“Get up you lazy runt!” A bucket of cold water was emptied over my head. It quickly dispersed any notion I might have had to keep my eyes closed a while longer. Even worse, a boot now connected forcefully with my thigh and sent a wave of pain through my body.
“I’m up! I’m up,” I said. I tried hard not to show how much that kick hurt and attempted to stand up. My tormentor pulled on the blanket I’d been sleeping on and I lost my balance. I fell hard on the ground and hit my head on the now empty bucket. I felt blood trickle down my cheek and saw little black spots dance in front of my eyes. I managed not to scream in pain, knowing fully well that if I did, it would encourage him to hit or kick me further. I forced back tears and used the sleeve of my torn tunic to wipe my face.
“You forgot to milk the cows last night and now there isn’t enough milk to send to the keep this morning. Don’t you know that if you don’t milk the cows twice a day, the milk dries up? Do you know anything, you stupid brat?”
“I’m sorry, uncle,” I said meekly. I smelled rum on his breath and knew that arguing wouldn’t do me any good. I hadn’t forgotten to milk the cows, but the three animals didn’t have much milk to give. I was getting blamed for everything that went wrong in my uncle’s household, whether it was my fault or not.
“Sorry isn’t good enough!” he yelled and kicked me once more before he left the stable.
I reached for my blanket, folded it carefully, and then hid it in the back corner under the hay. I had overslept. I heard the second bell of day and sighed. Slowly, I made my way to the well for my morning ablutions. I washed my face and noticed drops of blood trickling onto the stone. Carefully, my fingers felt for the source. I flinched, but the wound didn’t seem too bad, more like a scratch. The bleeding would stop. I’d have another scar on my face. If I could find time, I’d seek a healer who would give me something to treat my wound in exchange for some work, as I had no coins. I depended on the goodwill of my aunt and uncle.
I turned and saw a boy walk towards me. His hair was as black as burnt wood and stood in every direction. I smiled. “Greetings, Nilson. What brings you here this morning?”
“Oh this and that,” he replied, grinning from ear to ear. “I found something. Come and I’ll show you!”
“I can’t. Not right now anyway. My uncle’s angry and I’ve work to do.”
“Straight. I can help and you’ll be done faster. Mother told me to give you this.” He held out his hand, showing me a piece of bread and some cheese. I realized just how hungry I was.
“Thank you!” I said and halved the food, putting the larger portion in my food pouch and eating the rest.
“What happened to your face?” Nilson asked when I’d finished breakfast.
“I fell and hit my head on the bucket.” I didn’t lie, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell Nilson just how much my uncle mistreated me day after day. Nilson was twelve, one year older than I was, and lived with his parents in the oldest part of Dargon, the Old City, as we call it. His father was a guard and his mother worked at the keep. Nilson didn’t have any brothers or sisters and I figured that was the reason he sought me out. He protected me when we explored the Old City streets or took my uncle’s cows outside the city walls for fresh grass. He also helped me with my work in the stable and the barn.
It took us nearly a bell to milk the three cows, feed and water them, and put fresh straw in their box after removing the old. I carried two buckets with milk to my uncle’s kitchen and informed my aunt that I’d be taking the cows outside the city wall for some fresh grass. She nodded and handed me an apple and a piece of bread, which I added to the bread and cheese in my food pouch.
“Make sure you feed the chickens and gather the eggs as well,” she said and returned to her cooking.
“Straight, Aunt Sally. I’ll be back with the eggs shortly.”
My uncle’s house stood against the south wall near the rocky outcropping, just underneath the keep. It had once been the home of a noble and had a stable, a barn, a pigeon coop, and a hen house on its property. While the main house was well built and needed no repairs, the barn and the hen house needed some fixing. The stable’s roof had caved in during last year’s heavy snow. My father had been rebuilding it.
Much of my father’s time had been spent working on the bridge over the Coldwell. When the causeway accident happened, he’d fallen into the river. His dead body had washed ashore near the harbor the following morning.
I ran to the hen house, fed the chickens, and collected the eggs. I was thrilled when I found three more eggs than we had hens. When I told my aunt, her eyes lit up. We’d have more than just vegetables and bread for dinner that night.
I found Nilson in the barn and he helped me guide the cows out and lead them towards the south gate. It was an easy task these days. Since the causeway had collapsed, few people came across. To cross the Coldwell by ferry required coins. I had heard talk about rebuilding the causeway, but nothing had happened yet.
The High Road, which leads from south gate to the keep, passes by my uncle’s house, the last one on the way up to the keep. The other road leading to the keep, the Street of Travellers, bypasses the Old City completely. Instead it leads to Coldwell Height through the rocky outcropping east of the keep.
The outcropping is a dangerous area, full of large boulders with sharp edges. It is difficult to climb or hide in it. I once tried to hide from my uncle in there and cut my hand badly on one of the rocks. I was not allowed to go to Coldwell Height where some of the nobility live.
We reached Gateway Avenue and headed towards the South Gate. It’s the only gate in the old city wall that travelers are able to use. The northern city wall protects the city from intruders coming from the river. On the west side are cliffs so steep that landing a ship is only possible in the old port, but the docks there haven’t been repaired in a long time. All the ships dock in the harbor on the other side of the Coldwell in the newer parts of the city.
Only barges can land on the northern beach we call Mermaid’s Lair. I’ve heard stories where a woman’s voice lured boys and men into the water there, never to return. My father told me not to go swimming at the northern beach, in case the mermaids wanted a girl instead of a boy one day. Many of the boys though think of swimming at Mermaid’s Lair as challenge and do it anyway.
The climb from the beach to the Old City is steep. I liked using the old port and Mermaid’s Lair as refuge areas whenever my uncle was in one of his moods. I felt safe there and most of the time Nilson joined me. He knew about my uncle’s drinking and bad temper. I don’t know if he was aware of how much my uncle hurt me.
The southern wall guards the city from intruders approaching from the southern beach, called Fisher’s Realm, or coming by land. The northern wall has three lookout towers; the southern wall has four and there is a guardhouse with double sentries at the gate. Gateway Avenue goes from the market directly to the guard posts and through the south gate. My father once told me that if you follow Gateway Avenue it will take you to Winthrop Keep.
Today, Nilson’s father stood guard. With him were three other men, two of whom I’d seen before, but I couldn’t remember their names, and one I didn’t recognize at all.
“Greetings Kathara, Nilson. I see you’re taking the cows out to the field. Just be careful. We heard wolves earlier.”
“We will,” Nilson and I said in unison. This struck me as funny and, for the first time in sennights, I giggled.
“We’ll stay close to the city wall,” I promised.
“That’s good,” Nilson’s father replied. He ruffled his son’s hair and then looked at my face more closely. “What happened to you?” He turned my head, carefully, so he could see better.
“I fell this morning.” I blushed. I was not used to the attention.
“Nilson, why don’t you run home and ask your mother for a salve for Kathara’s wound?”
Nilson nodded and complied with his father’s wish. I felt the gaze of the other two men on me as well and wished I could just keep on going.
“Your uncle do this to you?” Nilson’s father asked quietly.
“I fell,” I insisted and looked to the ground. It wasn’t a lie, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. He gently lifted my chin and looked at me for a mene.
“You’re not that clumsy, Kathara. What really happened?”
“I … he … he pulled on the blanket while I was standing up and I fell and hit my head on a bucket,” I whispered, tears welling up in my eyes.
Nilson’s father nodded grimly. “I heard your uncle yell this morning when I made my way to the keep. I had a feeling he was taking his anger out on you.”
Before I could reply, Nilson came running back, holding a small jar in his hand and I was spared from further questioning. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“You’re a fast runner, Nilson,” I said when he handed his father the jar with salve, “but not as fast as I.”
“Ha,” Nilson laughed, “we’ll just have to put this to the test.”
“I’m not afraid –” I began and winced as Nilson’s father applied the salve to my face.
“All done,” he said and handed the jar back to Nilson. “Go and take it back home, son.”
“Straight,” Nilson said and turned to me. “I’ll be right back.”
I nodded towards Nilson and then thanked his father.
“Do you have any other relatives nearby?” Nilson’s father asked when his son was out of earshot. I shook my head.
“My aunt and uncle are my only family since father drowned,” I said, trying hard to keep my voice steady.
“And your uncle resents this.” He gently placed his hand on my shoulder and rested it there for a moment before he withdrew it again.
“He said that I have to do some of the work now to earn my keep,” I said softly, looking to the ground again.
“What do you have to do?” he asked quietly, so only I could hear him. I didn’t immediately answer and he repeated his question.
“I’m back!” Nilson yelled as he ran towards us. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was again spared from answering his father’s question. As I turned, I noticed that the cows had partially blocked the road and prevented a wagon from passing. Two women were sitting in the wagon. I recognized May, the owner of Spirit’s Haven, who was holding the reins. I’d met her when I helped my father make deliveries to her inn. What took me by surprise was the lady who sat in the wagon. She was beautiful! She was dressed all in white, and the dress was made of a shiny material I’d never seen before. Even her jewelry was white. Strange creatures were embroidered on her gown, animals of a kind I didn’t know. The lady sat very straight and I could see a wide sash around her middle. Her face was mostly hidden behind a beautiful white fan, but I could see that even her make-up was different than the noble ladies’.
I stood and stared until Nilson’s father reminded me to get my animals off the road. I slapped the hind leg of the cow closest to me and urged her off the road and onto the grass alongside the city wall. Both Nilson and his father helped to get the cows going again and soon we were away from the gate.
“I’m glad you’re a fast runner,” I said, smiling at Nilson. He grinned and brushed his hair back with his left hand, a gesture I’d seen his father do as well.
“What did you want to show me?” I asked.
“It’s on the other side of the city. You may have to wait until later tonight. We can’t take the cows with us.” His face now showed a huge grin. Obviously he was pleased that he could keep me in suspense for a while longer and tease me with it.
“It better be good,” I said.
“Oh, it’s good all right. You just have to trust me.”
“Phhhht.” I stuck out my tongue at him and ran. He followed, chasing me halfway to the last lookout tower. I tripped and landed in the grass, laughing. Nilson dropped down next to me, catching his breath. For a while we just lay there and waited for the cows to slowly catch up with us, then Nilson had an idea.
“Let’s see if Lisl is by the trees with her goats,” he suggested. “Maybe she’ll watch the cows for a bell so I can show you what I found.”
I got up in an instant and ran to the group of trees where my friend Lisl and I met up whenever we took the animals outside the city. I wasn’t disappointed; she was there, as were Jamie, Allara, and Hayden. Jamie was also herding goats, but unlike Lisl, who only brought her family’s two goats, Jamie collected the goats from several families in the Old City and took them outside the city gate for the day and returned them at night. He got paid for this. Allara had brought a thin wooden board, a charcoal stick, and paper. She was drawing a picture of the goats. Hayden was watching her.
“Lisl,” I said, “will you watch my cows for a bell? When I come back I’ll watch your goats.”
“Jamie already said he’ll watch my goats later on so I can run to the beach for a while,” Lisl said, “Got any food? I only got a carrot this morning and a bit of goat milk.”
“I’ve some bread, cheese, and an apple, and I can milk Bessie for a cup of milk if you like,” I offered. I opened my food pouch and showed her its contents.
Lisl took the smaller of the two pieces of bread and the cheese. “Thank you,” she said and began to eat.
“Don’t worry about your cows,” Jamie said, “I’ll watch them, too.”
“Thank you.” I gave him a huge smile and handed him my apple. He accepted it with a nod.
“Let’s go,” Nilson said. “We’ll be back in a bell or so.” I barely had time to close my food pouch when he reached for my hand and pulled me away.
“Race you to the gate,” I yelled as I freed myself from his grip and ran as fast as I could. By the time I reached the gate, Nilson had long overtaken me and was standing next to his father laughing.
“What took you so long?” he asked. I was out of breath so I stuck out my tongue. Nilson just grinned. “Come on, this way.” He pointed towards the market. “We need to go across the marketplace, then take Wall Street until we reach the city wall again.”
“But there’s nothing aside from houses that are even older and more broken than the ones near my uncle’s house.”
“But there is, and I’ll show you, if you want,” Nilson said, smiling. “Come on! I’ll race you.”
“Only if you run along Thistle Way, or better take Garden Path, and I’ll meet you at Corambis’ house,” I challenged him.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“‘Cause you have sandals and I’m barefoot,” I said. “And I have to make my way across the market.”
“Straight, no race then,” Nilson said, took my hand, and pulled me along. Soon we were running, but not racing, and within a few menes we’d reached Corambis’ house. We took a small path that led to the north wall and then below the guard tower next to the rocky outcropping.
“I’m not climbing in there,” I said and pointed at the pile of boulders below Dargon Keep.
“You don’t need to. We need to go around the guard tower to the other side of the wall and we’re almost there.”
“What’s there?” My curiosity got the better of me. “Won’t the guard see us?”
Nilson laughed. “The guard only looks at the river and the town across, but not right below.”
I followed his lead. We kept close to the city wall. Soon we could see the river and feel the wind blow hard on the other side of the wall. The grass was high; it reached all the way to the wall. I found it difficult to make my way alongside it. I feared that I would slip and fall into the river. I held Nilson’s hand tight.
“We’re almost there,” he said. A moment later, he pulled me inside a hole in the city wall. My eyes took a bit to adjust to the sudden darkness. Nilson guided me deeper inside and light from the outside illuminated part of the room. I looked around and noticed a couple of chairs, a table, and a bed.
“Who lives here?” I asked after my initial surprise passed.
“No one,” he replied. “I found the hole in the wall a fortnight ago and thought it would make a good hideout. I took the chairs, table, and bed from one of the abandoned houses and carried it here. Do you like it?”
I nodded. “Who else knows of this place?” I inquired.
“You and me, no one else,” Nilson said and I could see his smile. “It’s our secret. Our place to hide if we need to.”
I returned his smile and hugged him briefly, then sat on a chair and tried out the bed.
“Comfortable,” I said, “but we need some blankets.”
“And a door,” Nilson added. “I don’t think we can make a fire here or light a candle. The guards would see it.”
“Straight. It’s a nice place though,” I said and got up. “I need to go back.”
Nilson led the way and a few menes later we were back at Corambis’ house. We ran towards the market; Nilson was soon ahead of me. I had just passed the Red Falcon, a tavern at the corner of Thistle Way and Wall Street, when I was tripped and fell. I landed hard on my knees. Tears shot in my eyes. I felt a rough hand grab my arm and yank me to my feet. I looked up and into my uncle’s face. I could see the anger in his face. Suddenly, I felt cold.
“What are you doing here?” he said with barely suppressed rage. I remained silent and he repeated his question, hitting me in the face at the same time. I stumbled backwards, but kept my balance. My uncle raised his hand again and I turned and ran before he could strike a second time. I’d have to pay for this later, but for now I was safe. I heard my uncle yell something, but couldn’t make out the words. I had no intention of returning to his side right now.
I made my way back to the pasture. I walked slowly once I left the confines of the city. Nilson was already there. He looked up.
“You’re bleeding again,” he said, pulling out a piece of cloth. He gently dabbed my face.
“I fell. Just past the Red Falcon,” I replied and pointed at my knees. I sat down and began picking gravel out of the wound. Lisl handed me her cup with water. I drank half of it and used the other half to clean my knees.
“Thank you,” I said and gave the cup back.
“I’ll get more water,” Nilson said, taking an empty water bag and returned to the city.
“Where are Allara and Hayden?” I asked Lisl.
“They left ha’bell ago,” she said. “The scullery maid came looking for Allara with a message from her father.” Lisl giggled. “I think Hayden fancies her. He follows her around like a puppy.”
I grinned. “Allara’s pretty,” I said and Lisl nodded. We looked at each other. We both had long, brown hair that was wind tossed, clothes that were mended many times and still had holes, and bare feet that were always dirty. Neither Lisl nor I wore socks or shoes once the snow melted.
“We’re pretty, too,” Lisl said. We laughed. From afar we heard the seventh bell of day. I hadn’t realized it was that late already.
“I better take the cows back.” I stood up, picked up a stick, and encouraged the animals to get up and walk back with me. I was almost at the gate when Nilson returned with the water.
“I’ll take this to Lisl and then come and help you,” he said. I smiled. Nilson was true to his word. I had just turned to take High Road when he caught up with me. Together we returned the cows to the barn, filled buckets with water for them, and added more straw to their box.
“Another bell and it’s time to milk them again,” I commented and dropped onto the hay I usually slept on. Nilson sat down beside me.
“Kathara!” The loud voice of my uncle Ilias reached us only moments before he entered the barn.
“Hide,” I whispered and piled hay on top of Nilson. I was frightened and didn’t want to find our what would happen if my uncle found us sitting on the hay together. Within moments, Nilson disappeared from sight. “And don’t let yourself be seen, no matter what happens!”
“Straight,” he said softly.
“Kathara!” Ilias yelled again. “Answer me!”
“I’m here,” I said meekly.
I swallowed hard when I saw that my uncle’s face was red with anger.
“How many times do I have to call you before you answer?” Ilias said; his voice sounded cold. I just stood there, shivering, not saying a word. Ilias raised his hand and hit me. I bit my lips so I wouldn’t cry out.
“What were you doing at the Red Falcon?” Ilias voice sounded threatening.
“Nothing,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t believe me. “I was just passing by.” Ilias struck me again.
“I don’t believe you! You were spying on me, weren’t you?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Then what were you doing there?”
“Nothing,” I whispered, my voice trembling.
“Answer me!” he yelled and hit me again. I felt blood run down my face, became dizzy, and stumbled backward. My head hit a beam as I fell, darkness enveloped me, and then there was no more pain.
“Answer me!” Ilias yelled again and kicked the girl’s body. She didn’t move; no sound escaped her. Ilias gave her another kick and Nilson couldn’t take it anymore. He jumped out of the hay and pushed him away.
“Leave her alone!” he shouted. “Leave her alone!” To his surprise, Ilias left the barn. Nilson knelt next to her body and shook her gently. Her eyes were closed, her face white. Blood trickled slowly from the wound on her left cheek. He took a small piece of cloth and carefully wiped her face. Her hand slid to the ground.
“Kathara,” he said softly, “he’s gone.” He stroked her face, her arm, but she didn’t react. And then he noticed a pool of blood underneath her head.
“Kathara?” He lifted her head and felt for the source of the bleeding. He felt nauseous when his fingers reached a hole at the back of her head. He pulled his hand out and realized it was smeared with blood.
He didn’t know how long he stared at her as she lay there, not moving. His face was wet with tears. He wiped it with his sleeve and looked around the barn. The cows stood in their box as if nothing had happened. A cat was moving slowly in search of mice. He remembered seeing a hand wagon next to the cows and went to retrieve it. He made a bed of hay on the wagon and laid her on top, covering her with a blanket he’d found in the hay.
No one stopped him when he pulled the hand wagon out of the barn and made his way towards his parents’ home. He would tell his father what had happened. He would see to it that Ilias got punished and hoped his mother would heal her.
He reached his house as the ninth bell of day sounded. His father sat outside on a bench, smoking his pipe, watching his son’s approach. Something in Nilson’s face must have alarmed him. He took a closer look at the cart, then got up and lifted the blanket. A moment later, he let it fall back and it covered her body once more.
“Mother can heal her, can’t she?” Nilson asked.
“No, son,” his father said solemnly, “No healer in all of Cherisk can help her. Kathara is dead.”
“No!” Nilson screamed, “No, no, no!” He knelt next to the girl, pulled the blanket from her face and stroked it gently. Her face was cold now and he realized his father was right. He choked back his tears and let rage take over. He clenched his fists.
“He’ll pay for this, that bastard! I swear –” he began, but his father interrupted him.
“Stop, son! Don’t say things you’ll later regret.”
He felt his father’s hand on his shoulder and shrugged it off. He didn’t want his comfort; instead he wanted to give in to the rage he felt. He got up, patted his pocket to assure himself that his dirk was there and started back to Ilias’ place. He hadn’t taken more than three steps when he felt his father’s hand on his upper arm, pulling him back.
“No!” he howled and struggled to free himself. His father pulled him into a tight embrace and waited until he calmed. Nilson’s screaming had drawn some of the neighbors. A few words from his father and the curious retreated.
“What happened to Kathara?” His father asked when Nilson had himself under control again and he told him.
Three days later, they sent my spirit on. A funeral pyre had been built and Nilson held the torch that would set it afire. Allara, Hayden, Lisl, and Jamie were there, as were Nilson’s parents and a few citizens of the old city. My aunt had left the town the day before; my uncle hadn’t been seen since he’d left the barn after he had killed me. The guards had been searching for him, but hadn’t been able to find him. He probably fled town.
Nilson looked pale; his eyes were red and every now and then his hand quickly wiped tears from his face. I could tell he missed me. His dreams, his plans, anything he had hoped for lay there with me. As he held the torch to the funeral pyre and watched it burn, I vanished.