Content Warning: Graphic violence, grisly imagery, risk-taking
They didn’t deserve to have their throats cut, she reminded herself. They were most likely good men, who did not choose to serve a tyrant and usurper. As her eyes flickered from one to the next, watching for the first twitch of a hand toward a sword or the tiny twist of a foot that would precede a dash for the hall beyond, she cursed the bulk weighing against her shoulders. Always the flair for drama, she thought, but she knew that these sorts of grandiose, arrogant gestures stuck in the minds of the people and bolstered their spirits. The whole enterprise would avail little without it, but she must now spend her first movement—that half-second of action before the opponent could react—shrugging off her burden, instead of drawing a weapon. Keeping her face unreadable, she spared a tiny prayer of thanks for the wind now blowing away the thick heat of the fading afternoon.
For hours she had waited at a distance, concealed by the thick bracken at just the point where the road began to descend from the hills that protected the vulnerable side of the castle. She had in the past endured much longer stretches of stillness, but the scorching sun, penetrating even into the small clearing she had formed for herself among the thick leaves and thorns, had all but drained her near-endless supply of patience. Watching as the king’s closest allies had passed, each with a larger retinue than the last, down from the heights into the stronghold below, she had slowly counted each sword as the sun finally descended into an uneasy dusk like blood ebbing from one’s temples after a battle. When all the guests had at last ensconced themselves within, she had waited for the guard to change, and then another hour after that—long enough for the lingering heat to sap the new guards’ freshness and the half-light of early evening to erode their vigilance.
Her weapons trainer had said to her once that a man could enter anywhere he pleased if he only looked confident and acted as though he belonged. In countless years of practice, she had determined that this was, at best, only mostly true. Attitude certainly played a part, but in many situations and for many disguises, confidence sent the wrong signal. She had instead learned to identify the demeanor and bearing expected of one in her assumed position, which in turn required that she quickly and accurately evaluate the faces and character of those she meant to deceive. Fortunately, she had had ample time on this particular venture to observe the gatekeepers from half a mile off as she waited for the sun to disappear behind the hill. At that distance, even her remarkable vision neared its limit, but she had time on her side. When she had finally crept out of the brush and begun her slow trudge down the trail to the gate, she knew them well enough to fool—or kill.
They had seen her coming quite a long way off and eyed her warily as she approached. She kept her eyes on the ground after the manner of the simple yeoman whose garb she had adopted, and nothing about her bespoke ill intent or subterfuge until she had drawn near enough to betray herself as a stranger to the keep. Not recognizing her round, hairless face, the leftmost of the three had extended his hand toward her.
“Stop,” he had cried, when she was within 10 paces of the gate, which stood open to welcome the king’s guests. “What’s your business here, then?”
She knew she had aroused only mild suspicion; none had yet drawn a weapon. If they had sensed any real danger, she would have had a blade at her throat. Her confidence buoyed by this first small victory, she forced into her voice that semi-guttural, grunting tone most calculated to disguise her sex; if they guessed she was a woman, she would have to kill them. The trick was not to artificially lower the voice: it never sounded genuine. The technique worked best when mimicking the peasant classes, because she could combine the change in her voice with the sullen but subordinate aspect of the downtrodden man whose hope has not yet entirely abandoned him.
“Fetching in the deer for my lord, the Earl of Hertford,” she had replied. “Fell off the back of the cart—they sent me back to find it.”
“Has t’ Earl gone in yet?” the guard to the right had asked. His small, pointed nose seemed almost to sniff her like a dog, as though he could smell out the truth.
“Course,” she had scoffed, “Think I ran ahead on me own with this over m’ shoulders?”
“Quiet!” the first speaker had said. His air of mastery suggested he must outrank the others. “No one’s asking you.”
While he had rubbed his chin, considering, she had stolen a glance at the guard in the middle, who had as yet said nothing. More than the terrier-faced man and the blustering leader, this third unsettled her. So few people actually looked, and even fewer thought about what they had seen, but he was clearly doing both. If she ended up having to shed blood to enter, his steady attention would lie at the root of it.
She reminded herself none of the three deserved death, and she choked down the rising thud-thud-thud of her own pulse in her throat—the storm before the calm that washed over her whenever she killed.
“I reckon you can go on in,” said the leader, and he stepped back to let her pass. The man in the middle did not, though, and she found herself looking up into his face as she perforce came to a halt in front of him.
Reminding herself to avoid direct eye contact, lest she betray the inner sense of dignity and authority that would have seemed so out of place in someone of her apparent social stature, she growled, “Well, you letting me in, or what?”
“The Earl’s man didn’t say nothing about another deer,” said the third man, without taking his eyes off her face. “We should send to find out.”
The leader frowned, but nodded. “Danny, go ask,” he said to the sniffer, and Danny turned to pass into the castle.
She relaxed ever so slightly and, mentally shrugging off the slow-witted mien in which she had enshrouded herself, allowed her brain to speed up again. Time slowed, and in the heartbeat between Danny’s first and second steps, she realized he would have to die. With luck, though, he would be the only one.
Easing open the sluice gates of her bloodlust just enough for her instincts to take control, she spun her right shoulder up and across to the left. The head of the mighty stag on her back whipped upward, and before the man in front of her had even begun to blink in response, its right antler pierced deep into his eye. He fell to the ground, clutching his face. She cast the deer’s carcass down on his abdomen, driving the breath from his body and cutting off his howl of agony.
The leader, proving himself worthy of the advancement he was undoubtedly going to forfeit by the next day, spared only a brief instant for shock and horror before drawing his sword. She was faster. A quick jab to the exposed inch of throat between jaw and jerkin sufficed to disable him another half-second, and in that time she whipped the knife from her boot and hamstrung his left leg. He fell to one knee, still gasping from the blow to the neck, but he managed to maintain his grip on his weapon. She ended that with a savage gash across the knuckles. Then she pulled the leather cap from his head and smashed the heel of her left hand onto the back of his neck, just where the weak point at the base of the skull left consciousness the most vulnerable.
Not even waiting for his limp frame to collapse, she reached back to retrieve her longbow. Her fourth and fifth fingers snaked into the quiver in the same movement, pulling out an arrow as she brought her hand forward. She twitched the nock into position as she spun around, then sighted along the arrow toward the castle gate.
Danny had not, as she had hoped, returned to aid his brothers, but had broken into a run at the first sound of violence behind. He was still passing through the tunnel that led under the wall and into the castle courtyard, but she knew that only seconds remained before he would alert all within to her presence. Sparing only the briefest flash of regret for his fate, she loosed the arrow and watched as he sank to the ground with the point through his eye.
She had approached from such an angle as to be invisible to any watchers on the walls, and she had managed to keep the fray almost silent. No outcry came from above or within, so she paused to kneel and examine the bleeding eye socket of the sharp-eyed guard who had ruined her near-bloodless invasion. He would live, she decided, although he would certainly never see again from that eye, and possibly the other. Just as well, she thought. We don’t need intelligent men among our enemies.
Sighing, she placed a hand over his mouth and bashed him on the head with the leader’s sword. Then she dragged all three bodies into the darkest part of the tunnel. Finally she fetched the deer, and bent over it, drawing her knife again.
When she emerged into the courtyard with the carcass once more perched on her shoulders, she found it all but empty. Most of the castle’s occupants, she guessed, were attending or serving at the feast inside the great hall, and the sounds of revelry emanating from that direction told her the meal had already commenced. She turned her steps thence, feeling grateful to be so near the end of her journey.
When she kicked open the door of the hall, no one marked her at first, so great was the throng inside and so boisterous the spirit of all celebrants. But as she marched down the long row of tables, high and straight of bearing and looking neither to the right nor to the left, each lord and nobleman who caught sight of her fell silent. Their attendant guards and servants, sensing disquiet, ceased their obeisance and solicitations to stare in astonishment and growing dread, and by the time she neared the high table at the far end of the hall, the stillness of the room almost rivaled the calm within her own mind.
She climbed the dais and looked down at the king, grim and silent but—unlike his guests—uncowed by her aspect or the ominous burden she bore. Leaning forward, she pulled it over her head and cast it with a clatter upon the table before him. He did recoil then, as the bloody, meat-stripped skeleton of the great stag scattered the delicacies and sent the king’s silver cup spinning to the floor, splashing the stones with mead as it fell. The empty eye-sockets of the huge skull leered up at the king as he recovered his dignity and sat back again in his great chair. His eyes passed over the reddened, dripping bones and the fragments of the animal’s innards still clinging to the otherwise hollow ribcage. Then he looked up at her again, unable to entirely mask his revulsion.
“A gift,” she cried, in a voice that echoed from every wall and rafter, “for His Majesty the king. May his reign be as long-lived and full as this, the mightiest stag in the royal forest.”
A gasp fluttered around the room, and the king’s left eyebrow rose. “So you have yet again chosen death,” he said, half-mockingly.
“No, you have chosen death!” she said. “The death of the traitor, the death of the usurper, and the Death Beyond Death, the death of him has forsaken God!”
“Fine words from a man who would not leave his lands or holdings to do God’s will in the East,” growled the king.
Ignoring this, she turned, looking around at the multitude and sparing a brief moment for each nobleman, to stare into his soul. “You traitors, all of you, listen to me. You hope your lives will be made full and prosperous, but I tell you that if you cast your lot in with this lowest of criminals, you will be left hollow, starved, and yes—as dead as this deer whose meat I cast to your dogs but moments ago. And those you oppress, those you treat not as dogs, but as worse than your own hounds—they will receive that upon which you hope to make yourselves fat!”
She could feel the king’s patience ebbing away, and she knew that she had but moments before his facade of forbearance crumbled into rage. “I do not beg, for I do not care what happens to all of you now, but I urge you! Forsake this impostor and swear anew to God that you will once again be loyal to your true king.”
She had timed these last words just right, and she knew it as she completed her revolution and looked down once more upon the king. His grimace of fury nearly broke laughter upon her lips, but she kept her face deadly serious. She must not mock so openly, or she would undo the spell she had cast upon the guests.
That spell lasted for the space of one, two, three breaths, and then the king exploded, leaping from his seat. “Give me this traitor’s head upon a pike!”
Those closest to her moved first, but since she had poised herself to respond, she avoided them with scarcely a thought. Leaping backward, she arched her back into a handspring and vaulted over the next two fools who attempted to lay hands on her. They crashed into each other, and then she did allow herself to laugh—a trill of pure, exulting merriment that pierced the growing clamor ringing throughout the hall as she ducked and darted to evade every would-be captor or killer between her and the door.
She never had any fear for her own escape; she had always been able to pass through even the most hostile and determined crowd without injury or incident. Her brain simply worked faster, and her muscles more rapidly, than those of her enemies, and she could see every move ahead—every possible permutation of the vast, complex chessboard—as if drawn out for her on a map. Laughing with ever-growing glee, she sprang from floor to table, threw herself against the wall and thrust away again over the heads of her assailants, dove and rolled between the legs of the outraged nobles, feinted this way and that to escape the glancing sword-blows that clanged futilely against the stone of wall and floor, and at last slipped through the doors that the more intelligent of the servants had finally thought to begin closing.
They slammed shut behind her, and those within scrambled to back away from the doors so they could be reopened. She seized the moment of peace to race across the courtyard and dash up the steps outside the keep. As she ran along the parapet behind the wall that overlooked the hills, she saw soldiers bursting forth from the hall, and she laughed again, knowing they would never reach her in time.
Leaping up to stand upon the wall itself, she gazed down one last time upon the surging mob, and she saw the king striding out from the hall. He glared up at her with such a mask of impotent rage that she knew it would remain seared into her memory for years to come. She whipped her bow from her back once again and sent an arrow streaking through the air to bury itself in the door inches from his head.
Thunderstruck, he gaped up at her, and those around him fell silent. Their shock spread rapidly, and even those closest to her, at the top of the stairs, faltered and looked back at the king, weapons limp in their hands.
“I needn’t miss if I don’t want to, Your Highness,” she called out. And with that, she leaped down from the wall.
Finding his tongue, the king bellowed after her, “LOCKSLEY!”
The soldiers nearby recovered themselves and raced to the wall, peering over at the ground beneath, to see where she might have fallen. But no sign of her, dead or alive, remained.