Chapter Two

“You’re nothing. You’ve never been nothing. You’ll never be nothing. You’ll die nothing. And no one will care.” Meg jabbed Mary with her big wooden spoon in time with her words. “Now fill that cauldron.”

Mary bobbed her head and grabbed both wooden buckets from the wall the kitchen shared with the dungeon. The buckets knocked against her skinny legs as she scrambled away from Meg. Even empty, they were bulky and heavy. Mary couldn’t lift a full one, but she wouldn’t fill either all the way. Two half-full buckets carried more water than one full one, and less splashed out. 

She staggered out of the kitchen and past the door leading to the lower dungeons. The landing was warm from the kitchen fire, but dark. She paused while her eyes adjusted to the dim light provided by two oil lamps, one ahead down the passage into the undercroft that was filled with food stores. The other flame lit her way through a narrow passage in a fifteen-foot-thick wall. 

Just before the postern, in a niche off the passage stood the solitary guard. Approaching the doors was the worst part of Mary’s day. The Oaf was frightening enough, but he also controlled the doors. The doors which gave Mary night frights. The doors that pressed her soul even as they pressed her body.

The big soldier watched Mary approach but didn’t speak. His tangled mess of dark hair rubbed the low ceiling. Perhaps that’s why he always stooped. She couldn’t tell where his beard stopped, and the fur of his vest started. Mary had never seen him on any other duty. Not a dwarf, but maybe a troll or ogre, from what little Mary knew of such. He smelled of sweat—at least Mary told herself it was just sweat—and sour beer. Like the other inhabitants of the undercroft, he wore rags. Those who dwelled on the higher levels dressed and smelled better. 

Oaf huddled in his niche, his eyes hidden beneath bushy brows. Perhaps sleeping. Perhaps waiting like a big, ugly spider for prey.

“Going for water,” Mary announced, holding up the buckets as proof. She waited.

He waited. She thought his eyes may have moved toward her.

“Please open the doors and open them again when I return.”

His head jerked in what may have been a nod. He put her through this charade every time he let her out, though she made many trips each day. She called him Oaf to herself because he so rarely spoke.

He set his short sword against the wall, slid the shutter open and assured the outer door was secure. He closed the view slot and unbarred the door. Oaf looked through another slot on the outer door. He raised a massive fist and hammered on it. “Opening.”

“Come,” a muffled voice answered. 

“New one outside,” he whispered in his gravelly voice as he pulled the inner bolt. The outside guard changed often. Soldiers out of favor shivered in the cold until some other poor soul supplanted them. Despite the Dragon’s apparent disdain for his people’s comfort, the outside guard changed often during the day and more often at night. Oaf and a one-handed veteran took turns as the only inner guards.

Mary bobbed her head and sidled past Oaf. She placed the buckets on the door jamb with the flat sides against the door, then stepped between them. She closed her eyes as the heavy door behind her closed. The rough wood pressed her against the outer door. Anyone larger than Mary would be squeezed in the narrow space between the doors. Not that Mary found it comfortable. She breathed through her mouth as her panic rose.

“Closed,” Oaf thundered loud enough for the outside guard to hear.

She waited in the closed dark. Nothing. Finally, she knocked against the outer door. She fought to keep her voice normal. “Open the door, please.”

The outer bolt screeched. Mary pushed the door open, sucking a big breath.

The postern opened into a protected grotto, which in turn led to steps down to the river. It was so well hidden among the natural rock strata that a casual observer might miss this lesser portal into Burg Altz. 

“Who be you?” a strange voice asked.

Despite Oaf’s warning, Mary shrank back toward the door. Against the bright winter sun, she hadn’t seen the guard huddled in the hollow. “I’m Mary. The kitchen girl. I’m going for water. You must be new if you’ve never seen me before this.”

“Aye, I’m new.” The guard wore the Dragon’s golden tabard under his woolen cloak, but no armor. A short horn hung from a lanyard around his neck. 

Mary waited for him to say more. These young ones often spilled their whole story as if they expected she could ease their lot. When he settled into the corner, she started toward the opening. “I’ll be making many trips. So please knock on the door as soon as you see I’m alone.”

He studied her with blood-shot eyes. Something in his look made Mary feel uncomfortable. He said, “Why do you carry water? The burg’s got a great cistern.”

“Aye. If we drain it with everyday use, what’ll we have if we’re attacked?”

“Rain keeps it full.”

“Sometimes, but not dependably. The cistern overflow fills a basin in the kitchen then flows through the dungeons. When it’s not flowing, we know it’s not full. That’s when I bring water up from the river. That way we don’t tap the cistern more than we must.” She hefted the buckets as proof of her mission. “You haven’t lived in a castle before, have you?”

“Yes, I have … sort of.” He stuffed his hands under his arms. “Go get your water.”

She stepped away from the doors, careful to not trip within the dark grotto. A block of sandstone hung directly in front of the door. Dropped, the block would obstruct the postern and crush whoever stood under it. She suspected this new guard wouldn’t stand there if he’d examined the deadfall. Most guards flattened themselves against the wall outside the square socket. She paused and looked back. He huddled back into his perilous corner. She shrugged and stepped out into the light. 

She released her breath and turned her face toward the sun. Freedom. As much as she feared the seeming death of being trapped between the doors, her reward was a few moments outside. The castle had been her lifelong home, but it was also her prison.

Mary breathed in, lifted the buckets and scampered down the worn stone steps. A path circled the castle inside the river loop. Her steps intersected the path where the river flowed against the rocky outcropping. A nearby landing provided mooring for the rare craft that rowed that far upriver. Until the river completely froze, the landing was free of ice. Mary lowered her buckets to draw water. 

Burg Altz loomed over her like a squatting giant turned to dark stone. The circular tower-shaped castle filling a horseshoe bend in the upper Altz River. A heavily fortified gate with a drawbridge faced the narrow end of the loop. The sides paralleled the horseshoe banks, and the back rested against a taller rocky ledge to the west, impeding approach with siege machinery. Mary’s postern penetrated the castle’s northern face. Snow lay deep there, undisturbed by the weak winter sun. Beyond the river, the forest looked scorched as if by a recent fire. Nothing grew within two hundred paces of the outer wall. Beyond that, growth had stopped five years before. Banks of old snow hid any life. As far as she could see, all was desolate.

She had never been beyond the river that circled the castle. She had no idea who lived in the next valley or how to live off the land. And she’d heard the stories of awful creatures who stole little girls and left changelings in their place. Where the children went was never told, but Mary had an active imagination.

Mary had lived in Burg Altz her whole life, the last five or six years in the kitchen. She appeared to be ten years old but was actually thirteen. Cook took care of her. He had shortened the rope handles to pull straight across the buckets. Otherwise, Mary would drag even empty buckets. Half full was all she could manage. She was wiry but didn’t have much lift in her arms. 

She filled each bucket halfway, then carefully set them a shoulder-width apart, turned to face the steps and lifted. On a cold day like this, she struggled not to splash. Fat, ole Meg would send her back out, wet or dry, until both cauldron and tub were filled. That task would consume the whole morning. Except for the doors and the cold, Mary didn’t mind. It got her out of the castle and away from Meg. When Cook was in the kitchen, Meg left Mary alone. But when he was gone, Meg lorded it over her. Hauling water was among her lesser torments. As long as she made good progress, Mary escaped whatever other torture Meg might invent. 

Entering the grotto, the right-hand bucket bumped against the castle foundation hard enough to splash. Mary jerked as the frigid water wetted her rag-wrapped foot. 

The new man watched her approach from his dark niche. She set her buckets down in front of him, cocked her head to the side and waited. She sighed. “Will you call for me, please?”

“Can’t you call for yourself?”

“I’m a little girl, and not to be trusted,” she said, trying to sound serious. “You’re a big, strong warrior, and your word is your bond.”

“Mud and blood.” He pushed out of his corner just far enough to raise his hand and beat something metal against the door. “She’s here. And she’s alone.”

Mary squinted at him. “Outside guards aren’t supposed to be armed.”

“And you’re supposed to be smart. Shut up.” He hid the dagger under his cloak. “You think I’d stay out here unarmed?”

“It’s the rule. Otherwise—” 

“Secure,” rumbled Oaf’s voice through the doors. 

The young man pulled the outer door against his chest. Mary carefully set the buckets into the opening with their flat sides parallel to the doors, then she stepped between them. She closed her eyes anticipating her confinement. When the door didn’t close immediately, she looked at the young soldier. He peeked around the door with a puzzled look on his face. 

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“How can you stand it?”


“Being locked in there like that.”

“No choice. It’s how I get in and out. Don’t you?”

“I do, but I hate it.” He shivered.

“Me, too,” she whispered, then berated herself for showing weakness. She only survived by being strong. The weak, like Anja, died. Anja had been a kitchen girl, Mary’s age. She died the previous year of the chills and fever which ravaged the castle population every winter.

The door shut her in, and the young guard yelled, “Closed.” 

For a moment, Mary felt pressed in the vertical grave. Immediately the eye hole opened and closed. She heard the beams being lifted. She kept her eyes shut until Oaf opened the door. Even so, after her sojourn in the sunlight, the tower interior seemed darker and malevolent, though scented with baking bread. Mary carefully walked the buckets into the kitchen. She headed straight to the copper cauldron beside the ever-glowing coals of the fireplace. The first bucket of water sizzled and steamed as cold water hit hot metal. The second added to the steam.

“What took ya so long?” Meg was scouring sticky flour off the stone mixing surface. She mounded it onto a wooden trencher from which she could eat pinches through the morning. Dozens of long, dark loaves were rising beyond the hearth. 

Mary couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten real bread, but she had. Crusty white bread, soft inside. Bread such as hadn’t been made in this kitchen for years. 

“You call that water?” Meg reached for her spoon. “You best get this here tub filled before them fancy folks start callin’ for hot water. Move, girl!”

Mary had missed her morning draught. The cider wasn’t much to start a day on, but it bested nothing. She looked at the dough but didn’t want to risk the rap Meg would happily administer. Instead, Mary lifted her buckets and retraced her steps toward the postern. In the hall, she loosened the wrap on her right foot. Soaked through and cold. She twisted out the water and rewrapped her foot.

Though the day remained sunny, little light and less heat touched the north side of Burg Altz. Mary’s foot ached by the time she filled both the cauldron and the tub. 

Many routes, passages and hidden doors riddled Burg Altz. When there had been more kitchen girls, Mary explored them. She felt safe—well, safer—in the hidden cubbies and holes. As she suffered the death and rebirth of the double doors, she wondered again why the dwarfs who had tunneled all those passages hadn’t dug a well inside the castle. The privies on the south wall and the drain from the lower dungeon all opened into water. Surely some pure source existed along the north side. 

Mary’s energy flagged. 

Only Meg, Mary, and two others remained of the six girls who labored in the kitchens two years before. Meg was a fat, slovenly taskmaster who looked after herself. Irmele had been nice to Mary, but as she grew older she moved upstairs. Irmele dressed better these days and said she liked her new situation, but Mary saw that she lied. Mary wanted to avoid the fates of either Irmele or Anja, but running away seemed crazy. 

Half a dozen stable boys brought wood for fire and removed the ashes. They also handled the sides of meat, bags of flour, jars and kegs. They were rough and mean; Mary avoided them. Their population shifted as they rotated among stable and kitchen work before they started training on archery and wooden swords. 

Cook acted mean to all the girls, threatening to slice off this limb or that to add to the stew pot. His winks assured Mary that he jested, but she knew to act afraid, because Meg genuinely feared the man. He said he’d grown up like Mary, and so he defended her. Only Cook’s fair distribution of leftovers fed her. She’d learned to eat what Cook gave her while he watched because once he turned his back Meg would take Mary’s food and hit her if she complained.

The sun hid behind the castle when Mary trudged up the steps with her last load of water. She hadn’t talked to either guard other than to open the doors. Her fingers and toes were numb. Her shoulders and knees ached.

“That’s it then,” she said to the outer guard, who had been on duty the whole morning.

“She’s here,” the young soldier called. His forehead wrinkled. “You do this every day?”

“Except when it rains or the river is frozen.”

He shook his head. “What’s your name?”

“Mary. What’s yours?”“Will.” He shook his head. “That is, it was Will. Now it’s pretty much Mud.”

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.