AN: Back from uni interviews and ready to write again! This chapter's been in the works for a few months, but it's still really very rough. I need all the crit I can get to hopefully brush it up better. Any thoughts would be really appreciated, and, as always I'll return everything.
I'm also very aware that I owe some people reviews, which I shall get to ASAP.
The bucket sank below the scummy surface with a thick glug. Molle watched her reflection scowl back up at her from the depths of the well. At her back, the sun was slowly descending below the castle battlements, sinking into dusk. Fading orange light filtered through Molle's scraggly hair, bright enough to frame her pale face in flickering ginger flames.
Wish the whole bloody castle would go up in flames, she thought, spitefully.
It was a childish notion, stupid and selfish. Roger had been right when he had said that lashing out wouldn't save anyone. She still resented him for that, hated him for being right. Molle quite cheerfully hated the entire Kingdom. But it had become a cold, silent hatred; the fires of rage had been given time to die down. She wasn't going to be stalking after anyone else with a candelabrum. Although she very much wanted to.
Seeing the thick rope grow taut and strain against the weight of the bucket, Molle leant a skinny arm across to haul it back up.
There was a dark shadow reflected in the water behind her. She could see it clear as day, even in the dim twilight. A tall figure was stooped cautiously in the corner of the courtyard. It was watching her intently. Molle felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand stiffly upright. She whipped round, clutching the sopping bucket with the determination of one who saw the potential for a weapon in anything.
The stooped figure was a man, a man standing in the shadows.
Even at this distance he looked uncared for. Greasy blond hair hung about a sallow, filthy face and a stained yellow shirt. A cracked prince nez' rested precariously upon his crooked nose, through which the man blinked rapidly at Molle like a startled rabbit. He must have been a good foot taller than her, but gave the impression of being far smaller. Standing as he was, he appeared more pitiful than dangerous.
Molle felt a flush of irritation creep across her cheeks at having been spooked so easily. She strode forwards, her eyes blazing with uneasy annoyance.
The man jumped and eyed her guiltily. He had been attempting to sneak past as Molle turned from the well, and now had nowhere to hide. The maid marched up to him, her chin jutting forwards with determination.
"Jus' what do yeh' think yeh' doin' in ere'?"
His voice was soft and weak, well-spoken but barely more than a whisper. It sounded as if a badly timed sneeze could quite easily knock him over. "Please…" he said "…I just want to give her this…"
He held out the little bundle for Molle to inspect, the one he had been clutching tightly. Molle eyed the thing suspiciously. It was barely larger than her balled fist, and was wrapped in fraying piece of filthy green cloth. A crumbling slice of hard bread stuck out from an exposed corner. Her shoulders slumped.
"Oh…." Molle said, feeling her heart sink slowly into her stomach "you're one of them poor buggers, aren't yeh?"
Every so often, as much as a couple times a week during the perishing winter months, someone would turn up at the Palace gates. They would always be in varying stages of unkemptness, unwell and ragged. Sometimes they would be drunk, sometimes clutching a grimy, lovingly wrapped package. They would plead with the guards to be allowed in to see their imprisoned loved ones. Lost Fathers, sickly Mothers, unfed Daughters, Sons; the men on the gates had heard every heart-breaking story there was to tell, and were under strict orders not to let anyone inside.
"Scaled t'wall, did yeh?" Molle asked. From his glassy eyed gaze and wobbling lip, the man looked like the worst of a bad bunch; not all there, if there at all. He didn't respond. He only continued to watch her cautiously.
It occurred to Molle that she was holding the bucket between them like some sort of barrier. Realising how this must appear, she put it down gingerly and stepped towards the ragged man. He flinched and clutched the little bundle tightly. Molle held out her hands, as if trying to pacify a wild animal.
"shhh, it's alrigh', see?" Molle gently took him by the arm. "I'm not going to report you or nuffin', okay?" she said. "Th'dungeon's full of enough people already…"
Even the man's shirt was greasy, Molle noted with mild disgust. Unwashed and grimy. Her white gloves were already starting to stain. Molle wondered if the poor creature was homeless.
"Come wi' me" she said.
He followed her across the courtyard like a lost puppy, barely resisting her gentle but decisively firm guiding grip. His sorrowful gaze never left the tall façade of the castle walls, barely a short dash away. Molle cautiously tightened her grip, hoping the man wouldn't try anything dangerous out of desperation. Gods knew she would have done in his situation.
She felt a sudden surge of regret for her actions this morning. Even if Percival had very much deserved a blow to the face, Molle had a family to support. What would they have done if the git had suddenly gotten over his cowardice and thrown her in the dungeons? Percival, unfortunately, held the power here, and Molle was only a kitchen maid. To royalty, servants were barely even people. The King would hardly have objected.
She turned back to the man, feeling her heart soften.
"Molle" she said, offering him a tight little smile. He blinked, his gaze shifting quickly back to the flagstones as he realised what she meant.
"Casper" he replied finally. He looked disappointed.
He hadn't gotten far inside. The well yard was only a short distance from the parameter of the encircling castle wall, with just the main yard itself and a few stable buildings between Casper and the streets. Past the massive fortified doors at the main entrance, the little side doors into the palace itself were situated at the very back of the complex map of tiny courtyards and walls, where the servants worked. If Casper had somehow made it through all of that, the only way into the depths of the dungeons was past the guard's quarters, through the kitchens.
The royal carriage was standing stationary near the entranceway as Molle and Casper rounded the corner into the main courtyard. Stable-hands and guards swarmed about; unhitching the horses, and removing saddles. Everyone, it seemed, was trying hard not to look directly at the carriage.
None of them were looking in Molle's direction. But she flinched and jumped back.
She flattened herself against the wall and prayed that nobody had spotted her sidle round the corner. What was the carriage doing back so early? Surely the royal prick hadn't given up already. She motioned for Casper to stay still and peered around the corner again. Her eyes narrowed for any sign of an escape route. Was it worth making a dash for it in the confusion? Would anyone notice them?
The guards were unloading something from inside the carriage. They crowded around the wide doorway, obscuring their work from view. But this seemed to be where the ripples of activity stemmed from. As they moved backwards, Molle caught a brief flash of what they were holding .She stared, dumbfounded.
It was a puppet, a life-size wooden puppet. The fading sun glinted off thick blue paintwork and rounded wooden limbs as it was manhandled onto the courtyard floor. It took three men to properly carry the thing, one at the head and two at the feet. Large round joints recreated the image of Gigot sleeves and a perfectly spherical head, with a simple stick and ball system joining the blocky torso to the stumpy wooden legs. The feather sticking from its small hat bobbed about merrily in the breeze.
For all intents and purposes, it was a crudely carved toy. Even the simply painted face, complete with round red cheeks and a cylindrical stub of orange nose, was expressionless.
What were the guards doing with a puppet? Where was Percival? It wasn't that Molle was unhappy not to see Percival emerge from the carriage, nursing his blossoming bruise. But this was…unsettling.
Roger oversaw the task. He stood on the carriage steps, shouting orders and adding to the general air of confusion. He had not yet removed his helmet, and Molle couldn't make out his expression, but he seemed extremely reluctant to touch the puppet.
As his guards lowered the thing to the ground, Roger finally stepped down from the carriage. He pulled off his helmet and handed it silently to one of the younger guards, who took it obediently and hurried to help open the front doors.
Molle stared across at the captain, silently daring him to explain what was going on. Even with the helmet off, Roger's expression was unreadable. Turning smartly, he lifted the puppet awkwardly into his arms, like a young lover, and marched stiffly into the palace.
She turned to Casper, meaning to hurry him out the gates while the coast was clear. But the passage behind her was empty. The man had vanished.
Molle swore and stomped her foot. Well, bugger him then!
Roger marched along the palace corridors, ruminating on his fast approaching demise. The puppet that had been Percival lay still in his arms. It was a dead weight, and its round, sightless gaze was unsettling at best. He tried not to look at it. He tried not to let his mind wonder whether it was alive or dead. Such thoughts could only ever lead to madness. For once, Roger was glad that he wasn't paid enough to think.
He could have given the thing to Thomas to hold. As his squire, it was the boy's duty to do as his commanding officer ordered. But the lad was shaken enough without that burden adding to it. Roger would have been a cruel man indeed if he had forced his squire to present the King with his former manservant. Nevertheless, the boy had volunteered to accompany his captain to the throne room. They walked in thankful silence.
The guards at the door stared as they approached. But they were silenced from asking any questions by a sharp look from their superior. They were not paid, not trained, and not at all willing to ask questions.
The King was sat on his throne as the guards entered. He looked up, an expression of oddly excited apprehension on his face. It vanished as soon as he realised that neither Roger nor Thomas were Percival.
"Yes, what is it?" he snapped.
Roger bowed stiffly, averting his gaze from the King's. How did you even begin to explain that a mountain had swallowed the man you were supposed to be protecting, and spat back… this?
"What…is that?" Mathias asked slowly. His gaze was fixed upon the slumped wooden creature in Roger's arms. His lip curled. In the back of his mind, Roger could already hear the gentle scrape of execution axes.
He tried to keep his voice steady, well aware of the consequences of anything he was about to say.
"We were…unprepared for the source of the magic, your Majesty." he said slowly. Mathias was silent. Roger pressed on. "Master Quincey became trapped, and we were unable to reach him in time…"
Mathias remained impassive.
"We…don't know what happened…"
Roger had expected a barrage of rage, shortly followed by a swift exit to a lifetime in the dungeons, if he was lucky. Slowly he stepped forward and laid the puppet at Mathias's feet. But the King merely sat and stared. He was quiet for a very long time.
"…Burn it" he said finally, so soft that Roger had to lean forwards.
"I said BURN IT!" Mathias lunged out of the throne. His eyes were wild as he glared down the unfortunate guards. "Take that thing out and destroy it! Never allow it into my sight again!"
Thomas was staring at Mathias, his eyes wide, trembling under the King's wrath; He looked like he wanted to burst into tears. His lips were pressed into a thin line and his eyes shone wetly.
The King was standing now, glaring down at the motionless wooden body of his manservant with horrified disgust.
"How dare you even bring it into this room!"
Roger saluted smartly, his face carefully blank. He was well-practised in the art of sending people to their deaths, but something didn't sit rightly with him about burning a man to death. Even if the man in question happened to be a wooden puppet. But orders were orders, and you didn't question the King.
"I shall have a bonfire arranged in the courtyard immediately, your Majesty." he said. He could feel Thomas turning to look at him, aghast.
"Sir!" Thomas squeaked. To his credit, Roger barely flinched. His salute stiffened, but Thomas didn't appear to notice and ploughed on into the jaws of doom.
"H-he's a human bei-
Roger swore internally. He knew it had been a mistake to let the boy follow him in here.
Seeing that Thomas was about to single-handedly create a diplomatic incident, and undoubtedly get himself hanged, Roger marched forwards briskly and took Percival up in his arms again.
"About turn; back to the barracks!" he barked. Thomas stood to attention, giving Roger a watery glare. "That's an order, Squire!"
Mathias glared at the door until he was sure he was alone again. He turned and began to blindly pace the room. After a while he pulled off his crown and stared at it. It was a simple thing, possibly the simplest part of anything he wore; a plain silver circlet, unadorned with jewels or any other fanciful decoration. Long ago, it had been the crown of a working King, a warrior King. When Mathias was a boy, he had wanted to learn about his heritage; he had wanted nothing more than to rule. And now he was King, and it was truly horrifying.
25 years. He'd been given 25 years. She couldn't touch him before then. She wouldn't dare let anything happen to him before that; they had a deal!
So his manservant had been taken. So what? Quincey had been an insufferable excuse for a human being. Mathias reassured himself with the thought that at least he was still safe. Mathias's safety was all that mattered. It couldn't be used against him if his manservant was kindling.
Hah, hahaha. HAH!
If the crows had appeared, that meant he was close. It meant that she was out searching. And there were other ways of finding magic users.