Chapter Twenty-Six

Mary woke with a start. The castle, her whole world as much as her home, felt foreign. Somewhere something had shifted: something other worldly. She wondered at that thought. She knew nothing of spiritual things other than gossip and tales. She’d never met a priest or heard whatever it was that Christians believed. In all the years of the Dragon, the former castle chapel had been used to store meat. The few additions to the staff or garrison who seemed to be believers fled or died shortly after arriving. 

She wondered how she even knew the difference between good and bad. She never thought of the Dragon as good. During the last few days he seemed worse. Or had she changed?  She heard that people “went bad.” Maybe her exposure to the outside had corrupted her.

Even as she considered where the fault lay, her inner self—the Mary who was really Mary—protested that, no, Cook and Stefan had been kind to her despite the risk to themselves. Despite their actions being contrary to the wishes and commands of the Dragon.

As that idea settled in her mind, Mary felt a kind of freedom. There was good. She had felt it and seen it acted out. By the same token evil existed and, she felt with stomach-tightening certainty, the Dragon was evil. She shivered. Even as she considered fighting that idea, she became more certain of the Dragon’s falseness. She felt it before; now, she was sure.

She must escape. She must warn Will and his brother, Cook, and everybody of the horror they risked serving the Dragon. But they wouldn’t believe her. Cook also couldn’t help her, not the help she needed. She didn’t know how she’d survive with her hands and feet like this, but she’d risk all to get away from the Dragon.

Mary sat up. She could tell by the orange glow under the door that night had fallen. She removed the wrappings from her fingers. Very carefully, she flexed them until they hurt. She had little movement and less sensitivity, but she couldn’t wait, especially if full recovery was months away. She must act now.

She carefully rolled off the bed and sat on the floor. Mindful of her fingers and toes, she worked under the bed. By pawing along the boards, she discovered that she had a better sense of touch with her left hand. She felt the trim pieces which shifted first to open the paneling. Immoveable. She found the wooden wedge the carpenter drove in. No give. She needed a tool. At least a knife, more likely a chisel. She couldn’t escape by this route. Perhaps that was as well, because she couldn’t imagine how to negotiate the convoluted passages without feeling, strength, and agility in her toes and fingers.

How, she wondered, did the Dragon know of this opening? When he had the carpenter seal it, he and not the carpenter determined where to drive the wedges. It was as if he, like she, had used these hidden paths. But he couldn’t have. Tall and muscular, Konrad would never fit. And he had not grown up in the castle.

The locking bar slid, and the door opened. Mary shoved herself out from under the bed. 

“So, here you are spurning my hospitality.” the Dragon’s voice boomed into the quiet. He brought no light but stood silhouetted against the open door. “Get up.”

“But, my lord Dragon—”

“You have betrayed me in your heart. Your actions will necessarily follow.”

Cupping her hands to protect her fingers, Mary sat up on the floor and started to get back on the bed.

“No comfort for you. Henceforth you may live with the rats.” He turned. “Guards. Come, lift this child.”

A sergeant and two soldiers entered the room. The largest lifted Mary with his rough, calloused hands. He didn’t hug her to his chest but held her away as if she bore some contagion. That suited Mary: his breath smelled of old meat.

“Follow me,” the Dragon ordered. He led down to the second dungeon. As they passed the kitchen, Mary noticed the closed door.

“Now this creates a puzzle. I can hardly put you in the third dungeon, for the same reason I can’t put you in irons. Besides …” He paused. “And your worth is greater unharmed. A dilemma with a simple solution. Guard, open the door to the second dungeon and carry her in.”

The big man deposited Mary on the sloping floor and withdrew.

“Now, sergeant, I want two guards here at all times.” Konrad stayed in the hall. “You will leave this door unbarred and you will look inside often to assure your prisoner remains. Her damaged state should impede escape but take no chances. Station one man inside the cell to watch her, if need be. Water, but no food. Ah, and here we are right next to the kitchen. No food and no contact with the kitchen staff. The steward will arrange for her water. Allow no one else access to her. Do you understand she’s to talk to no one but me?”

“Yes, milord.”

The Dragon leaned through the doorway. “Mary, only I can protect and defend you. Others will only use you.”

Mary said nothing. He must know that she recognized his evil. As if in confirmation, the Dragon bent closer.

“You cannot hide your thoughts from me, child. I know everything. I will prevail. Whether you survive depends on my whim. Only I can protect you from the coming storm.” With a final warning that the guards would pay the forfeit if they lost her, the Dragon departed.

Mary slumped against the cold wall. She wished she had picked up her hand bandages. They could help her keep warm. Would the chill in here damage her fingers and toes farther? She shook her head. Her injured digits should be the least of her worries. The Dragon claimed to read her thoughts, but his were as obvious. She was a gaming piece. But a missing piece upset the play as thoroughly as one badly placed. If she couldn’t escape, perhaps she could remove herself some other way. 

She drew herself as close as she could and tried to think, but the cold crept into her from the stone floor.

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.