…a door appeared in what looked like a blank wall. When she opened it the stench was appalling. She clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
For some reason that remark exacerbated my anger and I head butted her under one of her chins. She went down splat and I called for lights. To my surprise, two of the slatternly drones brought lanterns. I went into a long place, with a lot of figures chained to the walls.
‘Aascko’ I shouted. ‘Can you get Ambriel to open a Portal into our garden. I need my big medicine chest and the trunk of bandages. Plus water lots of hot water, and get our kitchen to prepare the biggest vat of warm sweetened milk they can manage. Also there’s a lot of people chained up. We need to release them.’
‘I’m on it love’ he shouted and as I turned back to the horribly foetid prison I felt the mind of Ambriel and heard his angry voice in my head. ‘Just look at the chains and they will fall off.’
I turned my gaze to the locks on the first prisoner, an emaciated green elf. As I looked, the chains fell from her arms and legs. Aanda appeared at my side with a cup of water which he put to her lips.
‘Gently little sister. Too much at once will make you ill.’
‘I know’ she whispered. ‘But we have had no water since yesterday morning.’ Then she reached for my arm. ‘Help the little one. The rest of us can wait. But she’s really sick.’
‘In the far back corner.’
Aanma followed me with a light held high and we found a tiny imp with its arms around the neck of a woolly hound pup. Neither looked too good.
‘Aanma. Go through the portal and alert Owl. Owl, plus Cat with a bucket of raw meat scraps.’
He put down the lantern and ran as if his life depended on it. I looked at the chain around the two infants and as it fell apart I dropped to my knees in front of them. I held out my arms and the imp crawled shyly into them. I picked her up as gently as I could, but I couldn’t carry the pup as well. Aascko appeared at my shoulder and picked up the bag of bones and fur that was all the hound consisted of. We carried them out into the clean morning air, just as Owl and Cat hurried out of the Portal. Owl took the babe from my arms and opened her garment. ‘Don’t let her eat too much at once’ I instructed.
‘No. I know. Little by little.’
Cat crouched in front of the puppy and offered it a small bit of meat. It sniffed suspiciously before grabbing the meat and wolfing it.
‘Owl’ I said quietly ‘make sure you shade that little one’s eyes. She has been in the dark for overlong.’
Knowing we could leave Owl and Cat to it, Aascko and I hurried back into the grimness of the prison. It didn’t get any better and by the time I had seen every prisoner released I was on the verge of tears. But I pulled myself together and Aascko and I went through the Portal to our own garden where a pavilion had sprung up as if by magic and our drones were ensuring that every one was drinking warm honey-sweetened milk. My first concern was the imp, who was asleep in Owl’s arms. She looked a little better and I thought a gentle warm bath, with some herbs in the water, might help her breathing. I gave the orders for the water and left Owl to gently bathe the emaciated little body. Cat was nearby with the hound puppy asleep on her feet.
‘The imps want to come help’ she said.
‘Well. Let them. Owlet was very helpful to us when we were dealing with the captives from the cave.’
Then I began the serious work of dressing wounds, wounds caused by manacles and leg irons, wounds caused by whips and scourges. Wounds gone bad because of poor hygiene and lack of food and water. I worked for a very long time, with Aascko and Aaspen at my elbow, but eventually every creature had been seen. None seemed in danger except the imp and her puppy. I straightened my back and smiled wearily.
‘Nearly done. Just want to have another look at the imp and the hound.’
Aascko hugged me warmly. ‘That’s my girl.’
The babe had just awoken and was crying fretfully. I held out my arms and Owl passed her to me.
‘Her skin is very sore’ she whispered.
‘Oh. The poor little love. Aascko can you get the camomile oil please?’
He dashed off and I laid the mite in my lap. Her skin was, indeed, horribly inflamed and itchy.
‘Mostly dehydration’ I said sturdily. ‘I think she’ll pull through.’
Aascko returned and I signalled for him to pour some oil into the palm of my hand. He obliged and I anointed the babe’s skin before beginning to massage her gently.
‘Owl’ I said. ‘How much have you fed her?’
‘Three times. Just a very little at a time.’
‘Good. You can try her with a bit more in an hour. Until then, get a soft old sheet and we’ll wrap her loosely, and put her in Owlet’s nice soft bed. If one of the other imps will get in and cuddle her gently so much the better.’
Owl scooted off and I carried on gently rubbing oil into the baby’s skin. I felt something against my leg and I realised the puppy had crept over.
‘Lift the puppy up Aascko’ I said. ‘I think this babe needs to see that its only friend is OK.’
My Mate obliged and the imp’s eyes fluttered open.
‘Look’ I said. ‘Puppy is fine.’
The imp smiled and relaxed under my hands. Aascko stroked the ugly little pup.
‘It’s a scruffy little mutt and it niffs a bit, but it seems admirably faithful.’
‘Yeah. Can you give it a bath and dry it gently. I think the imp will only really relax with it beside her.’
‘You could be right.’ He scratched the pup’s ears and took it carefully away.
Owl came back with a soft linen sheet, Owlet’s bed, and Puma in tow. I wrapped the skinny little imp and laid her in the soft fluff. Puma climbed in with her and sat stroking her head and singing softly. I patted her crest.
‘Puma is a good imp.’
Going over to where Aascko was gently shampooing the puppy, I sat on the ground with a big soft towel in my lap.
‘It’s a girl hound’ he said, then put the wet mutt on the towel, and handed me another. I gently towelled the pathetically bony pup feeling for any injuries. I was so pleased to find that the creature was whole, if underweight and dehydrated.
‘You’ll do little one’ I said and when she was as dry as I could make her I fed her judiciously and allowed her to relieve herself before wrapping her loosely in another dry towel and putting her carefully in Owl’s bed beside Puma and the poorly imp. Puma put a small hand on her ugly head.
‘Hello Puppy’ she said softly. ‘You can go sleep now. Puma will watch over friend.’
I had to blink away a tear before I could carry on.
Ambriel beckoned me and I went and stood looking up into his face.
‘I have’ he said ‘witnessed the worst and the best today. And that imp singing to the sick one all but brought me to tears.’
‘Me too’ I admitted. ‘Do we know to whom the poorly little one belongs?’
He looked as if he was chewing something bad. ‘Oh yes. We know. Her Mother was a very young female of the People, who was gang raped by who knows who. That vermin Aasken decided the babe was unsaleable because of her light eyes and the Mother was too badly damaged by the rape and the birth to be of any value. So he threw them in the dungeon. The Mother died there. Now nobody wants the little one.’
‘Oh yes they do’ I said sturdily. ‘We want her. She can be part of our family.’
‘She can indeed’ Aascko spoke from just behind me. ‘We will welcome her. And love her. Her and her ugly canine friend.’
Ambriel smiled on us and for a moment I felt as if the sun was shining just for me. I pulled myself together and felt for my Mate’s hand.
‘I guess we now need to start sorting out the rest of the slaves. Not many are fit to go anywhere until they have at least had a good night’s sleep and a couple of nourishing meals. I just don’t know where we can put them.’
Then I had a thought.
‘Or perhaps I do.’ I looked into Aascko’s face. ‘How about next door?’
‘Why not indeed?’ Then he looked up at Ambriel. ‘A gateway in the wall over there would be an enormous help.’
The Angel gestured negligently and the wall grew a set of wide double gates.
I beckoned to Cat, who was hovering.
‘We need a place for the rescued ones to sleep.’
She was quick on the uptake. ‘My old nest is built on the archaic model where all the walls can be rolled away. I’ll get the drones on it. And there are portable cots in store and many blankets and pillows.’
She bustled off and Aascko scratched his crest.
‘She looks so much better’ he said meditatively.
‘She can help somebody. Makes her feel needed. She is always going to be frail, but the more useful she can be to us the happier and stronger she will become.’
‘Very true, little Huntress’ Ambriel was expansive. ‘And now I must leave you. I am summoned to give an account of today’s happenings. It isn’t going to go down too well…’
I looked at him straitly. ‘Do you think you could manage to take off without overturning the cradle?’
‘Well do so then…’
He actually laughed and patted my crest before lifting off with minimal disturbance. Aascko swatted my backside quite hard.
‘Will you at least warn me before you pick a fight with an Angel.’
‘Wasn’t picking a fight. He knows how I feel about excessive downdraught, but this time I really was thinking about the rescued ones and the babes.’
‘Oh. OK. I think.’
I laughed and went to check on the basket of sleeping imps. Puma was asleep now, but it was noticeable that she had a protective arm around the tiny imp and the other hand on the head of the pup. Tiger and Owlet sat beside the basket.
‘We keeping watch’ Owlet whispered.
He pulled on my hand. ‘Mother. Do that baby one have a Mother or a Father?’
‘She didn’t. But she does now. She is your nest sister now.’
‘Good. Do she have a name?’
‘No love. Why?’
‘Me and Tiger and Puma wants to call her Silver because of her eyes.’
‘Very well, then. We shall.’
He and Tiger turned faces of shining joy towards me and I rubbed their crests. Owl arrived beside me and indicated she would like a private word.
‘What is it?’
‘That imp. Is she blind? I wondered because of how light her eyes are.’
‘No I’ve checked. She can see fine. I can understand your thought, but she isn’t an albino, just pale. By the way, Aascko and I have adopted her. Her name is Silver.’
Owl embraced me.
‘I hoped you would. The imps and I already love her. But why Silver?’
‘The imps named her for her eyes.’
Owl had recourse to her kerchief. ‘Sometimes those little sods amaze me.’
‘Me too. Me and the Angel Ambriel.’