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The Inquisitor (chapter 19)
They reached the hillock soon enough, only to find a very grouchy prince. He scolded the pair for dallying so, harping on the time and the light and the late hour they would return to the castle.
Without allowing the princess and the maid a moment to climb down and rest, he leapt onto his horse and started down the ruddy track toward the castle. The princess and the maid exchanged weary looks and followed in behind him, the two outlanders taking up position a good distance behind the small column.
As they rode along, they came near to a hard rocky outcropping, lying at the base of a low ridge which rolled far off into the distance where it at last formed an arm of one of the great mountains to the east. Though strewn about with boulders and sharp rock, the outcropping had one smooth face set deep into the hillside.
Two great boulders had long ago been rolled together over some huge opening underneath. The boulders came together and were sealed all around with mortar and stone, and their faces were smoothed down into a great carved door.
Into the smooth rock was carved deep runes, and it was shot through with the strange filigreed ribbons of gold like those of the golden tower in their own castle. The princess had no idea what they runes meant, nor the strange golden ribbons.
Turning to the maid, she asked about the great doorway in the hillside, but the maids face turned dark and sad, and she said no more for quite some time.
The afternoon wore on as the made their way back toward more familiar territory. The prince quickly grew tired of their company and would ride many lengths ahead, before stopping and waiting, then riding on. The princess and the maid made small talk as they rode along. The princess felt as though her head were spinning; in her minds eye she recounted all the old man had said.
At last, the princess could bear the suspense no longer and asked her maid direct questions about what had transpired at the glen.
"Tell me, Chrysanthemum. Why is it that you used those men so? How could such pleasure grant you sustenance? By what devilry has your hair changed? I took note of the snowy lengths just this morning, yet now I can hardly see them."
A few moments passed, and at last the princess asked. "Be truthful with me now, are you bewitched as our Queen?"
The maid let out a long sigh.
"No, my love." she said. "I am not bewitched as she. But am bewitched in other ways. Do you recall me telling you of the boon I granted her just before we were sent to the outlanders?"
"Yes, of course." Replied the maid, remembering the maid's account of how she'd given her last sweet drop.
"T'was no small favor I gave, my love. T'was my own undoing. I had hoped I would have strength enough to endure, but alas, my strength fades by each movement of the sun. Tell me, my love, how many summers do you think I have seen?"
The princess thought a moment, and then, "Surely not very many more than I. Your beauty and youth are very equal my own... are they not?"
The maid sighed long again, and this time, the weariness the princess had seen earlier flashed cross her soft face for but a moment.
"No, my dear princess... In truth I have seen as many as you, and nearly a hundred more."
The princess stared at the maid in shock. Surely the beauty that rose beside her could not have passed a hundred years. It was impossible! But seeing her eyes, the princess knew the maid's words held true.
"But... but how?" she cried.
"Long ago my love, I was once just like you. I lived as one with the birds of the air, and the plants of the earth. But then... everything changed." She fell silent for a long time. At last she spoke again.
"Hear me, my love... I harbor no such evil as our Queen happily invites. But I have been with her for a very long time... perhaps even from the beginning. And I have learned... certain tricks from her. One of those, I used upon those very happy men who ride behind us. From them I tasted but a small portion of their strength, and used it to... sustain myself for a time."
The princess shook her head in disbelief. She had seen much magick in her time in this realm, but to witness it firsthand was a shock.
"And so now... all is well?" she asked hopefully, but the maid would say no more.
They rode along in silence for a good while. After a time, Chrysanthemum bade the two outlanders to take their mounts' reigns, so they might rest awhile as they rode.
The first thing his waking mind recognized was the sound of water. Not great rushing streams, but an irregular drop onto hard stone. His eyes opened, but all remained dark. Am I blinded? Have my eyes been gouged out? How had he gone from such blinding desert light, to such utter blackness now? Was this death... the underworld?
His hand felt through the blackness, finding hard rough stone beneath him. As they searched high and low, they felt nothing but the cold floor, and empty space beyond.
His mind screamed out 'neath the crushing veil of black. No... wait. Not entirely devoid of light. As his wide eyes stared about, he began to discern vague shapes in the darkness.
Far out in the void, some bluish light reflected off of jagged planes of bare rock. As he forced himself to be calm, gradually his mind resolved the faint images in the dark. Far off, he could distinguish an incredibly high rock wall. As he stared up into the dark, he could find no summit, and as he stared below, he could find no bottom. As he turned round, he found a similar wall only a few bare feet behind him.
He stood upon a small ledge, merely an outcropping, rather than a ledge, with a smooth floor. As he slowly bent to his knees, he felt round the floor until his fingers came to abrupt halt. Only by a few measures, the ledge ceased, leaving only empty air, and a great fall.
At last, his memory locked upon some forgotten knowledge. An oubliette! He was in an oubliette! A place of forgetting... his memory told him there was no need for chains in this prison.
Though he was neither bound nor restrained, he was just as surely trapped. Reaching his hands as high as his reach could take, they found no hand hold or purchase of any kind; the wall behind rubbed smooth as glass.
At least I am alive, thought he. For hours, he scrabbled at the smooth wall, trying to find the tiniest crack with which to pull upon. At last, he sank down in a sad heap against it.
Feeling round the floor of the ledge, his hand came across a small bone, most likely that of a rodent, which he tossed over the open edge at the forefront of his prison, and waited... and waited... and waited for the small sound of it striking bottom far below.
End of Story