“Jaaaron! Guardsman Jaron!” Sergeant Guralnik’s shout echoed through the corridors of the cells below Dargon Keep. Jaron had the night duty this sennight, and Sgt. Guralnik had already caught him sleeping once, two mornings ago. The jailer had little time for layabouts, but the strange star in the sky had stretched the duke’s men thinly. In the end, the veteran guardsman felt relieved to have someone with which to split the duty.
“I’m down here, sergeant,” came Jaron’s thin, reedy voice, “At the small cell.”
Guralnik strolled down the wide corridor which separated the cells, four large ones on the right side, five smaller ones on the left. Jaron was standing in front of the small cell at the end of the corridor, lighting the last of the torches that relieved only a small part of the darkness that pervaded the dungeon of Dargon Keep.
Guardsman Jaron was a short, slight, man whose tabard hung limply from his narrow shoulders, an unconscious parody of a typical hulking soldier. His eyes were what everyone remembered; they flitted from sight to sight, never seeming to rest. People seldom trusted him because of this tendency, since he rarely looked anyone in the eye for long.
Guralnik was aware that Jaron had obtained his position through the good offices of an uncle who was owed a favor by someone in the Duke’s court. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Liriss made a regular, though small, contribution to Jaron’s pay packet, although the young man had done nothing, as yet, to earn the crime boss’ coin. Guralnik might have been surprised at the number of payments made to persons working in the Keep, but being an honest man, he had never been approached.
As he went by the cells the sergeant’s eyes quickly swept the enclosures, noting new arrivals and determining whether anyone had escaped their due punishment by dying in the night. When he got to the end cell, he had to look twice.
“By Ol’s balls, what’s a woman doing in my cells?” he shouted. “Jaron, are you mad?” He turned to Jaron, who stood grinning, looking into the cell.
“Captain Koren’s order, sergeant,” said Jaron. “She killed her pa last night, and someone else a few years back. The city guard’s full up they said, with all those troublemakers from the market square preaching against the new star, so they brought her here.” He pointed into the cell, at the two men cowering in the corner farthest from the girl. “Those two won’t go near her.”
After having heard their story, Guralnik had to agree. The two men, servants in the castle, had gotten drunk three nights ago and decided to steal the jewelry of a visiting noblewoman. The lady had woken during the commission of the crime and had immediately attacked the pair, who quickly soiled themselves and had been led to the dungeon by a pair of chuckling guards.
The sergeant turned his attention to the other occupant of the cell. A young girl, he could tell: about fourteen years old. She sat cross-legged near the door, a vacant stare on her face. She wore a loose shift, so it was difficult to see much of her body.
“She’s a looker, sergeant, isn’t she?” said Jaron, who had apparently seen more of the girl when she had been brought to the cells. “And she tells stories, good stories. I think I’ve seen her in the market square, telling tales for a Scrod. I listened to her most of the night. That sure enough made my shift go by fast.”
Guralnik shooed the bemused Jaron out of the dungeon and settled down for a quiet day. He kept an ear out for the girl, but she made no sounds while he was there. And although Sergeant Guralnik was unaware of it, the beast had awakened.
“Beware the four-lipped beast, my son.” The girl was telling a new story, and Jaron, who had arrived early for his shift for the first time in his life, listened eagerly. He was seated on a stool outside the small cell, staring intently at the girl.
“Those were the last words my father spoke to me. After that, he was too busy trying to breathe to say any more.” A slow smile spread across her lips as she remembered, but it didn’t reach her pale blue eyes, which were seeing events far beyond the cell walls.
“My father, so my mother told me, hated women. Why he kept her is a mystery to me, but he did, until she revealed she was with child. Believing he had been cursed to die without progeny, my father assumed she had been unfaithful. He flew into a rage, beat my mother, and then used her to pay off a debt he had incurred while rolling the bones with Tulik, a stevedore.
“Tulik was a big man, with simple tastes. He would either beat my mother, or brutally use her. After a month, my mother went to my father’s home, and begged him to take her back. He laughed at her, and shut the door.
“That was my mother’s life, and my coming changed very little for her. She said that I made her happier, and that it was easier to endure Tulik than before, but that may have just been a matter of perspective. I cannot remember a day in which my mother was not being beaten with tongue or fist.
“I could not have been more than seven years old when Tulik started to take an interest in me. It was another year before he began touching me, and not long after that, he visited me in the night. I know now what happened then, but at the time it was more than my mind could bear. I am sure I went mad, at least for a while, and I remember little of that period in my life.
“Repetition, however, will render even the most horrific act mundane, and I regained my senses over time. Tulik’s house settled into a routine in which abuse and terror were so commonplace as not to be noticed. At times my mother or I would rebel in some small way, only to be beaten down, literally, by Tulik.
“The disruption of the routine came one evening late in my twelfth year. Maybe a late ship put Tulik in such a foul mood, or the fact that my mother burned the bread, but suddenly Tulik lashed out and struck my mother with the back of his hand. Normally, that would have satisfied him, but my mother allowed a flash of defiance to appear on her face, and Tulik went berserk. I huddled in a corner, unable to help, while he punched and kicked my mother ceaselessly, screaming senseless noises all the while.
“Slowly he wound down and finally stood still, breathing heavily, staring at my mother’s motionless body. Without looking around, he walked out of the house, no doubt headed to the nearest tavern.
“I crawled from my corner to my mother and cradled her bloody head in my lap. I sobbed as I rocked her back and forth as she had done with me when I was only a baby. Eventually she roused, and moaned softly. I cleaned off the worst of the blood with the skirt of my dress while my mother spoke to me again of my father. How she knew I would need a place to live, I don’t know, but she told me what I would have to do.
“When she died only menes later I laid her in my own bed. It took some time, for even though she was a small woman, I was still only a child. Then I took the sharpest knife from the kitchen, crouched in a dark corner, and waited.
“I must have dozed off, for I didn’t hear Tulik until he started yelling for my mother. Maybe the drink had driven the earlier events of the evening out of his head, but apparently he assumed my mother would be in his bed as always. After a moment he fell upon the bed and started snoring almost immediately.
“I had imagined this moment many times, seeing the blood spurt, hearing him beg for his life, but now that it had come I just quickly drew the blade across Tulik’s neck, as deeply as I could, jumping away in case he roused. In the end, he lay there, burbling blood through his throat, too drunk to even realize what was happening to him. When the sound of his liquid breathing ceased I returned to my own bed, and crawling in beside my dead mother, I slept more peacefully than I had for many long years.
“The next morning I left that charnel house and went to the market square where my real father told stories to earn his meager living. In my turn I told him the tale my mother had spun; that I was his son, named Kyl, born of the woman he had thrown in the street. I had dressed in a loose tunic, and trousers. Being young and skinny, only a close examination would have betrayed me. Tulik’s path had crossed my father’s only seldom, and according to my mother they were not friendly, so I had no reason to believe I would be caught out. When he took my hand, looked in my eyes, and called me son, I knew I was safe, at least for a time.
“From that time I lived in my father’s house, and went with him each day to the market, where he would tell his stories. I sat beside him, listening to the way he would speak, the way he would make his voice rise and fall with the tale, and how he would stop at the most exciting part and wait for a coin to ring on the stone before he finished the story. Soon I knew most of the stories he told, and he would let me tell one, when the crowds were sparse.
“One dreary winter day, after too much drink the night before, he told me to go to the market on my own. I returned that evening with almost a Round’s worth of smaller coins. My father was amazed, but since I didn’t spend half the day in the tavern drinking the day’s earnings away it wasn’t difficult.
“My father rarely ventured to the market after that. He devoted himself to spending our increased earnings in his favorite alehouse; rising from his bed only in time to take most of my money as soon as I had returned from my pitch. Many times he stayed away the entire night, his bed still empty when I ventured out at the suns’ false rising.
“It was some time before I learned the reason for my father’s long nights, and though it was a shock, it explained much. Not long before my body began to truly blossom, my father returned from the tavern, the worse for drink, and morose to the point of tears. He sat on his bed calling softly for someone named Lestir, which sounded strange. As far as I knew, my father had no one close enough to him to weep over.
“Then my father paused in his weeping and gave me a look which, at first, I did not understand. It was when he called me a pretty young lad, and mumbled something about moving closer that comprehension flashed into my mind. My father was a boy-lover! It explained so many things, from his hatred of my mother and other women, to his frequent, secretive nights away from home. I recovered my wits in time to elude my father’s fumbling grasp, and ran out into the night.
“It was several bells before I returned to our home to find my father asleep, and when he woke the next morning, it was if nothing had happened. He made no reference to the events of the previous night, and when I returned from the market, he took his usual cut of my takings and left for the tavern without a word.
“From that day I lived in terror that my father would come to me in the night and try to satisfy his lust. What he would do when he found I was not his son, but his daughter, was something I tried not to think about. I slept fitfully, and both my appearance and talent suffered. I started to see movements in the shadows, and hear noises in the dark silence of the night.
“It was about that time that the moving star appeared in the twilight sky over Dargon. There were many who met in the market square to talk about the star and say what they thought it portended. One priestly looking man said it was the birth of a god, but another said it was a sign of a god’s death. Yet another said it signaled the end of the world, for we had displeased the gods, and they were sending a ball of fire to consume us.
“It seemed that over the next few days more people came to believe that the world was going to end, and the Guard was very busy trying to keep order. During this time of increasing chaos, I could feel the shadows creeping closer to me. It was about then that I decided to give my father a special meal, for if the end of days had come surely the gods would not mind me taking some of their justice into my own hands. Their hands would be full with the rest of the world.
“I went to the fishmonger’s and bought a fresh popperfish, being sure to get one that had not been gutted. This wasn’t unusual, as many wives preferred to fillet the fish themselves to be sure the delicately flavored flesh was not tainted by a small, but highly poisonous, gland deep in the fish.
“My father, fool that he was, took my elaborate meal preparations as a sign that I finally regretted my action in rejecting him so abruptly, and he decided to forego his usual trip to the tavern, no doubt hoping to commit some lewd act upon me instead. I didn’t disabuse him of the notion, even going so far as to smile at him several times.
“Not long after my father had finished his meal, not noticing that I hadn’t touched my portion of fish, he rose and approached me, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lips. He opened his mouth to speak, but just then a strong shudder tore through his body, nearly toppling him. My father looked at me, a puzzled expression on his face, but he couldn’t force any words from his mouth, which was now locked tight by the next spasms.
“I smiled at him, and repeated his words to me on the day we met. ‘I am your daughter Kylana. Beware the four-lipped beast, my father.’ And the last thing my father saw was his daughter, nude and laughing, dancing as his life ended.”
Suiting action to word, the girl rose, stripped, and danced wildly about the cell, laughing madly. The two ducal servants cringed in a corner, but Jaron stared intently, lust strong in his eyes, which for once never wavered from their focus. The beast had arrived.
“Jaaaron! Guardsman Jaron!” Sergeant Guralnik’s shout echoed through the corridors of the cells below Dargon Keep.
“By Ol’s balls, if you are sleeping again, guardsman, Ol’s temple will have yours on the offering plate this very day!”
Guralnik strode down the corridor between the cells, not even seeing the pale faces peering from the larger cells. As he approached the small cell he almost slipped in a puddle. The jailer held his lamp up low and peered at the liquid. It looked very much like blood, but even during one of the occasional fights that occurred in the cells there was not this much. His right hand quickly found the hilt of his sword.
With a sense of dread about what he might see, Guralnik raised the lamp and looked into the cell. One glimpse at the part of the scene lit by the lamp was enough to cause the sergeant to turn away and vomit his breakfast into the cell next to him. He then ignored his still-protesting stomach, wiped off his mouth, and turned back to the grisly scene before him.
The two castle servants, hands and feet bound, lay in the far corner of the cell. Their clothing was drenched in blood, but after a moment the guard could see their chests rise and fall in the slow rhythm of sleep.
Near the cell door lay the body of Guardsman Jaron. The large pool of blood seemed to come from him, and when Guralnik saw that the guard’s manhood had been removed, he knew what the blood had come from.
Guralnik never knew the real sequence of events that night. The servants knew little, having been tied up and knocked unconscious before any blood had been shed. When questioned by the guard captain, he held almost nothing back; even his guess at what had actually happened that bloody night. In his mind Guardsman Jaron had gotten his due. The girl had escaped, but how long could a young girl survive on her own?
One thing he never spoke of, even to his wife, occurred as he was leaving the cells to get assistance. A voice seemed to whisper in the jailer’s ear, and then trailed off into laughter. What the voice said shook the sergeant to his core.
“Beware, beware the beast. It is never far away.”