This first appeared in the charitable anthology “In a Land Far Away” (you can pick up a copy to the benefit of Doctors Without Borders).
Prisoner of the Ruined Keep
The unmistakable, inexplicable sound of a woman weeping echoed through the damp corridors of the keep. Chester drew his sword.
His boots slipped on the damp stones. He cursed under his breath. Despite the Ruined Keep’s well-earned name, it shouldn’t have been possible for anyone to sneak in. He’d have a lot of explaining to do when his commanding officer arrived.
Chester steadied himself on the mossy wall as he leaned far enough to peek around the corner. A woman in a long cloak gripped the bars of one of the cells.
“Thomas,” her voice broke on his name, “how could you?”
So, she knew the prisoner. A relative or a sweetheart, perhaps? Chester hung back in the shadows. He remembered the time the before the war, but he’d forgotten what it meant to live in those days. The fighting had lasted so long he couldn’t imagine it would ever stop.
As weary as he was of fighting, though, he found it even more unbearable to listen to a woman cry.
His commanding officer wasn’t due for another hour, at least. The other guards were at their posts far out of earshot. With a little luck Chester could persuade her to leave. She was surely a southlander but she couldn’t be much of a threat. After the deaths of so many soldiers, what good could come from harming a woman?
And a broken-hearted one, at that.
“You shouldn’t have come for me,” the prisoner hissed.
“It isn’t ever my choice.” Her words turned sharp. “All this time, have you been betraying both sides?”
Chester sighed. She’d been taken in by the profiteering scoundrel. He stepped out from around the corner.
She yelped and leapt away from the bar with a slight clatter.
“Leave her be,” Thomas barked from inside his cell. “She ain’t done any harm.”
Chester would have believed it except for the large key the woman clutched in her fist. She took a step back, dashed away the tears with her free hand. Dark brown curls bunched in the hood of her black mantel. Fear and exhaustion had drained the color from her face. She looked like a ghost in black breeches and dark gray shirtwaist.
But no ghost ever looked so defiant.
“Here now.” Chester reached her in two strides and stared down at her.
She gazed up at him, unflinching though he towered over her. When he wrapped his gloved hand around the key she let him take it.
It was so heavy he almost dropped it on his foot.
“You’re her!” Chester gasped.
She was younger than he’d expected. More delicate than gossip suggested. She glowered at Thomas behind his bars.
“I thought he was innocent,” she said. One last tear trailed down.
“Anda the Liberator,” Chester said. “They say you heed the cries of innocent strangers. But you know this one?”
“I thought I did.”
“I told you I was a scoundrel,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “Did you think I was joking?”
Chester gave him a stern look and Thomas shut his mouth. In the long silence the wind moaned through the cracks that had given the Ruined Keep its name. Water dripped. Little clawed feet scuttled in the gloom.
“So now you’ve seen his true colors?” Chester guessed. “Your key wouldn’t free him?”
“It would not.” Anda ground her teeth together. She blinked back more tears. “But it should have.”
“Just because you thought him guiltless?”
“Because each full moon, the key brings me to an innocent prisoner.”
“The key brought you here?”
“’Tis how it works,” she said, as if he were a simpleton. “At midnight, it brings me wherever I’m most needed.”
“That’s how you got in?”
“It’s how I always get in. And with an innocent freed, the key delivers us both to safety.”
Thomas grunted and retreated into the shadows.
“I should get a promotion for this,” Chester said as he hefted the key. “How could someone little as you carry it?”
“It’s not heavy to me.”
So the rumors told. The rumors also claimed she’d gotten into half a dozen keeps and freed many southlanders.
But not this time.
“For what it’s worth,” Chester said, “I’m sorry you were tricked by this charlatan.”
“So am I.”
He had to confiscate the key. But Chester had never arrested a woman.
“If you leave now,” he said, “I’d be willing to—” his throat seized around the words.
Anda wore a silver brooch shaped like a rearing stag.
“Where did you get that?”
She stepped back, pale fingers splayed wide as she reached to steady herself against the slime-smeared wall.
“Twas a gift.”
He dropped the key. It clanged against the floor like an ancient bell. Chester seized her narrow wrist and tore the brooch from her mantle.
“This was my sister Isobel’s!” His words rang in the damp air. “She’s been a gone a year now. Was she alive or dead when you took it off her?”
“I never stole it.” Anda twisted, helpless in his grasp.
Chester marched her down the corridor and locked her into the cell farthest from Thomas. She gave no protest, did not cry out for pardon. Despair settled into Chester, deep as winter’s chill. Isobel would never have parted with that brooch. Hadn’t he warned her about setting out with the merchant’s caravan?
Thomas smirked at him when he stopped to reclaim the key.
“You! I’ll ask for furlough just long enough to see you hang,” Chester bit off every syllable.
He stormed to the end of the corridor, then stopped. The reek of mildew in the east staircase was strong enough to make him choke. A year’s worth of prayers, wasted.
He finally had news for his mother. But it wasn’t enough. Where had his sister died? And when? Had anyone given her a decent burial?
This might be his only chance to know what became of Isobel.
Chester clenched his fingers around the key. It was as cold as it was heavy. How had that little slip of a girl carried it? Tricky creature. Likely she’d stolen the key from its first owner.
Maybe he could get her to tell him where it had come from. Legend claimed that it had been made by a sorcerer who used it to selfish ends until the blood of a priest imbued it with its current power. Chester couldn’t see any blood on it. Nor even any rust. Another story said that the key was wrought by faeries which yearned to meddle in the most important of human affairs. Yet another suggested the key sought a master who needed redemption.
Chester had only one person he could ask. He retraced his steps and took the torch that burned near Thomas’ cell.
Let the rogue sit in the dark.
Anda had turned her back to the bars but faced him when she saw the torchlight. She held her chin high, shoulders back.
“I’m no thief,” she told him again.
She stayed back from the bars, as if he might try to hurt her.
“Don’t lie. My commander will be here soon. Before he takes you away, you could show me the decency of telling me my sister’s fate.”
Her mouth fell open. “You think me a liar, but you’re asking me for truth?”
Chester shrugged. “You take risks to do things you think are right. You can’t be all bad. Might be you’d face your consequences with an easier mind, knowing you’d granted my poor old mother a little peace.”
“Ha! Grant her all the peace in the world. Tell her I freed your sister and saw her safely to Elm Haven.”
“That’s not possible.” Chester shook his head. “There’s been no word from her.”
Anda stepped forward. She curled her hands around the rusted bars. “No? You haven’t heard that Elm Haven’s declared strict neutrality? They do not send messengers out.”
Chester stared at her. The torchlight played across her sorrowful face. He’d prided himself on knowing when a prisoner lied.
No guile danced within her eyes.
“The merchant tricked her.” Anger edged every one of Anda’s words. “Sold her and two other young women as slaves. I got her out, but it was too late for the others.”
The fire in those blue eyes burned so true.
“That merchant was my countryman,” he said.
“And your countrymen never act with brutality?”
He wanted to argue. But he couldn’t.
“Why would you have done such a thing for a northerner?”
“It doesn’t matter to the key where the innocent prisoner hails from.” Her fingers were bone-white around the bars as she whispered, “Why would it matter to me?”
Chester didn’t answer her. How many men had he killed, and told himself it was justice for Isobel?
Anda released her fierce grip on the bars and stepped back. She was just a small scrap of shadow. A rat scuttled by. She didn’t flinch.
Chester walked away again. The key dragged at his arm.
“Hey!” Thomas tried to flag him down. “You’ve got her and the key, don’t you? Why not let me go? I’ve got gold stashed all the way from here to Torrenberg. Be worth it to let me out.”
“A minute ago you were suing for her freedom!”
Thomas shrugged. “She’s a nice enough lass. But it’s a war, isn’t it?”
For the first time, war seemed like a sorry excuse. Thomas grinned and leaned against the bars.
“She’ll probably hang alongside you,” Chester snarled. “Doesn’t bother you?”
Another shrug. “I can’t do anything about that.”
Chester reached into his pocket. He touched the brooch.
He jogged back to Anda’s cell. His leather armor creaked, the sound heavy in his ears. What courage this woman had, to enter enemy territory with nothing to protect her but a woolen cloak.
“What aren’t you begging me to let you out?”
“Why would I? The wardens of the Ruined Keep are not renowned for their mercy.”
He placed the torch in the nearest bracket and studied the key. He wanted to believe her.
“The stories never said you helped northerners.”
“Do your people ever tell stories that put southlanders in a good light?” she asked.
Chester scuffed a boot on the old stone floor. The weight of the key made his arm ache all the way up to his shoulder.
“Why would the key bring you here, if it wouldn’t unlock the cell?”
“Not all prisons have iron bars.”
He didn’t understand what she meant. Far away, a fellow guard shouted his name. He hadn’t reported in to finish his rounds. The key grew so heavy he had to use both hands to hold it.
“I hope you get to hear her sing again,” Anda said.
“Your sister. I never dreamt I’d hear a voice like hers.”
Chester went as cold as the key in his hands. Isobel sang like an angel.
Lord of Seven Mercies help him. He believed her.
The wind still howled. The shouts grew louder, closer.
“You really saved my sister’s life?”
Anda shook the dark curls away from her face. She planted her fists on her hips.
“Try my key. If I’m a thief and a liar, it won’t let me out.”
He’d heard that southlanders were all cowards. He’d heard they’d sell their grandmothers for a farthing apiece. And he’d sworn to kill every one of them he ever met, just to avenge Isobel.
The stairwell rang with the slap of boots on damp stone.
“Did the key bring you here so that you could be set free?” It took all his strength to lift it toward the keyhole.
She had looked away, toward the approaching guards, but then her eyes locked on his. “I think it brought me here to free you.”
Suddenly, the key weighed nothing. It slipped into place and turned with ease.
“Chester!” one his fellow guards shouted. “What are you doing?”
He opened the door and yanked the key free in one motion. Perhaps he could hold the guards off and give her a chance to escape. He reached out to Anda. But when she grabbed his hand, the cell and the angry shouts vanished in a flash of light as the stone floor fell away beneath them.
“What—” Chester gasped. He dragged Anda three paces before his boots tangled in the fragrant vines under his feet.
They were outdoors. A warm breeze swept through a quiet courtyard that lay awash in the mirror-bright moonlight. Chester let go of Anda’s hand. They studied each other a moment. Crushed night blooms lay beneath their feet.
“Where are we?” Chester whispered.
Before she could answer, a beautiful sound lilted out of a nearby window. Chester turned. Lanterns burned low in a small church. And someone – someone he knew – was inside, singing.
“But that’s—” Disbelief made him choke on the words. He pointed at the moonlit church and waited for an explanation.
“In Elm Haven,” Anda told him, “they sing night carols at the full moon.”
“Isobel,” he whispered.
Chester ran toward the church but stopped just short of the door. He went back to Anda and held out the key.
“I can’t take it back,” she said. “It-it’s yours now.”
He had a dozen questions. But every single one could wait. He jammed the key into his pocket, and then pulled out the brooch. With a gentleness his battle-scarred hands had almost lost, he pinned the brooch back onto Anda’s mantle. Isobel’s singing called him toward the church door but he paused.
He reached out and waited until Anda took his hand.