“Mary, wake up,” a man’s voice said.
Mary couldn’t remember her dream. She had to go somewhere. It seemed important. She had to keep moving. She felt so heavy—so tired. She must go back to sleep, so she could remember where she had been going. She felt so sluggish.
“Mary, wake up,” said the voice she now recognized as Will’s.
“I’m awake.” She lay on a soft pallet covered with a wool blanket. She rolled to her side hoping sleep would sweep over her again. She—
Mary opened her eyes. A thin cloth covered her face. She tried to pull it away, but her arms were pinned under the blanket. She couldn’t pull them free. She felt exhausted. Her hands and feet hurt, burning pain.
“Mary, wake up.”
She wasn’t alone. Then she remembered. The buckets. Going outside. Chasing Will’s brother. Running back, but she didn’t remember reaching the castle.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
“It’s Will, Mary. How do you feel?”
“I feel … awful.” She pulled a hand loose—it was bandaged—and batted at the cloth covering her face. Only a single oil lamp lit the room, but it hurt her eyes. She wasn’t in the kitchen; she was in a strange room. Not strange. The first dungeon. Linen strips bandaged her hands and feet. She wore only a homespun shift.
“You should feel bad. You’re lucky to be alive.” Will whispered close to her ear. “I know why you were outside, and I thank you, but you almost died. Don’t say anything of what you saw or did. We seem alone, but maybe we’re not.”
Mary knew who he referred to. “How’d I get back?”
“Don’t you remember?” Will spoke louder. “You went out for water. When you came back to the door, mumbling about your buckets. You were so cold Cook said your lips were blue. You could have died.”
“But I’m in the dungeon,” she said. “Or are you?”
Will chuckled. “At the moment, yes, we’re both in the first dungeon, but they released me while you were out of the castle. Cook called the healer as soon as he saw you. Stefan begged this room for you since it’s halfway warm and clean. He’s been in and out all evening. So, yes, you’re in the dungeon, but you’re not imprisoned. I’m only here to see after you.”
“But I’m dry and clean. Who—?” Mary felt funny asking.
“Not me. Meg or Irmele tended you after Stefan saw your hands. Right now you must stay put. Unless you need to use the privy.” Will cocked his head to one side.
“No, I—how long have I slept?”
“Only one night. It’s Wednesday morning now.”
“What about … uh, why I went out.”
Will rolled his eyes. “Apparently nothing has come of it because they found your buckets, frozen to the riverbank, right where you left them. Other folks have been coming and going, but I know nothing about anything else.”
“Oh, yes. Right.”
“I’m to call Cook and Stefan as soon as you woke. Which you have, so I shall.”
“Will, am I a prisoner?” Mary asked.
“I told you that you weren’t. Believe me. Now, may I go?”
“Do you promise to stay here, or must I lock you in?” Will asked.
“But I may need the privy.”
“If you need to go, go now. Stefan said you were not to walk. And Cook said not to leave you untended. He says you have this way of disappearing. I believe that.”
“Yes, go. Please get me something to drink and some clothes.”
“I’ll tell him.” Will closed the door carefully, but Mary could tell he locked it. She knew how to get out of this dungeon, but she didn’t feel up to the exertion and probably would be caught in the act. She’d be watched. How could she ask Will about his brother? He must have gotten away, or Will would be agitated.
The first dungeon sat directly above the second, which was offset slightly from the third, as access to the third was a hole in the floor. The bed on which Mary lay sat in the corner away from the cistern. She laid her head back and waited for Will to return. She felt so tired.
When she woke, three people crowded the room. Stefan, the healer, sat nearby, studying her intently. Cook crouched by the table on which sat a steaming mug and bowl. Will leaned against the wall next to the door.
“Did I sleep?”
“Yes, and it was good that you did,” Stefan said. “You’re a very sick little girl. Only the fact that you’re so healthy, as Cook tells me, explains how you escaped this episode with your life. You’re special to him. Though why he risked you by sending you out for water on such an afternoon I’ll never understand.”
“I told you—” Cook started.
“No, no.” Stefan raised his hand. “I need no explanations. The girl lives. That is my only concern. Now, let me look at your eyes. Bloodshot, of course. You were out in the bright snow. Clouds or no, it’ll hurt your eyes. Some frost burn on your nose and cheeks. That will heal. But listen to me. You too, Cook. She must not go outside for two weeks. Send someone else on your foolish errands. Yes?”
“Yes,” Cook said.
“And your hands.” Stefan unwound the clothes from Mary’s fingers. The tips of her fingers were dark. The middle finger on her right hand had a blister just behind the nail. He tapped the tips. “Do you feel that?”
“Good. You still have feeling. It looks bad, but it will heal. Not two weeks, but a month indoors. Yes?”
Cook and Mary answered “yes” together. Mary smiled at Cook.
“Now your feet. Can you stand? No, stay. I’ll examine you there.” Mary raised herself on one elbow to watch Stefan unwrap her feet. She gasped. The tips of her toes were grey. She had several blisters like the one on her finger. She noticed Stefan did not touch her feet as he had her hands. “Do you feel your toes?”
“Yes, they hurt—no, my feet hurt, but I can’t ….” She paused, attempting to feel her toes.
“Mary.” Stefan looked her in the eyes. “You may lose your toes. Worse, if the toes are damaged, your feet may putrefy. If that happens, we must cut them off.”
“You can’t cut off my feet!”
“To save your life, I would. Mary, look at me. You’re a lively girl, who runs errands all over the castle. I’ve seen you everywhere running and climbing—yes, I see you climbing. Well, no climbing. No running. You must treat your toes as if they will fall off, because if you treat them badly, they may. Three months.” He looked at Cook, who nodded. “I don’t know what she can do to earn her keep, but she must stay off those toes for three months. Or go back to her family. ‘Freeze in January, cut off in July’ they say. Mary, ere you scared?”
“Good. In a few days, you’ll forget and try to run or climb. You may not even feel the damage. Do you feel your toes now?”
“No, you don’t, and you won’t for a while. If they get worse, I’ll tell the baron to send you home.”
Stefan raised his hand. “I know. Families, who give away extra sons and daughters because they cannot feed them, don’t want them back. So, if you’re to belong to Burg Altz for your life, make sure you live a useful life. The baron won’t hesitate to throw you out. He’s a great man, but he is without remorse.”
As he carefully re-wrapped her toes and fingers, Stefan told Cook that if he couldn’t employ Mary as she was, he’d need to send her home. After repeating his instruction about no running or climbing, he left the room.
Mary held her tears until the door closed. She rolled onto her side, doubled up as small as she could make herself, and tried to shut out the world. She sobbed.
“I brought hot cider and broth. Neither may be warm now.” Cook touched her shoulder. “See if you can drink them, then we’ll send your body servant here for more. Mary girl, I won’t throw you out. I’ll find something for you to do. Something so useful that even the Dragon will agree that you must stay. The old cook told me to take care of you before—well, before he went away. And I’ll see that you stay safe, but you’ve got to help me. Yes? Can you agree with me?”
“Yes, Cook,” she whispered, but didn’t turn away from the wall. “Thank you.”
“To be sure.” He nodded. “Now I must return to feeding the rest. Young man, if Captain Ulrich can spare you, I need you in the kitchen more than ever. I’ll speak to the Steward. I take it that the unpleasant business which caused your visits to the dungeons is over?”
“Yes, I’m absolved,” Will said. “Mary, drink this.”
She sighed, rolled over, and took the cider. The mug warmed her hands. She gulped it down and handed the mug to Cook. The bowl of broth she sipped, but could not drink, even though Cook had sweetened it with cooked onions. “Later.”
“When he comes down for more cider, I’ll warm a brick to put by your feet tonight,” Cook said. “Keep them wrapped, warm but not hot against your feet. Understand?”
“Yes, Cook. Thank you.”
“See to her,” Cook instructed Will and left.
Mary took another sip of the broth. “I need that trip to the privy now.”
“I’ll carry you.”
“No, I can—”
“Mary! Weren’t you listening? Stefan said you could lose your toes. They could kill you. I’m grateful for what you did; that obligates me to see to your safety. There’s a privy right through the tower. I’ll carry you. That’s the end of it.”
Will carried her into one of the outside privies. Stone closets, they jutted from the wall and opened to the air below. Despite its design, the privy stunk. The stone walls and bench were frigid. Mary didn’t think she could do this, but she felt about to burst. Her hands trembled as she opened the covering board, hopped around and sat. The cold stone shocked her. She feared the cold more than she had before last night.
As Will carried her back, she asked, “Why can’t I use the inside privies?”
“Inside? There are no inside privies. Who heard of such a thing? It’d foul the whole castle.”
“There are at least two, both on the south side. Yes, they stink, but they drop to running water below. That clears everything away.”
“Inside privies. How do you know?” Will set Mary on the bed, then went back to close the door.
“I … I explore the castle. I’m small and get into places a grown person can’t.”
“What’s the point of having a privy if only children can get into it?”
“They have doors, but not into the open part of the castle.”
“Where do they open?”
“The nicer one is right next to the tower. The door doesn’t look like a door. It opens into the passageway between the counting room and the throne room. I suppose the Dragon uses that one.”
“No,” Will looked shocked. “The Dragon don’t piss or shit.”
“Yes, he—Will! You’re teasing me.”
“I am. But I’ll surely not let on I think the Dragon is a mortal man and ask for you to use his privy. What about the other?
“It’s beyond the throne room among the officer’s apartments. I suppose officers and their ladies use it.”
“Not for the likes of us. I’ll ask Stefan. He seems like a good sort.”
“Will, tell me.” Mary lowered her voice. “The Dragon is so awful; how does he get nice people like you and Stefan to like him?”
“Awful? No, the Dragon’s a great man. Sure he don’t belong in this little castle, but one day soon—maybe this year—he’s going to burst out of here and liberate the whole empire. He’ll bring peace and plenty to everyone.”
“No, Will. He’s a bully. He kills people. He’s going to conquer people, not free them.”
“You’re only a little girl,” Will said. “You don’t understand these things. I know. Even though he’s not sure about me, I’m sure about him. The Dragon is a great and good man.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.