The only light is the fire, and even that has burned down to embers. That is good. If anyone happens to come down from their rooms, they will see nothing. And yet, it is a fearsome thing, waiting in the dark, flinching at every sound and shadow.
He is a fool, to chose to meet here, and I’ll tell him so when he arrives. I, of course, am a greater one, to have traveled miles in the wind and rain to wait here in the dark for who knows what reason. It’s urgent, the messenger tells me, and no more but for the name of the inn I am now waiting in and the time I am to be here. I wanted to shake him in frustration, but he was but a child who knew no more of the matter than what he’d been told. But when Iaedan gets here, I really will tell him what a fool he is.
But in truth he is no fool, and that is the cause of my fear. Because I know him well, and he has a tendency to understate. If Iaedan says a matter is urgent, disaster is imminent.
I shiver. The room is growing cold, and my hair is still soaked from the rain—hair that falls past the knees does not dry easily. I try to lean my head closer to the fire to dry it, but jerk upright as the room is flooded with moonlight at the silent opening of the door. A hooded figure slips in, the door shuts noiselessly, and the blackness returns.
“You idiot,” I tell him. He makes no response, but crosses the room and sits next to me, cross-legged in front of what’s left of the fire. At the sight of his face, even in the faint light, I can tell I was wrong. Disaster is not imminent; it has already happened.
“Quaos,” Iaedan whispers my name hoarsely. “It’s all my fault.”
“Don’t give me that crap; what is it?” I ask him sharply.
“They’ve been arrested for treason. All six of them. They’re in the dungeons awaiting execution.” He is barely able to say it.
I shudder at the thought of my friends and coconspirators sitting chained in a darkness darker than this, but keep my voice matter-of-fact as I inquire, “What are we going to do?”
He shook his head. “I thought… there was a chance we could… I sent for you because…” He shook his head again. “But there’s nothing we can do. I learned they’re to be executed at dawn.”
I ignore his uncharacteristic hopelessness and jump. “Dawn! Why in hell are we just sitting here? We only have what, four hours?”
“Five, it’s only a little past one, but it would take nearly three hours just to get there.”
“Good, we have time to plan.” I grab his arm and drag him up. Realizing that resistance is useless, he snaps out of his despair as we sneak out of the room.
It’s no longer raining but the ground is wet and even icy in places. I start to say it will take even longer to get there, but I realize his estimate took the weather conditions into account.
“It will be difficult to break them out of thee dungeons,” he muses.
A typical understatement. “Try impossible. No one’s ever escaped the dungeons.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
I ignore that. “We’ll have to take a more sensible route and rescue them between the dungeons and the gallows.”
“Any plans how?”
He shook his head and we walked in silence, thinking.
“There’ll be a crowd for the execution,” Iaedan says finally. “Maybe we could fade into it and rush at the guards as they bring them past.”
“If the guards didn’t kill us, the mob would. You know what people get like at these things.” I thought more. “Maybe if we disguise as guards, rush them before they get to the crowd…” Seeing the myriad of problems with that plan, I trailed off.
“Disguise as guards and take them from the dungeons before the real guards get there?”
“Have you seen the security in that place? Just because we’re dressed as guards- and where would we even get the uniforms- wouldn’t mean they’d let us take prisoners out.”
We thought of plan after plan and tossed them all out. After we ponder in silence for a while more—we’re perhaps two thirds of the way there—Iaedan says wearily, without much hope, “Maybe we could stop the execution somehow?”
“I don’t know how we could. They won’t stop it for weather; if the gallows burn they’ll behead them; if we’re arrested they’ll just have two more bodies to hang; the king’s magicians will be blocking anything I could try; if the executioner dies they’ll replace him; and I can’t think of a diversion big enough to—“ I stop, shocked by my idea. “We’ll kill the king,” I tell Iaedan.
He is speechless. I continue, trying to be as convincing as possible, because I can actually see this working. “That is our purpose anyway, after all, to depose that tyrant. He won’t be expecting it because he just caught the group of rebels. And his death would be enough to stop the execution, and the chaos afterwards would be enough to let us rescue them, and—”
“Quaos,” Iaedan stops me. “The reason we haven’t killed him yet is that it’s not that easy.”
“But he’ll think that he’s safe, since he just caught the rebels. It’s no riskier than anything else we could do, and we’d be killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.”
“We can’t even figure out how to perform a rescue, much less a murder. Or do you have a plan?”
I do, but I won’t tell it to him. “I’ll take care of the murder, you do the rescue. You can hide somewhere near the dungeon and when all hell breaks loose, do whatever it takes to get them out of there.”
We are nearly at the castle. Iaedan tries to press me for my plan, but I give him nothing and make him promise to do his part. “We’ll meet back at the inn, on the off chance both of us are alive to make it,” he proposes. I agree, and slip away.
The castle is guarded, but it is not hard to slip through a window unnoticed. Once inside, I make my way to the corridor outside of the king’s rooms. As a member of a group of rebels, I’d taken care to find out where he slept a while ago, though till now I’d never been able to use the information.
I peek around a corner and saw a host of guards standing in front of the door. It’s still the right room, then. I glance around to be sure I am unseen, but this part of the hall is empty. I strip off my clothes, unbind my hair, and proceed down the hall.
“Who goes there?” one of the guards demands as they ogle me.
I feign embarrassment. “His majesty asked me to come, sir,” I tell him. My heart pounds with fear and exhilaration.
Seeing that, being unclothed, I am clearly unarmed, the guards make the mistake of assuming I am not dangerous. With only a few crude comments, they let me inside.
To my surprise, the king is not asleep but sitting on the edge of his bed, fully dressed and toying with his crown. I wonder with surprise if he has enough humanity in him to worry over his responsibilities, but I dismiss the thought at seeing that his expression is one of pride. He smiles when he sees me, but says nothing. “Your majesty,” I say, curtsying slightly, and his smile broadens.
I cross the room and embrace him. It nearly sickens me to be in such close proximity to this evil excuse for a human being, but I think of my friends sitting in his dark dungeon and steel myself. He begins to grope me, and, barely managing not to shudder, I sweep my hair over his shoulder and around his neck and pull it as tight as I can. He makes a gurgling sound that would be a scream, and I am nearly too disgusted and horrified to go on. I make myself remember the evils he has done, the children I witnessed him kill, the people rotting in his squalid dungeons, including my friends. The king’s face is purple and the noises issuing from his throat grow even worse. I manage not to let go of the ends of my rope of hair until the noises stop, his breathing stops, his heart stops.
I check to be sure he is dead. He is. I go to the window—he is able to have large windows, a luxury most kings lack, as his mages have spelled them to resist arrows. They do, however, open. It is a three story drop, and I have no rope—for a moment I think of Rapunzel—after all, my hair has been put to one unsavory use already, but this is reality and anyway, my hair’s not that long. So I just jump, and use my magic to create a cushion of air to break my fall. I haven’t much training, so this is one of the few things I can do, and I’m not very good at it. But I don’t die and I don’t break any bones.
I feel uneasy, standing naked in the cold air. I make to the nearest house and sneak in a window. It would be awkward, not to mention dangerous, if the room’s occupant woke up, but she is sound asleep and snoring. I take a shift and a cloak and put both on, and just as I am about to leave I see a pair of scissors on the nightstand and take those too. I walk until I’m far from the town, perhaps halfway to the inn, then take the scissors and crop my hair as short as possible. I bury the hair and the scissors, just as a precaution in case I am at some point followed.
The sun rises perhaps half an hour later. I pray that Iaedan succeeded, that there is no execution, that they are safe. My mind fills with images of their bodies hanging from nooses. I push them away, and it fills with the image of the king’s corpse, my hair still wrapped around his neck. This shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. I wanted him dead, and I’ve spent the last year or so of my life trying to arrange it. And I am glad to end the tyranny, though it does not yet feel real. But the image of that corpse, the knowledge that I killed it, the memory of his face turning purple as I twisted my hair around his neck….
I reach the inn. It is bright and warm inside now, and I am served tea, but it is at least as bad as waiting in the dark had been last night.
It is hours before Iaedan arrives. He gawks at me as he enters and asks incredulously, “What happened to your hair???”
I ignore him, there are more important questions to be asked. “Did you rescue them?”
He nods. “When the news of the king’s murder arrived, the guards just abandoned their posts and ran into the castle. All I had to do is pick some locks. They’re all free, all okay, and I think by now most of them have left the country.”
“I’ll be doing the same.”
“I doubt you need to, if anyone saw you the loss of your hair should be enough of a disguise.”
“Maybe, maybe not, but you know we’ll all be under suspicion.”
“I know, I know. But really, Quaos, what happened to your hair? And even more importantly, how did you do it?”
“They’re really the same question,” I say, and tell him.