Continued from Part II

Dawen flinched as she awoke and held her eyes closed. The bed she was in was not her own. It was hard, spartan, and narrow. It smelled like a man. She felt dull pain on her face, her back, and her legs; and between her legs. She felt something tight, like a bandage, around her scalp. She also felt a warm hand holding hers. It was bigger than hers, and rough and calloused. She turned her head slightly, opening her swollen eyes, not knowing what to expect. Fossick sat in a chair next to the little bed in which she lay, holding her hand. His face was haggard and drawn, but his eyes lit up when her glance met them.

“Are you thirsty?” he asked. His voice was quiet, like the room. She nodded her head. “Don’t move. I’ll get you something.”

He rose from the chair and filled a small tin cup from a pitcher near the door. Then he cradled her head in his arm, holding the cup to her lips. He pulled it away.

“Only drink a little.” She wanted more, but she was too sore to fight him for it.

“Where am I?” she asked, knowing at the same time that she was in his house.

“You’re safe and nothing is broken. You can sit up if you want. We need to talk when you feel ready. Then you’ll need to sleep more.”

He refilled the cup and she sat up, wincing from the pain in her back and the bandages that stretched across it. She was wearing a long woolen shirt. Not my own, she thought as she reached up slowly and touched the button at her chin. It was fastened.

“Better?” he asked, handing her the cup again. She took it in both hands, nodding.

“Where are my parents? Why am I not at home? Where is…” The questions were coming fast now that she was awake.

“Eat something first,” Fossick answered, tearing a chunk from a loaf of bread near the pitcher.

She felt hungry, too, now that her thirst was quenched. He handed it to her, trading the food for her cup, and sat back down. When she had eaten it, he gave the cup back to her. She noticed the bandages on her arm sticking out from under the loose sleeve of the shirt. Fossick’s shirt; she could see that he was wearing an identical one. It was the first time she had seen him without armor and he looked small in the candlelight.

“Your parents have been arrested,” he said at last. She had never seen him look so somber, except when he was rebuking her brother. “I don’t know where Pontis is; he’s probably hiding with his Rats. I haven’t seen him since before I found you. The garrison raided your parents’ house, and I thought you had been taken as well, until…” He looked down at the legs which hung over the side of the bed and her eyes followed his. The shirt reached her thighs. Bandages covered cuts, but welts reddened the areas between them. “Soldiers?” he asked.

She nodded, surprised that she wasn’t crying. Maybe I should be, she thought, but I don’t feel anything; anything at all. Do the strumplets feel nothing all the time?

His hand involuntarily closed over the sword hilt that was missing from his side. Fossisk’s face remained calm, but Dawen could see that his attention had left her bedside. His grey eyes wandered briefly. Suddenly they stopped, as if focusing on some distant object, and hardened in place. She knew the guard had reached a decision, though she had no idea what it was. The tender concern returned to his eyes.

“Thank you,” she said, handing the empty cup back to him. She was tired now and pulled the blanket to her chin as she lay down. Fossick’s hand was warm on her forehead as she drifted back to sleep.

She awoke again, hearing the door to Fossick’s cottage close. He stood by the door, removing his armor. He was trying to be quiet and failing miserably. She smiled. She felt thirsty again but otherwise better than yesterday. Was it yesterday? She tried to sit up and found it easier this time. The floor felt cold on her bare feet.

“We’ll need to change your bandages,” he said as he dropped into the chair next to her. “You can do it yourself this time. Then we can figure out what to do with you next. I found Pontis: he’s hiding in a warehouse, but his Rats are still fighting. They got another soldier last night. Your parents are alive for now. One of the Brethren I work for said they’ll be held until the Rats turn themselves in. There are other parents and family held as well. One of the mothers was found dead today. She danced to death.”

Dawen looked at the bandages and the welts on her legs; welts like those on the strumplets she and Father buried. Why am I alive? Why didn’t I dance? She thought about the soldiers. She thought about her parents. She thought about the rector’s twisted body. Her guilt evicted any concern for her own condition.

“We need to find out what’s making them dance,” she blurted. “We need to find out who’s doing it. We need to…” Fossick stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. It was gentle but firm. She winced as fire raged beneath the bandage she felt there. Fossick pulled his hand back quickly, muttering an apology.

He shook his head. “It’s no use,” he began, using a gentle version of his command voice. “The soldiers won’t talk. Neither will their strumplets. They’re all too scared that they’ll be killed.”

“Then we’ll have to ask one who’s already dead,” Dawen answered. She had settled on a decision of her own.

* * *

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Fossick asked, while using the shovel’s flat blade to scrape the last of the dirt from the coffin lid. His eyes held hope that even now she would reconsider.

“If I start screaming,” Dawen said, “don’t stop me. Just listen. I’m going to tell you what I see. Now, hold your nose.” Dawen stepped over the hand-carved grave marker and dropped into the hole as Fossick clambered out. Applying her hammer to each nail, she worked the lid free and handed it up to him. Then she turned to the strumplet. The smell hit her like a fist.

The undertaker’s daughter knew the smell of death, but not this close; not in her face. Father always kept her from the worst of it. The stench overwhelmed her senses as she knelt in the dirt beside the casket. It made her eyes hurt, even though they were closed. It pummeled her lungs as she tried to breathe through her mouth. She opened her eyes and saw the maggots crawling out of the girl’s nose and around her dress. Then she remembered that they found her naked. This was her own dress, one she loved but had outgrown. Father had cared for the girl in death like he cared for Dawen in life. She thought about her father in prison and her mother at his side. The distraction helped: she was able to breathe now.

Dawen held her palms over the head briefly. Grasping hair tightly in both hands, she screamed but recovered quickly. Her eyes were screwed shut and her words came in gasps.

“I see soldiers. Yes, they’re both here. They’re all here, thirty or forty of them. I’m in a room with lots of beds and lockers, maybe the garrison building. The captain is here, too, with someone else. He’s in a red robe. He might be one of the Brethren. He’s turning toward me. Yes, now I’m sure he is. His face is scarlet and he has green eyes, very green with red streaks in them. I’ve seen him before, maybe with you.”

Her breath came in short surges. She vomited into the casket, her eyes now wide and unblinking. Fossick reached for her but she shook her head violently, throwing droplets of sweat around the hole.

“No, I’m fine. I’m fine. The green-eyed man has a vase of something; it’s ornate and jeweled. It looks very expensive. He’s pouring…no it’s just a little drop. He’s putting a drop in a cup of water and handing it to me. I’ve got it in both hands. I don’t want to drink it. I’m so scared. The soldiers are laughing now; some are clapping. The captain is telling me to drink it. He’s got his knife out, poking it into my neck. I’m drinking it and the soldiers are cheering. It tastes like sour milk. I feel numb and warm. They’re pushing me out the door with their swords.”

Dawen’s breathing slowed a little, but her hands didn’t move; long black hair stuck out between her fingers. Her eyes were closed again and her face was purple and stiff. Every few seconds, a spasm crossed her cheeks. She began again.

“Now we’re outside; we’re in the street. It’s dark, but the soldiers have torches. The captain is looking at the Red Brother. He’s signaling for the captain to wait, to be patient. I’m hot…feverish, now my foot is bouncing. I’m trying to stop it but I can’t. Now my other one is moving, and my arms. I’m dancing. The soldiers are laughing and pointing. I can’t stop it. I’m tired. My blood is burning. My knees hurt. I’m jerking. I’m so tired. Oh! It hurts! Oh, God…”

Dawen pulled her hands free of the matted hair, jumping up in a panic and climbing out of the hole. She vomited again, twice, three times, until nothing but spit came out. Fossick held her as she sobbed. She pounded on his shoulder with tiny fists and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. He handed her his canteen and she drank, spitting the water on the ground. Then she drank deeply and lay down motionless in the dirt.

Continued in Part IV