The sound of the sliding bar woke Mary. She must have slept again. The door opened revealing Cook’s silhouette.
“It’s dark in here. How can she eat in the dark?”
“Dragon’s orders,” a voice out of her view said. “No light for her.”
“Well, I can’t feed her in the dark. Bring a light for me. You can take it away when I leave.”
“It’s on your head.”
“Let it be.”
When the soldier brought an oil lamp, Mary could see that Cook carried two steaming bowls. Cook set one bowl on the table and sat to offer her the other. He held the bowl to her lips, so she didn’t have to use her hands. She sipped the warm cider. Just right. She gulped it down. That done, Cook brought over the other bowl. He lifted a spoon and offered the stew to Mary. She could tell it was yesterday’s, but it was food. And warm.
“Thank you,” she said after she’d chewed and swallowed the first mouthful. “I was aching for real food. What’s happening? I heard that—”
“Just eat now. I’ll tell you what little I think is safe.”
Mary obeyed. She swallowed stew almost as fast as Cook could spoon it into her mouth.
“Will’s brother come back last night with some of the soldiers. They say he lied to the Dragon. He was still with the Dragon when they brought that old hermit in.”
“What hermit?” Mary asked.
“Silvester. He’s got a small hermitage up the valley. Been there for years. Never hurt nobody. Lived on nuts and berries, I think. He never came here begging food like so many of the wanderers do.”
“Why did they bring him in?” Mary asked.
“Near as I can figure, the Dragon thought him and that boy were hiding some folks what were planning to do his lordship wrong. Didn’t hear it rightly, but when it was all over they dragged Will’s brother who’ll be named Will to the second dungeon, with orders for no food and no water.”
“What do you mean will be named Will? His name is Rolf. Will is his older brother.”
“To be sure, but Will—our Will told me he’d been disowned by his father because he took that sword and come here. That’d make the next son—whatever his name used to be—the new Will. They be like most families what got family names. The younger one got sent to recover their sword.”
“I don’t understand,” Mary said.
“Me neither. The Dragon questioned both the boy and the old man. Apparently, he didn’t like what he heard, so he had them kill him.”
“Kill? You mean they murdered that poor boy?”
“If you’d listen, you’d learn more. No, not the boy, the old hermit. Not that he could’ve harmed anyone. Then they threw the boy into the second dungeon, with threats to dump him down the third. So, whatever that boy knows he better tell the Dragon quick, or down the hole he goes. You know about the third dungeon?”
“Right. I’ve been here three years. Only a couple folks got themselves throwed into that hole. And they never came out.”
“Not even the bodies after they were dead?”
“Nope. They leave them there. I guess the rats or something eats them, or they rot. It smells powerful bad sometimes.”
“And right next to the kitchen.” Cook shook his head. “Don’t you go getting the Dragon riled. He’s a smart man and a nice one when he’s not upset, but if his back up he’ll pop you into that hole or have Ulrich cut you dead, like that old man who never harmed no one.”
“What am I to do?” Mary asked. “The Dragon thinks I know something, but I don’t. I only warned Rolf because Will told—what’s happened to Will?”
“Haven’t seen him since they pulled him off kitchen duty last night. Everybody saying he’s in big trouble. Maybe he’s lyin’ low. Which is what I advise you to do. Best I get out of here before anybody catches me bringin’ you food. Me dummying up only works once.”
“Cook, I need to go to the privy. I can’t walk. Will carried me last time.”
“Yeah, but you weren’t in trouble then neither. Let me check.” Cook’s knees popped as he stood. He looked out the door. “The little one needs the privy. She can’t walk. Can I carry her?”
Mary heard an unintelligible mutter.
“Well, what’s she supposed to do? This here’s the lock up for the fine folks. Dragon can’t be wanting her to mess in the corner.” More muttering. “Well, no, I wouldn’t think so. You want to ask Ulrich? Or I’ll ask the steward. Or we could decide ourselves to take care of her.” More muttering. “To be sure.”
Cook came back into the room shaking his head. “If these folks had to think for themselves in battle, they’d all be dead first thing.”
“I heard that,” said a voice from outside the door.
“You ready, little girl? Here goes.” Cook lifted Mary easily, though he huffed and puffed as he carried her to the officers’ privy. No one challenged them.
Inside the privy, Mary looked down the hole as a possible escape route. She might fit down it, but … yuck. She listened. Water murmured somewhere far below. Running water. Water that had to exit somewhere. It must pass under the castle wall. She’d probably be dead before she got clear. Besides, that water would be powerful cold. Mary did her business, then balanced on her heels and called Cook.
He carried her back to the first dungeon. “Now, Mary girl, I can’t promise I can get you food up regular like, but I’ll try. You be brave and hold on. How’s your toes and fingers?”
Mary burst into tears. “Oh, Cook, they hurt something awful, especially my toes. The little one on my right foot is all black. I don’t want them to chop it off, but I don’t want to die either.”
“You ain’t going to die, and you aren’t going to lose no toes neither. Got to be brave, girl. I’ll find Stefan and have him come look. ‘Course, he may be laying low like Will on account of the Dragon being so riled.” Cook stacked the bowls and picked up the lamp. “You go to sleep like it was nighttime.”
Since her trip to the privy, Mary knew it wasn’t nighttime. All the same, she lay down and thought about what Cook had told her. She’d known the Dragon almost since he first came. He acted a lot wilder and angrier in those days. Yes, some people had died and others disappeared, but she couldn’t understand why the Dragon killed that old man or threatened to throw Rolf into the third dungeon. She shivered.
A long time passed. Mary slept some, but mostly she lay in bed worrying.
She heard voices arguing outside the door. One of them sounded like the healer. The bar slid, and the door opened.
Stefan entered, carrying a lamp. He pulled the table closer and set the lamp on it. Then he sat next to Mary. First, he looked at her face. His eyes revealed nothing. He nodded. “That’s healing well, but your nose and maybe cheeks may scar. You may not be as pretty as you would have been, but you won’t be blinded. Let’s look at your fingers.”
“Sir, what’s happening out there? I hear talk about people being killed and being thrown into the third dungeon.”
“No one’s in the third dungeon yet, and don’t you worry about what’s going on out there. Remember, if you’re in here, you’re safe. It’s not safe for any of us out there right now. The Lord Dragon is upset about something. And when the Dragon’s worried, everybody’s worried. I’m going to lance that blister.”
“But my fingers are swollen.”
“That’s normal is these cases. Nothing we can do but give you plenty to drink and keep from re-freezing or re-injuring them. Now your toes.”
“They look awful. And they hurt so badly.”
“They’re not pretty, but I’m encouraged by the swelling and pain. That means things are still alive. When it turns black and dry, and you don’t feel anything, then’s the danger. Even your small toe may recover. I’ve seen worse. We get lots of frostbite here. The men know how to keep covered, but they don’t. And you, I’ll never understand why you went outside on that night. Promise you’ll never do that again. Even next year, after you think you’ve healed, you’ll be vulnerable to take injury easier. Probably the rest of your life.”
“Cook said he wasn’t sure he could get me food or drink.” She looked into Stefan’s eyes.
He hooded his eyes by lowering his brows. “The Dragon is upset with you, Mary. I’ll try to help, but I don’t want to cross the Dragon either. Not when he’s like this.”
Mary bit her lip and closed her eyes as Stefan cut the blister. He wiped the pus away and applied an aromatic ointment. Then he re-wrapped her hands and feet.
“That’s less to protect them than to remind you not to use them. Promise me you won’t?”
After Stefan left, Mary cried herself back to sleep. When she woke, she was hungry. She also needed to go to the privy again. She knew better than to ask the guard.
After she drank all the water out of her bowl, she relieved herself in it. She felt so dirty. She’d always used the privy. Not that they smelled any better than chamber pots. Someone—a woman—told her that ladies used privies. Well, that was fine for her. Whoever she’d been, she’d probably never been locked in a dungeon.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.