People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
I am a wanderer.
Sword-for-hire is the term some use, usually those grouped about the hearth at the roadside inns. They look at me with suspicion or envy or admiration glowing out of their fire-reflecting eyes, the men and the women too. Better than serving ale and getting squeezed by bored male travelers, the women say. Better than pushing scrolls around a desk or plowing the fields or fawning before some lordling, the men say.
The political types just use the term "mercenary." Blunt, but more accurate than the other. And they are hardly in a position to pass judgment; after all, they hire me.
But really what I am is a wanderer. No hearth to call my own, and no living soul shares blood tie with me.
The last job had drained me, once again caught up in political intricacies that had little to do with me. The important thing was to turn off my emotions -- it made the blood staining the woven cloth of my tunic easier to ignore. The blood was not my own. It belonged to someone who would now no longer miss its lack; nor would the subjects drunk with their first taste of freedom in thirty years.
The storm came like a vengeful enemy, a vicious smoky cloud that loomed and then exploded rain and flashes of light. I steadied my horse as she shied, then pulled up the hood of my cloak. The horse was stolen for my escape, of course. In this business having your own horse could be a liability. They were expensive to house, for one, and difficult to keep quiet. I usually borrowed, stole, or leased my mounts according to need.
Besides, if truth be told, I liked the beasts. Hate to have to kill my own if it were lamed by an enemy's arrow.
The wind increased, causing the mare's hooves to slide on the muddied, slick road. The rain seemed to pelt like gravel, and the last vestiges of the sunset was swallowed into ashy night. A furious crash of thunder and the mare screamed, rearing, and the reins and saddle wet as they were, I lost my grip. The world became a somersault confusion of flapping reins, lightning, and mud, and then there I was, sitting in the road while the horse galloped off in a complete panic.
Cursing in a stream steady as the rain dripping down my chin, I began to walk. My provisions were in a saddlebag on the thrice-damned horse; I would have to find shelter.
At least the rain helped wash off the blood.
The dense, ancient woods that lined the road thinned, and a castle appeared abruptly, emerging from the murk as I reached the top of a rise in the road. Four eight-sided towers stood firmly against the rain with straight walls in between, overgrown with ivy. Only one arrow-slit shone yellow with candlelight; otherwise the fortification appeared deserted. Parkland with wildly overgrown trees and a crumbling stone bridge across an over-swollen creek suggested happier times now gone.
A sunken depression in the grass, filled with a hand's width of rainwater was the only sign of a moat. I plodded soddenly to the gatehouse and pounded on the door with my leather-covered fist.
It seemed like a long time before anyone answered. I began to shiver. Then the view hole in the door slid aside.
"Yes?" an unfriendly voice asked as a pair of icy blue eyes peered out at me.
"I require shelter for the night. My horse ran off and I am lost. This storm is terrible..."
For a moment the eyes just studied me. Lightning flashed, making the eyes glint with blue fire.
So, the helpless female routine didn't work on everyone. Maybe I should have removed my chest armor.
"Come in," he grunted. The little window snapped shut and the door creaked open as if it had been years since the hinges had last been used.
Torchlight flowed outward, limpid and molten, leaving my savior in silhouette. It was not until I followed him inside and he replaced the torch in a sconce on the wall that I got a better look at him. He was tall and reed-thin, with a nose as straight and aristocratic as a high-bred, delicate horse. He wore all brown, except for the solid gold belt buckled about his waist. His hands were slender but callused--by the look of him probably from sword-play, not laboring in the fields. He hadn't the complexion for the latter.
"There's no one here at the moment but me," he said, leading me along the torch-lit entry hall. The castle was drafty and I began to shiver for real. "The servants leave before sunset. You can use any room you want. Everything's been shut up. Might be a little musty."
"Thank you, sir..."
He made a sound that was half-grunt, half sigh, as if this was more than he ought to be bothered with. "My name is Harwyn. I am the owner of this castle and its lands."
He reminded me of a lover I'd had once, a quick encounter that was quickly regretted. Self-absorbed, convinced that everything bad happening to him was because no one recognized his astounding nobility.
"Call my Bryn," I said.
"You may help yourself to whatever's in the kitchens," he continued, as if I hadn't spoken. "Leave a gold piece for what you take." One last sharp, blue-eyed glance slashed at me, and then he took a torch from the wall and wandered away, leaving me alone as my clothes dripped a puddle on the stone floor.
I cursed under my breath; he hadn't given me the chance to ask him about kindling for a fire. Oh well. I would work it out for myself -- I had slept in rougher, more cramped, and much more dangerous places than empty castles with surly masters.
Taking another torch, I went through a little wooden door and up a short flight of stone steps. The shadows flickered around me as I stepped under the low stone arch at the top of the steps.
There was a room there, like a solarium or a library. Not so large as to be inhospitable, but with ceilings so high I could barely make out the vaults. A stained-glass window edged by clear glass so as to let normal light in rose almost from the floor to about three times my height. Rain battered at the glass. In daylight, with sun streaming through it, it would be magnificent. Even in the golden-red dance of the firelight, the colors in the stained glass pattern were rich and glowing. It was a hunting scene, one where, I was pleased to see, ladies rode alongside the lords. They hunted a unicorn through a wood, and the artist had portrayed the beast as a worthy quarry, muscular but slim, head thrown back in defiance, horn very sharp and deadly-looking. Lightning flashed outside, transforming the scene, giving the illusion of movement. It was a beautiful window, and I had the feeling I had seen it somewhere before.
~We always loved that window the best.~
I whirled, fumbling for my sword.
The room was empty. The last vestiges of the whisper, spoken in a sweet, light voice, faded.
"Who's there?" I demanded, advancing now with sword raised.
A laugh, a different voice, deeper but also feminine, echoed very softly through the room and was lost among the ceiling vaults.
I turned this way and that, then made a deliberate circle of the room. There were bookshelves covering one wall, filled with leather-bound, gilt-edged volumes whose titles I could not read. Books were for monks and nuns, or those who had much money, no work, and knew not what to do with their time. Still, they were lovely to look at. Temporarily off-guard, I let my gloved hand, the one not holding my sword, touch the edges of one of the volumes.
It hit me in one all-consuming wave, a sudden dizziness that brought me to my knees, gasping for breath. I rammed my sword tip into a crack in the stone floor and grasped the pommel, trying to keep myself from falling.
The image was so clear, like one of my own memories. But I could not read -- I could not, I had never learned. I saw a woman's hands, not my own but one who could have been about my age, turning the pages of the volume I had just touched. Sunlight struck the page; the color and intensity of the light suggested it was high summer. I could read the words in their neat, dark rows. It was a story often told around the hearth in the inns and taverns. I had heard it many times, especially from one particular story teller with a liking for ale, women, and tales, in no particular order, who had fingers as deft as his words. But I had never seen the words on a page before.
When the image vanished like water on a hot cooking stone, the dizziness was abruptly gone. I got to my feet, taking deep breaths, scolding myself mentally for my pounding heart. "What, are you some helpless git to faint and tremble at the whistling of the wind?" I didn't hold much with superstition. Salt was only to make the meat taste better, and no cross ever did me any good save to use as kindling when stranded in a crumbling church in a blizzard. But I had heard traveler's accounts of ghosts. I never believed.
With a mighty shrug, I shook off the thought and left the room. Ridiculous.
In no time at all, I had found a room that suited me, small but not cramped, snug and warm, with a big fireplace. I removed my armor, leaving it to dry in the corner, and stripped down to my skin before crawling into the big bed and drawing the wine-colored hangings closed. The fire would have to wait; there had been no wood in the box, and my scruples stopped at deliberately burning another's furniture when they had offered me shelter for the night and were still in residence.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought how strange it was that the stained glass window had looked so familiar.
* * *
~No air. Gasping. Hands raw from beating on the stone. Throat raw from screaming. It was so dark. So close. Panic, terror, fury. What about the others? What had he done to them? Had to get out, had to warn them. He would pay for this. He would pay. No air. A tightness in the chest, squeezing tighter. Sleepy. So sleepy. Fingers still curled against the stone, still looking for the square of wood, the only hope, but invisible in the pitch blackness. And then, nothingness.~
* * *
I leapt out of bed, wildly reaching for my sword, which I had left propped on the table within arm's reach. Then I stood, my body half-covered with the blankets, stupidly looking down at the blade. I was going mad. Since when was a sword used to fight against nightmares? Shadows? Wisps?
It was quiet in the castle. The storm had gone, but through the rippled glass of the window I could see only dark sky, an utter darkness that suggested the clouds were still there and pre-dawn was not far off.
~Saints help us...
please, someone, help...
God, please don't let us die...
My hands fumbled in their haste as I pulled on my woven shirt and tunic and boots. I found flint on the hearth and re-lit the torch. Sword in one hand, not bothering with the belt, I hurried from the room.
They were here, in the castle, somewhere. Trapped, and dying. Riana, that was the one in the oubliette, only he'd sealed up the cracks in the trap door, sealed them with wax, so she couldn't breath...the other three, they were someplace else, hoping Riana would come, that Riana was all right, only Riana hadn't come.
I paused at the end of a corridor, considering. Steps led up ahead of me. To my right stretched another corridor. The torchlight danced frantic shadows on the dark tapestry covering the walls.
Down. I should be going down. To the dungeons. To...there was a waterway, under the castle. An underground lake, used to feed the moat, but blocked off. Sealed.
I took the corridor, and quickly found steps leading down. Farther and farther down.
The darkness was even deeper here, if that were possible. The torch seemed to glow less brightly, as if shrinking against the great shadows. It smelled of moss and algae and dampness, of rotting wood.
I found the others first. Found the wooden slats that had been nailed over the head of the trough that ran across the cellar floors and out through a weed-choked arch which led in fresh air from outside. That was where the water had fed the moat. It was short work with the sword to pry off the slats. I jumped down into the trough and ducked my head, entering the cave-like opening.
The lake was little more than a pond now. In the torch-light I could see the water-stains on the pillars showing where the water level used to be. Dead moss, barnacles, and dead weeds that ran up the walls to the ceiling revealed that the chamber at one time periodically filled with water.
One of the boards I had just pried apart was under my boot. On impulse, I knelt and turned it over. There were thin lines etched into the soft, old wood. Several marks, about half-an inch apart. At the edge of the piece were other marks, and the wood had splintered away where I had not touched it. I ran my bare finger over the splinters and the indentations.
They were teeth marks. The other ones, the regularly-spaced lines, had been made by finger nails.
I dropped the board and put my hand to my face.
A tickle, perhaps a breath of wind from outside, stirred my hair where it lay tumbled loose over my shoulders. It was oddly comforting, and smelled of peace after a storm.
~I know it's hard, but we must do this.~
Sword hanging in a loose grip at my side, I stepped closer to the ebony water of the tiny lake. I saw them. At first it seemed to be a bundle of discarded clothes, but as I got closer I saw what it really was.
They lay on the shore near each other, arms outflung, as if they had tried to stay close as it happened. Most likely the tide had come from the sea nearby, filling the estuaries, filling the river, which fed into streams that formed the underground lake. The water had risen--and kept on rising, and with the outlet blocked it had gone very quickly.
So young--from the looks of it, they had been barely into their teens. Three girls, calling out to the heavens, to God, to their older sister, for salvation.
Anya, Rebecca, Erin.
I stepped back, the smell suddenly touching my nostrils.
How had I known Riana was the oldest?
How had I known their names?
~Because I told them to you.~
"What? Who are you?" My voice sounded shrill to my own ears, echoing in the cavern.
~I think you know.~
A pause, as if she were thinking.
~Look in the oubliette.~
So I did. I left the underground chamber and made my way up one level to the dungeons. It did not surprise me, seeing the crumbled bits of wax on the dirt. It did not shock me as I pried up the boards and found Riana inside. The airlessness had preserved her better than the others, and though I tried not to look, I wanted to know. I could make out the long, thick brown hair, the slender form beneath the finely woven dress, the oval, symmetrical face that must have once been beautiful but was now beginning to rot.
I quickly let the trapdoor bang down. I shuddered, again and again. I squeezed my eyes shut and bit down hard on my hand, quelling the urge to retch. I, who had killed kings and queens. I, who had watched soldiers die.
"You are brave." A soft touch on my shoulder made me snap my eyes open. I turned, slowly. "I'm sorry you have to suffer like this, on my behalf, but we needed help."
A woman stood there, of about my height and age. She wore her hair loose over her shoulders, as I did. She wore a dress of the same pattern as the one covering the wormfood in the oubliette.
"Riana," I said.
"Yes." She nodded, then gave me a faint smile. "And I already know your name, or at least what you call yourself these days, Bryn. That's not your real name, is it?"
"No, my name changes often."
I looked her up and down. She looked solid enough, and the only glow in the dungeons was from my torch. Tentatively, I reached out and touched her arm. My finger passed through her.
Riana sighed and shook her head, looking down at my hand inside her arm. "Rather redundant, to say that being dead is a terrible situation to be stuck in."
A single, short laugh burst from me as I drew my hand back. It was not one of hysteria. Something about Riana made me feel comfortable, as if I could talk to her -- trust her. As if we were sisters.
Again, a faint smile, but no more. Her eyes were sad. "My sisters?"
I swallowed. "I...found them. Trapped in the underground lake chamber. Who did this? Someone killed you, and killed them. Nailed the openings shut. Sealed the cracks with wax, so you would suffocate."
"It was Harwyn, of course!" a youthful voice said indignantly from behind me.
I spun around and saw three younger women. The one who had spoken, evidently, had her fists on her hips, her brow lowered with anger. The other two nodded vehemently.
The girls ran to their sister, laughing, and all four merged temporarily into one for a quick embrace. They all had the same chestnut-brown hair, except the smallest, whose hair was more russet.
At last they pulled apart. "Bryn, this is Anya." The smallest, with the reddish hair, curtseyed perfectly. "And Rebecca. And Erin." The other two turned their brown eyes on me and their jaws dropped faintly. Then they looked at their sister. "Is she the one, Riana?"
"Yes. She's the one."
"Explain," I said, a bit sharply. "I am tired. I come to a castle where I have never visited in my life, only to find I have a memory of reading here--I do not know how to read. I have seen the stained-glass window before. I heard voices, whispering. I had a nightmare..." I faltered a moment and my glance flickered to Riana, who met my gaze unflinching. "...and then I knew all your names, if not who you were. I thought you were somewhere in the castle, trapped and dying, and I had to save you. At least, you once were...how long...?"
"Ten years," said Rebecca. Her eyes went to my sword. "You are a warrior?"
"A woman?" Anya echoed, disbelieving.
"Many share that view," I snapped. "That's beside the point. I want an explanation and I want it now."
"We were waiting for you," Anya said boldly. "Well, not for you specifically, but for someone like you. Other ones came, but Riana said they were scared of Harwyn and not capable of doing what we asked."
Riana cleared her throat. "Actually, dear little sister, *I* was waiting. It was my idea. The moment you stepped into this castle, Bryn, I became you. Not completely. That is not possible. But I was inside your mind."
I put my fingers to my temples and rubbed. "This...this is madness...perhaps I am drunk...hallucinating...or dead myself..."
"No!" She took me hard by my shoulders, with a grasp so strong for one who appeared to have no corporeal form. "You must believe. We have waited for ten years. We cannot leave here--this is where we died. Harwyn is our enemy. He have had to watch him for ten years, watch him live in our home, sit in our father's chair, sell our mother's fine jewelry and gowns, as if he did not have enough money already when he inherited the Hardwyd property. Watch him and be unable to touch him. We tried haunting him. He knew it was us. We do not scare him. He mocked us. He laughed and made fun. He gloated about his triumph over his cousin and his family."
"Harwyn thought he would get the castle when our grandfather died, you see," Anya interrupted. "But of course father got it. Harwyn *hated* father."
"I hate him," Rebecca said softly. "It's wrong to hate, isn't it? Mother always said so."
"Your parents..." I prodded.
"Died long ago. The sickness," Riana said flatly. "Anya barely remembers them. We were spared, mostly because mother and father shut themselves up and refused to let us near them, refused to allow us to run the risk of infection. I suppose we were young enough that the disease passed us over."
"And after they died, then all that stood between Harwyne and inheritance...yes, in this country the holdings can pass through the female line. So all that stood before him was four little girls. He did not kill you then. Not yet. It would seem odd, the four of you surviving a plague and then dying accidentally, while he takes the holdings. No, he waited until Riana came of age. He was away for a time, while you grew up?"
Riana nodded. "Then he came back, ingratiated himself to us. Said he wanted to make up for the mistakes of the past, heal the family rift. We believed him. We had no other relatives surviving...and there was no one to arrange my marriage, you see."
"I know. But that's how things are done. Harwyne offered to act as a father, to seek out a suitable marriage for me."
"And then he killed all of you," I said. I narrowed my eyes, thinking. "Riana first, because she would be protective of the three of you. He lured you down to the dungeons on some pretense, something that needed your attention as lady of the house, a flood or rats. Then...pushed you...slammed the lid shut..." I stopped at the look on Riana's face. "And something similar for your sisters," I ended hastily.
"We fought him," said Erin fiercely. "All three of us. It was three of us against just him. We fought hard."
"I scratched him," Anya said proudly, holding up her fingers like a cat displaying her claws. "He started to bleed."
"But then he put something over my mouth," said Erin, "and I went to sleep."
The other two girls nodded agreement.
"He couldn't subdue all three of you," I said, with something like respect. "He had to use herbs to put you to sleep. He knew you'd fight."
The girls looked as if this idea hadn't occurred to them. It appeared to be a comfort.
"But what of the servants, your nurses, your teachers, those who raised you?"
"Harwyn dismissed them all immediately after our death and hired all new ones just to maintain the grounds and castle. I heard our old servants talking, after our deaths. They truly loved us, and were suspicious. But before they could do anything about it, he sent them away. He paid some mercenaries handsomely to follow them and make sure they did not return. We...do not know what happened to them after that." She closed her eyes for a moment, then composed herself and looked at me. "What a mind you have. Truly bloodthirsty. You are a mercenary yourself, correct?"
"That is my profession, yes."
She nodded, calm. "I have seen the images. Your memories. They are...not pleasant, most of them. You are a dealer of death. Some of the memories are nicer. There are a good number of men that you know, you like them, but they aren't your friends. You trust them up to a point. You...ah...enjoy their...companionship." Riana coughed.
I grinned. "It balances out the dark times."
"Lady mercenary, I wish to retain your services."
"We wish to hire you, Bryn. In payment you may take anything you like--perhaps our the stores of gold. We have no more need of it. You would not have to work again."
No more dealing in death. I could buy a house in the city. Perhaps a school where young women could learn swordplay, horsemanship, archery, fencing, strategy.
It was madness.
"The storm is over," I said, turning to go. "I must leave, I must make the meeting place, to tell them my mission was completed..."
"Bryn!" Riana hurried after me, grabbing my arm. "There is a great deal of gold."
Gently, I pried her fingers from me. "You want vengeance. That is not a good reason to hire a mercenary. But plenty do it anyway, and pay handsomely for it."
"Yes. I want vengeance," she said, her voice burning like acid.
"A great deal of gold, you say?"
I held out my hand. "We will shake on the bargain. A contract. I will kill Harwyn and in exchange I take gold from the stores."
Riana shook my hand. Her grasp was firm and confident but ice-cold. "Harwyn keeps the key on a chain around his neck. The stores are in a room beneath the kitchens. Open the trap door under the woven mat beneath the table."
So, the bargain was made, the price for my services set.
* * *
It was possible I had lost my mind, that the four sisters were a hallucination.
Over the last few years, I had been hired by an array of individuals, from those who served in the shadows performing disreputable tasks, to the most respected figures draped in velvet, those who ruled countries. Men and women, young and old, honest and crooked. I saw no difference in hiring out to ghosts or to hallucinations.
If I was insane...if the blue-eyed man were innocent...I had always killed for a reason, always paid well, always insisting on knowing why. I had never killed without knowing why. The reason for the death might not be justifiable to all, but it was justifiable to myself.
Before I killed him, I would be sure he was a murderer. There was one way to ascertain that.
* * *
"Sir! Sir Harwyn! Good sir!" I shrieked, pounding on his door.
I heard some grumbling beyond it, and took the opportunity to arrange my loose-fitting garment more appealingly.
He jerked the door open, saw me standing there, and despite the annoyance on his face, I saw his eyes go where I thought they might.
"Oh, sir, the castle...ghosts! I heard ghosts! I was sound asleep, and heard them calling me...summoning me down..." I brushed past him, wringing my hands as I went. I hoped the shape of the knife in its leather holder strapped to my thigh wasn't visible. "I went down to the dungeons and found...I found..." I let my lower lip tremble and felt the water welling up in my eyes. One month with a devastatingly handsome actor, a true artist who taught me many lessons.
"Ghosts? Ridiculous! What are you talking about, woman?"
"The ghosts...led me down where I found the bodies, oh sir, it was terrible!" I flung myself at him and sobbed onto his shoulder.
"Yes. The girls, the poor little girls. All drowned, in that cavern under the castle. There was a lake there." I felt him stiffen. "How could that have happened? They could have gotten out, couldn't they? Only it looks as if the water rose and they were trapped...so odd, someone had nailed boards over the entrance...the ghosts must have torn them loose..." I sniffed hard and pulled away.
His blue eyes watched me, sharp as a falcon's. "How odd," he said. "I had no idea anything like this was under the castle. Must be some old family murder."
"Oh," I said, letting my eyes widen innocently. "But their gowns...they looked more recent. The last ten years or so. You have lived here that long, have you not?" I cocked my head to one side, making my gaze soft and inquiring.
"How did you know how long I have lived here?" he said. "I did not tell you."
"Oh, I thought you did. Well, perhaps the ghosts..."
"Yes, the ghosts," he said. "I think you had a nightmare, miss, that's all."
"Oh, but perhaps then, in the morning, I should go to the lord constable..."
He turned away and went to the chest on one wall, his back to me for a moment. "Well, in that case let me put on a robe and we shall first go down together, you and I, and see what is what."
"Oh, no, I couldn't go back down there..."
He pulled on a red robe, stalked over to me, and took my arm. "Now, now, you want to help me get to the bottom of this, don't you?"
I allowed him to pull my along while I did more hand-wringing and crying. He endured with tight lips. I fluttered a bit more about telling the lord constable, just to be certain. He agreed curtly.
We reached the stairs that led down to the trough and the opening into the lake. I'd been expecting something, so when he shoved me suddenly, I tucked my head down and let myself roll down the steps. I felt a few scrapes and bruises, but landed at the dank bottom intact, and then lay there, eyes closed, staying limp.
After a moment, I heard his footsteps following me down. There was a rustling sound, as if he were kneeling, and then I felt his fingers touch my face as he checked to see if I were breathing.
My hand was already on the handle of the knife. With a fluid certainty, I pulled it out and thrust the blade upward at him.
The blade met another. Harwyn held a short sword just before his belly, close to his body. Our blades locked for a moment, neither giving in. He licked his lips and actually grinned at me. "I thought so," he said.
I kicked upward, contacting my bare foot with his chin. He fell backward against the wall but did not let go of his sword. I was ready when he rushed me again.
He was good. Whatever he had been doing all those years before coming back to the castle, he'd learned to fight.
I wounded him, felt the knife contact with his arm, saw the fabric tear, saw the red stain the scarlet fabric. He cursed me, breathing heavily, clutching his arm as the blood seeped through his fingers.
"How?" he asked me, his voice husky. "How did you know where to look?"
"Riana, Erin, Rebecca, and Anya."
"NO!" He screamed. "They're dead! I killed them myself!"
"If I had any doubts you were murderer, you have dispelled them for me," I said dryly, knife held loose but firm in my hand, ready. "Thank you for saving me the trouble of wondering if I had gone insane."
"Bitch!" He rushed at me. I dodged, but at the last minute he twisted, catching me a hard blow across my chin. I went sprawling, keeping hold of my knife, feeling blood trickle over my lower lip. Before I could move out of the way, his weight was upon me and I felt a searing pain in my side as the sword cut me. He drove the blade in with his weight and I cried out in pain in spite of myself. Feebly, I tried to buck him off, but there was wiry strength in his arms and he held me down.
Blood began to stain my garment. It was my blood. I began to feel dizzy.
Then his face, hovering above me, lurched, along with the stone wall behind him. A memory flashed before me, and it was not my own.
"No," I heard myself saying. "You will not kill her. She is our avatar, our avenger."
Somehow, my arm wrenched out from his grasp and the knife thrust upward. I felt it contact, felt the flesh give, felt the hot rush of blood over my fingers. But it was not I who had moved my arm.
He fell back, leaning against the wall, clutching his stomach, eyes wide and shocked, skin pale. "How...it can't be...she..." He coughed blood. "I should have inherited..." His eyes stilled. And he slumped sideways, eyes staring into nothingness.
I felt a coolness around me, like wind rushing upward. Riana was leaving me. Struggling to sit up, I leaned against the bottom step, clutching my bleeding side, wondering if I'd have the strength to get back upstairs. I felt so tired...could just go to sleep...
~You are not to sleep. You do not belong with us. Get up, mercenary. Get up!~
Yet still the sluggishness remained, as I lay in the bowels of this castle, nearby where so many others had slept. Near where my enemy now slept.
~It's not right! She can't die, not after what she's done for us!~
~You're right. We'll make her get up.~
"No," I murmured. "Lemme 'lone."
~Get up, mercenary.~
~Get up, Bryn.~
~You are our sister now. We wish for you to live. Get up.~
A touch brushed my forehead. I opened my eyes.
After a moment, I crawled over to the dead man and found the chain and the key hanging around his neck.
After a little while, my bleeding slowed. I staggered to my feet, a bitter taste in my mouth, and made my way upstairs. When I reached the kitchens, I found a cloth to bind up my wound, and then retrieved my gold. It was right where Riana had said it would be.
It was time to be going. I was eager to leave Castle Harwyd.
Clad once again in armor, my sword returned to its scabbard, dagger cleaned and put away, I paused just inside the gatehouse door, then opened it.
Dawn was just creeping up beyond the woods at the horizon, pale gold and red, wet from the moisture in the air. The sky glittered. As I passed through the portal, a fresh dawn wind brushed past my cheek in four quick gusts.
Something fluttered through my hair, and I thought I heard a soft whisper say, ~Thank you~.
I am a wanderer, a mercenary, a sword-for-hire, and no living soul shared blood-tie with me.
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