Chapter ONE 

 

The Fine Art of Burglary

~ The first of The Red Gold Season in the year 1045 at two o’clock in the morning.~

The old stone tower loomed high in the autumn moonlight. Ayleth checked her hair, which she had secured up with short sticks, shook her arms out one last time and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Just the same as climbing the ruins in the Brentbeidian, she thought as she found her first hold and began to climb. The stone was rough and uneven here, the result of what looked to be centuries of neglect and hastily completed repairs. The facade she had chosen to climb faced west toward the forest, so she was reasonably sure she would not be seen. She made her way up slowly, her fingers and toes seeking out cracks, crevices and missing stones—anything she could use as a hold. She risked a glance down. Thirty feet up now, high enough to die if I fall, or at least shatter a leg. The wind had picked up, and brought with it the scent of rain in the west. Thunder rumbled softly in the distance. A storm is coming. I cannot be on this wall in the rain. Another ten feet of climbing brought her to an arched window. She stopped just below the sill. There were no bars, only a half open pair of shutters knocking in the breeze. She looked up into the room—it was dark and empty, just as she had suspected it would be. In the weeks she had watched the castle from the forest, she had never seen candlelight in this window. She pulled herself up and over the sill, and dropped quietly onto the dusty plank floor.

The circular room was cluttered with old furniture, paintings of dead people dressed in elaborate clothing and chests layered in years of dust and cobwebs. It is fusty. No one has been here in years. She brushed off the seat of a carved oak chair and sat down to catch her breath for a moment. Comfortable… I wonder why no one wants it. I will have it—focus, girl! I did not come here to steal an old chair. But why am I here? This is not a game. She looked down at her knees. A lot of scuffs on the leather. A lot of climbing and a lot of crime. She laughed to herself, reminiscing on her days as a thief. My glory days were last month, idiot. As the bored daughter of a wealthy merchant, I grew up climbing instead of doing needlepoint. I began to steal because I ran out of father’s money and was very much too far from home to get more. She looked down at her feet. Someone should invent footwear designed for climbing. Going barefoot is murder on my rough hands and feet. Mother always disapproved. Women’s hands should be graceful, thin and white, with tiny blue veins visible just beneath the surface. A truly useless woman. Mother never cared for my silver hair either. Achromotrichia was what she called the condition that caused it. I had forgotten that. Time to go. I can rest when I am dead, like the subjects of those paintings.

Planning her route through the castle, she had made a lot of educated guesses and even more assumptions, which left much to chance. She had sketched in plan form what she had observed of the castle and had made notes concerning guards, schedules and patterns of life in the castle. The guards are too regular in their movements. They make small efforts to confound a would-be burglar such as myself, but the patterns are there to see. I could help them to achieve less prominent ones. Ah, what a fool I am! They will not hire me. They will throw me off this tower. Focus on the task at hand as Fendrel says. She made her way to the door and listened for a few minutes. There is no one there. Get on with it. She opened the door and stepped through, then closed it. She found herself in a small room with two doors lit by a window to her right. I need to go through the eastern door. She tried the handle, but it was locked. The southern door was unlocked, so she slowly opened the door a crack, and peered into the space beyond. If anyone is in there, he or she is sitting in the dark making no sound. She entered, closed the door behind her and sat down against the wall. The only illumination was provided by a sliver of moonlight from between the closed shutters. She turned her head away from the faint light to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkness. After several minutes, she could see that she was in a long hall, dominated by a carved oak trestle table and chairs.

The council chamber, I believe. It smells of candle smoke and oak, leather and steel. Alluring smells, all. A wax encrusted chandelier hung from the wood beam ceiling above. She moved quietly through the room to the east wall. As she reached the door, she heard footsteps in the hall beyond and froze. They stopped outside. She moved silently to the hinge side of the door and pressed herself against the wall. A key worked in the lock. The door creaked as it opened in, and a man holding a candle stepped a few feet into the room then stopped. Stay calm. He does not expect anyone to be here. He is just on patrol. He cannot see me. He cannot hear me breathing… He cannot hear my heart pounding, can he? After a moment, the man turned and left, locking the door behind him.

She sank to the floor, her heart pounding. People live here. A king lives here. I did not expect to make it through without seeing anyone, did I? Stupid girl. Leave this place. Go home. No, not just yet. I must see this through.

A sudden clap of thunder wrested Ayleth from her introspection. She walked to the window, released the latch, and opened the shutters. Shit. I love the rain, but cannot climb in it. I will have to unless I can pick a lock—a skill I have yet to learn. But I knew a storm was coming. I just had to get in. Well, I am here now, maybe in perpetuity. She looked out over the moonlit forest. It is beautiful. I hope I can see it from my fucking dungeon cell. But I am not caught yet.

She reached into one of the many pockets the draper had stitched into her black leather blouse and trousers and took out her sketch of the castle to review her notes. I could not have known about the guard in the hall, but I did suspect that there would be one. But now I must vary from my plan, which I assumed would happen. She took a deep breathe through her nose. I love the smell of the rain. Stepping onto the sill, she turned and grabbed the molding above the window. She pulled herself up, found another hold and slipped, a loose rock tumbling to the ground far below. Careful! It is wet, fool! A few more feet of climbing and a few more near falls and she pulled herself up and looked through a space between the missing tooth-like parapet.

A crenel. I suppose the king does not need a license to crenelate. What a smashing item for which to have a license. Crenellations on your home. My tower has broken crenels. Focus idiot! A guard was off to her left, huddling in the arched door of the tower she had climbed. She pulled herself up and over the parapet, and dropped down quietly onto the wall. She moved quickly to her right, away from the guard, keeping to the shadows. When she had reached the southern tower, she sat in the doorway. No lit torches. The guards will have their night vision intact. I cannot stay here—someone may walk through that door any moment. Over the roof then. They do not design these places to be easily burgled.

Ayleth stepped over the gutter and onto the slate roof. If I lose my grip, at least I will slide onto the wall and not straight into the courtyard, though I will likely slide right into a guard. What a laugh we will have. Try it! I will say to him. Your arse will get wet, and it is a bit bumpy, but—enough. Get going. She stepped up onto the slate roof and crouched on her hands and knees. This is treacherous in the rain, but it is not that steep. I suppose it does not need to be. They do not get a lot of snow here in Sylvandia. Our roofs in Borghild are steep. Focus. It does not matter! She brushed a few wet leaves out of her way and began crawling up the roof. She made it to the peak and looked over. No guard that I can see, but I cannot see much.

She turned and started backing down. She put her hand down and a slate tile slipped, slid down the roof and shattered loudly on the walkway below. Damn! She lay flat on the roof. After a few minutes, no guard yelled at her to get the fuck down, so she continued her descent. They must fall sometimes. I have seen a few missing, and in any event, there must not have been a guard to hear. She reached the edge and stepped over the gutter and up onto the wall. They need to clean the gutters. They are choked with leaves. She looked left and right. Still no guard. The poor bastards must be taking long breaks in their towers, next to braziers. Nice warm braziers. I am freezing. She jumped around a bit to warm up. That will have to do. Get going or get caught.

Ayleth looked over the parapet and down into the courtyard, then took a moment to consider her position. A wagon was parked directly below her. A load of hay would have been nice, although falling fifty feet into hay could be quite injurious. She looked across to King Rolant’s tower, her objective. I do not need to go down into the courtyard. The king’s bedroom must be on the fourth floor. But this tower must indeed be occupied and locked. She tried the door. Gently. Its rusty hinges let out what sounded to Ayleth a blood-curdling scream.

“Damn wind,” shouted a man’s voice within.

“The door opens out, idiot. Go check,” replied another man.

Ayleth scrambled to the top of the wall, reached for a piece of molding encircling the drum tower, and pulled herself up. Lovely and convenient. Some men see whores in that light! Ha! She found a foothold barely large enough to gain the crenel. The door screeched as it opened below her, but she did not look down. She looked through the crenel onto the roof of the tower. A guard looked to the south. Away from me. Time to find out how sneaky I am.

“There’s no one ’ere! It was the Fuckin’ wind,” yelled the guard below.

The round iron pull knocked as the oak door below her slammed shut. She pulled herself up and onto the roof of the tower. She clung to the shadows curving off to her left and made her way around to the stair tower, then paused in the corner. The guard turned and walked to the western side, then to the eastern. Unpredictable pacing. Great. He is bored and cold. I would pace also. I am in deep shadow. He will not see me if I do not move. The wide oak boards of the roof creaked as the guard walked here and there. Stick to the edges when you get your chance. The rain was letting up a bit now, but the moon was still obscured by clouds. The guard paced back to the south, and Ayleth moved quickly around the corner to the stair tower door, opened it and shut it softly behind her. The circular staircase spiraled down to her right. She tread down the steps to the first door she came to. The fourth floor. Ayleth dropped to the cold flagstones and opened the door a crack. Mercifully, it only squealed a little. A guard room, but the beds and furniture will hide me a little. Two guards sat at a table on the far side of the chamber. She looked out the door to her left, then quickly ducked back inside the stair tower and closed the door. She brought to mind her plan of the castle and tried to piece together the puzzle with the limited pieces available to her. The door on the right side of the room leads to a hall, but that is the wrong direction. I need to walk through the left-hand door, which will put the front of the castle wall to my right, then I will be facing north. I am willing to bet that the right door will squeal like a wet belt on one of father’s saws. Perhaps they intentionally do not oil the hinges. Sneaky. I will have to pass through a short hall, through the southern tower of the gatehouse, then through the winch room. I cannot move through the gatehouse unnoticed as it will certainly be occupied, nor can I walk across the roof. I must horizontally traverse seventy feet of wall in the rain, then emerge in the hall outside of King Rolant’s Tower. Onward then. I am insane!

Ayleth peered through the door again. The guards seated at the table began arguing. That candle has destroyed their night vision, so I may have a chance. Now for it. She entered the room, clinging to the wall. Words turned to blows as the arguing guards began to fight. Fuck. One of the fighting guards was thrown onto a bed, waking a third, who quickly joined the fight. Soon, the entire tower had become a tavern brawl of heavily armed men in mail. Fuck. Ayleth sat against the wall, removed the sticks from her silver hair to let it dry, then covered her face with callused hands, waiting to be discovered. She looked at her wet feet. Not very feminine to go about barefoot. Mother would disapprove, but mother disapproves of everything. Wet hair, bare feet? Black leather clothing on a woman?

It was not long before the fight died down. No one had died, but several had sustained light injuries.

"What the fuck are you doin’ in ’ere! Get the fuck down to the kitchen and fetch us ale you fuckin’ stupid wench. And make it sharpish, or I’ll beat you bloody then fuck your scrawny corpse," yelled a guard.

She could see by the insignia on his surcoat that the man addressing her was a captain. “Roight away, Cap’n.” It always ends in rape or death and sometimes both with filth such as this.

She walked out the door to the gatehouse. It was the wrong way to the kitchen, but the captain hadn’t noticed, busy as he was berating his subordinates.

Serving girls do not wear black leather, arsehole, and they do not sit in guard rooms awaiting your command. The captain is too stupid to imagine that anyone could get over the walls. But what would his alternative be? Few people can climb a castle wall. I may in fact be unique in the world. She closed the door and stood in a small hall which led to the northern tower of the gatehouse.

“Evening ma’am’,” said a guard who sat at a table trimming his nails with a huge knife by candlelight.

“Good evenin’ to ya, sir. I’m to fetch some ale for the cap’n. Would you loike some as well?”

“Very kind of you to ask, thank you.” He does not see my leathers in the darkness.

She walked back into the guard room. He is a man of violence and dark deeds, despite his kindly manner. Do not be fooled.

"Fuck’re you still doin’ ’ere? Get movin’!" The captain grabbed his crotch and smiled. His stock warning. He probably motivates his men in the same manner.

“Roight away, sir. Forgot moi cloak, Oi did.” Ayleth picked a worn cloak up of off the floor, scattered and torn in the brawl, donned it and headed down the stairs. This is the easy way down, though I do not need to go down. I had better move with a fucking purpose as father likes to yell at his employees. She made her way to the kitchen in a shuffling, servile manner. Cooks and scullions were hard at work, prepping for an early breakfast. Shit. It must be four in the morning by now. Breakfast in an hour perhaps. She grabbed a pitcher from a massive worktable and headed through the door into the courtyard.

“Off to fetch some water for the king if it please you sir,” she said to a wet and miserable guard outside the door.

He gave her the shit eye, hand on the pommel of his sword, but otherwise let her pass.

Oi’m a lowly servant, Oi am. Do not forget that. Ayleth walked the few feet to the well, filled the pitcher and splashed through leaf-strewn puddles to the oak which grew in the center of the courtyard, branches swaying gently in the evening breeze. She crouched in its shadow and looked around the courtyard. It was raining steadily, the water forming beads and dripping from her leathers. I must hurry. Servants are always in a hurry. The guard by the kitchen cannot see me, and does not care about me. The guard by the door to the east wing probably has not seen me and also does not care if he has. I am just a servant taking shelter from the rain for a moment, quickly forgotten. She left the pitcher by the tree and walked to the southeast corner of the courtyard, making no attempt to hide. Ayleth pressed herself into the corner created by the east wing of the castle and King Rolant’s tower, then sat in silence for a while. The light of the struggling torches danced in puddles and was made abstract by fat drops of rain. The guards do not see me. They do not care about the movements of servants! I am safe for the moment. She turned and stared at the corner. There is a bit of a crack here, large enough for a hand. It will hurt, but less than a spear in the guts. I have no choice at all really, except to abandon this mad venture and walk out of the castle in the morning. But I will not do that, because I am as stubborn and willful as one of father’s mules. She made her way up the corner, shoving her hands and toes into the crack one sharp, painful hold at a time. This crack had better last. I am too high to jump down now, and my hands and toes cannot hold out much longer. I am bleeding, but it will be washed away in the rain. Stupid, stubborn girl. Ayleth’s luck held. She climbed a few more feet and looked to the window three feet to her left. Do or die, girl, and do it quickly. She reached out and brushed the molding around the window with her left hand. Just a bit more and I will have a crappy hold on a slick surface. I rarely climbed the ruins of Borghild in the rain. She leaned out dangerously, grabbed the sill and swung out into space. Almost there. She performed an admirable pull-up and saw hands right next to her own, then a torso and a bearded face silhouetted by candle light staring out into the rain. Shit! She dropped and hung from the rain-slicked sill.

"I love the rain, Orf. It makes me feel peaceful. The little circles the drops make in the puddles damn near put me to sleep," said the man in the window.

"True ’nuff, ’cept when Oi’m on the march. Then Oi doesn’t feel so much peaceful as shitful.” That must be Orf.

"You have a way with words, Orf. The Poet himself I sometimes think". Who the fuck is The Poet?

“You really think so? Should Oi larn t’ write down my witty skisms?”, asked Orf.

“No Orf. You are a fucking moron. People would use your witty skisms to wipe their arsholes.”

“Ahh, Oi know yer havin’ a laugh! Thankee kindly. Yer a good man, Lewtent Brooks. A good man indeed.”

“Any time. Any time at all. Well, better lock it up against the rain.”

No no no! Shit!

The latch made a mocking sound as the window closed.

There is an end to my story—I cannot hold on forever. Time is running out. What a nasty surprise my mangled corpse will make in the fresh autumn morning. Blood from the cuts in her hands mixed with water, streamed down the sill and rolled across her face, blending with her tears. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by thunder a few seconds later. The storm was passing. I do not want to die! This cannot be happening! This is happening. There is only so much luck in the world, and I have used a lifetime’s worth tonight. I must find a way to live or I will die. But Ayleth could not find a way to live—her arms and hands were done, and the sill was simply too slick to hold. She began to hyperventilate and shiver violently. Her hands stopped functioning, and she fell.

Ayleth dropped a few feet and landed brutally hard, crotch-first, on a gargoyle, water streaming out of its grotesque mouth. ”Fuuuck! Ouch!”

“What the fuck was ’at? Who the fuck’s there, Oi say!”

The window above slammed open, and Orf yelled at the guards in the courtyard below.

Do not move or breathe. Stop your heart if you can.

“Can you see sumit? Oi can’t see shit! One o’ you done the screamin’ then?”

"Fuck yerself, Orf. It weren’t us!” Yelled one of the guards in the courtyard. “Whadaya take us for, a right pair o’ arseholes, screamin’ to wake the fuckin’ dead, and the king hisself? Ah, but there’s naught there."

"Maybe not, though I weren’t a’sleepin’ an’ I heard it clear as a raven, just ’ere." Orf paused a moment, then cried out: "Who’s there! I see you now! Come on out with you!"

Ayleth began to move and almost spoke. Wait! He cannot see me—he is trying to trick me into revealing myself. And there are crows in the Ravenswood, not ravens. "Clear as a crow" you ignorant knob head. Devious, though. I will have to remember that. I cannot believe how much I hurt. Scream later, please.

"Shit. It were worth a go, though weren’t it?” said Orf. “Saw Cap’n Everard do that once. We all had a big laugh when ’e told the poor bastard ’e ’adn’t seen ’im after all. ’Cept the man we caught. ’E didn’t laugh none!"

The guards in the courtyard laughed. "Seen the cap’n pull a stunt like that a time or two moiself. Good man t’ have with you in a tight spot."

"All the same, if there’s naught t’ see. Was it the butcher’s ’ound do you think?"

"Orf, you stupid arsehole, ’ound’s don’t yell fuck! Least none that Oi ever ’eard. Though Oi did ’ear, an uh, parrot ’e called it, bird from down south, curse and swear oaths loike ’is master! That fuckin’ bird made us all ’owl with laughter, sittin’ there on the table, cursin’ each man and ’is mother! Yer mother is a fuckin’ ’ay penny whore it would curse! Oi’d love t’ have me a bird loike that someday! Oi’d set me a up a stall and charge people t’ listen t’ ’im!"

"Har! Best keep it down lest you wake the king,” replied Orf, “Just you keep searchin’ for the person what did the cursin’, assuming it ain’t yer parrot! We’ll do the same. Guess you heard, Lewtent Brooks… Lewtent? Are you here? Must ’ave gone down to the kitchen for breakfast. A good hour early, but he’s an ossifer, so Oi won’t be tellin’ ’im ’e can’t."

Shit. This is not luck. This is a miracle, but I do not believe in miracles. Those men will not stop looking for me—they saw a serving girl but did not see her climb. They will not know what to make of this scenario. I am amazed that they have not raised the alarm, but I suppose they must think it could be a servant. Ayleth took a bit of weight off her throbbing crotch. Miracle it might have been, but I will need a second one to climb or to even move. She massaged her screaming crotch ineffectually. Agony or no, I will die if I stay here. She muffled a scream as she found her footing and stood on the rain-slicked gargoyle. I imagine I would genuinely laugh if this fucking thing broke now. The gargoyle had nowhere else to be just then, and as she peered up and through the window into the hall, Orf was nowhere to be seen. She pulled herself up a bit more and looked further into the corridor. He is gone, probably to sneak a little early breakfast. I must be quick. She pulled herself up and sat on the slanting, wet stone window sill and inspected the window. It was stained glass set into a lead framework. How it glows from the candlelight within! How beautiful, the drips of water running down the sill. It makes the warrior depicted herein look as though he is crying. And well he should be—he has just skewered a great boar. Fucking murderer. Father would be envious—he loves to kill animals. Ours windows are simple diamond panels. We do not yet possess the technology to produce large panes of glass, thus we make them small. She located the lock and pried a blue rectangular border piece out with her knife, but it broke as she removed it. How sad. I would have replaced the glass, and the mystery of my crime would have been all the greater. I shall return the pieces anyway. She reached in, unlocked the window and pushed it open, then crept silently over the sill and into the hall. A candle flickered and died in the breeze. Candle smoke evokes memories of mother reading to me in bed. Ayleth closed the window quietly and attempted to replace the glass pieces, but only one would fit into the grooved lead frame. She left the remaining glass on the sill and took her bearings. A guard she had not seen was leaning against the wall outside of a door thirty feet to her left. He must be dozing. The rain puts me to sleep as well. I am directly outside King Rolant’s bedroom, but I need to go through that door to get there. The east wing of the castle mirrors the west wing. The door leads to a room like the council chamber, through which I must pass to access the king’s bedroom. She crept down the hall, extinguishing the candles as she passed them. Water dripped from her drenched black leathers and onto the cold stone floor, leaving a path of wet footprints that traced her route through the corridor. If they dry in an hour, they will never know I was here. She reached the guard. How can he sleep on his feet? His keys were hanging from a loop on his belt. She knelt on the ground at the guard’s feet. If he wakes up, I might have a decent excuse for being here. By the Dancing Devil, he had better not awaken. I am in no mood to perform fellatio. She reached for his key ring. Gently. She worked the keyring’s latch, then removed it from the loop. The heavy iron keys rattled as she lowered them to the floor and wrapped them in the stolen cloak to muffle them. When she had done so, she looked up and saw the guard smiling down at her. Fuck.

"Jus’ where Oi loike a woman—on her knees. Well, get to it then! Oi ain’t got all night. Lessn’ you wanna ’and back them keys you stole. Noicely done, though. Oi been watchin’ you since that moron Orf went chasin’ after an early breakfast, fat fuckin’ tub o’ shit that ’e is."

"Shit. I…" Ayleth swung the heavy iron keys into his testicles.

"Ahh! Moi bollocks!"

She kneed him hard in the face when he doubled over, then dropped the keys onto the floor and gagged him with the soaking wet cloak. The guard slumped to the ground, trying to hold his testicles and broken nose at the same time. He was gurgling blood and trying to yell through his gag, in apparent distress. Shit, he cannot breathe. Ayleth quickly grabbed his dagger and held it to his throat, then removed his gag.

"Silence is a virtue, as my tutor Fendrel has told me on many occasions."

"Who the fuck is Fendrel? Who the fuck are you?" He spat a wad of blood at her.

"How perfectly revolting. Fendrel is, well, was, my tutor, and shall be again. Who I am is none of your concern. Now please, be quiet." She switched the blade to her left hand and wiped the blood off her right on the guard’s surcoat.

"You ’aven’t got the guts t’ slit a man’s throat." He is right.

"Open this door or I shall indeed slit your throat, despite your opinion that I have not the guts to do so, as you say."

"You talk funny. Oi ’ave not the guts. Tha’s roight funny it is. Oi shall use it. You ’ave not the guts, Oi shall say t’ the next man t’ trouble me. Then Oi shall gut ’im! Ha!”

What the fuck is wrong with him?

"What the fuck is wrong with you? Do you not see the knife I now hold to your throat?"

"Just tryin’ t’ make conversation is all. Oi’ve ’ad worse. Not the first time Oi’ve ’ad a knife at moi throat. A whore tried robbin’ me just as you’re doin’ now. She feeds the fishes now, she does. Well, Oi says feeds. She is long since et by them little fishies. Fishies don’ look t’ be meat eaters, but some are, you know. He is biding his time while he stabilizes. He is cleverer than he looks and has already bought himself a precious moment of time. And tough bastards like him who are at home in a brawl do not need a moment to recover from the meager blows I have dealt him. "Oi’ s’pose they need t’ eat summit, don’ they?" He lunged for her with another knife, and she jumped out of the way and brought the back of his knife down hard on his skull. The maneuver almost worked. Daggers do not have heavy pommels. The blow had not knocked him out, but he was now in serious pain and struggled to his feet. Fuck. Let this serve as a reminder—no brawling henceforth. She kicked him hard in his testicles and he went down.

"Orf’ll be back presently, and ’e will sit on your ’ead, ’e will." I have managed to weaken him. Well, the hardest job to finish is the one never started, as father says. And I have made a start. But how to finish it? It is as though I am attempting to fell a great ash with a hatchet.

"Ring…moi bell once more…Oi’ll…ram moi knoif…"

She did not wait around to see where he intended to ram his knife, though she was certain she knew. Into my anus. What a repellent thought! Men are always threatening to ram objects into various orifices. They do have a biological imperative to penetrate, and in doing so, to create life, but anal penetration with a knife will certainly not lead to conception. Perhaps men have frustrated homosexual needs, and in this way, hope to assuage them. She kicked him hard in the face, and his head hit the stone wall. She picked up his second knife and not knowing what exactly to do with it, left it on the floor in the shadows.

He is out. My, what a mess I have made. I must avoid violence in the future, as I am clearly not skilled in its administration. My victim would be amused by what I have just said.

Blood flowed from the guard’s nose and into the joints of the age-worn flagstones of the hall. Ayleth attempted to drag him, then stopped. He must weigh two hundred and fifty pounds. I cannot leave him here, and I cannot drag him to the stairs where he would be found in any case.

All of that just to walk through a fucking door. She reflected on her conundrum as she began to try the keys, one by one. There were several, and it took a few moments to find the correct one. The lock’s action was smooth and crisp. This is a well-made lock. Brass I imagine—no rust in the king’s lock. I cannot see enough of the key to discern if it too is brass, but I imagine that it is. Keys are lovely. I shall draw one later. She knelt and peered through the keyhole. The room glowed brightly. What a cheerful, inviting place. I would sit in that chair by the fireplace and read and draw. This must be King Rolant’s study. I do not see anyone, but I cannot see the entire room. In fact, I cannot see half the room.

With great difficulty, she dragged the guard down the hall a few feet, then returned to the door and pushed it open wide. If anyone is in there, I shall soon know. It opened smoothly and made no sound. She ran down the hall on bare feet. After fifteen feet or so, she stopped running and returned to the room. No one at home. She dragged the recumbent guard through the door, then shut and locked it behind her.

Ayleth investigated the remainder of the room and found another guard passed out drunk in the chair. What an honor it must be to guard the king, and yet he sits drunk and drooling in front of the fire. I do not suppose I can blame him. The guards must not see a lot of action these days. But he does give me a splendid idea. She arranged a tableau, which to her mind was a masterpiece of artifice: the drunken guard she left in the chair, while the subject of her violence now sprawled in front of the fireplace. She smeared blood from his nose onto the hearth and poured what was left of the drunkard’s whiskey onto the face of the guard with whom she had fought. That must sting. I love a finely-crafted whiskey, but I do not imagine this distillation could by any stretch of the imagination be placed into that category. Dancing Pig Whiskey. Here, an artist has depicted the pigs to which the brand name refers, engaged in a drunken revelry. The one on the left seems to be aroused by the one on the right, the sow with whom he now dances. I believe father would use this foul blend as torch fuel.

Ayleth returned quickly to the hall and cleaned up the guard’s blood with her increasingly filthy cloak. She returned to the room, threw the cloak in the fire and surveyed her work. Imperfect, but it will buy me enough time to complete the job. What job is that I wonder? Have I not completed it already? No, I must see it through to the end, for better or worse.

Ayleth walked to the door of the king’s bedroom, looked down at the keys and took a deep breath. Now for it. The king’s bedroom key was easy to locate: it was one of only three bronze keys on the ring. No time to waste. The first key she tried worked, and like the lock in the door to the room where she now stood, made little sound. She dropped to her knees and looked through the keyhole. I cannot see anything in the dim light. She put her ear to the door. Nothing, but the door is three-inch thick, iron-banded oak. Ayleth put her ear to the keyhole. Nothing, but I do not know if my ear is in the right place. She looked again through the keyhole. The light is mostly blue moonlight, but I can see some orange light on the floor as well. The fire must be nearly dead. Nothing for it but to try. The moment I open the door, a dog is going to eat me for his breakfast and bury the rest of me with his bones in the garden. Ayleth slowly opened the door and it did not creak. If I were a queen, my door would not creak either. Ayleth stepped quietly into the room, then closed and locked the door. She was not at once attacked by a dog. Curious. She surveyed the room. The fire was dying in the fireplace and soft moonlight passed through the window, painting diamonds onto the wide plank floors. The king should keep dogs like other nobles. I know he has hunting dogs, but perhaps he finds the fur to be an irritant. I have met others with that malady. Those poor souls have my sympathy, as life without the love of an animal is no life at all.

Ayleth left the door and crept into the circular room, which was perhaps thirty feet in diameter. An elaborate gilded chandelier hung from a painted ceiling beam. King Rolant Bardolf and Queen Emlyn Bardolf slept peacefully in a massive, carved four-poster bed, under a blanket embroidered with the quartered Raven and Oak which was the coat of arms of House Bardolf. It is a fucking crow I tell you! She walked to the window, opened it, and placed her hands on the sill. The storm was ending and the rain pattered softly on her fingers. She breathed deeply, savoring the smell. Thunder rolled softly in the distance. Lights from boats on the river and from the town at the bottom of the hill twinkled gently in the distance. A dog barked somewhere far away. A perfect moment. Wake up! Have a reverie later!

She lurked about, searching the circular chamber. A great iron-bound chest with many stout locks stood proudly at the foot of the bed, issuing its boastful challenge for all to hear. I would love to accept my friend. Perhaps later. She moved to the head of the bed and stood next to King Rolant, in gentle repose. He is an effigy on a cathedral floor, though his nose has not been trodden flat by the ignorant faithful who care nothing for the skill of the craftsman who carved it. His breath was light and steady. Neither of them snores—father snores like one of his sawmills. She regarded his face. He was blond haired and clean shaven, perhaps in his early fifties. Despite his age, he appeared handsome and vigorous. Or as robust as one can seem asleep. He is married, and I am an uninvited guest. Dispose of these useless thoughts. Queen Emelyn was shockingly ugly, with a pig’s nose, terrible skin, and shit-brown hair. A thin mustache loitered on her upper lip. He could do much better. What a dreadful thought! I am an arsehole. Ayleth resumed her investigation and discovered a small box which sat on a table near the bed. She picked it up. Rosewood inlaid with gold, polished to a mirror sheen. An exotic and very rare wood. The gold has value as well. A master craftsman created this—I would like to know him or her. Father keeps his small piece of rosewood locked in his coffer. Its texture is like soft steel. She opened the box and picked up a small ring, engraved with King Rolant’s Raven and Oak coat of arms. His signet ring. This will serve. I did not come here for money, and this will fit in my pocket. I could amuse myself writing bizarre letters in his name, sealing them with wax embossed by this ring. I need to find a copy of his signature. Fool! I could start a war. Father would have loved this box, but I would not be able to explain how I came by it, and I cannot carry it. She returned the box to the table and moved to the window. Time to leave.

Ayleth spotted an old painting in a gilded frame, glowing softly in the wan firelight. She walked over to view it. This was painted by an elegant hand. Valderbründ I believe. He was a gentleman when we last met. Yes, here is his signature. See how the trees seem to sway in the wind! That shepherd has a beautiful flock of sheep, but a storm is coming. He should gather them and make his way home. Yes, his dogs are alerting him. Fool! Get out of here! The shepherd’s dogs are warning me!

She considered her options for escape. I could go out the door, down the stair tower, and hide in the courtyard, then leave in the morning when they open the gate. No, I cannot risk being caught now that they are on alert. I could climb out the window and straight down, but my hands need a rest. I suppose I must climb to the top of this tower, then make my way back to the damaged tower I came in. Shit, my hands are fucking done. I failed to account for that.

She moved to the open window and out onto the wet sill. A soulful night. Smell the rain! The mist on the river will lull me to sleep! She turned and faced the tower, then grasped the molded top of the arched window and pulled herself up. Five feet to the parapet. A few more painful holds and she crawled through a crenel and stood atop the tower’s roof. I have achieved the impossible. If only I could tell father. He would not believe me. She began to walk across the roof and heard a voice.