The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 7: Salted Wounds and Crueler Cuts

They were so hungry when the coach came that they craved the horses more than the gold. That was the problem with being a bandit, thought Norrik. Whether you were an honest ruffian or a bandit king, your livelihood came down to lying in wait.

While Norrik retained some hooligans, most left for greener pastures, whether to more lucrative thieving, an honest workday, or death, and he prized his remnant more than women or booze, but not as much as living, which was why he sought only sure marks. Hence, bandit life for Norrik’s crew tended to lie on the waiting side—waiting, waiting, and more waiting.

This caravan was the right kind of juicy, low-lying fruit: old men steered three wagons, each pulled by two horses. Whether wine, anchovies, or pickled cadavers filled the casks they drew, Norrik did not care. One brave horseman could hold up this merchant train.

Still unused to styling himself a leader, Norrik turned his head to ask, “what do you think?”

“What if there are soldiers in the casks?” said one.

“It looks too easy,” said another.

“While their cargo might be dead soldiers,” said Norrik, “since there are no holes in the casks, but plenty in your head, it’s your thoughts that don’t hold water.”

When the others snickered, the fearful bandit scowled. “They could have climbed in the barrels before coming over the hill.”

“Then they know we’re here? I didn’t tell them. Did you?”

“No!”

“Then who’s the traitor,” growled Norrik, holding the growl until it bottomed into a laugh. “They’re only old men, and maybe some corpses enjoying airless accommodations.” The snickering became snorting, and a few strangled laughs. “Unless we want a chase, now’s our time.”

It was the easiest money they ever made. When the bandits dashed downhill, the old men cracked their reins, but since the horses hauled heavy kegs over the ancients’ crumbling road, they were only spurred from a loiter to a strut. When the bandits were about to lay their hands on anything touching wagon wood, the old men leaped down with fear-born nimbleness, then scurried into the woods.

After commandeering the wagons back to their camp, they opened nine casks heaped with rye, three crammed with salt, and one brimming with whiskey. While the liquor was a foot lower within the hour, they were most besotted with the hoard of salt, one of the richest commodities in Cjantosk, with this measure worth more than all of their lives, their families, and their horses.

“Where did they get it?” one asked.

Another clapped Norrik on the back, and said, “this is better than any haul the chief ever made.”

“But how will we sell it,” said a third. “It may as well be all the salt in the world since we can’t sell it without being marked by the Prince’s men.”

“There’s no may as well about it,” said Norrik. “This is half the salt in Cjantosk, and its theft won’t go unnoticed.”

“Neither will it go unpunished by the nobility, who can’t do without their salt,” said the fearful one. “If we leave it on the side of the road, they might not spare guardsmen to look for penitent thieves.”

The others could care less, and as they were nearly a fourth of the way through the whiskey, laughing, telling ribald and bad jokes, and otherwise making asses of themselves, it fell to the camp followers to butcher a horse and grind rye to flour. Upon adding a dollop from their scarce oil supply, as well as a liberal measure of salt, they mixed a coarse batter and soon roasted flatbreads and buns stuffed with a mincemeat of horse, sweet onion, garlic, apple, and walnut.

Since it was touch and go after the monk slashed him, Norrik should have been glad to be alive. Though he bled until his head and withers were stuck in a jelly of gore, grass, and mud, after his men stitched his wound and salved it with a paste of yarrow and marigold, then bundled him and spooned him broth, he recovered. However, his voice was still unfamiliar, and he would never forget the vomitous blood and bile backwash seasoned with the taste of steel.

But Norrik was so happy to be alive that he had a go at being bandit chief, despite that the bandits, like Norrik himself, were half the men they used to be, having succumbed not to injury and infection but desertion and opportunity. To Norrik, his remaining hangers-on seemed a wealth of followers, and he felt himself to be a merry lord with a robust dominion. When they set to their accustomed crooked path, they suffered more losses to merchants emboldened by a pack that may have been hungrier, but were leaner and punier than the bandits they remembered.

The caution they learned became his philosophy. While he was still glad to be alive, avaricious, and eager for business, his near-fatal wound and the halving of his company made him twice cautious, and seen by this double vision their recent acquisition seemed more trouble than treasure. What was to them a lush hoard was a bitter and galling loss for the unforgiving nobles of Cjantosk.

Norrik was at a loss for how to proceed, as caution is neither study nor inborn sagacity, but only lessons taught by fear of man, fear of injury, and fear of death, and none of these tutors are trusted with more than the rudiments of wisdom. After mulling it over with his little wit, he came to the galling decision that they should surrender the salt. The theft would be known by now, and discovered within a fortnight unless he slew his crew. You could hardly keep a thief quiet, and the whores and wastrels in their wake were liberal blabbermouths. Their treasure would soon be coveted not only by nobility, but larger bandit camps, swelled by his own deserters, none of whom would speak a word about mercy, loyalty, or friendship.

Norrik briefly considered disbanding the gang to cash in and settle in Cjantosk. Since leaving his grandfather’s homestead, he never lived as an honest man, and doubted he could after robbing so many merchants, as he could neither buy, nor sell, nor freight cargo, nor serve merchants without being recognized, which ruled out cashier, dock, ship, and warehouse work, as well as a hotelier, a waiter, a bookseller, or a bartender. Considering that he might make a living as a day laborer or farmer, he was neither impervious to the irony that he considered a return to his roots, nor that this year’s best haul might force a change of profession, even if the words irony and ironic were wasted on him, like any but the jolliest banter.

Norrik snorted and made up his mind. He would be a bandit until the day he died.

“While we’d be asses to dump this haul, we’ll unload it half-ass, as quick as we can and at any price. No one sleeps until we find a buyer.”

“That makes Cjantosk our only market.”

“That’s not true. Go ask Urgu if you’d like. An appetite that large might take an interest.”

“Dragons don’t season their food,” the cautious man sneered.

“Urgu lives like a lord now, and grows a village near his lair. Paths are already trodden by the merchants emboldened by greed. We’ll take one of the wagons and hope to find a path.”

“On the ancients’ road, we’ll be caught by guards, and in the woods, we’ll be hunted by the prince’s trackers.”

“When we find the path,” said Norrik, “we’ll leave the road.”

“What if there is no path? Do we run all the way to the capitol?”

Norrik ignored the dour bandit, sent the drunks to their tents, and wishing to spare himself the cold dew for once, spread his bedroll in the back of a captured wagon. If he was still lieutenant, he would have had the lion’s share of the whiskey and slept a stony sleep, but worries for these wretches kept him awake. They were dogs, he told himself. They didn’t give a thought for tomorrow, why should he? They were rats, he told himself. They prized their own ugly skins more than gold, and if his life was threatened, they would scurry towards their next meal.

When he awoke, the sky was still midnight blue, but dawn had crinkled its icy light over the hilly horizon. Though the bandits grumbled at his demands to rise, a few trickled from their tents to scarf down rye bread. When only half his men minded him, he lit a brand from the dying fire and threatened to set the laggards’ tents on fire. Once they were roused, hegave the order, and was satisfied with the results. Having re-loaded the salt casks and hitched the five uneaten horses, the wagon might outstrip running guardsmen or give mounted trackers a good race.

When the sun drowned them with pale morning light, the hungover groaned, and shards of black glass glinted in the ancient road. While the breeze rolled in to chill them, it carried the warm the scent of tulips opening, and after another hour, the sun climbed to a higher perch, from which it shed heat, and as the day became balmier, the light became less severe as well. This was when Norrik noticed the disappearance of the cautious bandit, and though he poked his head in the back of the wagon, raised every drawn cowl, and ordered the flanking woods flushed for stragglers, the coward was neither stowed, cowled, nor doing his business, but plain evaporated.

“Faster!” By jogging for ten minutes, then walking for five, the bandits hastened down the king’s road for two hours, when Norrik stopped them.

“Keep your eyes open. Rumor says Urgu may live near.”

“Guardsmen!”

While kicked-up dust obscured what the bandit pointed at, it could not be good. If they were horses, a dust cloud meant fleeing or chasing, and he would err on the side of caution and assume the latter. “With as much road in the air as under their hooves, they may not have seen us. Get off the road.”

“They’ll see our treads.”

“Maybe. It’s that or be trampled.”When they steered the horses off the road, the animals bent to their burden, their legs and necks taut with the strain; with each lurch, their cargo teetered, until the hastily lashed ropes securing the salt casks slackened, prompting several bandits to climb in back and steady the barrels.

As the extra weight and the uneven road dragged the horses to a crawl, Norrik and his crew put their shoulders to the wagon.

When the wagon driver jumped from the bench and broke into a run, another bandit, who pushed the wagon shoulder to shoulder with Norrik, sprinted in the coward’s wake. Norrik then shifted his grip so that he could keep pushing as he stole a glance. Seeing the road only a hundred feet behind them, and the horsemen cantering over tall grass with swords drawn, Norrik leaped aside, the wagon rolled back, and a cask toppled, then rolled off to crush one of his men, trip the lead horse, and send its rider sprawling.

Norrik hacked at the harness, and having cut free one of the horses, mounted it bareback, and kicked its flanks, the horse reared, turned, and cantered towards the guards. He clamped his knees and clutched its mane. A sword swung over his head, but a clenched gauntlet cracked his ribs.

Pursued by the drumming of hooves, Norrik clung to his clip-clopping nag and did not bother turning his head to count them, for whether two or twenty, they would soon catch him, or, more likely, run him through. His steed was a poky dullard, and with neither reins, nor stirrup, he could hardly turn to fight. His best chance was dashing to the timber line, where the horsemen would be hard pressed to follow, and he might run all the way to freedom. But with neither saddle nor stirrup, vaulting from a horse is harder done than said, and having lifted one leg over the beast’s back, he spilled to the road.

He lay numb until the wetness on his chin spread to his neck and chest, then took one knee woozily, then staggered to his feet. Though blood drenched his jacket, his face throbbed, the outrageous ball of pain that was his nose dripped blood over his lips and beard, and his knees wobbled, he stumbled towards the tree line. While he believed this was the fastest he had ever run, the head blow shook him so hard that he didn’t know upside down from right side up, and to his purusers, he seemed a staggering drunk.

When Norrik’s head was rocked by a more deliberate blow, he fell into a dreamless space as white as salt.

***

Norrik awoke in a cold chin-pool of spittle and blood. He lay on a wooden bench in a small room built like a cairn, one rock piled on another.

When he tried to sit, pain stabbed his head, and he lay back. After a few minutes, he pulled himself up until the manacles on his feet tightened. The chain was so short that he could only recline or sit with his knees slightly bent, but not stand without discarding the chain.

Since the gods gifted him not with the intelligence to see a solution but the persistence to try everything, he pawed the chain for twenty minutes, looking for weak links or gaps to exploit. He checked the manacles for looseness and the heads of their rivets for rust, then groped the bench, feeling for slats, struts, and nails that could be removed and repurposed towards his escape.

Lastly, he grabbed the bench, and shoved mightily against the floor with his legs, but the manacles only clacked as they drew taut.

While his struggles lasted no longer than a caged beast’s, they outlasted that of a pig resigned to the slaughter. What stopped him was the din of the ringing chain, which resounded in a skull already struck twice like a gong.

As he lay on his hard palette, he heard laughing. When the laughing was met with more mirth, he lunged for the door, forgetting he was secured by the ankles. Though he caught himself before his face struck, without slack in the chain it was difficult to return himself to his reclining position. After a minute of arduous effort, during which it felt like his feet might be twisted off by the cruel links, he decided to wait on his captors with pride intact.

As he panted, new blood trickled down his upper lip. Since Norrik’s nose was broken four times before, he knew touching it would only hurt and tell him his nose was broken, which he knew as surely as he knew he was famished. His last meal was breakfast, before loading the salt, and he had no way of knowing how long it had been since then.

After the laughter died down, the door thumped. He waited. When there was more hard knocking, still he waited.

“Hey!” came a coarse voice, “are you kicking, or did you choke yourself?”

Norrik said, “thank you for that option, though I’d prefer a piss pot and room to stand.”

After some muffled cursing, the door opened to let in two guardsmen. “I’ll fix it,” said one, “but don’t get any ideas.” The other guard stood with sword drawn as the first adjusted his chain.

Afterward, the guard stepped back. “Stand, then turn around.”

While the chain was now slack enough for Norrik to stand, then turn to sit on a stone toilet facing his palette, he doubted he could take a step in any direction. At the moment, however, having not vacated himself in a day, the bandit had more pressing obligations. Underneath the cold seat was a brass chamber pot, which Norrik promptly filled,

“Make yourself at home,” sneered the guard, “though it isn’t. This is short term.”

“Very short,” snickered the other guard.

Norrik realized what bothered him about the guardsmen.

They wore not the prince’s tabards, but Corunan robes, over their armor.

“Where am I?” asked Norrik. “I’ve been in Cjantosk’s prison twice, and this isn’t it.”

“This isn’t a cell,” scoffed one of the guards, “it’s your grieving mound.”

While Norrik had never heard of a grieving mound, he was uncomfortable with the obvious comparison to a grave. “Are you turning me in to the prince or the king?”

“Neither. You’ll stay buried until you show penitence for your sins, at which point the Holy Mother may deign to contemplate your destination.”

While Norrik was a lifelong Cjantoskan, and knew the monks tried their own offenders, he had never heard of the divine court presiding over anyone outside the faith. “But Coruna is not my goddess.”

“Though I’m not your defender, I wouldn’t recommend that for your defense, as they’ll label you a reprobate. Also, don’t tell me anything, as I might be sworn in as a witness. Hopefully,” he added.

The other one said, “it’s not like they could add to his sentence, lackwit—death is death.”

“Maybe. This is new.”

“What do you mean, new?” asked Norrik. “And why should I die? I’m no killer.”

“You’re the most egregious offender we’ve collected. Rumor has it the Holy Mother wants to make an example.”

“The king will never stand for that! I’m a Cjantoskan citizen, and demand the king’s justice. Granted, he might want to kill me too, but I’ll take that chance.”

“That’s the whole point. We’re pleasing the Goddess to spite the king. The Holy Mother commands us to take back our rights.”

Norrik had heard of the Captain of the Guard’s blasphemy, and the line it drew in Cjantosk between those that served pleasure and those that served Coruna. From the lowest peasant to the moribund prince, the hedonistic masses did not want to commit to anything. But while the irreligious outnumbered the faithful, the former only played at life, while the latter played at war.

When Norrik was last in town, and saw militiamen posted at every other corner, he did not think to ask why. Assuming that the king cracked down on banditry, Norrik doubled his efforts not to be spotted, and hastened back to the encampment, where he imposed stricter discipline. While it was now clear that the armed monks, not the bandits, provoked the reinforcements, Norrik could only guess whether the king feared the Holy Mother, or used the monastic forces as a pretext to raise his own army for a more nefarious purpose.

“Just where am I, anyway.”

“Was your head rattled? You just asked that.”

“Where’s this grieving mound?”

“Don’t ask me,” said the guard. “I won’t tell you the how, where or when, but feel free to make some noise when you have questions about the why or the Who, meaning her blessedness, the Goddess.”

After the guards left, one came back with boiled potatoes, raw carrots, and ale, after which Norrik was even hungrier. Norrik grew accustomed to this feeling of perpetual famishment. Which is not to say that the Corunans didn’t feed him. Norrik might have tracked the days by mealtimes if he had the will, as he was fed three regular meals in a civilized fashion. The food wasn’t tasty, but it was hearty, and with breakfast, they changed his chamber pot, swapped his dirty wooden fork for a clean one, and gave him a sententious scroll in a plain leather tube. “Even their writings are monks,” he said to himself, “so many homely cusses that are full of themselves despite the ugliness of their ways and faces.”

At first Norrik would read these tracts to pass the time, though they were crammed with tedious lies overflavored with sanctimonious pieties. Though the bandit did not contest a higher power—as Norrik’s traps were often blessed with many stuffed and fatted idiots—that self-evident deity thought these groupies a vile, despicable sorority of toxic boot-licks that had the gall to name Her to shield their pride, avarice, ambition—in short, their own sins.

When Norrik stopped opening the tubes, they stopped coming. He soon regretted it, because mocking their holy writ was diverting, and diversions were something he craved.

When they came for him, three armored monks stood guard while the other unbolted the manacles and shod him in overlarge boots. After being chained to the compass of a cairn, palette, and toilet seat, he could only stumble in the sloppy boots as the guards forced him uphill at a grueling pace.

Though overcast, the gray sunlight stung eyes dimmed by the grieving mound. While the pebbled path seemed a paved road in his near blindness, and he nearly tripped over the larger rocks, he couldn’t miss the many stone piles ascending to the topmost stone, the Corunan monastery.

Having extracted all the prisoners, armored monks prodded them towards the gate. Though his guards purposefully placed Norrik at the end of the line, those sinners lagged going up the hill, and he reached the top first.

While the double-minded monks, perverted by parables, might think this signified the straw of his pride breaking, with as many more assuming the eager bandit intended penitence, Norrik knew it merely meant he was the strongest wretch, and that his long imprisonment had not yet broken his body or spirit. In fact, he felt stuffed to the craw with too much spirit, as his diet of religious tracts left a sickening aftertaste that he desired to vomit in the Holy Mother’s presence. As to his mind, that was broken long ago, he snickered.

When he reached the gates, his flanking guards pulled him to the end of the line, and jostled him. “Stop laughing!” one hissed.

When a prisoner was led into the courtroom, the line inched forward. Though Norrik had imagined noise and pomp, maybe music, the proceedings transpired in grim silence. The prisoner exited, weeping, barely supported by his burly escorts, as did the next three, but the fourth did not come out, and neither did the fifth.

The twenty-eighth criminal entered to murmurs from the crowds, but a painfully withdrawn silence preceded his sharp shout: “My HANDS!” He was dragged from the room staring at the wrapped stumps, and weeping melted blood gobs on his nose and cheeks, so that his face was a streaked horror. “Not my hands, not my hands.”

Though the penultimate offender could walk, he was led from the room, and while he did not cry or scream, he gagged around the blood streaming from his tongueless mouth and sightless holes.

Norrik was next—the thirtieth criminal. Though he wondered as to the inane significance of the number, he believed that death lay behind the door, and that the number had little relevance to the finality of his fateful day. This mad religion saved his punishment for last in an escalating series of horrors to relish.

When Norrik’s legs weakened, he resolved not to be dragged into that room. He could not stop them dragging his body when they had voided it of dignity, but he could still walk in of his own accord, raise his eyes, and return contempt on his accusers. When he recognized her, this bravado drained, along with his full bladder. While it was not his plain, petite throat-slasher, it was she who had the knife. When she spoke, he stared, uncomprehending.

“Speak!” roared amonk. “Do you know why you are here?” Other than Alyana, she was the youngest monk above him, perhaps only a little older than Norrik with drab hay-blonde hair and a face wrinkled not yet by age, but by well-worn lines of consternation around her nose.

When Norrik found his voice, it was so distant and diminished as to be lost in the dark. “I know your goddess is not just. Though she cut me once, Coruna spared me for this crueler cut. Because I stole salt and I blaspheme, you seize my life in your hands. Though I do not demand mercy, I deserve it.”

While Norrik’s nose healed crooked in the grieving mound, and pale skin and broken teeth finished a face no mother had named, Mother Alyana seemed to look past the wretch to recognition. She leaned over to murmur to her advisers.

An elderly monk with unseeing eyes observed, “the criminal observes the forms, accepts the charges, and throws himself at the mercy of the goddess. To him whom the goddess has moved, we must show mercy; on him whose sin is ignorance, not blasphemy, we may shine the divine light.”

The next speaker was robed in yellow, orange, and red wool depicting Coruna crowned with a sunny halo, her smile of benediction rivaled by the knowing grin of the wearer. While her back was stooped even while sitting in her chair, and her hair was silvered, her face was young, making her the most grotesque of all the monkish gargoyles. “Holy Mother, he must die, or we must start anew. The King must know the law is in our hands.”

The old man rebutted, “Better to fear the goddess than the King.”

The old woman retorted, “Better to love the goddess than the King.”

Alyana’s faint murmur was only heard by her cabinet, Norrik, and the two guards that flanked him. “Advisers, stop squabbling and advise. Should I kill or save he who started me on my path?”

When the hay-blonde monk thundered, “clear the courts!” the monks emptied into the hall, except for Mother Alyana, her cabinet, and the door guards. As those holding Norrik turned for the entrance, she commanded them to stay, then ordered the doors closed.

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