The castle

Three Hills is really close to the leper village, and I know we could have tried to contact Ruzyn, or Aine from the bathhouse, or even Raisse with semsin. But I felt kind of apprehensive, and I thought, well, let’s see. If some disaster has happened, any of them would have touched us, surely. Still, it was good to see that the town was still there: no sign of arson or large fights.

When we arrived in the town square, we saw that the largest inn had been renamed from “The Thirsty Donkey” to “The Thirsty Queen”, which was a good sign, even if the actual sign hadn’t been changed yet, only the lettering. I am sure Raisse must have laughed about that, but I fear it’s the only thing she’s laughed about recently. Because when we met our neighbours and asked them what had happened, they told us that Lord Faran, and nearly all of his henchmen had been apprehended and were waiting for their trial in the cow sheds behind the Thirsty Queen.

Only a few had escaped, and one of them had been seen in our house! An ugly brute of a man, with a sword and a sack had left through our front door! Instead of sneaking away through the back door, he had used our front door! Arni-from-the-other-side had seen him!

That, and the fact that we’ve always wondered why a widowed weaver woman had such a large, stone cellar, going so deeply into the hill, made us feel certain that there must be a passage from the Stone House to our house — a secret way Faran’s henchmen could get into town without meeting Ruzyn and her band of bravo’s. So we went down, Arni, and me, while the doctors set up camp on the hillside behind our house, and Mother Jerna went to clean up. Our neighbours had kept the water tank clean and warm and topped up — obviously they had gotten into the habit of washing themselves with our warm water after each customer, which is GOOD! But their cleaning up, experienced as they are, obviously didn’t meet with Jerna’s exacting standards. Halla was already visiting the carpenter, who had already delivered our new operating table, covered with smooth, smooth, smooth stone!

Well, the door was actually still ajar, so it was easy to find! And another proof, if we’d had any need for it, that this person really had come through our house. Well, since we knew that the Stone House was safely occupied by Her Majesty’s Army, we felt safe enough going through the passage, though armed with our swords. Maybe someone was still hiding there, Arni suggested, and I felt her suggestion was full of merit.

But there was nobody. We first came in a big store room, full of food, but also heavy chests that suggested money to me. I’m sure the money is still good, but I’m equally sure that much of the food must’ve been spoiled already, the cellars were big, and it looked as if the loot was just dumped there to possess it, not to eat it. There was a trapdoor and ladders, and when we climbed up, we came in a smaller room, which was a counting house. A table, writing stuff, a chest full of books. Why do criminals keep track of their crimes? Lord Faran must’ve felt he could do as he liked in his own territory!

From there, another trapdoor opened in the kitchen, cunningly hidden in the slate floor. The cook working in the kitchens was one of ours, a soldier, so our arrival came as a complete surprise. We later heard that whenever the rent was brought in, the ordinary servants were locked in their quarters, and only Lord Faran’s henchmen were allowed in this part of the house, keeping this access to his wealth secret from even his cooks and kitchen drudges.

With this evidence in hand, and with Jeran’s testimony, I am sure Faran and his bandits will be hanged. But first the Queen needs to see it!

The next day the Queen sat in judgement. The accused were sentenced. To be hanged, until dead. Raisse was white as a sheet when she pronounced the sentence, and explained to each of the men and women why they had to hang. And why there could be no appeal; she is already the highest court in the kingdom. The next morning, the carpenters, helped by Raisse’s soldiers had prepared the gallows in the town square. Starting with Lord Faran, who looked like he still couldn’t believe that this was happening to him, they were hanged, one after another.

Some cried out, some begged, some boasted, but most were silent. As if only now they realized that, yes, you cannot terrorize a whole county, and escape. That you cannot rape and live, that you cannot extort and pillage and steal and enslave and live. When I looked at Raisse’s expression, I felt callous and unfeeling. I truly believe that the world will be better if these men have joined Naigha. But then, I was born with the braid, so death is a familiar figure for me. Sometimes even a comfort.

After the hanging, Arni took Raisse to our cottage, to feed her, and keep her. I had work to do; twenty-one dead men and women, all of them over-fed and over-muscled, all of them having shat in their breeches when hung by the neck. Everyone lets go of their piss, most people also of their shit, when death has come, but hanging adds gravity to the business, which makes preparing the dead for Naigha even more unpleasant. So I stayed to help Mialle and her apprentices, and together we folded blackened tongues back into mouths, closed loose jaws, sometimes with a ribbon, cleaned behinds, swaddled the bodies, put them on litters, and carried them into the hill.

It was late when I came back, late enough that Raisse was surprised to see me only now. But when I prepared our hip bath and started filling it with water she realized what I had been doing, and started scrubbing my back. She needed to do something, too, I guess. Arni fed me soup, and when I was clean and fed, we went to bed. So, from this night on, I can say that I have slept with the Queen! And yes, she was naked, but no, neither Arni nor I have cuckolded the King, we just held Raisse in our midst, while she gave in to her tears and her sadness.

It was a long night until dawn!