James looked up from his cluttered desk, as he finished up for the day. He quickly tidied the mess and stood stretching. His glance lingered on the bookshelves that were spaced around three walls. A huge fireplace took up the fourth. This was James’ favourite room and often he and Sara would sit in front of the roaring fire with their books. This room was the only place in the fortress that didn’t benefit from the unusual construction of the castle. James momentary looked at the hundreds of books in the shelves. Sara had shown him about the love of books and reading. Before, as an innkeeper, it had been a chore. Now his thoughts did a sideways shuffle and Sara’s lovely face filled his mind. James was absolutely besotted with the young apprentice. They had been gone now five days and he missed her dearly. Thinking of Sara eventually triggered the natural progression, leading to thoughts of Cassandra. James’ eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. There was something about the woman that bothered him. He had spent most of his life, one way or another working in, or around taverns and inns. He learned quickly to read people and to trust that impression. He had seen thieves, whores, beggars and nobles pretending to be something that they weren’t, all with something to hide. And Cassandra definitely had something to conceal. James had done some hard thinking the last few days, and decided that if the auburn haired girl was a danger, she best be dealt with now. He walked to the desk and opened the book he had been reading, taking some papers out. He had contacts all over the two kingdoms, and no one had ever heard of Cassandra. He slumped down in the stuffed chair, dreading what might happen with Sara if the worst was to happen. James couldn’t let anything or anyone threaten the Commander. Bolinor had given him the chance to better himself, to get out of the rut and prove he wasn’t just a jolly fat man. They all had heard about the atrocities that had been perpetrated on the unsuspecting population, north in Blackwell. If Bolinor hadn’t given him the job, he too would be dead. No, he owed the commander far too much to let anyone intentionally or unintentionally threaten the commander.
Cassandra lightly rode through the gatehouse and angled to the stables. Her horse’s iron shod hooves clip clopping over the stone courtyard. She pulled up at the entry to the stable, and slowly dismounted. She had enjoyed riding and found she could think clearly, the lake was but a short ride from here offering her a unique place to think. She even had been so bold as to go skinny-dipping once. A tiny smile crept across her melancholy face. Her mother would have died if her daughter had been caught swimming in the nude, wearing pants, or what was considered worse, riding astride a horse, instead of side-saddle like she had been taught. Cassandra decided that before she committed herself to Bolinor, she had to find out a few things; otherwise she wouldn’t be able to stay here. As it was, she was surprised the commander wasn’t getting impatient.
“Afternoon, miss.” Tobias came out of the dark interior.
She grinned at the stable boy. “Can you take care of Milly for me?”
The young lad blushed furiously and fumbled for the reins. It was plain to see what he thought of her. She looked around, the place was fairly empty of the usual traffic; she decided that there was no better time to get her answers. James would know, he was the closest friend Bolinor had, now that the others were away with their little trek, James would have more time available. Suddenly determined she headed for the castle.
Cassandra walked rapidly and her long shapely legs ate up the distance. She brushed off trail dust from her breeches and tunic as she walked. The woman passed a few servants, and a couple of men-at-arms. None of them even gave her the courtesy of a nod. Cassandra knew they begrudged her hitting the commander. She ignored them and imperiously swept past them, through the foyer and headed for the corridor of the west wing, like a ship under sail running before a storm. Her speed didn’t slacken. The woman passed the grand hall, the throne room (hardly ever used now) and past the castle chapel. The carpet in the west wing was a bit threadbare, but she never noticed. Her concentration was absolute, she had decided on an extremely hard course of action and she needed to get to the small library before her courage failed. Quicker than she knew, Cassandra was standing outside the polished oak door. Without a knock, she fumbled with the latch and pushed through.
James warily watched her come through the door. He continued putting the book back on the shelf while the woman waited a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room.
“James, there you are. Can we please talk?”
The man blinked rapidly, this was as good moment as any to sort her out. “Come in, sit.”
Cassandra paused, a look of consternation on her face at James’ reception. The two of them had never been friendly, but up till now he had never been rude to her.
“Sit, be comfortable,” James said as he walked closer to her.
She watched closely as he moved past her, and locked the door she had just come through. Cassandra had to fight the momentary surge of panic that swept through her. She took a deep breath to steady her suddenly pounding heart. She could feel herself suddenly getting hot; the urge to run almost overpowered her.
“What’s wrong, why have you locked the door?” her voice was tinged with anxiety.
James turned to her, his voice dropping a few degrees, “There are a few things we have to sort out. One way or the other, I will get the answers I want, or only one of us will be leaving this room.”
“Are you threatening me?” Cassandra choked. Her face went deathly pale.
This couldn’t possibly be happening.
“No, I would never threaten you, it’s a promise.” His voice, his whole posture was intimidating.
She sat there frantically trying to steady her breathing, slowly her madly racing heart calmed.
“Maybe you’re right. There have been too many secrets for far too long.”
Surprise flickered across James’ face. He had expected her to get angry, come out fighting. He had hoped she might actually attack him, like she had the commander. Then he would have a reason to retaliate. Suddenly, his firm decisions were wavering.
Cassandra crumpled under his stare; she slumped back in the settee and buried her face in her hands. James was too cagey to ‘rush to her aid’, he had seen prostitutes in his inns, in trouble with a client try the same act, then when the unsuspecting clot went to either see what the matter was, or offer some sympathy, he often found a needle sharp knife in the ribs. His resolve weakened further as sobs racked her frame. In the end James could only take so much, so he went and sat with her.
“Why are you treating me like this? I have never done anything to you,” she choked out, sniffing, wiping her eyes with the ball of her hand.
“It is nothing personal, I don’t know you. However, I am very good at telling when someone is lying, or hiding something, you don’t survive as an innkeeper if you can’t. And you, Cassandra are hiding a whopper.”
She sat there in numbed silence. In the end, she knew that the only way to get the burden off her back was to tell someone.
“Hayden hurt me, he beat me and raped me. In the end I killed him when he attacked me.” She said it so simply and softly that James almost missed it. “Bolinor has been very patient, and kind to me. I don’t know if I can let another man touch me sexually, much less take me to his bed.”
James sat thinking for a minute. So this was what was driving her around the bend. He looked at her. Even just saying the words out loud seem to make a difference.
“Why did you let it happen? If you are so powerful a mage, why stay?” James voice and stance was aggressive and held rebuke.
Cassandra stood and began to pace. “Hayden was mixed up with something very shady and frightening people. Often they would come and I would be banished to my room. He was so paranoid about what he was involved in, that the whole place was warded. If I used my magic it would have set alarms off. Hayden had others living in the castle that worked for him, and some were not human, someone was always watching me. When the war started, he began to get desperate, and then the paranoia started. He blamed a lot on me, saying it was my fault. One night he came into my room stinking of drink. He wanted me and I wasn’t in the mood to get knocked around and slobbered over. Hayden had some disgusting urges and these came out when he drank. I protected myself as much as I could with herbs in his drinks and other tricks. But this time my luck ran out. He even injured Sara when she tried to intervene. The last time he hurt me, I said if he even laid another hand on me I would kill him. When the castle was attacked he came into my bedchamber in a frenzied rage, screaming his plans were finished, that there would be no more time. He came for me, and I had my knife.” The woman trailed off and she flopped down onto the settee. “Bolinor will send me away now, before I am able to find out if I can love him.”
Janes realized what a truly awful admission this was and suddenly knew why she was acting so strange, hiding things.
“Bolinor loves you dearly, so don’t you ever worry about him sending you away. He is good and true man, he would have killed Hayden for what he did to you.” James reassured her, “Don’t ever worry about getting sent away.”
A tremendous pent up sigh exploded from her lips. “I have been so worried. I have something to ask, and I don’t know who to turn to.”
James knew he was going to regret this, but he felt he owed the girl. “Ask me. If it is possible, I will do what I can. It is the least I can do.”
Cassandra smiled through the tears, her red and puffy eyes, bloodshot and said understandingly, “In your place, I would have treated me the same. However, James, I need to go back to the estate.”
James walked down the stairs pulling on his gauntlets. He wore a leather tunic over the chain mail he had received from Bolinor. The belt across his hips held two daggers and a short sword. He had been practising with the sword for the past few months, but he fervently hoped he didn’t have to find out too quickly how good he was. But in spite of the uncertainty, he was excited that they were going out for their ‘own adventure’. It didn’t take them long to find John. The knight commander was in the barracks with his men.
Some of them catcalled and whooped when they saw Cassandra, but John bellowed, “Silence,” which quickly put an end to the vocal outbursts.
“John, I’m away with the ‘Lady Cassandra’,” said James.
She nodded thanking him for the honorific. “If you see ‘Major’ Cagle can you tell him where we have gone? In the meantime you are in command,” he finished.
James turned to leave and saw Cassandra’s questioning stare. “I have heard a thing or two about the good man, plus from what I have seen, I am surprised that Maurice hasn’t had his head kicked in by now.”
The deserted castle looked forlorn as it did forbidding. It was raining in Blackwell when Cassandra teleported the two of them. Cassandra looked at the destruction of the place with cold satisfaction. It had been built like a prison, square, high-walled with no adornment, or any kind of enhancement. It was cold, utilitarian, and now dead. They appeared in the small garden that Cassandra had been allowed. The broken, dead flowers had been the only colour in the drab and dreary place. James stared around in fascination and looked bemused at the different rooms as he followed Cassandra. The rain poured down, drenching them before they were able to gain the shelter of the burnt-out corridor. It seemed appropriate that this dismal veil should cover the dead place they trespassed on. They wound through the fortress heading up. Everything inside had been systematically destroyed. The bodies of the dead, now only ravaged skeletons, were everywhere. Cassandra stopped briefly when they came to the kitchen, the servants must have taken refuge here. A dozen remains were littering the room. Cassandra gritted her teeth; some of them had been kind to her. It didn’t take long to find her chamber. She gazed around in dismay, even though she hated the castle, this room had been her sanctuary, a safe haven from Hayden for the four years they were married. It now looked like the rest of the castle, burnt, a shattered black shadow of what once was. Cassandra started tearing at the blackened pyre of her bed; quickly James pitched in and soon it came away in a blackened charcoal soot-covered mess. Soon the two of them had uncovered a small portion of the floor.
“I had hoped they wouldn’t find it,” Cassandra whispered.
With James’ help, they soon had a small door pried open. Cassandra uttered a small squeal of joy as she pulled a small wooden box from the hidden hole. Without a word Cassandra set the box on the floor where she knelt and began to cast her spell.
“Wait!” James cried.
She stopped, and looked at him uncertainly.
“Don’t you want to try and find out what he was hiding from you? Is there anywhere you were not allowed to go?”
Cassandra wavered; she had the box her mother had given her, but strangely she wasn’t that curious to find what Hayden had been up to.
“Could be important,” James prodded.
After a minute, she nodded.
Cassandra led them to a dead end hall.
At the blank wall she said, “There is a lever here. I came once with him to help carry some boxes, but I wasn’t allowed to go inside.”
The woman rummaged around pushing on stones. A short minute later a pop could be heard and a section of the wall sprang out. James muscled open the slab and they could see the stone was covering an oaken, iron-bound door.
“I don’t like the look of that. It’s been built to keep something inside.”
James looked at Cassandra carefully; each person studied the other.
“We have come this far,” Cassandra whispered.
James slid the big bolt back with a clanking thud and the two of them pulled the creaking door open.
They grunted and puffed. “Bloody thing is awfully heavy.” James panted.
A cold whoosh brushed past them. James shivered and Cassandra looked as if she might turn and run. She steadied her nerves and pulled a pendent from under her tunic. In the darkness a sudden light sprang forth at a phrase from the woman.
“Nice trick.” James smiled, as he peered past her.
Up close to her, James could smell her natural musk; it was intoxicating. He had to shake his head to clear the sudden confusion. He hurried on and Cassandra followed, having slipped the chain from around her neck and held it out like a lantern.
They only travelled a short distance before it opened up in an enormous cave. Along one side they could see chains attached to the wall. There were dozens of them. Many held a strange multi-armed leathery looking creature. It looked as if they had starved months earlier. The man and woman would see the remains of hundreds of bones and tattered clothing littering the cave.
“Bloody hell! He captured these creatures, and these other bodies have been used to feed them. Now it looks as if none of them survived,” James whispered softly.
They looked around and soon found another room; it looked to be some kind of guardhouse, strong/storage room. They found two more bodies here. They were lying in makeshift bunks. James searched around and found an iron safe. There was no key to be seen, James gritted his teeth and searched the bodies of the two men. He looked at Cassandra, he had enough adventuring, and from the looks of the woman, so had she. James slowly moved to the safe and dropped to his knees, inserting the key.