The Heart of Sorrow’s Keep
By Brenna Hanson
Date: August 22, 2018
Ch. 55

My escort took me out through a sewer tunnel that hadn’t been used in nearly a century. That meant that it didn’t stink as much as it could have, but also that many creatures called it home and did not appreciate our intrusion. The tunnel emptied into a cave where we slept the first night to the sound of dripping water. That cave led to another and another until I thought I would go mad from the lack of sunlight. It took four days altogether to reach the open air. By the end of it, I swore that I would kill myself before I would ever go underground again.
We emerged to a cloud-covered moon and made a small camp against the side of the mountain rather than spend another night surrounded by rock and bats. Our small supply of food was gone so we slept hungry with snares set in hopeful longing for small game. We were rewarded at dawn with a rabbit big enough to share around. We washed it down with water from a nearby stream. In the distance, above the treetops, I could see the pitched slate roof of a tower.
“Your new home, lady,” Francis the One-Eye said with a lift of his chin. “Sorrow’s Keep they call it.”
“Of course they do,” I said. I handed the rest of the rabbit to Francis, my hunger gone. “Let’s get on with it, then.”
We cleared camp and doused the fire. Then my escort, Francis the One-Eye and his grandson, Leaf, beat our way through the underbrush to the door of Sorrow’s Keep.
“You’re supposed to be the one to knock. Lass,” Francis the One-Eye said.
I sighed out a long breath before raising my head high and walking purposefully to the door.
“Go away,” said a voice from inside the tower. “Go away and be gone with you.”
“I haven’t even knocked yet,” I said more to myself than the owner of the voice.
“But you were going to, weren’t you?” the voice said. It was loud and cranky and full of the grating rasp of age.
“Well,” I said, hesitating, “yes, I was going to knock… but I hadn’t yet.”
“Would it do your heart wonders to rap your knuckles on my door this morning?” The owner of the voice was obviously sneering.
“No,” I said. “But, it seems rude to answer the door before the knock.”
“It’s ruder to tell a man how to answer his own door,” countered the voice.
“I’ve been ordered to come to you by my father, High King Dan,” I said. “You are to give me sanctuary in my time of need.”
“Oh, I am, am I?” The voice cackled a laugh that made the words nearly unintelligible.
“Yes,” I said. “You are. I’m to show you this locket…”
“A pox on your locket,” interrupted the voice. “It’s most likely as cursed as the last one I laid eyes on.”
“If you don’t open the door, I’m supposed to tell you that my mother’s name is -”
“I don’t care,” shouted the voice.
“Lily,” I finished.
There was complete silence inside the tower.
“And if you still won’t open, we are going to set fire to this place and burn it around you,” I said. I was shouting now. Shouting, kicking the door, and tears were running down my face. “And we will! We’ll burn it right down.”
There was a snicking sound and then the heavy scrape and thump of a wooden bar being lifted and set aside. Then the door opened and a large hand caught my fist before it could pound into the jamb.
“Now that,” the angry voice said. “I would pay gold to see you try.”
As soon as the door opened, the old man and boy charged with delivering me to my new foster-father made a hasty departure. Had it not been for the sound of their hurried footsteps and a shouted, “Best to you, my lady.” I would have thought they had simply disappeared.
“Your guard is gone,” the man at the door said.
“So it would seem,” I answered.
“You should go after them,” he said. “Quick now, before they get too far and you lose them in the forest.”
“Just let me in,” I said. “I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me here but we’re each other’s problem now.”
He stared at me for a drawn-out moment. His face didn’t look unkind exactly. There was a pinched look around his eyes. His beard was in desperate need of a trim. He was pale in the way of someone who rarely sees the sunlight. Mostly, I thought he looked as if life had absently crumpled him and tossed him aside. Then his face lit with a smile and he laughed. I felt my own mouth lifting at the corners tentatively. His laugh was full-bellied. It rang through the forest setting birds to flight.
Then, he slammed the door in my face and the laughter was cut off as if it had never been there at all.
I stood in front of the door wondering what to do next. I raised my hand to knock, and then let it drop again. I opened my mouth to shout that I was to be given sanctuary. Then I closed it. What good would any of that do? It was obvious that the old man didn’t care for my knocking, my words, or my welfare.
I wandered over to a stump beside the keep’s woodshed and sat down to take stock. My escort had abandoned me. My home was far away and I wasn’t allowed to return now even if I could find it. My mother was gone. My new protector had turned his back on me with the ease of someone ignoring a stray cat. I was dirty. I was hungry. And to make it all worse, the only survival skills I possessed involved bluffing at whist and my recently acquired ability to empty chamber pots.
There wasn’t much to work with that would turn the day in my favor. So, I did what any desperate girl full of grief and anger would do in my situation. I spent the next three hours emptying the woodshed of its contents and arranging the logs around the base of the tower. When that wasn’t enough wood, I dragged branches from the surrounding forest. When the branches got too heavy, I gathered dry grass and leaves to stuff into the gaps.
“And how do you propose to set it aflame, girl?” The words came from behind me and made me nearly jump out of my skin. “Do you have a handy flint in your pocket?”
“By order of your king, you are to let me in or this heap of stone is to be burned to the ground,” I said in my most commanding voice.
“Take your hands off your hips and tuck that obstinate chin away. I’ll not deal with your attitude, girl,” he said.
“Your king -” I started.
“Your king has no claim to Sorrow’s Keep, lass. He gave that up when he stole its heart. He’s got no claim to me, either, if you think his words can force my hand where you’re concerned,” he said. “Will you call down lightning then if you haven’t any flint?”
“I’ll…” I said and then stopped because, really, what would I do? “I’ll…”
My hand found the locket hanging from my neck. It was broken. I hadn’t been able to open it no matter how hard I had tried in the darkness of the journey here. Still, I liked to think that it held a likeness of my mother. When I held it, I imagined her strength flowing into me.
“You’ll what?” he asked. There was no threat or anger in his voice this time. There wasn’t even amusement. He had simply asked a question and was now awaiting the answer.
I sat down heavily on the stoop and let my chin rest propped in my hands.
“Honestly?” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Ah,” he said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I looked up when he stood.
“There are going to be some rules if I can’t be rid of you,” he said. “The first is that I will not take on some piece of fluff that blew out of the castle and got tangled in my beard. If you are to stay, it will be as my apprentice. As such, you will do as I say, when I say. There won’t be any fussing or moping either. Mostly, there will be none of that haughty attitude you have in that head of yours.”
He kicked at my thigh until I got up and moved out of his way. Then he opened the door.
“Clean up this mess you’ve created and refill my woodshed,” he said as he stepped inside. “It’s going to be a cold winter and I won’t be fighting damp wood.”
“What about the other rules?” I asked. I wasn’t sure whether to feel hopeful or worried.
“It seems to me you’re already having enough trouble with the first one. Why add more to your plate?” he asked. “Oh, and just in case you find that flint one of these days, you should know that Sorrow’s Keep was built from dragon’s tears joined with the blood of the mountains. It would stand if the sun itself moved into the guest room. Even your king knew that much.”
With that, I was alone in front of the closed door again.
Hours later, when the wood was stacked in the shed and the evening light was just leaching from orange into purple, I went to the door of the tower in a last attempt to gain entrance. Instead, I found a blanket, lantern, and a basket. Inside the basket was a note that read: Here are some small comforts as a gesture of goodwill. We shall see if you deserve better after I inspect your work in the morning. ~Marcus the Humble.
“He’s as humble as a peacock,” I muttered. But there was bread and cheese to eat. That was more than I was used to lately. The blanket was thick and warm. The pile of leaves and grass I had raked away from the failed fire was soft. In all, I was ending the day with more than I had grown used to since the siege had begun. Best of all, I was too tired to cry myself to sleep for the first time all week.

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