The Ironguard were smarter and more capable than the Grinders had proved to be. Nelya swallowed down her instinct to flee and find a place to hide among the trees. With no-one to help her there would be no point.
“Weapons on the floor,” barked the man. “slowly.”
She hesitated. Only for a second, but in that second the man had moved closer to her and pointed his gun at her head.
“Don't even think of it, Darklander,” he spat. “On the floor.”
Very slowly, she put them on the floor.
“Good little savage. Tie her up. Tie them all up. Let's not take any chances here.”
More Ironguard appeared from among the trees, bringing rope with them. Nelya was tied tight enough for a tingling numbness to set into her fingers. No-one else even struggled, though Jacob was approached with wariness. Their horses were captured with speed and a surprising gentleness.
They were led - and pushed, if they went too slow – through the trees till they reached a small clearing. Their arrival startled the birds roosting there, who took flight with a skirring of wings. Nelya glanced over the clearing, the small, high-sided cart, the horses grazing contentedly, the still-warm campfire. The cart tracks leading from the clearing were a day or so old, laid down after the heavy rains.
The Ironguard had been waiting here for them before they'd even left Fairfield, and they'd been aware of the likely route.
“In the cart. No talking.”
They bundled in, followed by two Ironguard who sat with their weapons drawn and ready.
“Sit tight,” one said, with an unpleasant grin, “We're going to Ironhaven.”
Jacob groaned, and slumped back against the high sides of the cart.
Ironhaven, then. Nelya watched the faces of her new companions, all tight and ashy with worry. As the cart juddered into movement, she tried to think of a possible way out of this.
She couldn't do it. Every idea she had required skills or understanding this group simply didn't have. As the cart left softly wooded areas, went through rough scrubland and finally onto the now-familiar dry dirt of the road, her plans became strange and wild, before fading.
There was no way out, at least not from this cart, rumbling along under the baking heat, surrounded by mounted and armed men. Their horses and weapons held captive.
She would just wait, instead. They were being taken in alive, which meant there was going to be a chance for escape or bargains at some point. Patience and thought rarely led her down the wrong path.
It was acting on impulse that made things go wrong.
Ironhaven showed as a dark blot on the horizon, growing closer with every mile.
Just before sunset, the cart pulled up outside the walls. The five of them were ordered out, and led through a small, side gate. Whatever this was, it was to be done quietly.
They were blindfolded. She heard the others stumble and shuffle amongst the sounds of booted feet. Even she was clumsy, with no sight to judge things.
They walked on dirt for a while, and then on stone. The air changed to cool and damp. The damp had that creeping feel that reminded her of caves.
A few more steps in the dampness, then hands on her back shoving her to the floor, and the sounds of other people stumbling, falling, grunting, and a sharp swearword in a voice that was surely Cassidy's.
A boot on her back, just between her shoulderblades. The sound of knife on thick cloth, and her hands were free. Free, but too numb and sore to push herself up and run for it... and almost as soon as the boot was removed, a door slammed and locked behind them.
A moment of silence, as she nursed blood back into her hands and arms. She removed the blindfold, to find herself in a dark, damp, rough stone cell with the four others. A small window – too small to wriggle through, even if she could climb up to it – let in the dying light. Frida cleared her throat.
“Well, they could have asked nicely.”
Cassidy broke out in snorting laughter, and after a second Garth joined her. Jacob, serious, only shook his head slightly.
“We're in a cell,” he said. “and we don't know why.”
“There are worse places.” said Nelya. “As long as we live, we can escape.”
“Worse places? Right now, what could be worse? And don't say dead, because that could very easily be coming.” snapped Cassidy.
Nelya waved her hand, though as the gloom gathered it seemed unlikely anyone would see it. Death was a fact, and not something she feared.
“We could be lying broken-limbed in a cave, with our insides spilling, knowing all that will come for us is a hungry beast. This is how my brother died.”
There was another silence, this one longer and deeper than the other.
“Yeah, alright.” said Cassidy. “I'll give you that. That sounds much worse.”