Amy J Mars
“But I’ve nowhere else to go!”
“You should’ve thought of that before you made a fool of me! Because of you, they all think we serve poison on our platters,” Mistress Brenna spat out.
“But it was poisoned! I couldn’t let a boy die –”
“That’s exactly what you should have done!” Alarmed by her animosity, I stumbled away from Mistress Brenna. She did not stop her pursuit.
“One dead noble would have meant people comin’ to see the very place Young Lord Malachi was murdered. But instead I have one worthless, flea-bitten dog, dead by White Tree inn’s food!” Mistress Brenna’s pudgy hand gripped my neck and forced me to stand up. She choked the air out of my throat and I felt the pressure of suffocation set in. Her other hand slapped my head three times before she started dragging me to the kitchen door. Even with my ears ringing, I knew that I could not end up outside. I wouldn’t survive out there. I squirmed and kicked but her grip was too strong. My feet were slipping against the door frame. I saw spots of black and my strength grew weak when help came in the form of that low, authoritative voice.
“The girl will come with me.”
Like a rat at night, Mistress Brenna dropped me at her feet and scrambled backwards away from the tall man. Blood and air pumped back into my head like a drum. I was too lightheaded to concentrate on the conversation, but I heard “prisoner” and “interrogate” before I managed to catch my breath.
A heavy bag clunked on the floorboard before me and was quickly snatched up by the greedy hands of Mistress Brenna.
“For the damages to your inn’s reputation.” Mistress Brenna bowed down to her knees in shameless gratitude. Her fingers itched to open the bag and count her good fortune.
“And your silence. All of it.” The smile on Mistress Brenna’s face abruptly disappeared. The story of Mistress Brenna of White Tree inn saving the life of Young Lord Malachi had had a nice ring to it. The man did not move, did not smile; he only waited for Mistress Brenna to come to terms with his deal.
“Fine,” she hissed.
The man nodded once.
“We will see. And watch.”
Mistress Brenna puckered her lips but wisely did not retaliate. She didn’t spare me a glance as she retreated from the kitchen through a side door.
I heaved myself up but only managed to make it to my knees before falling back down again. The last thing I wanted was to be a prisoner in the hands of nobles, but my body refused to listen to my addled brains.
Something in my face must have alerted the man for he said, “my men will catch you before you even take a step outside. And they’ll have my permission to do what they please with you.”
I nodded. I could do nothing else. I was obedient to fear and I wouldn’t be able to survive outside in the cold. He stepped further into the room all the way to the little corner I huddled in. My neck cricked just looking up at him. He was tall even for a normal man, so tall that the roof seemed to balance atop his head. Surprisingly, he knelt down to my level, bringing his eyes to mines. He squinted hard making his old face even more wrinkled than before. I fought the urge to look away from his glasslike eyes. Cold fingers pinched my chin.
“My man will carry you to his horse. You will not yell, you will not scream, you will not run. If you do, I will personally see to it that you are gutted. Am I understood?”
I didn’t answer fast enough and the pinch on my chin sharpened into pain.
I cried out. “Yes!” There was no other answer I could give.
The cold fingers left and the room became its normal size again when the man left the kitchen. I heard him murmur commands in the next room but was suddenly too tired to mind. I was not dead and for now that was enough for me. The door opened once more and a man as wide as a tree walked into the room. I immediately regretted my earlier decision not to run. Maybe dying frozen would be less painful than at the hands of this giant. I debated the possibility of running, but by then the man had scooped me up and was on his way out the back and toward the stables.
The winter air hit like a blast that froze the insides. Unlike the man, I was not dressed in thick boots and leathers for warmth. A thin dress was all you needed when you worked in the fires of a kitchen. I huddled as close as possible to the giant until the entrance of the stable.
The stables were dark and he did not light the lantern. He placed me on a stack of hay and I could just barely see that his horse was saddled and ready. A few items bounced off my lap and landed on the ground.
“Put them on quickly.”
I was surprised when I palmed the objects. My outside shoes for the winter, a man’s set of pants and tunic and a heavy winter’s cloak.
I gladly put on the shoes and pants under my dress. I was about to pull the tunic over my head when the man interrupted me.
“Take off the dress.” I paused. Trembled. It suddenly occurred to me that there were worse things than dying in the snow. I studied the man once more. He paid me no mind and was checking the horse and saddle. His back was to me.
I took a sudden breath and in a rush whipped off my dress and pulled the tunic over my head in one movement. The tunic caught over my head and my panic made my movements clumsy and frantic. When I finally wrestled the tunic down my breath rasped and I felt peaked to scream. But the man hadn’t shifted and the choke of fear fell away. I hurriedly wrapped the cloak around me and clipped the front clasps together. The man turned around to face me.
“Come.” I tiptoed closer and my eyes unconsciously shifted to the side. He spared me a half-glance and covered my head with the hood. The dress I held like a shield in front of me was taken and stuffed into a saddlebag. Then without warning, his monstrous hands framed my hips and boosted me up over onto the horse. I’d never been atop a horse before and the sudden height made me clutch at the horse’s mane and hunker down close to its neck. My legs clamped around the horse so I wouldn’t fall. The disgruntled horse sidled sideways and snorted madly at me.
“Stop that.” At first I thought the man was speaking to the horse, but his hand shook my knee. “Sit nicely.” Sit nicely? How could anyone sit nicely on this stupid animal? Like a coward, I did not say what I was thinking and instead tried to relax my legs. I checked the horse’s reaction but I could only see the bare outline of the horse. I slowly sat up straight and the horse walked forward toward the stable doors.
The man left my side for a moment and I could see the sliver of moonlight around the door’s edge. He poked his head out for more than a few seconds. From where I sat I could hear nothing except winter’s chill moving along wooden walls. The man returned and led the horse out of the stables, closed the door, and mounted the horse behind me. The air bit at my nose and mouth, but the cloak kept the rest of me warm for which I was thankful for.
From the stables to the edge of town he led the horse in a slow walk. We avoided the cobblestone steps as much as possible and weaved through dirt paths. At this time of night, there wasn’t much lantern light out, but nevertheless we avoided those too. When the houses and their lights became speckles of fireflies, the walk charged into a gallop. And despite my fear of what had happened, of what would still happen at our destination, and to my chagrin, I slept.