I have never been an honest woman. Indeed my captors, and the mobs that dance for them, would say I could only even be named “woman” by a generous blurring of the truth. Still, my declaration stands. It seems only appropriate to begin this narrative with a warning that honesty breaks a lifetime of habit.
The men who have finally chained me will call this a confession. Such is the wont of the Caustrites, and such is the value they place on truth that even the most reviled prisoners receive a measure of clemency should they beg to unveil their crimes. And so it is with me. My dank little cell now glows with torchlight; I have a stool and a wobbling table, I have the means to write.
It is another habit of the Torchbearers to leave the right hands of their prisoners unhurt in the pursuit of answers, so I may write well enough. But my left hand is twisted from the screws and hammer. I can barely walk for the toes they have cut away, and over my body raw wet lines still burn as though newly left by the glowing iron poker. The pain once shocked me. I had thought myself grown beyond it; I had, perhaps, believed in the tales of my inhumanity. But now, bereft of servants and spells, the truth is an ugly stone in my heart. I am old, in years if not in looks, and in the end they found they could hurt me if they chose.
I grant myself this, though, that for all my agonies I remain unbroken. Bent almost to shattering, but I am myself still. I saw them hew my Crovan’s hands off, and his feet, while he screamed from a tongueless mouth and wept from eyeless sockets. They took his soul from him piece by piece, until he was no longer Crovan or even a man, just a twitching, gibbering thing. All the while Torchbearer Captain Lightsmith watched me with eyes that dared me to weep. If that did not break me, nothing will.
Still. Let them call this a confession. There are none left living whose good opinion I care to cultivate. So let this be the Last Confession of Lady Nightcrow, Mistress of Bonegrove Tower, the Black Hag, the Goblin Queen, Defiler and Nemesis of Caustros, won by Torchbearer Captain Jay Lightsmith.
He has a sense of humour, Lightsmith. He hides it beneath the sour dullness the Caustrites favour in their acolytes, but it’s there. He’ll use that damn title.
As for me, I can only look back at those titles that I have worn in my long life, and wonder at them. I asked for none of them, though I daresay I’ve earned most. We wear the names our enemies give us. And there isn’t a man or woman living, from king to slave, that can’t say they didn’t tremble at one epithet or another.
But even now, only one name makes sense to me. I was, before everything, a child named Bell.
I shall start at the beginning.