“A maiden fair and a knight so fine went riding on a summer’s morn . . .”
The song echoes in the narrow corridors outside my cell, bounding from ceiling to floor, stone to iron bars. I lay my head back against the wall and listen. Another tavern song, written to make the women blush and the men laugh. He knows a thousand of them. I hear them every morning, every evening. Always as loud as he can shout them, always stripped of any real melody.
The songs that keep me alive, keep me breathing.
I can’t bless him enough for them, although I don’t know him at all. Only his songs.
The guards are changing outside the bars of my cell. Men dressed in mail with blades at their sides and blood on their souls pass my door without looking inside. They’ve forgotten I’m here, I think. I’m another bundle of straw on the floor, another sagging bag of clothes still chained to the wall. They’ve forgotten I’m still alive, that I still breathe and think and move.
I’ve forgotten too.
Tara. I trace the name in the dust on the flagstones. It isn’t mine anymore. Not after two years in this cell. I can’t even bring myself to say it.
The song stops. Abruptly. I look up, listening to the sound of iron-shod boots in the corridor outside. Coming closer. Please. Please don’t come here.
The silent plea burns the back of my throat, never voiced, never screamed the way I want to. It doesn’t do any good anyway. They unlock my door and come inside: faceless men with bruises on their knuckles and silver on their belts. The guards whisper about them, say they wear their masks to hide their faces from the devil, to keep their names from death’s black tongue. They pull me up, push me against the wall, and the questions begin again.
Why were you in Belika?
Who paid you to get inside?
Who is Beren Elkinson?
The answers stick to my tongue, to the roof of my mouth. I don’t know. I’ve said it a thousand times since they brought me here. I’ve screamed it, choked it through a mouthful of blood. They never believe me. Now I’m tired. I want to tell them the truth. Tell them that Beren Elkinson is the man who is going to burn their city to the ground, kill their king, and murder all of them in their beds for what they’ve done to his people. To me. I want to tell them that an army waits in the forest beyond their walls, growing, swelling, waiting for the right time to take what should be theirs by right. I want to yank the hoods from their stupid faces so I can see their fear, watch the blood drain from their cheeks.
I want them to be as afraid as I am.
But it isn’t time yet. The army isn’t—or wasn’t when I left them—large enough, our people still too weak to fight. It isn’t time.
It isn’t time, but I have no strength left.
One of the men hits me in the face. My head snaps back against the wall, and I taste blood. I’ve taken this for two years. For two years I’ve repeated over and over the words Beren drilled into me before I was sent to spy, to search the layout of the city and find its weaknesses, its faults. I don’t know. I came to visit my uncle. He’s a shepherd. I don’t know. I’m no one, a peasant’s daughter. We sell wool and wheat. I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I do know. I know it all, exactly what they want me to tell them, exactly what they want to hear. I used to be afraid they would kill me.
Now I’m afraid they won’t.
Beren will come for me. I know he will. He doesn’t have the strength yet, but he’ll come. Soon.
I don’t think I can wait any longer.
He hits me again. I stare up at the ceiling, searching the weathered, soot-stained stones for a reason to keep holding on, and come up empty. I can already taste my confession, the words in my throat, in my mouth. Bitter as betrayal.
One early morning in the spring,
a drunken fool once met a king.
He bowed his head and bent his knee,
And begged his majesty to flee.
The song rises in the halls outside, loud enough to wake the souls clinging to the stones. I choke on a laugh. It’s another ballad, a stupid, bawdy melody about a drunken sailor who stole the heart of the queen and spirited her away.
The men holding me don’t react. Some say they’re deaf, their hearing ruined by our screams. They say they read our lips now. Maybe it’s true. But I’m not deaf. I can hear him, singing away in his cell at the top of his lungs, defying the slow creep of insanity that catches most men here, driving them mad with silence. But not him.
He’s still fighting.
So am I.
The men shake me, ask their question again. The song continues outside my cell, loud and discordant and without a doubt the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I smile with blood on my lips and shrug. “I don’t know.”