A Room Worth the Visiting

Chapter 1

People say blood is thick, it's not, it's as thin as water or maybe it's just the rain runoff diluting it.
A movement in the darkness; her head twisted round. "Just a rat," Maria told herself "just a rat." Footsteps; a pair of boots on the stairs, her back stiffened. Hands clawed in primal fear she reached down past her dress to find the floor. Pain shot through her legs as she stood up; she wobbled, knees shaking but then she was there.
The cloth was heavy and thick with old, dried blood. It made a sickening stain on the floor: a darker black than the darkness around it.
The sound of a bolt being drawn back ripped through the still air like a bullet; she stumbled, groping for a wall: its stone, cold to the touch, was the only thing real in this nightmare.
The crack of another iron bar being negotiated sang through the veils of fright that surrounded her like a mist, through which she couldn't see.
She cowered beneath the remains of her cloak as the crack of light crept under the door. Even this tiny bit of gold hurt her eyes. The door creaked wider. "Put it out," ordered a deep, cold voice. Maria whimpered as the light flickered and was gone.
She was plunged into darkness again, her eyes peering desperately for a shadowy figure: a demon in hell. The outline turned, paused, and then pulled back the cloth that covered the lantern - sucking in its light like a leech.
The dungeon filled with the light, a liquid of pure gold sprang around the room. She had to bite her lip to stop herself from screaming. The gold stung her eyes like needles or white-hot pokers stabbing, trying to reach her through the blur.
Something connected with her ribs and sent shock waves of pain blossoming across her chest and down her spine. A boot perhaps?
When she managed to open her eyes she saw that the metal sheet that covered the dungeon skylight had gone to reveal a small patch of blue way above her.
Voices reached her from the bright plaza above, Children playing in the sunlight and the chatter of women coming back from the Sunday sermon.
In her minds eye she could see a little white church, the bells sparkling in the early morning sun, the smell of the flowers that nodded politely to the ancient, unmovable stone. It was so vivid that she would have believed it real if it wasn't for the snarling voice that brought her back to this cold mouth of despair.
"Come on princess, the Empress wants to see you," he grinned. "You need a wash and a new dress, don't want to distress the public now do we?" he laughed. She stood up carefully, hiding the fatigue that was draining away her resolve. She would not let them win!
"Fine," she said calmly, "but I'll have to have new bandages on my back or the blood will show."
"Whatever," he snarled, annoyed that his words didn't provoke emotion, "You're a cold bitch, come on."
"Better, I think, than being an evil bastard."
Strong steel-like arms grabbed the thin, white wrists and yanked her upwards, towards the doorway.

Richard watched the ripple of excitement that pulsed through like a heartbeat through the crowd. He was sat in the wooden watchtower that leaned over the packed square. His sister was somewhere down there amongst the wild, furious flock. Guards lined the main street, he wanted to believe they were for her protection but black logic flooded his brain like a tidal wave, and no force could stop the despair.
He was a tall, quiet man. Dark hair fell across his forehead to rest just above a pair of dark blue eyes. A girl had once told him he was cold, that wasn't true. He was ice. The only person in the whole world he really cared about was Carrie, now amongst the mob.
John sat beside him, focused on the tower's gates. The stave next to him slid towards the floor, slow at first then faster. A second before it hit the wooden floor it was denied it's clatter as a tanned, steely hand gripped it. Not only was Richard strong, he was fast.
And then, the castle doors banged open and a small, white figure was rushed towards the coach awaiting her. They had waited almost all day for this moment, these precious seconds for their last glance at their rightful queen. And then she was gone.

Maria was shoved quickly into the coach and then, with wrists secured in chains; they shut the door and hit the horses into moving. A gunshot cracked through the air like a whip and buried itself into the driver. "Damn!" a voice cried as blood seeped through the wood into the back of the coach. And then. there was blackness.
"Come on, damn you, wake up!" a voice was screaming in her ear "come on you lazy little cow, get up," hands grabbed her shoulders like clamps and shook her like she was a small dog. She opened her eyes to hit out at him. The light was too bright so she covered her eyes with her thin, bony hands.
She could just about see a platform and a long black train, a funeral train.
She was shoved inside the last compartment and tied up with thick bast cords. The guards relaxed and began to settle in for the long journey. Hours passed as Maria stared out the window. Trees and fields flashed by in an instant. She allowed her eyes to become vacant, staring while her brain worked very, very fast. Slowly she worked her hands free. During the last few months she had become a cunning escape artist, but how do you get off a moving train? Slowly as she went through the possibilities the truth became clear, there was no choice. But what if the doors are locked?
She glanced through the window at the small link compartment door in front. And then, she struck gold. Just as she glimpsed it a guard opened it to chuck out a cigarette. But how to avoid pursuit? Again her mind searched for an answer. And. yes, there it was. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and reached for the knife.
It was a tiny thing, no bigger than a pocket-knife, scarcely big enough to do any real damage but suitable for the purpose. She carefully tore the side of her dress away. A glance at the guard, nothing, all right a little bit more. One quick slash and it was over. Her arm, soaked with blood she wiped all over the large piece of cloth. Another glance, no reaction, she was dust on a boot to them.
Slowly she counted down; five, four, three, two, one, Go! She ran past the startled guard into the next compartment, fleeting glances of faces, shocked and horrified. She sprang for the door, slashing at legs with the weapon. A scream of pain and fury greeted this attack. She reached the doorway and scrambled for the handle, a heap of confused guards scrabbling behind her, she pulled down the handle, opened the door and. jumped.

Chapter 2

His sister ran towards him grinning. "Well that was worth the wait" Richard said scornfully. "For you maybe not but I saw her up close" she bit her lip "She looks terrible, I don't think they're treating her well at all, I swear I saw blood on her back" "Don't be stupid," Richard snapped. "They wouldn't do that" he shook his head to convince himself. "I don't know, it didn't stop them torturing those priests did it" "But they weren't related to the Betrayer by blood" She sighed and leaned against his arm. "The lady Amelia was though, wasn't she" Richard took her by the arm and led her through the rapidly dispersing crowd. A raven flew lazily overhead, turning with the wind.
The ground hit her like a kick in the belly. Brambles tore at her, stones flung themselves at her face, her hands and legs were rubbed raw and bloody. When she stopped her skin was a red ruin, her hair dark with mud and slime. She raised her head slightly and felt the pain tingling down her spine. She slumped forward and fell into darkness. Above her a solitary bird soared and wheeled, croaked it's challenge to the world and waited patiently for something to die.
Maria Goldlion, Empress of the Seven Lands, Upholder of the Peace and Keeper of the truth rolled over in the ditch and groaned. Her body screamed resistance but still she struggled to her feet. They would look for her along here; it was the obvious thing to do. She had to make them believe she was dead or fatally wounded or there was no telling how long they would follow her. She had no idea where she was or how far away the nearest place was where it would be safe to stop. The idea of walking made her legs tremble and her stomach contract. Her head felt sore, her lips were cracked and dry. A tooth was loose in her mouth; she could taste the blood on her tongue.
The harvest had been poor this year and the farm was having trouble coping. Summer had brought drought and hunger to this area of the country and Richard mused on how lucky they were to have had any crops at all. He scrambled over a fallen log and further into the forest. He heard a shrieking, piercing whistle, a train passing by in the distance. He shuddered, adjusted his bag on his shoulders and brushed the branches aside.
Half an hour later and he still hadn't found any meat for dinner, it looked depressingly like thick corn soup again. The forest was reluctant to supply game anymore, most of the deer had been poached by desperate people on the verge of ruin. He couldn't summon up any real anger towards his thieving neighbours. Times were hard. Hell he'd do it himself if he had to.
Metres away, slumped beneath the protective thorns of a mature Holly bush, a young Queen lay where she had crawled. Instinct had forced her from her exposed position into the forest to find shelter. Now, exhausted, she slept the deep sleep of the wounded. Against all odds, she lived.
"Carrie!" a voice cried angrily "Carrie, I told you to fetch some water. Richard'll be back soon and in a foul mood no doubt" "He'll have caught something, I know it" someone answered. He winced, not today little sister. With empty bag slung carelessly over his shoulder he ducked in to the cottage. The slightly sickly smell of herbs greeted him as he sank gratefully on to a waiting wooden chair. His mother looked up as he entered and smiled gently at him from her place beside the fire. She looked back at the small brass pot in the flames and continued stirring it. The soup swirled round in spirals and waves as he stared at it. "Nothing?" she did not look at him as she spoke but ceased her task and lifted the pot from the red dragon's grasp. "Nothing" he answered. She sighed softly and spun to look at him. "We cannot go on like this, your father eats what little you do get" she snorted "Much good that it does him" "What can I do? I know every trail and turn in that forest and I do not think we are quite desperate enough to start on what mangy, rabid foxes there are." She looked at him with pleading eyes. "Is there nothing left?" He shook his head and made to rise from the stool.

The pain brought back consciousness with a lurch that made her want to throw up. She raised her head slightly and glanced around. How had she got here? She could vaguely remember a hurried scramble through the undergrowth. Exhausted she had fallen and unable to summon the energy to stand she had crawled on. She was filthy with a mixture of rotting leaves, mud and sludge. Her neck, shoulders, back and legs ached with fierce insistence. The forest was quiet. The pines swayed gently in an Autumn breeze and the cathedral silence of her surroundings made her afraid to move. Surely there must be animals here? Birds at the very least. She waited awhile. Apparently not.
Her wound throbbed, she prodded it gently and winced. She tried to stand, gave up and sat instead, holding her head in her hands. Despair is a complicated emotion. It affects people differently, some simply admit defeat and die, others create a destructive anger from it and wreak havoc with their hate and jealousy. It gave Mari