Happy birthday, Cris. This is for you.
No copyright infringement intended. All the characters belong to Stephanie Meyer. I'm just playing with them.
The rain lashed down on me, soaking through every layer of my clothing and chilling me right to the bones. The horses' hooves and the wheels of the carriage threw up mud and water from the sodden ground as we churned our way closer and closer to the castle gates. I slid around hopelessly on the seat beside the driver, wishing my meagre earnings could have purchased me passage inside the carriage. As it was, however, it just barely scraped me a seat beside the driver, bracing myself against the heavenly onslaught.
Lights flickered in the windows in the distance, beckoning me in with the promise of warmth and shelter from the infernal rain that hadn't stopped since I left my home, hours earlier.
As I shrunk deeper into my cloak, seeking respite from the heavy drops that seemed to slice through my skin, my mind drifted back to my home and the goodbyes I exchanged with my parents there. My father, stoically determined to show no emotion as he pressed a small bundle into my hands containing some food for the journey and the silver pocket watch he had always promised would be mine someday. He had tried so hard to talk me out of this, to convince me to stay home and work with him as a stone mason. But I was determined.
The war in the Holy Land raged on and every strong, God-fearing man wanted to fight. All my life I had dreamed of being a knight. I saw them leaving, bearing the standard of the king and setting sail for the east to fight in his holy war against the ungodly souls there and I longed to be one of them.
My mind was filled with images of glorious battles, with the swords of great knights glinting and shining in the eastern sun, and I visualised returning home to the glory and triumph of a victory parade.
With those pictures filling my mind, I was able to shrug off the rain that seeped through my clothes and ran in thick drops down my neck. I would prove to my father that I was capable of more than he ever believed. I would make something of myself far more glorious than a lowly stone mason.
As the carriage rattled and splashed its way down the muddy roads, the castle of Lord Aro finally came into view. There I would enter the service of the crown, becoming a royal guard and a man my mother could be proud of.
The drawbridge lowered with a thunderous roar, allowing the carriage to pass, stopping briefly at the guard station before passing under the frightening looking portcullis and into the castle grounds. I shuddered slightly at the sight of the iron death traps, wondering if it would one day be my fate to meet such an end as they could provide. The images of battle in my head, strangely enough, held no hint of bloodshed or death, just clean, shining swords, held aloft in victory.
They were the mindless imaginings of a child, I realised with a jolt. Not the thoughts of a man employed in the service of the king and the Pope, to fight in their holy war.
"Are you plannin' on sittin' there 'til this rain washes you clean away, lad?" The gruff voice of the driver broke through my silent musings and forced me back to the present.
I paid the man, who merely nodded his thanks, appraising me with a curious expression as though wondering what a boy - man, I corrected myself - like me was doing in such a place.
"Mason?" A voice called out behind me, barely audible above the howling of the wind and the clattering of the retreating carriage. I hesitated for a moment as the heavy, iron purtcullis slammed home behind it with a finality that made my ears ring.
"You there. You're either the new guard, Mason, or you're trespassing on Lord Aro's lands. What's it to be?"
"Oh, that's me. Sorry," I added as an afterthought, not at all keen on the way that the soldier's eyes scanned me up and down, almost scornfully.
He was tall and thick set, his muscles practically forcing their way through the chain mail suit he wore, and his expression as he looked at me was almost a sneer.
"Well come on then. We don't have all night and some of us stand a chance of going to bed tonight."
He turned on his heel, walking briskly towards a large, oak door that opened when he pounded his thick fist against it three times. I fought to keep up with him, tugging my small bag of belongings over my shoulder hastily.
As the door closed behind me, finally sheltering me from the elements, the stranger remover his helmet, revealing wide, grey eyes, set in a round face beset with scars. His thick, dark hair hung limply around his face, too long, surely, to be practical.
"You'll have to do as you are. You're already late, there's no time to dry off. You'd better hope His Lordship is in good humour this eve."
I suppressed a shudder at the foreboding expression on the face of the still nameless man, and followed him as he led the way through endless stone passageways, dimly lit by occasional flaming torches hanging on the walls.
Finally he stopped before another large set of doors, took me in one last time, shaking his head and rolling his eyes, before knocking and entering.
The man sitting in the throne-like chair on the raised platform before me wore his power and wealth like a cloak. It just seemed to ooze from him and the smirk on his lips told me that he was more than well aware of it.
"What's this?" he asked, his question directed to the guard who still stood beside me. Lord Aro's eyes scanned briefly up and down my person before his lip curled in a disapproving sneer.
"Mason, my lord," he replied, his voice much less sure and confident now he was in the presence of Lord Aro.
"A guard?" he asked, the question clearly rhetorical. "You brought a prison guard here to me? I hardly think that was necessary, do you?"
"No, my lord," the nameless man stammered, looking flustered. He hesitated.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Take him to his post and, for the love of all that's holy, dry him off before he begins work."
With that, Lord Aro waved his hand in dismissal and then turned to speak with the man standing to his right. I followed the fumbling guard to the door, wordlessly, though questions were flying around my head like hornets.
A prison guard? I had been led to believe I would be training to serve in the Holy Land alongside the king's knights, fighting in the crusades. But, sure enough, the guard stomped away before me, not pausing to ensure I was following. He led me down seemingly endless corridors lined with elaborate tapestries, down stone stairwells deeper and deeper into the castle.
We stopped, briefly, just long enough for me to dry off and change into the chain-mail uniform, emblazoned with both the crest of the king and that of Lord Aro, before we set off once again in the silence that hung heavily all around me.
The deeper into the castle we walked, the gloomier it became. Torches still hung flaming on the walls, but the tapestries were all gone now. The walls were solid stone, a monotony broken only by the torches that lit our path.
The mail armour clinked uncomfortably around me as I wriggled my shoulders at the unfamiliar weight. As we approached a narrow flight of stairs that dropped steeply downwards, I could feel the chill creeping up from below and pulled my cloak tighter around me.
"You'll need this," my guide spoke, his voice echoing in the eerie silence as he thrust a burning torch into my hand. "Tell Alec you're there to relieve him. Do not converse with the prisoner, unless you wish to be bewitched."
My eyes widened at his words, but he gave me no time to ask questions before turning on his heel and leaving me there, standing lamely in the semi-darkness, willing myself to brave the steps. Bewitched, he said. My mind drifted down those stone steps as my legs locked into place beneath me, wondering what I would see if I were to force myself down there. My parents had warned me of the dangers of witches and their craft since I was a young child, listening wide eyed to their tales of sorcery and the evils it wrought on the land. I shuddered violently, but finally summoned my courage, realising I had no choice but to proceed. I made my way clumsily down the steps, shrinking deeper and deeper into my cloak as the chill pervaded every layer of my clothing.
At the bottom of the steps I was met with a small clear area, surrounded on three sides by dank, bare looking cells, with thick, steel bars running from floor to ceiling. At first glance it appeared that all three cells were empty with only a small amount of straw littering the floor of each and a wooden bucket standing in the corner. Looking closer though, I spotted a small figure, huddled in the furthest corner of the cell to my right.
I had no sooner spotted it than a hand clamped down on my shoulder and a voice hissed in my ear, "Don't even look at it. You don't want to know what happened to the last guy that made eye contact with it."
"It?" I whispered, taken aback at the word.
"The only way to describe it. The sooner it burns, the better. This fair trial nonsense is insanity. When it comes to witchcraft, they should burn first and think later."
I held my tongue, keeping my opinions to myself and merely nodded in response. Alec, I presumed, handed me a ring of keys and a lantern, taking the flaming torch from me and leaving me with only the sounds of dripping water and scratching rats for company. I had no idea how long I would be there or what I was supposed to do to pass the time. I supposed it didn't really matter, so long as the prisoner remained where she was, and she certainly didn't show any signs of movement.
Caving to my own cursed curiosity, I glanced once more in the direction of the small figure that seemed to be squeezed as tightly as possible into the corner and covered inadequately with the flimsiest of blankets. The only part of her not covered by the blanket was her head, which was instead covered by a rush of dark curls that were matted together untidily and hiding any part of her face from view. I felt some of the tension melting away from my muscles, finding it almost impossible to be afraid of something that looked so pitiful.
As time ticked by, marked only by the hourly clanging of the bell in the clock tower, I grew bored with the endless hours of nothingness. I almost wished that this supposed witch would move or do something, but she remained just as she was, almost motionless. The only signs that she was even alive were the rough sounds of her breathing and the almost invisible way that her body trembled in the cold. The boy my mother raised to be a gentleman wanted to offer her my cloak as a shield against the cold, but Alec's words echoed around my mind, warning me of the fate of the last man who made eye contact with this creature.
I shifted my eyes away, shuddering at the possibilities in my mind, and focused instead on anything else that could hold my attention for even the smallest amount of time. By the time light started filtering down the stairwell from above, I know how many stone bricks there were in the walls, how many bars on the cells and how many flecks there were carved into the stone by former prisoners. Somehow, I couldn't see this particular prisoner carving anything into anything. She had been almost completely motionless for the entire night, though I somehow couldn't believe that she was sleeping sitting in that uncomfortable position.
After what felt like a lifetime of nothingness, I heard a clanking at the top of the stairwell, telling me of somebody's presence there. I may have imagined it, but I would swear that the prisoner jumped a little and pulled in impossibly tighter to her corner at the sound.
Footsteps sounded out on the stone steps and, after a moment, three guards appeared clad in the same chain mail as me. One of them was holding what looked like a set of manacles and leg irons.
Alec, the guard from the previous night, grabbed the keys from my unsuspecting hand and began to open the cell, the other two guards crowding in behind him. I heard a soft whimpering sound as Alec forced a black fabric bag over the woman's head, tying it almost cruelly tightly around her neck.
"Silence, witch," he hissed at her as her wrists and ankles were forced savagely into the restraints they brought down with them. The whimpering stopped, replaced only by the clanking sounds of the metal as she was dragged from the cell, her body limp in their harsh hands.
"Where are you taking her?" I asked quietly, unsure whether it was my place to ask.
"It is being taken for itsdaily session with the priests. Didn't you know? Lord Aro is a big believer in rehabilitation."
The way he spat the word rehabilitation sent shivers down my spine and the trembling of the body in their hands did nothing to reassure me that what they were doing was in any way designed to save this woman's soul.
"You're off duty, Mason. Felix will show you to where you can clean off. Be back here at twilight. You'll be needed again once the priests are done with it."
Two of the guards then continued to drag the prisoner away, where the clanging of her restraints against the stone steps was almost unbearably loud. I shuddered at the thought of how it must feel to be wearing them, but forced the thought from my mind. After all, they didn't arrest people for no reason. She must have done something truly alarming to be on trial for witchcraft.
Felix, the remaining guard, a tall man with black hair and dark eyes that glowered at me as though they could read my thoughts, led me along corridor after corridor, winding through the castle at dizzying speed until we entered a long room with long troughs full of ice cold water down the centre and pallets made up as beds along the edges.
Pointing to a pallet about halfway along on the left hand side, he barked, "That's where you'll sleep. This is where you wash. Any questions?"
"I, uh... No. Thank you," I responded, my mind filled with questions I wanted to ask, but not liking the threatening look in his eyes enough to risk it.
"Twilight," he reminded me before leaving me alone in the room.
Finally alone, completely alone, I allowed myself to think about my situation for the first time since my arrival here. This wasn't at all what I had bargained for when I accepted the position, but, regardless, it was a job in Lord Aro's guard and who knew where it would take me in the end, if I remained faithful and hardworking.
Exhausted, I sat down on the pallet, rubbing my hazy eyes tiredly. I needed to sleep having been awake all night. I could feel the tiredness seeping into my bones that were beginning to ache from the cold and the tension in the air all around me. First, I stripped off, glancing at the doorway warily every few moments as I washed myself in the freezing cold water. I felt better for being clean at least as I pulled my undergarments back on and crawled onto the slightly hard bed, pulling a blanket around me.