The guards just kept pulling him away, their patrol blasters trained on him. As they did, Garn looked back at Ethan, disbelief on his face. The boy had been right.
As soon as he had seen the guard’s hand on Garn’s arm, Ethan almost fell over with relief. There had been a one-in-a-million chance that this would work, and it did.
As Garn was dragged away, staring back at the boy that had done him in, Ethan just smiled and waved at him. It was the most rewarding sight he could have asked for, and he had to try very hard to contain his laughter as they passed by on their way out, leaving him to the discipline of the guards.
Terrell looked up at Ethan with a grin, and Ethan returned it; he couldn’t remember the last time he felt so happy. Together, the two of them followed the rest of the stunned crowd out through the gates.
He had won.
He didn’t expect the victory to last too long, though. And he was right.
Several hours later, back in the barracks, Garn looked up to where several of his men were restraining Ethan and Terrell, having caught them at Ethan’s spot by the lamp. As he had ordered.
Ethan couldn’t say he was surprised that this had happened. After all, he was dealing with a murderer. Expecting him to quietly keep the losing end of a bargain would have been naïve. He was just sorry that Terrell had to be dragged into this, too.
But despite the situation, he had to force himself to hold back a smile when he looked across the arena to the figure sitting on the bottom bunk.
Ethan had never seen Garn looking so beat-up and weak before.
Garn met his gaze, and his eyes narrowed. He was beaten, and he knew it. But he had always been a sore loser.
He glared at the boys across from him, and whispered his order hoarsely. “Make them beg.”
Ethan’s heart began racing again as he saw the other men around them start to close in. Glancing over at Terrell, Terrell looked back at him, and he could see the fear in his eyes again, as if he knew the victory had been too good to last.
But Ethan wasn’t quite so sure about that. Not yet.
The men kept advancing, and Terrell’s eyes widened the closer they got, but Ethan held his ground. He had to keep the game going, just a little bit longer.
The men stopped and turned to look at Garn. Terrell breathed a sigh of relief, but Ethan couldn’t let himself relax. He just waited for Garn to make the next move.
“How did you know they would do this?” Garn asked, his voice low. “What did you do?”
Ethan met his gaze evenly. “I warned you. I told you this would happen if you didn’t let the kid go last night.” He paused, and he could see the anger rising in Garn’s face. He had to do something — and quick — if they hoped to get out of this alive.
“We had a deal, Garn!” he kept his voice even. “If I was right, you’d leave us alone. And if you don’t stick by that, then just wait until tomorrow.”
The big man hesitated.
“You thought today was bad?” Ethan continued. “Tomorrow’ll be worse. And not just for you. Some of your pals will get it too — for every day you don’t stick by the deal.”
Garn’s eyes narrowed. “And if we kill you?” he threatened.
Ethan didn’t miss a beat. “Try it,” he taunted. “See what happens.” Then he added, “I wonder, how many days do you think you can take their beatings, before you can’t recover from them anymore?”
But Garn didn’t know that.
He didn’t have a clue what Ethan had done, or how it would play out if Ethan were taken out of the picture. As far as he was concerned, Ethan had predicted he would be punished, and he was. Now Ethan was threatening him again — who was to say that it wouldn’t happen the next time, same as it had happened that day?
“You made a deal, Garn!” Ethan said one last time.
The big man glared at him heatedly, and Ethan could see the conflict in that glare. He hoped it would be enough to get him to release them.
“Let them go,” Garn finally dropped his gaze and waved them away.
Surprised, his men didn’t move.
“You heard me, fools!” Garn suddenly raged. “Let them go!”
At their leader’s explosion, they quickly dropped their hold on the boys, who stepped away as soon as their arms were free.
Garn stared at Ethan, who stood with Terrell just behind him. “Get out,” he seethed. “You’re free to go.”
“And Terrell?” Ethan asked. “And anyone else that I call out in the future?”
He knew he was probably pushing Garn farther than Garn could tolerate being pushed, but he had to do it. He needed to hear Garn say it. All the terms of the deal.
He said it. Ethan had heard him actually say it. He took a deep breath and nodded, unable to control the wave of relief washing over him. Without another word, he turned away, with Terrell right beside him.
“He’s crossed us a few times since then,” Ethan finished, as the girl listened, her eyes intense. “But every time, we’ve pulled off the same thing. With the boys’ help, sometimes we’ve done a couple of his men at a time, to get him to back off. And it’s always worked.” He sighed. “But maybe not anymore.”
She tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“He said he’d come for me before you get the chance to. I doubt anything will hold him back from that, not even the threat of guards retaliating,” he told her.
He’d told her a lot, actually. Part of him knew he should regret it, that he should have been more guarded. He shouldn’t trust her, and he knew it.
Once he’d started talking, his inhibitions had dissolved. It felt strange, opening up to someone he’d tried so hard to seal himself shut against. Maybe he shouldn’t have said so much so freely about Garn, but if he was honest with himself, he felt more relief than regret.
Besides, the story was about something she was involved with now. Garn had gotten her involved, so she had a right to know. Didn’t she?
“Then it comes back to, this really is my fault,” she hung her head. “You’ve held him back for years, you had everything under control. And then I came in. I can’t believe I was so stupid to walk into that, I should have been paying more attention, I should have —”
The guilt on her face softened slightly.
He didn’t know how else to say this, but he meant what he said. And it applied to more than just the situation with Garn. The more time passed, the more he felt that maybe, she’d been telling the truth all along about her reasons for being down there.
“You did nothing wrong,” he repeated.
“I think there are others who would say different,” she shrugged. “They would say I shouldn’t have come down here in the first place. Then I wouldn’t have caused you this trouble.”
“I know.” That’s what Terrell had said plenty of times. “If you hadn’t been here, Garn wouldn’t have found this exact instance to cause a stir. But we also wouldn’t have had the food, the boys wouldn’t be healing as well as they have been, and some of us wouldn’t be here at all. So in my book — you did nothing wrong.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, almost as if the words he’d just spoken were living things she was afraid of startling away if she spoke too loudly. “Thanks for — trusting me. You didn’t have to. We both know that.”
She was right.
“But I’m glad you did,” she added softly.
If he was honest with himself, so was he.
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