Dungeons are perpetually dark, but at night the quality of that darkness changes, becomes thicker and more substantial somehow. The young woman chained to the wall is far too young to be an intimate of darkness. Nessa’s mind fools her into thinking that she cannot see, even though she can. Nessa is a thief, a pickpocket and a street urchin. She is seventeen years old and this is not the first time that she has been a guest in King Haralan’s dungeon.
When she was ten, her mother died, followed soon after by her father, murdered by his own sorrow and cowardice. She remembers the exact moment that her father died, can still feel the fear and see the pity in his eyes as his fingers traced over the ragged outline of the dark, wine-colored stain that mars Nessa’s face. “Ah, lass. Why? Why were ye cursed so?”
She turned from him then, sickened by the fear. “Please Da. Don’t.” Nessa’s tears lodged in her throat and remained there, choking her with self-pity for a long, desperate time. The last thing her father said was, “Wear the scarf, lass. If ye’d worn it when the priest came ’round, mayhaps we’d have gotten the dole and yer ma wouldn’t have wasted away.” Her father died that same day and Nessa began a journey that led, inevitably, to the cold, damp dungeon below Crown Castle. She never did cry for her Da.
Nessa had just been caught picking someone’s pocket and within a few bells of being tossed into the dungeon, the darkness reaches out for her. “Ah, if it isn’t my favorite street swine.” The guard, who the others call Hatchet, clutches crudely at his crotch, “Couldn’t stay away from me, eh lass?” Hatchet is accustomed to the pliant defenseless of prisoners. Nessa knows, all too well, that cruel pinches and slugs of a mailed fist will accompany his grunted release. She believes, even though she’s too young to understand the implications, that it is her pain that attracts him: that he is like a bee unable to resist the sweet nectar of her suffering. He snatches her hair and jerks her head to one side, exposing the dark stain that wraps around her neck and slides grotesquely over her right cheek. He fumbles with his breeches and Nessa swallows the bile that rises in her throat.
A mind can be a sharp and deadly weapon against a guard’s heavy boot parting your thighs, and over the years Nessa has built within her heart a secret place. She cannot recall the origins of her forest house, nor exactly when it entered her life; she knows only that it has always been a part of her. It is her escape; a place of dignity and peace. As Nessa turns her face to the wall, she feels the silent strength of her mind, and the cold mail of his fist sliding up the inside of her thigh becomes the fluid coolness of spring water. The oppressive weight of his body becomes the sweet tightness of exertion as she climbs to a hilltop glen. When the pain begins, Nessa is well within the confines of her sanctuary. When he’s finished, the guard’s ignorance allows him to believe that the look on her face signifies enjoyment and Nessa doesn’t care what he thinks, she knows he’ll return and that her forest house will be there to shelter her.
A doomed man joins her in the dungeon that night, dragged in by angry guards. Nessa is bruised and battered; one eye is swollen shut and the dungeon’s darkness threatens to consume her. But Nessa doesn’t need to see. She hears the guards as they spit his name out of mouths twisted with rage. She feels Mal’s agony pouring from his body like sweat. Nessa knows the routine and stares blindly into the dark as stiff leather cuffs are strapped around his wrists and ankles. He will be bound to the wall next to her by short chains, leaving barely enough room to squat on the floor; never enough room to lie down to rest, or even enough room to lie down to die.
After the guards leave, Nessa crouches on the floor, listening for any hint of him. Silence does not exist inside the darkness of a dungeon; there is a constant clamor of cursing guards, rattling chains and moaning prisoners surrounding them. She has witnessed too many prisoners being tossed into dungeons and even the strongest warrior will thrash and call out at the first hint of lost freedom. Mal remains silent and still for so long that she begins to think him daft.
Eventually, she realizes that she doesn’t need to hear him either; the stench of his defeat is overpowering. From the beginning, the guards call him a killer. He doesn’t seem like a killer to her; he seems dead. There is an air of hopelessness that surrounds Mal, and Nessa imagines that she can see it glowing in the dark.
Nessa’s heart holds little capacity for compassion and she wills herself to scorn Mal. She believes he is weak and doesn’t fully understand why she begins to speak to him, but talking soon becomes a habit: whispered words, battered against the inside of their cage. “If you lift your head to the north, you can still detect the faint scent of winter blanketing the land,” she intones and is astonished at the sound of her own voice, alive with promise, while inside she feels as dead as he. “The sun is waning and the birds are winging home to rest.” Mal doesn’t move, doesn’t give any indication that he has heard her at all. She closes her eyes and leans back against the weeping wall. “I can smell the faint scent of a burning hearth and it draws me away from the village and into the forest.” She hears him then, as he shuffles as close to her as his chains will allow. She’s astonished to discover that she doesn’t mind; he can join her, if it helps.
She speaks a little louder, making sure that he can follow. “Under the trees, darkness cloaks us in a protective layer and we are hidden from the gods that rule our lives. The forest is frozen in that peculiar unsilence of prey and predator.” She hears him breathing next to her, “We’ve entered the forest at the head of a tiny, struggling spring.” Inside the dungeon, Nessa inhales a deep breath of air rank with the scent of human captivity, while inside her head she sees the rise of the land as it makes its way past the stream. “The water trickles over smooth, liquid rocks and the green scent of life greets us.” Nessa hears the call of a night raven high above. “Listen. Do you hear it? The goddess Cahleyna comes, trailing the moon behind her.” As she starts to cross the stream, she looks back over her shoulder and he is there, shuffling along. The realization that Mal, too, can inhabit her secret place jolts her from her reverie and she will never again return to that place without the vaguely oppressive knowledge that Mal is her companion.
The next day Mal has a visitor, a priest searching for lost souls. At first, he only stares at the priest, but soon Mal begins to talk, slowly and then with increasing anguish. His tale is a bitter one, full of hateful jealousy and death for the betrayed, as well as the betrayers. He explains to the priest how he had been falsely accused of burning his village and that, in the end, he had murdered the one truly responsible. Mal tells the priest, in a voice devoid of life, that he has been condemned to hang. With a wickedness that startles her, Nessa finds it amusing that the priest’s bag of tricks are ineffective against Mal’s torment. Mal is too consumed by his own agony to care much for redemption and Nessa knows the priest doesn’t leave the dungeon that day with any redeemed souls.
In Mal, Nessa sees her own suffering and after the priest leaves, she strains her eyes, eager to see if his hatred pours from him like smoke, but all she sees is death. She feels an insistent need building in the pit of her stomach, an inexplicable urge to flee to her haven. She continues weaving the spell that comforts them, “It’s morning now and the forest is alive. The leaves rustle under our feet and the wind blows a cool, welcome breeze along our backs. We’re moving to higher ground. The trees are huge up here, ancient sentinels guarding the heart of the wood. The forest crowds us, moves in closer and becomes thicker. Up ahead we see a small clearing. That’s our destination.” Her voice rises in pitch and Mal moves as close to her as his short chains will allow. “The glen is no larger than the house that inhabits its space. A perfectly-lined stone fence is all that restrains the forest from totally overtaking the cottage. Smoke curls from the chimney and a lamp burns brightly through a small window beside the door.” Nessa feels the serenity of the place and she wraps it about her like armor. “Oh, yes. By Araminia, it is quiet here.”
In the forest, she rests her hand upon a wooden gate and she feels Mal’s warm breath along her neck and his hand clutching her arm as he urges her forward. He whispers, “Let’s go inside”.
Nessa chokes, “No! No, we can’t.” The cottage recoils from her and shatters into tiny, frozen embers. She scrambles onto all fours and lunges away from him, stretching her chains to the very end. She has never gone inside the forest house. She fancies herself being patient, waiting to get the full measure of the place before venturing over its threshold. But she is afraid. On the surface her life is difficult enough to bear; slipping below that turbulent edge is unthinkable. Nessa suspects that the forest house is as empty as her life and the thought terrifies her.
The day of the priest’s visit is to be the last day of Mal’s life. During the night, the bitterness that burns inside of Mal grows until it fills the dungeon. Like the relentlessness of a hungry flame, his defeat washes over Nessa, forcing her to embrace the desperation of her own self-pity.
It is a terrible thing to relive all the sorrow of a lifetime in one instant; when it is watered down by the daily chore of living, it is easier to ignore. The years rush through Nessa’s head like water rushing over a cliff. She hears the taunts of her childhood, “What is that ugly stain on yer face girl? Is it the mark of the demon Xothar?” She sees the children run from her, and whispers resound inside her head, “Nay lass, we’ve no work for the likes of ye.” Huddled on the floor of the dungeon, she recalls when the bitterness of self-pity had begun to eat away at her heart. She was only a child when she first realized that, unlike the other children, she would never evoke more than fear and loathing, never love or tenderness. That bitterness had eventually devoured her.
They come for Mal before dawn. He doesn’t resist, as do most of the dying. As soon as Nessa hears them, her voice begins again, with the soft rhythm of all stories. In their secret place, she takes his hand and leads him inside the stone wall. “The sun is sinking below the surface of the forest and wood smoke trails over the trees.” When the guards release him and he is no longer bound to the wall, he turns to her and she knows, in spite of his agony, that he is ready to accept whatever fate the gods have decreed. She continues to talk even as they lead him away. “The grasp of winter’s cold chill is defeated yet again and we can feel the land stir beneath us. The trees stretch their roots deep into the soil, their arms high into the sky. There is no one here to see us. We are free to do as we please.”
Softly, carried on the air, she hears the roar of the crowd outside. She feels the old, familiar tingling along her neck and face and recalls how often she has endured the stares of others, fear evident in their eyes and disgust stamped on their faces. Back in the forest, she has her hand on the door to the cottage. “Yes, let’s go inside. Look, it is safe and warm.” She no longer speaks aloud, but Mal is with her still; she feels him there as she pushes on the door. Outside she hears the shouted command, and inside she sees the door slowly swinging open. Nessa hears a thud as the rope jerks around Mal’s neck and the door to her forest house swings wide. Her heart thunders up into her throat and she hears from inside the cottage, a man’s soft, slow voice. “There is no greater light than a meager candle burning in the dark and nothing more courageous than the strength required to make the long and difficult journey from dusk to dawn.” Nessa doesn’t look back as she takes that final step over the threshold and into the forest house.