Chapter Eighteen

The first dungeon made a comfortable jail, but Mary preferred being around people. She couldn’t tell day from night, or what happened beyond her walls. Will should have returned with her broth and cider by now. Maybe he helped Cook with supper. Footsteps approached the door, and the bar slid back. Mary barely had time to prepare herself before the Dragon entered. He stood in the open door and stared at her. With a half-smile, he closed the door and stepped closer.

“Behold our little sick hero. Half-frozen fetching water from the frozen river. How do you feel, Mary?”

“My fingers and toes hurt a lot, and my face itches, but everyone tells me I’m fortunate to be alive.” Mary forced herself to not shiver.

“Of course you are.” The Dragon studied her face without speaking for a long time. “Is it me or can no one else around here think?”

Mary realized she was staring, too, and tried to cover her rising panic with a mask of ignorance. “I’m sorry, my lord Dragon. What do you mean? It’s kind of you to come see me.”

His smile no longer looked benevolent. “So, you think I’m brainless, too.”

“Oh, no, my lord. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about your jaunt out of the castle the night before last. The one that no one realized you made except your cook friend who, in his humble bumbling way, has been trying to protect you. To his credit I don’t think he knows what you were doing. He’s covering for you as loyalty dictates. But who is being loyal to whom?”

“I don’t understand, my lord.”

“Oh, but I think you do. Why else would you almost kill yourself to warn a boy you don’t know?” The Dragon pulled the chair across the room and set it backward next to the bed, then he sat and folded his arms on its back. He waited quietly so long that Mary felt cornered. “I can’t believe I let you get away with this game for so long.”

“My lord, I … I don’t know what to say.”

“Good, if you’re not speaking, at least you’re not lying. Let’s start with the beginning: what is your name?”

“My name is Mary.”

“Correct. And whose little girl might you be, Mary?”

“I don’t know. One of the other girls taunted me about being the bastard child of one of the female staff and one of the soldiers or officers. I don’t know. I remember a man and a woman who treated me well, but I was very small.”

“You weren’t that small, Mary. You should remember them.”

“They smelled clean. They wore clean cloths. Nice clothes. I had clean clothes, too. Real clothes. I think they loved me.”

“Bravo. You’re telling the truth. No indeed, you weren’t always a nobody. Could it be that you honestly don’t know who you are?”

“Who am I, my lord?”

The Dragon laughed a full-throated masculine laugh that shook the wood paneling. “This is too good. Here I thought you a threat, and it turns out you may be the stickiest thread of my web. This is perfect.”

“I’m glad that I have pleased you, my lord.” Mary wished she could hide. Despite his jovial demeanor, she knew the Dragon was evil.

“Oh, you have, Mary. But you must continue to please me if I am to abide by your continued presence. Is that too much to ask?”

“I try to be helpful.” What was he saying?

“Yes, too helpful at times. I can’t have you talking to strangers again. Too dangerous. So, Mary, you are to remain here. Healing. Undisturbed.”

“Can Cook and Will be able to care for me?”

“No, I don’t—ah, but that would be giving things away, wouldn’t it?” The dragon stared at her. “I promise nothing … ever. Sleep well, little one. We can’t risk further damage to your fingers and toes.” The Dragon stood and, never taking his eyes off Mary, opened to the door. “Guard!” He shouted. “Come!”

The sound of running boots preceded the arrival of two guards. The Dragon ordered one to get the steward immediately and the other to remain. The Dragon smiled as he waited. 

A breathless steward soon reported to the Dragon.

“Get the carpenter here at once.” The Dragon closed the door, turned the chair around and sat. “Now, Mary, you’re going to tell me where you went, what you did and who you did it with the night you were outside in the cold. And you will not lie because you won’t be able to lie. I am your protector and benefactor, Mary, but I can’t protect you if I don’t know how you’ve put yourself—and me—at risk. You do understand that you have put yourself at risk, don’t you?”

“Yes, my lord Dragon.”

“Good. Now tell me everything. Starting with why you went out of the castle, pretending to fetch water, despite the river being frozen, so you could not possibly have been fetching water.”

“No, my lord Dragon. I wasn’t fetching water. I only carried buckets because that silly Oaf demanded—”

“Oaf? What Oaf?”

“Begging your pardon, my lord. That’s what I call the inside postern door guard. He’s so big and says so little, and seems so … well, so simple, that I’ve taken to calling him Oaf. He doesn’t seem to notice.”

“I see.” The Dragon sat back and crossed a leg over his knee, but never took his eyes off Mary’s eyes. “Continue.”

“I only took the buckets out because Oaf wouldn’t let me out without them.”

“And why were you going outside?”

“To warn that boy that you had lied to him.” Mary stopped when the Dragon sat straighter. 

He tilted his head to one side and squinted his eyes. “You did? What made you think I lied to him?”

“You told him he could go free, and then you sent men to follow him and discover where he’d come from.” 

She could see the Dragon relax.

“How did I lie? I did release him. And, yes, I had him followed. A young man approaches my castle and requests—nay, demands entrance to see his brother and retrieve his family sword—which his brother brought here freely and unbidden—and you don’t think it prudent that I look deeper? What kind of fool would I be, if I allowed that, Mary? And what did you tell the young man?”

“I told you. I told him that you lied to his brother and sent men to follow him and for him to go home a different way.”

“And where is this home of his?”

“I don’t know,” Mary said.

“Really? How did you know he went home?”

Tears formed in Mary’s eye. “I don’t know. My lord Dragon, in my whole life I have never been so far from the castle as I went that evening. I have no idea where he lives.”

The Dragon stared at her for so long that Mary felt uncomfortable. “Amazing. You’re telling the truth. You believe what you told him and what you’re telling me without any attempt at evasion. One last question: why?”

“Why what, my lord?”

“Why did you risk yourself to warn the boy?”

“Because—because you were deceiving him. It’s wrong.”

“No, Mary. That’s not why. You did it to inform the man called Jordanes that you were here.”

“My lord Dragon, I don’t know anyone called Jordanes.”

“Yes, you do. Though, of course, you knew him by his title.”

“He was an officer?” 

“A baron, in fact, but that would not be the title you knew him by.” The Dragon chuckled. “You’re a remarkable person, Mary. All the more reason to keep you safe.”

Erdmut returned with the carpenter. Mary watched in horror as the Dragon described exactly which boards to seal her secret panel opening out of the dungeon. The carpenter hammered thin wedges of wood into several pieces of sliding trim and paneling under the bed.

The Dragon watched with the most pleased expression. After the carpenter left, he approached the bed. He looked down at her for so long that she feared he was about to kill her. “And, Mary, you heard correctly. You are nothing. You’ve never been anything, and you won’t be anything. Your only hope of safety and survival is me. Only I can protect you, Mary.” He paused. “You belong to me.”

As he exited the room, the Dragon instructed the guard to keep strict watch and under no circumstances to allow the kitchen staff, and especially not Will of Uberbache, to enter or speak with the prisoner. She heard him say, “Now, Erdmut, let me tell you a most interesting bit of history I’ve uncovered.”

Mary heard the sound of boots on the nearby stairs. “We’ve got him, your lordship.”

“Got him? Got who?” The Dragon’s voice asked.

“The boy. The one who came to the castle yesterday.”

“Only him? What about the others?”

“I don’t know about no others. Only three men brought him in. Maybe the others are still out looking.”

“Perhaps. Bring him to me in the throne room. Erdmut, get Ulrich and join us. The young man resisted me before. He shall not this time.”

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.