A curse spreads among the people; 'blight' ravages the land. (Old Draft.)
|The next thing I knew I found myself in bed, still dressed. I smelled the pine, saw a bluebird on the window sill. I had not seen or smelled these for so long, I smiled with relish, not realizing why.
I stretched, and every muscle in my body refused to respond properly. They moved, but felt like fire as they did. My throat burned, and my voice rasped as I cried for my husband. "Drensen!"
A guard stepped in to the room. "Milady, Duke Drensen will be summoned at once. I am told to inform you, all is well."
I puzzled at the strange view in the window as I thought of the night before. Everything within a fortnight's ride had withered and died, even the musty smell in the castle had been burned away by the dreadful blight. I had not even seen a bird in weeks. I could not guess how the scene out my window had healed overnight, but that could wait. I needed to know what had happened to Carl.
I struggled to get up, and only managed to raise myself to a seated position by the time my dashing duke arrived. He looked inspiring, with his golden hair like a crown, and his eyes blue like the cloudless sky, and the silver glitter of his armor. I sometimes thought him a statue of what a leader should look like. "Carolie, my dear," he said, rushing to my side, his blue eyes calming me. "Do not trouble yourself, you need your rest."
I noticed lightning burns on his armor and hands. "I need to see my son. He is not well."
"Oh, Carolie. Now is not the time. Our son has attacked you, done terrible damage."
I looked down at my dress, and considered my condition. I had been damaged, I agreed, but not by lightning. "He did not do this."
He dropped his chin slightly in disappointment. My duke knew well how to hold his passions, but I knew his heart. "You cannot be sure of that."
"I know the difference between scorch marks and-" I paused, at a loss for words to describe what had happened to me. I noticed black charcoal where I laid my hand on the bedding. "Whatever this is, I don't know, but it's not his style."
"I am schooled in spellcraft, toward evaluating hostile sorcerers. The first thing my father taught me, is that none may predict a sorcerer's limits, especially one so young." The clouds in the scene behind him grew and darkened, and the blue bird flew away, to be replaced by a translucent shadow raven, that looked at me as if it were ready to devour my essence.
My head ached again. Everything Drensen said made perfect sense, but it did not matter. "I have to see him."
His expression changed not at all, that I could see, but now I read guilt and fear. "You will not. There is nothing I can do."
Bad weeds. "There might be one thing."
He shook his head. "Don't go there."
"It's the blight. There's only one place you can escape it."
"Gregor warned me about this. That old man has retired. He's a farmer, now."
"Verdenten is a wizard, one of the best. And, even if he is a farmer, who better to save my boy from a crop disease?"
He huffed in spite of himself. "Duchess Carolie, there are things you do not understand. I am handling this as well as can be done."
"Our son is dying! I have to save him."
His voice went soft. "Don't you think I know that? People die. Not everybody can be saved."
"But Carl can!"
He dropped his head. This was what always happened; every time we talked about something important. "You need to rest." He turned with a swish of blue cape, and walked out.
"No, no you don't. You don't get to close down like this. This is too important, do you hear me?"
I heard the door slip shut and the sound of metal scraping against metal, like a lock. I rose, fighting my legs every step of the way to the door. It was locked.
"What? What is this?" Since when was there a lock on our bedroom door?
Nobody answered, or perhaps the gathering clouds did. They blocked out the sun, and it started to rain. Tears gathered and began to burn in the bridge of my nose. I hobbled to the window where the vampiric shadow raven sat. The bird flew away as I tried to reach through the illusory window. The entire room wavered, like a reflection in a pool as I felt the stone of the dungeon wall stop my hand.
Even dark, gloomy, and wet, the illusion was beautiful: the world had not been so alive in months. But I clung to the reality instead, holding the cold, damp stone for dear life and drawing strength from the source of power. This is where it leads. I let him keep me in the dark, let him have his privacy, and now he can't even let me know I'm in the dungeon. I looked around. This can't be normal. We don't do this for our ordinary prisoners.
The thought of my dear son, Carl, clinging for life, and of my heroic Duke keeping me away from him, oppressed me. The tears burned until at last I had to let them go. Between sobs, I cried out, "Help!" Though I knew nobody would hear me.
In time I heard Kissla's voice, snickering. "Milady? I think maybe I have found you in the dungeon? Maybe you are wanting rescue?"
I sniffed, and pulled myself together. "It's okay, Kissla. I don't blame you if you can't."
I heard clicking and scratching, and a note of mirth in Kissla's normally serious voice. "I think, milady maybe will be surprised." The door came open.
I ran to her and grabbed her in my arms, and looked at her like I had never seen her before, admired her long brown hair and her deep brown eyes. Her pupils seemed to grow as they gazed at me, far too long. "Thank you! But, how?"
She looked at the room in surprise, then shook her head, and slapped me in the back of mine. "I am always retrieving my dumber friends," she said, pulling me away. "But never I think, maybe, it will be milady in the footlocker. And with such nice decoration!"
She seemed taller than usual, and larger. "Wait, what?"
"Maybe it's good to be confused. Maybe you will want to hurry, before they find us?"
That made sense. I wiped the tears away, and followed. She led- no, dragged- me into a linen closet in an abandoned corner of the castle. Moth-eaten clothes from three hundred years ago hung there, alongside a variety of newer clothes. The new ones were all different, ranging from peasant costumes, church robes, magistrate garb, and light leather armors; all manner of uniforms, all roughly Kissla's size. I also saw silverware and golden goblets that had gone missing since our marriage; and a few odd boxes in the back.
"I've got to find Carl."
Kissla tilted her head sideways at me, and stifled a giggle. "I think, maybe, milady needs to wait here." Slowly, her act was changing, becoming more natural, like peeling a disguise off piece by piece.
"No, really," I said, reaching for the door.
Kissla grabbed me and threw me. It started forceful, like a wrestling move. Her grip was hard as a hawk's talon, but ended more like a dance move as I touched the back wall. She pushed me against the wall, and put her face far too close to mine, almost like a lover. Her eyes held me as hard as her grip. Her fire had never gone, it had merely been hidden: this was the real Kissla, the one I knew from childhood. "I am, maybe, needing to know how serious is milady. Drensen maybe, he is very much wanting you to stay where you are." The silly 'maybes' were all that was left of the washerwoman game she had been playing.
"I don’t understand."
"I’m sorry, that’s my fault. We decided it was best if you didn’t know what we were doing. Washerwoman’s an act. Now, give me the goods."
My head still spun. I did not understand what was going on, but the tears came back and I let go. "I don’t know. Carl is dying, and Drensen, it’s like he’s—I don’t know. Is he under Gregor’s spell?"
"The plan? There needs to be a plan— even a nicer like you would know that." She hit a hard note when she said 'nicer'; she didn't mean it as a compliment. She punched me playfully in the shoulder.
"Huh, what? I have to get him to Verdenten. He’ll know what to do."
She nodded. "Good as gold. Because he’s the only one who held back the blight, unlike Gregor's syndicate. Cabal. Whatever."
"So, you’ll let me go?"
She laughed, and looked down, stroking her forehead. "In what bard’s song can you get Carl out of his bed, with every one of Drensen’s guards between the two of you?"
That's the point where she began to make sense. "But you: you’re out collecting laundry."
"You’re a quick study, Kid." She tapped the tip of my nose. Still aggressive, she warmed to me a bit. "You’ll be initiated into the People of the Shadows before you know it."
The People of the Shadows? The thieves' guild? What do they— "So, what, I just wait here?" The plan did not feel right.
"Wanna see your son?"
I guess she took that as agreement to her plan, because she put her ear to the door, then popped out. She shut the door behind her in a flash, silent as a memory of a forgotten dream. The flash of spirit did little to ease my worries. Will her will last? I despaired of her being able to keep any secret for long, especially against Drensen. He could charm any man or woman, friend or foe, but especially Kissla. I wasn't a total 'nicer' - I guessed she meant fool - I saw how she looked at my husband, like a hungry cat stalking a baby bird. I took a deep breath and looked around at all the stuff she had collected here. There were more boxes than I guessed. One in particular, in the farthest corner, caught my eye, carved of onyx with a golden clasp. No bigger than my fist, it sat under a loosely tied bag.
I picked up the bag. A puff of dust came out, causing me to cough, and choke. My eyes crossed and my knees went weak; I had to breathe in the power to stay awake. I supposed that was meant to protect whatever was in the box beneath it.
I picked it up, and considered. Should I invade her privacy? I told myself that everything in this place seemed to belong to my family, so it could not be so bad. I opened it, and gasped in angry shock.
A star-signet ring pulsing blue and red, which I would never forget, though I had not seen it in over a decade. "My wedding ring?" It had disappeared from my finger the night of my honeymoon, as I slept. I laughed at the interplay of betrayal and relief as I put on my ring. "At least, I know she can keep a secret."
At last she arrived. "You’re more a thief that I gave you credit for," she whispered, as she dragged Carl in.
I grabbed my boy. So she was one of the 'People of the Shadows,' then. "Back at you," I said, hugging my son to me. We were nearly too late, he had lost so much weight; he felt like a bag of bones, and I could not feel his life force.
She advanced on me, past Carl, and backed me into the corner. Her voice had a strange whine. "It was ours before it was yours, the symbol of my family, before either of us were even born!" She stomped away, looked at the door for a moment, and took a deep breath.
She growled in frustration, and turned on me, backing me against the wall. Her whisper somehow had the same effect as a roar. She poked me in the chest, again and again. "If you’re the nicer, how do you end up with everything that belongs to me?"
"I’m sorry if I hurt you," I said, pulling off the ring. "This: it’s yours?"
She softened, and kissed me; I suddenly realized what I had seen in her eyes before. Both our faces burned red. I put my hand on her shoulder, to soothe her, and shied away from her eyes. "I think I know how come you, um, let me get the better of you."
She turned away from me in embarrassment, and dabbed at her eyes. "Keep the ring. It’s not dangerous anymore. Almost too bad, but maybe it will help." She tied a knot around Carl’s wrist and handed the other end of the rope to me, then put her ear to the door for a second, and beckoned me to follow. "Keep quiet; move fast. We get one chance to do this right."
I did not hear Carl walk behind me. When I looked back, it seemed for one horrible moment as if he were flying an inch above the ground, then my eyes adjusted. His ghost-blue eyes looked wrong; his hair didn’t crackle. Not a spark on his entire body. He remained, barely alive, but each moment threatened to steal him from me.
"Halt! Who goes there! Milady, you must come with me." The guard, Merrick, held out a dagger at Kissla. "Kissla, stand down."
Kissla pouted and slouched, cringing away. "You are confused, maybe. Kissla is little washer woman. Guard is maybe not needing big, sharp dagger for to talk to little helpless washer woman."
"Nobody buys your washer-woman guise," he scoffed. "And I am not interested in going out with the laundry."
Kissla stood tall, and shrugged. "It’s not a ruse," she said, grabbing his wrist and wringing it until it snapped. "I do wash the clothes. Strengthens the grip." Then she smacked him in the nose with another of those bags of dust.
Merrick fell like a sack of potatoes.
Kissla glanced at my face and shrugged. "You want out of here or not? It’s a lot easier than what Drensen would do, if Merrick let us go. Now, work your magic, before the pain wakes him."
I balked. "That’s not what my gift is for, to win a fight."
"We don’t have time for this." She pulled the dagger out of her right sleeve, and wielding it in her left hand, pointed downward under his shoulder blade. "He got hurt in the line of duty; we owe him. And if you don’t do it your way, I’ll put him down."
I coughed in horror, wondering if I had ever known Kissla. I pulled Carl with me as I knelt down beside Merrick, and unleashed my gift. Immediately, his spirit accepted the healing. I could hear his tormented breathing smooth out.
As soon as I released him, Kissla scraped a star into his armor, the same star from my, or rather her, ring. "This way, Drensen’ll know whom to blame, and go easy on him." Then she grabbed me suddenly, and we were off.
Panting, drawing on the source for the strength to keep up, I had to ask. "Would you really have...?"
Vehement, she answered, "Bloodstains never come clean."
Heartfelt, despite a brave cover. Clearly, she had found out the hard way. I accepted her answer as we ran down one corridor and another, going deeper into the castle. She pulled me around a corner. I stumbled and fell, breaking my ankle, falling head first. I cried out a bit, surprised by the pain but not concerned; it was far more painful to watch it happen to others.
She stopped and shot me a look of defeat, believing that we had been caught.
I reached deep into the source, pulling the life force into my ankle. The wound boiled for a moment, then disappeared- good as new. For some reason Carl stood there, still tied to me, never having fallen.
She reached out her hand. Her voice roiled with anger. "That lying son of a dragon!" She pulled me back to my feet and we were off again.
"Drensen said you couldn’t..." Kissla shrugged, still pulling me. "...do that. -to yourself."
I gulped extra air to talk. "That’s important?"
"You have no idea." She dragged me onward until we came to a dead end. "Here we are."
"I don't understand." A painful chorus. "I thought we were going out."
She puffed up with pride, like a little girl showing what she had done. "This must be as old as the castle itself. Took six hours to get it working. A secret door!" She pushed a brick, and sure enough, something clicked. She pushed the wall of the dead end outward, to reveal a musty, wet tunnel. Even the blight had not found this place!
Kissla bowed and offered me the dagger from her sleeve.
Looking at the dagger made my skin crawl. I put my hand up to block it from my vision, and shook my head. "You have your way, I have mine."
She cocked her head again, and smirked at me, that warm hearted, tilted smile. For that instant, it was like I was thirteen again. "Suit yourself, Kid Care," she said, tapping my chin with her knuckles. "Just be sure to take care of yourself. Looks like you’re better at that than I gave you credit for. Sorry we missed out."
"But, you’re not coming?"
"Got my own work to do, Kid Care." She shrugged, and looked behind her. "The doors won’t open themselves, you know, and His Grace’s Laundry Service must deliver."
I knew Kissla would explain it to me if I needed to know; I still trusted her, in spite of all.
"Be sure to close the door on the other side." She closed the secret door behind me.
I realized that this was the story of my life. Always, stumbling along in the dark, down one-way passages selected for me by people I trusted.
The ladder up was not so steep, and I climbed it one handed. The lid to my escape hatch appeared to be a boulder. I rolled it back into place, and it snapped shut.
I knew the ground would be lifeless dirt, but I did not know that the sun itself had taken ill. It had a red tinge, and cast a cold, listless illumination. Nobody saw where we emerged, as we were behind a scattering of boulders. But as my sickly, emaciated son and I walked out among the people that lived in the shadow of Westwood Keep, they avoided me as if I were some kind of monster.
I knew each of them by name. They were my friends and subjects. I had mended or cured each of them countless times, yet now they would not look in my eyes. I saw a look of horror on their face when they saw me, and they formed a circle yards away from me, as if to stay out of range of my attack.
But that was okay. All that I had done for them, had been my duty, as a healer and a leader. They owed me one thing only, the chance to pursue my quest for aid. None of them moved to stop me as I walked toward the town gates.
Yet when I arrived, those gates were closed.
I called up to the guards that manned the gate. "Open the gates!"
Yet the doors would not open, and the men simply walked into the towers and closed the door.
"My son is sick! I must take him from here, to the place where he can get help."
The only answer was muttering among the villagers. A few of them left, but none would step forward in any way.
"Please! I am begging you. I have loved and cared for each of you, guards and villagers alike." I looked at each one, searching their eyes. "I do not ask you to risk, to do anything. Simply stand aside, let the door open."
One man did arrive, a stranger to town, dressed in sparkling silver chain mail, with a red cape and a strange symbol on his shirt. He carried a sword, drawn. "My lady, are you a witch?"
"Some would say that. I am the wife of the Duke, and a healer. But my son here is beyond my power to help. I seek the counsel of the wizard Verdenten."
"Your Grace, I beg your indulgence. If you be not a black magician, I believe you to be in grave danger."
"It is my son that is in danger."
"What manner of sorcery is this?" He cocked his head to listen to one of the villagers. "Your Grace, Carolie, please. Move away from this, ah, boy."
"I must get him away from the town."
The stranger seemed stricken, as he gripped his forehead. "Yes, yes. That would be a good idea. Would you allow me to accompany you?"
I saw no reason to refuse. "Of course."
"Ahoy! Guardsmen, release us!"
The only answer the guard gave was silence.
"This is an affront! If you will not grant me passage, at least grant me an audience. I believe that is my right."
The stranger grew still more frustrated. "Have you no honor? What manner of men does this family keep? No offense to you, your grace."
At that, a crossbow bolt flew above our heads into the door to the guard tower. From it, a flag unfurled. Then, another bolt flew, trailing a rope from out of the shadows. Whoever sent it pulled it tight- we could not see the marksman from there.
The guard opened the door to look at the flag, pulled it from the door, and looked in alarm at the rope, dropping the flag and slamming the door. Immediately, the gates began to open.
The stranger retrieved the flag, and showed it to me. "Does this mean a thing to you? I recognize it, but it does not make sense."
Kissla's signet star. "It is the personal sign of our washerwoman. Apparently, the guards do not wish to be taken out with His Grace's Laundry Service."
"There must be some mistake, your grace. You say your washer woman dares to use the sign of The Wraith as her personal symbol?" The stranger let out a long, low whistle. "I would not confront her lightly, either."
My head swam with mysteries and questions that were larger than the entire world I knew, but I had to hold off. Carl was the only thing that mattered now. I walked out into the empty spaces of Westwood.
"Your grace, I implore you. Your son, he is beyond help. Nobody can be restored from this point. Please, allow me to dispatch him, that his spirit may be free."
I looked at the stranger, and at the skeletal form of my son. A shiver ran down my spine. "I choose to believe better. I have never lost a patient, not a human. Never."
"Your grace, may I ask. Do you trust this wizard Verdenten?"
"He is among my oldest friends, and most honest. I do."
"Good. There are many dangers along the road. I fear you may not be well equipped to meet them. I must accompany you to meet this man."
Continue: "Section 3: The Chosen"