Three of them crowded into a corridor so dark they could barely see where they were going. While Yvon double-checked the rope’s knot with his ﬁngers, the nursemaid rocked the drugged infant in her arms, murmuring, “Oh, Claye. My poor baby, my poor, poor baby.”
Yvon tugged on the rope to make sure it held fast to the post. Picking up the coiled end, he stepped carefully around woman and child. “Beg your pardon, m’lady Xaragitte.”
She cooed to the child, ignoring him.
When he entered the garderobe, a breeze through the seat hole carried with it the stench of waste. He dropped the rope, found the stone slab by touch, and tried unsuccessfully to shove it aside. The siege-enforced fast had weakened him.
“Need a hand?” asked a breathless, high-pitched voice.
Yvon turned his head toward the doorway. A handheld taper illuminated the rounded features of Kepit, Lord Gruethrist’s eunuch steward.
“No, ma’am,” Yvon said politely. “I can do it.”
Gritting his teeth, he shouldered the slab a second time. Stone scraped on stone as it moved aside. He dropped the length of rope through the hole and peered after it. Out of darkness into darkness— that was the way of life, was it not?
He looked up in time to see the eunuch touch three ﬁngers to forehead, chin, and chest, while muttering the names of two gods. “If you survive,” Kepit said, “and someday decide to take the dress, our lady will see that you receive my property.”
Yvon appreciated the honor, but he did this for other reasons than the comforts of status or property. He glanced at Xaragitte’s shape behind the eunuch. “When I tug on the rope, it’s safe. Understand?”
The eunuch nodded.
Gripping the rope, Yvon lowered himself into the hole. Lean as he was, he found it a tight squeeze. He emerged from the bottom of the garderobe and braced his feet against the stone. He glanced over his shoulder and saw no sign of the besiegers. Then he craned his neck the other way to see the reason why.
The far end of the castle burned, lion-tongued ﬂames licking the sky. The oak beams of the great hall’s roof turned to leaves of black ash, a roiling forest of smoke that obscured the stars. The besiegers had abandoned their posts and crowded around the front gate gaping at the conﬂagration like moths lured to a candle—just as Lord Gruethrist had predicted they would before he took several skins of oil and climbed high into the rafters to set ablaze the castle that he’d built.
Yvon descended quickly to the small mound ringed by dirty water. He tugged on the rope, and it disappeared above him. He squinted his eyes against the stinging haze and held his breath against the stink of raw sewage.
One man, alone, in the dark, on an island of shit: as a general description it ﬁt every bad moment in Yvon’s life, but for the ﬁrst time it was wholly true.
The sloping mound of old excrement and refuse under his feet was held together by a collection of vines more deeply rooted and intransigent than the mountain peasants. A few bushes grew among the weeds, including an early-blooming crackleberry shrub ﬁlled with tiny fruit.
Yvon’s siege-hungry stomach rumbled.
Still no movement among the shadows across the moat. His hands did a quick inventory, touching the small knife in his boot, the dagger at his belt, the short sword concealed under his cloak. Fingers brushed the nape of his neck, freshly shorn of its braid. Without it, he had no proof that he was a knight and no right to carry a sword.
A mufﬂed groan sounded above him. Broad feet kicked in the small square hole. Xaragitte was the only person allotted full rations during the siege: she was stuck.
He aged another year with every heartbeat that he waited. At this rate, he would shrivel up like an old man, die, feed the maggots, and become scattered bones before she touched the ground. Feeling like half a skeleton with hunger, he grabbed a handful of the green crackleberries and shoved them in his mouth. They were so bitterly unripe they set his teeth on edge. His stomach knotted, half in satisfaction, half in protest. He gathered another handful and swallowed them without chewing.
Her feet withdrew, then appeared again a second later. Her pale, lovely legs wiggled and kicked until her plump bottom popped free. She dropped suddenly and Yvon braced to catch her, but then the rope jerked short. She tried to smooth her skirt over her knees. The effort set her spinning.
“Don’t brush against the ﬁlthy stone,” he whispered.
She did, despite his warning. The rope slipped, and she made a second abrupt descent. He wrapped his arms around her, breaking the fall. Her soft ﬂesh pressed against him, hurting like an unexpected wound.
He set her down at once and fumbled at the knot in the rope about her waist. “Watch your step, m’lady.”
“Don’t act like I’m highborn, too ﬁne to get my hands dirty.” She smeared her palms clean on her skirts. “I’ve wiped worse off baby bottoms.”
Where—? “Where’s the baby?”
She looked up. “We couldn’t both ﬁt through.”
Another delay! Yvon heard voices on the far side of the castle, mixed with the crackle of the ﬁre. He yanked on the rope as soon as it came loose. It vanished into the hole like a demon sliding under water.
Xaragitte stared up, waiting; Yvon stared at her. She had rare red hair like the goddess Bwnte. Her lover had been a common soldier named Kady, who’d died ﬁghting the Baron’s men before the siege started and just after their baby daughter’s death from the coughing sickness. Yvon couldn’t express his interest in her, not politely. But if only he could spend time with her, he could make his feelings clear. Sure, he was two decades older than her, but Lord Gruethrist was that much older than his new lady, the baby’s mother, and they got on well. Yvon would point that out to her. It could work. It’d better. He risked not just his life but everything he’d earned in his life for the chance.
The rope reappeared above them, tied to a basket.
A bell tolled.
Xaragitte dug her ﬁngers into the hard ﬂesh of Yvon’s forearm. “They’ve found us!”
“No,” he said, glad she hadn’t noticed him jump. “It’s for the ﬁre. It’s good—if any of the Baron’s soldiers are somehow so blind they’ve overlooked that towering column of ﬂame, they’ll hear the bell and go investigate.”
If they were somehow both blind and deaf then he would have no problem killing them, even weak from lack of food.
He stretched his hands above his head to catch the basket.
“Be careful,” Xaragitte cautioned.
“Oh, I will.” He caught and lowered it, peering inside. “He’s a very dangerous baby.”
She didn’t laugh at his joke, but maybe the barb bit too close to the bone of truth. Lord Gruethrist’s sudden marriage to Lady Ambit’s daughter, the birth of Claye, and Claye’s immediate betrothal to Lady Eleuate’s infant daughter united all three ruling families in this border province. With Lady Gruethrist childless, Lady Ambit’s daughter had been named heir to the Gruethrist title and lands, and would eventually inherit her mother’s title and domain as well. The betrothal would give everything to Eleuate’s daughter, Portia. The families had counted on inaction from the aged, inattentive Baron Culufre to get away with their grab at united power. But the old Baron had died and been replaced by some young man the Empress favored more. His army had marched on Castle Gruethrist, besieging it. So in a way the siege was the fault of this child.
The baby ﬂipped over, wrinkling his face. He was nine months old, long-limbed but pudgy, with thick blue-black hair. Xaragitte lifted him from the basket and placed him in the sling across her shoulder. “Hush now, darling, you’re safe.”
Not hardly, Yvon thought. He drew his dagger—hard steel in his hand calmed him—and sawed through the rope. He jerked on it, but nothing happened. He looked up and saw a dark, lumpy shape fall out of the garderobe’s opening.
It was the bag containing supplies for their journey—Yvon batted it away from the nursemaid and cursed the eunuch.
“The poison was already taking effect when Kepit let me down the rope,” Xaragitte whispered. Above them, the stone slab slid back into place with a solid thunk.
Yvon picked up the bag and bit back another sharp remark. If they escaped, only Lord Gruethrist himself would know what had truly happened. Even Lady Gruethrist would be told that the child and his nursemaid perished in the ﬁre. The poison Kepit had taken protected their secret. It also prevented the stripping of her dress and the painful execution that awaited her at the Baron’s hand when the castle surrendered—eunuchs were assigned by the Empress and were supposed to serve Her ﬁrst.
Yvon waded into the water’s edge and ﬂung the bag to the other side of the moat. “It’s too deep for you to cross, m’lady. Best if I carry you.”
“I can do it,” she said ﬁrmly.
He scooped a couple handfuls of the compost into the basket and sank it in the water. “Your skirt’ll be mighty heavy if it’s wet and we’ve leagues to go.”
She took a step toward the water.
“Hold on tight,” he said, lifting her before she could protest. He stepped into the cold water, the surface of it as black as the sky, scattered with clouds of slime. Yvon selected his footing carefully. The Baron’s army had been slowly ﬁlling the moat with trash and dirt. Now it worked to Yvon’s advantage. At the deepest point, the water only reached his waist, and with some strain he held the woman and child clear of the foul liquid. Xaragitte wrapped one arm around his neck, pulling tight and pressing her bosom to his cheek. He concentrated on his next step, aware how easily he might slip. “I was born a commoner, like you,” he said without explanation.
“His Lordship told me,” she answered equally quick.
“Ah.” So she’d made inquiries to the lord about him. Women often did that before pursuing a formal relationship.
“I didn’t expect . . .” she began.
“M’lady Gruethrist said you were dangerous.”
“I am,” he said. “To her enemies, and to yours.”
He staggered up the bank, setting her down and scanning the shadows for the Baron’s soldiers. The constant knell of the temple bell ﬁlled the air with noise as thick as smoke.
“He’s waking,” she said. The baby slurped on the side of his thumb. “We should have given him a stronger draught.”
If he cried and brought the Baron’s men on them—“Just keep him quiet a few more moments. We’re going to walk past those houses, then out across the ﬁelds.”
His feet squished in his boots as he went ahead to see the way clear. He hadn’t taken ﬁve strides from the water’s edge before the temple bell rang again, much louder than before and lower pitched. The sound was so loud, so sharp, that Yvon stood rooted, unable to move. His bones vibrated like harpstrings, if harpstrings were as long as rivers—his very marrow twanged. By the time he drew breath to protest, his muscles dissolved like meat sliding off bones in a boiling pot, his internal organs melted into a single mass of jelly, invisible red-hot pokers were shoved into his ears, and needles pierced his eyes, while his teeth rattled around loose in his jaw like dice in a gaming cup. Or so it felt. He hurt.
Which is when he realized that it wasn’t the temple bell at all. It was magic.
The Baron’s wizard had placed a bell ward over the castle, and Yvon’d just hit it like a hammer. His respect for and fear of the Baron increased instantly. He’d seen bell wards set over rooms before, in the Imperial City, and once over a minor palace, after the riots, to hold someone too important to kill, but nothing big enough to ensconce an entire castle.
Reaching his numb ﬁngers inside his shirt collar, Yvon sorted the glass charms hung on silver chains around his throat. He nearly grabbed and broke the hammer charm, which would have put a dent in the Baron’s bell but kept it ringing until the gods died. When he found the ﬂame charm, he held it before him and shattered the ampule in his ﬁngers.
Blue ﬁre sprouted in the air and the bell stopped ringing. The pain that gripped Yvon burned suddenly away, though the effects of it lingered.
Wherever the Baron’s wizard kept his model of the castle, it and the bell atop it had just gone up in ﬂames. Much like the real castle, probably. Yvon hoped that the Baron was standing close enough to the model to be singed by the heat.
Xaragitte tapped him on the shoulder. “D’oo’eer’at?”
“What?” A ringing in his ears mufﬂed her voice. When she repeated herself, he watched her lips.
“Did you hear that?”
“Yes!” He shouted even though he didn’t mean to, his own voice sounded so faint. “I hope no one realizes what it was yet. We must hasten. The Baron’s wizard will know that someone has escaped the castle.”
The noise had woken Claye despite the sleeping potion. He pulled at his lip with little ﬁngers and his mouth was open, though Yvon didn’t hear any crying. It was hard to hear anything but the ringing in his ears. At least the size of the spell stretched it thin. Xaragitte and the baby appeared to have been safe outside the nimbus when he set it off. If he felt this sick, it might have crippled them.
He turned and led them beside the three houses that comprised the whole street. The camp of tents lay just beyond. Something wet dribbled down the back of his leg when he paused. Just as he prepared to run across the open ground past the tents, Xaragitte clutched his arm. He whipped around.
Someone approached from beyond the houses. Darkness obscured his features, but the size and posture belonged to a soldier.
“Stay behind me, stay back,” Yvon told Xaragitte.
The man approached them, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword. Not a soldier then, but a knight. A young one, a puppy, without much tail, Yvon saw when he came close. But it wouldn’t do to take him lightly. Some puppies bit hard, and this one was big.
“Why didn’t you stop when I commanded?” the knight asked.
“Eh?” Yvon ducked his head, like a good, subservient commoner and twirled his little ﬁnger in his ear, acting deaf. Not that he needed to act much. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Why didn’t you stop?”
The most believable lie began with an obvious truth. “Because we’re leaving the village,” Yvon said.
“So you’re not loyal to the Baron?” It was an accusation, but an uncertain one. The puppy loosened his sword in its scabbard.
“Of course I’m loyal to the Baron.” Yvon jerked his head in the direction of the ﬁery castle. “But those sparks are going to fall on some roofs soon, and the whole village’ll be aﬂame. You won’t catch us in that ﬁre!”
He had a hand on his dagger, ready to grab and stab the knight, but the castle roof caved in, a great crash followed by an upward rush of sparks and ash. They all three jumped, and Yvon missed his chance.
The knight pointed them in the direction of a campﬁre. “Huh! You may be right. Just come over here ﬁrst so I can get a better look at both of you.”
“Glad to,” Yvon said, though it was the last thing he wanted. If his wet pants were noticed, the ruse was up. The damn puppy never turned his back or let down his guard. Fortunately there were no other soldiers around the campﬁre.
The young knight peered at Yvon’s face in the ﬂickering campﬁre light. “I don’t recognize you from the work details. Who’ll vouch for you?”
“The temple priestess knows me, she does. She’ll be happy to vouch for old Bors,” he said, picking a random name. The priestess was the best reference he could give. She’d welcomed Baron Culufre’s men and rendered them all kinds of assistance.
The knight indicated Xaragitte. “And who’s she?”
“My daughter. Who’d you think she was?”
“I don’t like your tone. Or your manners. Grandpa.”
“M’lord.” The word grated on Yvon’s tongue.
“That’s better. Let’s have a look at her. Sorry, m’lady, but you don’t want to go out into the—hey, what’s this? You didn’t mention any baby.”
“What’s to mention?” Yvon shouted. “The babe’s right in front of your eyes. A ﬁne little girl to carry on her mother’s name.”
Yvon glanced at Xaragitte, who wrapped her arms protectively around the child. Something in her anxiousness was conveyed to Claye. He fussed, struggling against the sedative to force himself awake.
The young knight took a step back, resting his hands on his hips. “We’ve got orders about babies. Sorry, m’lady, but you’ll have to come with me to see the captain.”
So there were orders to look out for Lady Gruethrist’s heir. Claye’s death would resolve many difﬁculties, even if he was only a boy.
Yvon dropped the bag from his shoulder, grabbed Xaragitte by the arm, and yanked her forward. “There’s no call for that! Look for yourself. You can tell the difference between girls and boys, can’t you?”
He tugged at the swaddling with his left hand to hide the dagger that he drew with his right. Xaragitte jerked away from him, and Claye began to bawl.
“Hey there, don’t hurt her,” the puppy barked, stepping in to disentangle them.
Yvon spun, seized the young knight by his throat, and stabbed. The knight caught Yvon’s wrist as it ﬂicked in, deﬂecting the blade. He clawed at Yvon’s choke hold.
The baby howled, a piercing scream.
The two men swayed for a second, deadlocked. Yvon spit in the other man’s eye. The puppy shoved him off balance. As they fell, Yvon twisted the dagger around, and drove the iron knob of the hilt into the young man’s face. It cracked against the hard bone at the corner of the eye. Yvon lost his grip on the throat, but smashed the hilt down another time.
“Ouch! Stop that, you little nuisance.”
Yvon glanced up at the trembling voice. Xaragitte had unlaced her blouse and offered her breast to the baby, who clutched a tiny ﬁstful of her ﬂesh as he sucked. The young knight writhed on the ground, groping at his ruined face. Yvon ﬂipped the dagger in his hand and thrust the sharp end into the smashed socket. The legs kicked out, fell still. Yvon kicked the body but it didn’t move again. He quickly scanned their surroundings as he cleaned the dagger on the dead man’s shirt and sheathed it.
“Can you walk while he feeds?” he asked Xaragitte.
She looked at him and shuddered. “Yes.”
“Let’s go then.” He located their bag and shouldered it. His whole body ached. “You did good,” he said. “Kept calm, quieted the baby.”
An acrid haze of smoke settled around them, causing the tears he saw in her eyes. “Whatever I have to do for Claye,” she said, “I’ll do it.”
He nodded once to her, then led her quickly past the ring of tents and into the outer darkness. Twenty leagues of wilderness lay between them and the sanctuary of Lady Ambit’s castle. Yvon would have at least two days alone with Xaragitte, something he could never have hoped for while they remained in the castle.
His socks sloshed in soaked boots, his legs chafed in his wet pants, and he stank like sewage. But when they crossed the last of the unplowed ﬁelds to the edge of the forest, he looked at Xaragitte, lovely even though night hid all her features from him, and grinned in spite of himself.
He whistled an airy little tune for luck.
The melody fell dull on his deafened ears.
The Prodigal Troll
The Prodigal Troll© Charles Coleman Finlay