Friday, August 6, 2010
The winter stretched far longer than Ree liked. Stones surrounding the large hearths in the kitchen and main rooms in the castle retained plenty of heat, but there were no hearths in the hallways and Ree quickly grew tired of her toes feeling like they were freezing. Her room had a fireplace, so she always had to dash through the hallways, her bear pelt wrapped tightly around her, her breath fogging out behind her.
Snow and frigid temperatures made her feel cooped up. It was far less convenient to go see Titan now. And she still hadn't found out what Shule had been up to that night in the slave barracks.
Meandering around the warmer parts of the room where her father held his feasts, Ree complained aloud, "There is nothing to do!"
She looked up. She hadn't meant to say it so loudly.
Nobody else was in the room. She wandered past the table, lazily grabbing a handful of nuts and dried fruits from a brightly painted clay bowl. "Nothing to do," she chanted between each bite of her snack.
Maybe she should go pester her father in his throne room.
No, that wouldn't work. The middle of the afternoon was when he allowed city supervisors to approach him and seek his wisdom or judgment.
The throne room was out.
Out. She had to get out.
Not relishing the idea of the work it would take to get herself bundled up, Ree told herself to follow her urge through to execution. She could get a serving woman to lace her boots for her; that was the part that she hated the most.
She popped the last few nuts into her mouth and, taking a deep breath, dashed into the hallway and tore down to her room. "Cold!" she called out, her voice echoing off that surrounded her. A small woman came into view just outside of Ree's doorway. Ree recognized the lady as one of the two room attendants. "You, come and help me."
The tiny woman nodded her obedience and followed Ree. In her room, Ree ordered the servant, who it turned out was quite old as evidenced by quite a lot of gray in her otherwise dark hair, to help her gather winter clothing.
Minutes later, Ree wore heavy clothes and sat on her bed, waiting for the slow old woman to finish tying her boots. "Finally!" Ree hurried to the door and left one final order. "Have a fire burning in my fireplace when I get back."
She didn't wait to make sure the servant heard her. As she walked quickly down the hallway, then down the stairs to the kitchen, she wrapped a long strip of fur around her neck and part of her face. The heat of the kitchen felt too heavy as she passed through.
"Where are we going, Mistress Ree?"
Ree recognized the dry tone. Without pausing or turning, she answered, "To see my horse. He's lonely." She pulled open the door to the outside. "Lonely like a poor, friendless cook."
Agmoda chuckled. "It's cold out there, Mistress."
"Really? I thought it was summer." Now Ree turned around and cast a mock glare at the skinny cook.
"It's gotten colder. Snow's light as a feather," Agmoda said.
"I'll be fine." Ree dashed to the long, heavy table that extended nearly the length of the kitchen. She grabbed a carrot and skipped back to the door. "Titan says, 'Thank you.'"
Agmoda's laughter followed her out into the winter day. At least the sun was shining and the wind that often came out of the mountain passes just to the west of the city wasn't blowing. The quick journey between the warm kitchen and the stables was still frigid, making Ree's nose cold and her breath form thick clouds. She had once ventured out on a windy day, perhaps three or four weeks previous. Walking in the winter wind had made her feel like a fish swimming up the nearly frozen waters of a river. Ree lengthened her stride and was reaching for the stable door when it slammed open, nearly hitting her outstretched hand. She jumped in surprise and dodged the large man that burst through the doorway.
Shule didn't look at her; didn't acknowledge her. Ree was briefly tempted to call the warrior on his infraction, but knew it would do no good. He would bow just right, but his eyes would stay hard and he would keep that same smirk on his face. It wasn't worth it when he made it feel like he was mocking you.
Ree stepped quickly behind the stable door, pulling it partway shut. Using the door as camouflage, she turned quickly to try to see where Shule was going. Instead of going through the kitchen door, or circling around to the left of the castle, where the warriors had their barracks, he had angled to the right.
To the slave barracks.
She put the carrot for Titan in a pouch sewn on the inside of her cloak and waited for Shule to turn around the corner of the castle. Then she dashed across the courtyard, reached the wall, and scuttled along it. At the corner Shule had just turned, she stopped and peeked carefully around it. The door to the slave barracks was closing. Crates and wooden barrels, along with tightly wound lengths of rope, bundles of cleaned hides and other sundry items that nobody had found storage places in the castle for yet spilled out the front of the shed that nestled against the far wall of the slave barracks. The barracks had been built right on to the immensely tall wall that surrounded the castle compound. It was a long, law building, very similar to the stables. The castle corner that Ree stood at was near one end of the long building. The storage shed was at the other end.
There were about twenty feet of distance between her corner and the nearest wall of the slave barracks. She would have to cross it quickly, then hug the front wall of the low building the slaves slept in. She was going to have to make it all the way across the front of the barracks to the door without being seen. Ree asked her pounding heart to settle down but didn't wait to see if it would comply.
She darted across the space and put her back on the exterior wall of the slave barracks. The building stretched about half as long as the castle's length. Between the barracks and the castle was a sort of alley that would easily allow two carts to travel abreast through it. Why am I doing this again? And why am I hiding? She stood still for a moment, unable to answer both questions. Then she remembered the night of that awful nightmare. On her walk around the lower platform that circled the castle, she had heard raised voices in the slave barracks. One of those voices had been Shule's. Right. Because Shule is up to something. He's not allowed in there.
For a moment she reflected on the plan she had made that night to try to expose Shule. She shrugged; she had forgotten. Her back pressing the cold exterior wall of the barracks, Ree carefully made her way toward the door that had closed behind the large warrior. No chance I can get in there without him seeing. She thought about what to do, the cold on her face and hands reminding her that if somebody saw her out here like this, they would think it very strange. She had to get out of sight, but also see what Shule was doing. There was a girl's voice that night. Ree imagined she knew what Shule was up to, but wanted to be sure. It sounded like he had been angry with the girl that other night.
The thing was that Shule just wasn't supposed to be in the slaves' barracks.
Ree had long ago noticed that the slaves were all young, pretty women. She had also long ago heard how protective her father was of his 'special servants.' He had explained that the girls were privileged to serve their king in a "particularly special way." As if I was a kid. I know what he does with them.
She eyeballed the barracks' door, then the shed just beyond the door on the far wall of the building.
A plan came to her. Not waiting to second-guess, and really not wanting to be in the cold much longer, Ree walked quickly back the way she came, doing her best to look like she was on a normal outing. In the freezing cold.
Getting to the barracks, she wasted no time. She ran down the aisle between the horse stalls. When she got to Titan's stall, she grabbed a faded woven blanket and a length of leather. "Titan, I need your help," she said. The horse bobbed its head at her quiet tone, its breath coming out in twin clouds of thick fog. She pulled the carrot back out of her pouch and broke it in half. "You get the other half when we're done."
She threw the blanket over Titan's back, arranging it so that it draped over his withers and somewhat up his neck and also reached over his hindquarters. She wrapped the lead around his neck, tying it very loosely. "Come," she said. She quickly led Titan out the wide door meant for the horses, across the paddock area, and toward the slave barracks. Ree wrapped her arms briefly around the tall horse, savoring his warmth and wild, clean smell. "Try to be quiet, okay?"
She led the horse down the alley between the slave barracks and the castle, passing close in front of the door and then in front of the shed. A few feet past the shed, she stopped and let the lead fall to the ground. It didn't even occur to her that Titan might wander off; he was a retired battle horse. He wouldn't stray.
Ree stepped back to the shed, leaning in close to the outer wall of the slave barracks and trying to focus her hearing. She put her hands out, resting them on a bundle of hides and leaned closer.
Maybe if she got closer to the door.
Glancing around, she took quiet steps, her ears questing for voices.
There. Ree glanced at the wall; a small space between two large rocks had been formed. It looked natural and it was perfect.
"… it is." This was Shule's voice.
Silence followed, although Ree thought she might have heard movement or a very soft voice.
"You think I'm stupid. You're wrong," Shule said. "If I were stupid, I wouldn't have known it was you. And you wouldn't still be alive."
Ree glanced around. The cold was doing her a favor; nobody seemed to want to venture out. She was still alone.
"So just tell me where it is and we will be done. I'll even let you go."
Where what is?
"I told you I don't know." This was a girl's voice. "Don't you think I would have told you by now if I knew?"
"Girl, I can be creative with what I do to help you remember. I would leave no mark." A pause. "Look around. Nobody else is here. So let's try to keep things nice and just tell me where the sword is."
The sword? Why's he- Ree stood up straight. Cold chills washed over her, tingling on her skin. He can't possibly mean…
"Why do you think I know? I told you I don't know why my mother was hiding-"
"I know what you said, but it's impossible."
Ree wished Shule hadn't cut off the girl. She had an idea of what the slave girl had been about to say, but she couldn't bring herself to believe it. She had to hear it.
"Your father and mother surely told you. Nobody is so stupid that they wouldn't pass on such knowledge."
"You keep saying that!" A sob broke the last word before the girl finished it. Ree heard a loud intake of air. "Why didn't you just ask them instead of killing them?"
"Stop it. We will not go through this again. The sword. Where is it?"
"I don't know!"
Ree wondered if Shule had given up, if he was on his way out of the barracks. She took a step away from the wall, but then heard the large man's angry voice again.
"You do know. I will get it out of you. But first, I think I will let the king have his way with you a few times. That might soften you some."
Ree wished the girl would just tell Shule. Or maybe I don't. If Shule is looking for the Sword, the actual Sword, he can't find it. And why would he be looking for it, and talking to this girl without my father knowing. Another thought occurred to her. Did her father know? Was Shule acting on the king's bidding? If Father had the Sword, and if what's in the box is what I think it is… He could make the people do anything. He could take the land of the Usurpers.
"I know you think I know something, but I really don't. Why don't you just let me go?" Ree thought the girl sounded older than her, maybe by a few years.
"You're no good to me out there," Shule said. "Let's see how you are after a few weeks in the king's company. Besides, where would you go? Your village is dead."
Ree heard the smile in Shule's voice and shuddered, trying to rid herself of the unpleasant feeling his words had given her. This time the silence had a different tone. Ree quickly moved away from the wall, reaching for the shed.
The door creaked open just as she reached the first bundle of hides.
Breathing as calmly as her pounding heart would allow, Ree turned. "Shule? What are you doing in there?"
The warrior smiled, his stained teeth dull in his overlarge mouth. The man's nose had been broken so many times that it looked more like a smashed piece of fruit than a nose. And his eyes were far too small for such a large head. "I think a better question is what are you doing out here?"
Ree adopted a posture she was familiar with. "Not that it's any of your business, but Titan needed a walk and I saw these hides here." She stroked the top fur; it felt like a wolf's pelt. "Some of them are quite nice."
"If you need another blanket," Shule said, pushing the door closed, "you should just tell a servant."
"Not me, silly," Ree said. "Titan. It's so cold after all." She turned all of her attention to the skins, carefully breathing through her open mouth so Shule wouldn't see her nervousness. As she poked and prodded through the bundle, she felt Shule's gaze on her. Why wouldn't he take the hint and leave?
"I see," he said.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Shule spin on his heel and march away. Did he believe me? What would he do if he thought I had heard? Shule's cruelty was legendary, but Ree thought it absurd to imagine he might hurt the king's daughter. Then why was I so scared?
When he was out of sight, she let out a nervous laugh. Then an urge came over her so quickly that she didn't know she'd acted on it until she was standing in the warm slave barracks, the door swing closed behind her.
She turned to the left and stepped through a doorway. A young woman, long brown hair in messy clumps, eyes rimmed with red, sat on a slightly raised bed, staring at the wall. She jumped when Ree entered the room.
"It's okay," Ree said, extending her hands. "I'm not here to hurt you."
She was definitely a few years older than Ree, at least by two or three years. Her eyes began moving around the room, settling for only a moment at a time.
"I just wanted to see you. I heard Shule. I don't want him to hurt you."
The girl glanced at Ree, then at the door behind her.
"Shule?" The question on the girl's face was clear.
"Yes, his name is Shule," Ree said.
An awkward silence filled the space between the two girls.
"Are you going to let me go?"
Ree thought quickly. "I wish I could. Maybe another day. But it's winter right now." She would get in so much trouble if anyone found her in here. She had to leave.
"Is he going to kill me?"
"I don't think so." Ree tried to catch the girl's darting gaze. "I heard him say something about a sword."
"I told him I don't know! You're working with him, trying to be nice to me! I still don't know!" The girl burst into tears.
Ree dashed across the room, putting her hands on the girl's shaking shoulders. "No, I'm not. I'm really not. I'm sorry."
"Please let me go." Her voice was so soft, so scared, that Ree almost stepped back to let the girl past.
"You'll die." Is it really the Sword of Baalech he's looking for? Why does he think she knows where it is? Ree thought fast again. A stirring of determination touched her throat as she spoke. "But I'll help you get away after winter. They shouldn't do this to you." Ree swallowed. "Or to anyone."
The girl looked up, her gaze finally resting on Ree's face. Tears had left shining trails on the girl's face. "You'll help me?"
The girl lowered her face into her hands and scrubbed at her cheeks. She scooted back on her bed, then met Ree's eyes again. "Who are you?"
Ree stepped toward the door. She had to leave, or she was going to be caught. And if someone found Titan outside by himself, it would look strange. She headed for the door, but stopped long enough to answer the girl. "I'm Ree."The slave girl nodded. "I'm Ronna."