Mary missed the start of the Dragon’s interrogation of Will’s brother because she went to the greater hall, thinking he would question the boy there. She backtracked and found them in what she thought of as the throne room. Though the room was too small for baronial audiences, Mary knew the Dragon liked to use it for intense conversations and intimidation. She arrived as the boy dissolved into tears. She couldn’t get close enough to this room to see what happened and was as happy for it. For some reason, the Dragon seemed extra powerful here. His personality swelled. He cowed grown people as easily as he bullied the boy.
Why was the Dragon interested in an old book about some minor family who lived several valleys away? It wasn’t as if they were any threat to him. Maybe, she thought, he planned to expand his holdings and set Will’s family up as vassals. The Dragon certainly had that kind of ambition. The sixty fighting men he kept at Burg Altz were more than needed to defend it, and any sane lord would spread his men to be fed and housed by supporting vassals. She assumed Altz had vassals. No one could support a castle this big without taxes, food, and labor from a wide area.
After a guard dragged the boy away, Mary stayed. She didn’t know the boy, but he had verified most of what Will said about himself. They must be brothers. Before long the same guard walked Will to the door.
“Will, come in. I want to talk about your family sword and its history.”
“Yes, my lord, only I’ve already told you everything I know.”
“Yes, you have. You’re as transparent as the river. Tell me, Will, what happens to your family if you keep this sword?”
“I don’t know. If the Lord Augustus calls up the levy, my father would have to go. He’d be disappointed not to have his sword, but he’s too old to go fighting anyway. I’ve been practicing with it, though the captain’s sergeants showed me I was doing it wrong. I’ve worked hard, my lord. I’m not a spy. I really came to serve you.”
“Control yourself, boy.” The Dragon leaned forward. “I believe you. In fact, if it weren’t for another small matter, I think I’d release you back to the troop. Return to your cell and after dinner we’ll see if we haven’t trimmed all the loose ends.”
“Thank you, my lord. You won’t regret it. I’ll serve you faithfully.”
“Yes, yes. Ulrich, take him back to the first dungeon. Then bring the other prisoner back here for further instructions.”
Mary waited while Will was marched away. She’d catch it for being gone from the kitchen so long, but she had to find out what the Dragon did with Rolf. Will didn’t seem to know that his own brother was in the dungeon below his and might very well be thrown into the third. She shivered.
Transferring the two prisoners took longer than Mary thought it should, but soon Ulrich was back with Will’s supposed brother. He did resemble Will, but obviously younger.
“I am content that you told me the truth,” the Dragon said. “Therefore, I have decided to release you.”
“Let me go free?”
“So I said. Your older brother, on the other hand, has sworn his allegiance to me. He came bearing this dark sword and, while I intend to return it to him, it will stay here until such time as I release him from my service. Then and only then he may bring the sword back to your family. Do you understand?”
“But my father told me to fetch it or not come back.”
“That, my young friend, is your problem. Don’t impose upon my mercy further. You may go. Ulrich, have this young man escorted from the castle and see that he goes on his way. Once he’s gone, return for a last word.”
“Yes, my lord.” Ulrich escorted the boy away.
Mary was perplexed. Was it possible she misjudged the Dragon? She’d always thought him to be dangerous and maybe devious, but he appeared to deal fairly with both Will and his brother. She didn’t understand about boys and swords, but she knew that they had an unnatural fascination for them—just like fire.
“He’s being escorted out, my lord.”
“Good. Have him followed. Not closely but see where he goes and bring word back. He arrived early this morning with no kit. Yet he did not seem unduly exposed to the storm which just passed through. He must be staying some place within a league of here. Find out where. Send someone who can think, not one of your bullies. I don’t want him or his companions apprehended or hurt … yet.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Mary gasped. The kitchen had to wait. She must tell Will about his brother and the danger he was in. She crawled around to the first dungeon and listened for a long time.
“Will,” she whispered.
“Mary, is that you? I have great news. My lord Dragon is going—”
“No, it’s a lie. He’s lying to you.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
“Your brother, the one called Rolf. He came here—”
“Rolf is here?”
“No, they sent him away.”
“He’s gone? Why didn’t they let us talk?
“Quiet. You’re being too loud.” Mary wormed her way over by the door. Will’s guard sat across the hall, apparently awake but just barely. She crawled back and whispered. “If we talk too long, we’ll be caught. They’re still going to let you out, but to return to your troop, right?”
“Yes, that’s what—”
“Will, listen. Your brother’s in danger. The Dragon released him but is having him followed. I’m afraid he’ll kill whoever shelters him. Or maybe those who aided him are the Dragon’s people and they’ll—I don’t know. But you must know that the Dragon has killed people. He’s very suspicious and dangerous.”
“But if that’s all true, I won’t be able to warn him either.”
“No, you’ll be watched. Don’t you do anything. In fact, be extra careful to act loyal and happy to be restored to your place.”
“Well, that would have been true. Can you warn him?”
“No, he’ll be gone by now.”
“But I can’t let him betray his companions.” Will’s voice was breaking.
“If you try, you’ll be in worse trouble.”
“Mary, please help him. He’s good—he’s a better man than I am.”
“I doubt that.” She couldn’t think how to warn Rolf, but said, “I’ll think of something.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
“Thank me if we all live.” Mary crawled back down to the kitchen. Just before opening the door, she looked toward the postern. The dim light of the lamp showed down that hall. Mary drew a deep breath and stepped carefully toward the portal.
“I need to go out,” she said.
“No buckets?” Oaf rocked his head from side to side as he looked at her.
“No, I—oh, how do I explain this to you when I’m not sure what I’m doing myself?
“Yes, it’s very cold and I’m not dressed for it, and I dare not go back to the kitchen for my cloak. Oaf, you have to help me. A boy out there is in danger. I must warn him.”
“Get cloak. Get buckets.”
“No, you don’t understand, I must—”
“Get buckets, then go out.”
“Oh. You mean …”
“Oh, thank you.”
“When back safe, then thank.”
Mary ran around the corner and slowly opened the kitchen door. Preparations for dinner were well underway. Mary closed her eyes and prayed. Lord God, don’t let them see me. She picked up the buckets first, then reached for her cloak.
“Here, what you doing?” Cook asked.
“Where you been?” Meg added.
“I’ve been upstairs. And now I have to get fresh water.”
“Water?” Cook asked. “Who said? We got plenty of water in the cistern.”
“Please, Cook. I’ll be right back.”
Cook looked into her eyes, ignoring Meg’s nattering behind his back.
“All right, go. But come right back. Don’t fall in the river. It’s half iced, and you’d freeze before we found you.”
“Bless you, Cook.” Mary wrapped herself in her cloak and presented herself to Oaf.
“Buckets,” she announced as she held them up for his inspection. “Please open the doors and open them again when I return.”
He nodded, set down his sword, checked the doors, unbarred and opened the inner door. He looked at her for an uncomfortable length of time, then slid open the spy slot in the outer door, and said, “Opening.”
“Come,” a voice outside answered.
Mary squeezed into the space between the doors.
Oaf closed the inner door, he leaned closer. Mary shrank from his size, ugliness and smell. “Not go out. Stay inside.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Cold out. Stay here.”
“No, I must go. I … must.”
He closed the inner door. Mary didn’t know what to think. How could Oaf know what she intended? Could she trust him? She knocked on the outer door. “Open, please.”
“What they got you coming out for water for?” the guard asked. He was wrapped in two cloaks with his hands hidden under his arms.
“Got something to do out here,” she said. “It’ll take some time, but I’ll be back.”
“How much time? You’re not dressed for this cold. What if I’m not on duty when you return?”
“All of you recognize me,” Mary said. “Whoever it is will let me in.”
“Yeah, but before that you’ll be froze stiff. Wind’s up. It’s cold. Best hurry.” The soldier pushed back by the door as if hoping a bit of heat from inside.
The clouds blocked so much light that no shadows showed. Mary had trouble distinguishing where the steps should be. As she broke a trail down the slope, the wind whipping around the castle bit into her. She must hurry. Did Oaf think she was running away? Could she run away? No, she’d die before she got a mile. She wasn’t dressed for this cold. But some other time. Maybe this is how she could escape. Yes, she’d remember.
Mary set the buckets at the bottom of the steps. The river was covered with snow, but Mary knew better than to trust a spot where the current ran during the summer. She forced her way along the bank upstream. Icy chills stabbed her rag-wrapped feet. The snow had not melted or settled. The wind-packed top layer wasn’t compact enough to support her weight but chaffed roughly against her bare legs. Not a mile. She wouldn’t go a mile.
She looked upstream. Somewhere there’d be a place she could cross, find the boy, tell him about the Dragon, and get back before she froze. And not get caught. Mary looked toward the bridge. Three soldiers stood on the far end. If they turned and looked, they’d see her easily. Mary stepped away from the river, scrambling up the snowy bank. On top of the rise, the wind had blown most of the snow away. It cut like knives. She ran.
Just above the castle, the river formed a broad, shallow pool. It had frozen before the storm. Mary decided to risk it. She stepped out on the snow-covered ice and listened for cracking. Nothing but the wind. She edged forward, shuffling her feet at first, then scampered up the far bank. Staying among the dead tree trunks she ran upstream. She looked back. Two of the soldiers had moved away from the bridge. They huddled close together and moved slowly.
Mary ran as she’d never run before. For a moment it felt good to be free of the castle. Maybe Oaf was right. She’d just keep going until she dropped. At least she’d die free. She shivered. What a stupid thought. She didn’t want to die, she wanted to live.
Immediately she saw the boy trudging slowly eastward pulling himself forward with a staff taller than himself. She looked back again. She couldn’t see the soldiers for the rise of the land. She stayed among the trees and closed the distance to the boy. The cold air hurt her throat.
“Will!” she shouted, then chided herself for calling the boy by his brother’s name. “Rolf!”
He stopped and looked back, crouching with his staff raised as if he expected danger. He looked all around as if expecting a trick. As she approached him, he finally stepped toward her.
“Keep going,” she yelled. “You’re being followed.”
He looked back at the castle, but apparently did not see the soldiers. He waited for her. When she caught up, she pushed him forward.
“Go.” She was out of breath, but her lungs ached with every gasp. “Dragon lied. Your brother … in danger.”
“What’re you talking about?” he asked. “The Dragon said everything would be fine.”
“Lied. Brother knows.” Mary forced herself to get it all out. “You’re being followed. Soldiers to see … where you stay. Bring word back … to Dragon.”
“Who are you? Why should I believe you?”
“Nobody. Kitchen girl. But you’re in danger. Go home a different way.”
“I can’t go home without—”
“Yes, I know about the sword. I heard.”
“You did? So you’re not crazy.”
Mary would have laughed if she could. “Got to go back. Freezing.”
“I wager you are. Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Mary. I’m Rolf. Go back.”
“You’re being followed.” She pointed back toward the gate. “Go a different way.”
“I will. You get back inside. You’ll freeze dressed like that.”
Mary ran back to the trees, then turned to look at Rolf. He already continued on his way. She couldn’t see whether he’d changed directions, but hoped he was smart enough to lose the soldiers or lead them astray. They already knew what direction he’d started in, if they lost him they’d search more thoroughly.
Her fingers and toes burned with the cold, but she hid in the trees until the soldiers passed. They tramped through the snow, heavily bundled. They didn’t seem to look down and apparently didn’t see her footprints. Perhaps they couldn’t make them out.
She stumbled through the drifts beside the frozen river. By the time she reached the castle, she couldn’t feel her feet. Her buckets were frozen in place. She trudged up the steps. The same guard was at the door. “Buckets frozen,” she said.
“And so are you, I’d say.” He shook his head as he pounded on the door. “Cold one coming in.”
“Secure,” answered Oaf from inside.
The outside guard opened the door and pushed her in. “Closed.”
Oaf opened the inner door, but she didn’t feel as if she could move. Oaf pulled her in. Inside the castle felt incredibly warm and dark. She let herself sag toward the floor. Oaf lifted her and carried her to the kitchen. She was shaking violently.
“What’s happened to her?” Cook asked Oaf.
“Lost buckets,” Mary tried to say.
“Hang the buckets,” Cook’s voice seemed far away. “Help, Meg. She’s half frozen.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.