This is a revamp of one of my favorite fairy tales. It’s fairly long for one post, so I divided it into three parts. Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 3.

Inga woke late and rushed to get ready with the other women. The hard labor she did all day and her meager rations of food sapped too much of her energy as it was. Sleeping in that morning cost her the opportunity to return to the hut after the other women left for their chores. She cursed herself for her laziness and fought back the tears that sprang to her eyes when she reflected that her husband must stay in the torture chamber an extra day because of it.

When the butcher came to survey the herd that day, he winked at her. She sidled over coquettishly. The butcher whispered, “Is there anything I can do for you today?”

Inga knew she needed to keep the man’s attention. She lowered her eyelashes and smiled sweetly, showing the butcher her perfect teeth, the rarest form of beauty among peasant women. “No. Not today.” His disappointment showed plainly, but he still ogled her teeth. “But I’ll need your help tomorrow,” she added.

The butcher’s face lit up and his gaze moved from her teeth to her eyes. “Same as yesterday?”

“Yes, and a strong blanket, and, if you can manage it, a horse.”

The butcher’s brow furrowed deeply. “A horse? What for?”

“For four crowns extra.”

The butcher’s eyes widened and he looked as if he were about to choke. He stammered out, “f-f-f-our crowns?”

Inga knew it was an unheard of sum. She also knew she could sweeten the pie further by doing the illiterate’s arithmetic for him. “That’s right. Two for drugging the wine, one for the blanket, and four for the horse. Seven crowns. Will that be enough?”

The butcher fell to his knee and kissed Inga’s hand. Inga looked around in mixed embarrassment and alarm, fearful someone might see them and guess more about her than she wanted anyone here to know. Someone did see them. The goose girls giggled as they walked by. Inga heard something about it being fitting that the butcher should marry the swineherdess. Inga sighed with relief. She would be safe enough with that rumor.

That night Inga made a point of being in bed earlier than the other women. The woman who shared her blanket lifted a questioning eyebrow when she laid down next to Inga, who never dared use the blanket until it was offered for the night, but said nothing. The next evening, Inga crept in through the torturer’s window and down the long corridor again. She listened hard for the sound of the ambassador’s voice.  She heard nothing but recognized the stench of his body as she neared his cell. She stopped for a moment to listen for breathing. She heard nothing but her own heartbeat. Not trusting herself to remain calm, she pressed on, stepping ever more lightly, and willing her heart to be still. Several times the smell of filth, urine, and sweat threatened to choke her. She listened for the screams the ambassador promised her. She heard groaning and the rambling nightmares of men and women so shattered by the torturer’s arts that they were unable to escape him even in their sleep. She heard her heartbeat and her breath, but not screaming.

She lost all sense of time as she went further along without hearing any screams to guide her. Despair gripped her mind and panic overwhelmed her. Her breath came in short, noisy gasps and her heart thumped so loudly against her chest she wondered why no guards heard it. Her thoughts raced and her knees trembled. Deep down inside her mind she clutched the last thread of sanity and yanked it into her consciousness. She forced herself to take painfully deep breaths and turned around, switching hands on the wall to be sure to follow the same one back that she followed in, suppressing her sobs and hoping her revenge could make up for her failure.

She took a step, then halted at the sound of a groan not ten feet behind her. She turned back quietly. She dared not speak in the darkness. Make more noise! she willed to the voice.

 

Torture Chamber of the Inquisition from Moore's Martyrology

Torture Chamber of the Inquisition from Moore’s Martyrology

Her husband groaned again. She let go of the wall and rushed in the direction of the noise, counting her paces as she went. She knelt close to the sound and reached out a searching hand. She found a beam of wood and followed it up until she found rope. She followed the rope until she felt human flesh. She recoiled sharply at first, unsure what caused the reflex, but found the rope again. She reached to her apron pocket and pulled out a knife, keeping one hand on the rope. After cutting the first rope, she followed the beam back down and followed the floor over in the direction of the other beam she was sure must be there. She found it, followed it up, and found the rope. This time, she wedged herself under the arm being held by the rope before cutting it. The body that fell into her arms weighed much less than she expected.

Dresden groaned again. Inga gently guided him to the floor. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She dared not sniff, so her mucous also flowed, and she wiped her nose with her sleeve several times as she worked to find the ropes that bound his feet and cut those two. As soon as she finished, she laid out the sturdy blanket the butcher found for her. She carefully pulled her husband onto the blanket and wrapped it around him. He groaned again. Inga hoped the prisoners higher up in the dungeon would not be able to discern her husband’s groaning from their own. She grabbed one end of the blanket and dragged it toward the wall. Once her hand found it, she began the long, slow, job of pulling her husband back through the dungeon. The sound of the dragging body grated against her ears more loudly than any other noise. Even his occasional grunts seemed lost in this bleak place. Not the sound of a prisoner being rescued, though. That sounded loud and clear to Inga’s ears.

A wave of relief flooded her when she closed the door to the torturer’s chambers behind her. She felt safer once inside the room where no guards might lurk and no prisoners might see a way to shorten their sentence by turning in an escapee. Her relief vanished as she studied the window. Her husband still lay wrapped in the blanket. She could not bring herself to look at his face until it was all over. His once muscular, broad frame would just fit through the narrow window, but could she lift him? She pulled the blanket closer to the window and thought for a moment. If she could get hold of all four corners of the blanket, she might just manage it, but it would be tricky and time consuming. She jingled the money in her pocket. She knew it was enough to bribe even a torturer who liked his position, but doubted it was enough to get them out of the kingdom as well. She carried the torturer’s chair to the window and stepped up. Suddenly, a face met hers and she stumbled back, heart pounding and mind racing. It was the woman who shared her blanket. Inga glanced at the torturer and wondered how to convince the other woman that she just finished giving favors to the man. She looked back at the woman to gauge her reaction thus far. She hadn’t run off to fetch soldiers. Maybe the butcher was indiscreet with his new fortune and this woman wanted in on the goods. Inga smiled in her friendliest manner and walked back toward the woman.

The woman only shook her head. “Hand his head up to me. I will pull. You push.” Inga stood in place, wondering if this were some sort of trap. The woman hissed, “Hurry. The guards will be back in a few moments.”

Inga decided to take her chances. After all, the worst that could happen would be that the wicked king would make her his wife or perhaps, if he felt merciful, she would join her husband in the torture cells. She grabbed the end of the blanket holding her husband’s head. Despite his starving frame, she found it difficult to lift him, the result of her own nearly starved condition. It took her some time. The woman who shared her blanket also struggled. She had been a servant in this dreadful place much longer than Inga and her body found the extra strain of lifting a man even more difficult than Inga’s.

Finally they got him out. They heard the voices of soldiers approaching on their rounds. Wordlessly, they each grabbed two corners of the blanket and began to run. They lacked the strength to lift him off the ground after the exertion of lifting him through the window. Inga winced every time she felt his body go over a rock or through mud. He no longer made any noise. Inga pushed aside the fear that she caused his death in her attempt to rescue him.

They rounded a corner away from the sight of the guards. Inga kept going without pause, leading the way to where the butcher promised the horse would be. She heard voices once again. She did not know who they belonged to, what they said, or where they came from, but the sound sent a surge of energy through her body. She lifted the blanket higher to keep her husband from dragging and ran toward the horse. The woman who sahred her blanket must have kept up, but Inga didn’t check. She spotted the horse and increased her speed again. When she got to the horse, she scooped her husband up, amazed at her sudden strength but grateful and unquestioning. She set him carefully on the back of the horse before jumping up behind him. When she looked around, the woman who shared her blanket was nowhere in sight. Inga’s eyes darted wildly about trying to find her. If the horse could carry all three of them, she wanted to take the woman with her. Inga didn’t dare call out, though, and when she heard voices once again, she spurred the horse into a canter, trying to balance the competing needs for speed and gentleness.

Inga refused to allow herself or the horse to rest until  traveled several leagues away from the castle. She cursed the wicked king’s wide open lands. In his father’s generation, the land produced many crops for many kingdoms, but the current tyrant’s mismanagement of his people and resources sapped the land of its vitality. Now the flat landscape stretched out before her with no place to hide from passers-by and pursuers and not so much as a single tree to provide shelter from the elements. A breeze whipped around her face and penetrated the thin dress she wore. She felt ready to collapse; the horse also needed rest. She slid down its side slowly, landing on sore legs with a grunt. She kept hold of the reigns and looked around for something to tie them to. Finally she spotted a large rock. She didn’t think she could tie the reigns well enough to prevent the horse from getting away if it really wanted to, but the vegetation around the rock offered the horse something to eat, albeit rough weeds. She led the horse over and did her best to secure the reigns. As she expected, it started nibbling at the weeds around the rock.

She pulled her husband carefully off the horse’s back and laid him gently on the rough ground. She held her breath as she pulled the blanket gently down from around his face. She gasped and put a hand to her mouth when she saw the extent of King Vort’s cruelty. If she were anyone but Dresden’s wife, she would never recognize the skull-like face with empty sockets where eyes used to be. She stifled her sobs, still unsure whether he lived or not. She bent her face close to his mouth and waited. The cold wind whipped around her and blew any breath he might have had out of reach. She closed her eyes, opened the blanket a little further and bent her head to his heart. Deep inside the bony chest, she heard the thumping of his heart. Her own heart leapt for joy. She opened her eyes to the wicked scars of a cat of nine tails and dislocated shoulders. She pressed both hands to her mouth again, not wanting to wake her sleeping husband with her crying. The wind whipped around her again. She opened his blanket the rest of the way. Her tears turned hot and angry when she saw that they refused him even the dignity of a loin cloth. She climbed in next to him and wrapped the blanket around them both, huddling close for warmth and closing her eyes.

Night fell before Inga felt rested enough to start their journey again. She reflected that a single year ago, such intense activity exhausted her for a week. Dresden still slept. Without the aid of the woman who shared her blanket, or perhaps without the aid of fear, Inga found it very difficult to hoist her husband onto the horse. She had to get it to lay down before she managed the trick. Once again she spurred the horse on at a canter, trying to balance speed with gentleness. If they kept up this pace, they would be back over their own border by sunset.

The night faded and the day wore on. Inga found a small stream to travel along so that she and the horse had water to drink. Her husband, still either unconscious or sleeping, did not awaken. Many times she bent her head to his heart to hear the thumping of his heart or drizzled a little water into his mouth. As they neared their own border, Inga reminded herself constantly not to speed up. The thought of being caught so close to safety haunted her with every step the horse took, but she held back. The stark difference between this man-made semi-desert and the lush fields ahead of her only fueled her anxiety. When they were within an easy gallop of the fields, she felt herself relax a bit. When they crossed into them, she cried with relief. When she no longer saw the land of suffering behind her, she jumped off the horse and danced for joy.

She did not celebrate for long, however, before climbing back onto the horse and pressing on. Although she now stood in her own country, she no longer ruled as queen. Their land was subject to the wicked king of Antonia. Before leaving on her quest, she gathered as many loyal subjects as she found and gave them instruction to quietly remove the supporters of King Vort and make ready for war while she was away. She refused to have spies sent to her while she was on her mission, fearing that they might undermine it, so whether her orders were obeyed, or whether they were carried out successfully, she didn’t know yet.

 

 

 

 

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