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Dungeon Duty

She fought to smother the distaste of recalling his hands and lips all over her – and the indignation of being punished for fighting him off – as she stomped down the stony, cold steps. She plopped onto the splintering wood stool, lowering her basket to the slimy cobbled floor.

Stony. Splintery. Slimy. Lovely.

“Rusty? I could use some more light!”

The knight atop the stairs called, “It’s a dungeon, my dear girl, not a parlor.”

She was in no mood for him. It was Christmas Eve. She should be with her family. She should be sitting by a warm fire with Mother’s eggnog and her niece and nephew begging for Christmas stories. “Rusty. Bring me a lantern or I’ll break your face.”

He appeared carrying two lanterns in one hand, good man, and in the other hand were a basket and a little birdcage with a rickety bird within. “I brought you some food. And if you get scared, send Pepper up to me.” He plopped the supplies (and the birdcage) haphazardly upon the table.

“Because you’re such an aide!”

His grin dispersed, and a scowl took its place. “I’d have pulled him off you if I saw it. Still, you’ve got to toughen up, Sophia.”

She snapped, “You think I ought to have let him paw me?”

“No! But you might have made less of a fuss.”

“Do more, you all say. Do less, you all say.” No one could tell from looking at her that she felt she might cry. She never did allow herself to cry. She was a woman at work in a man’s domain. She couldn’t.

But she snapped, “Seems to me men don’t know what they want of women. And you don’t know what you want of me.”

He opened his mouth to make a retort, and for a moment her heart skipped a beat – not because it looked as though the retort might be angry – but because for a moment it looked like the retort might come out as a confession.

She had been wondering, lately, what he really wanted from her.

He faltered and then he thought better of whatever he was about to say, and snapped his mouth shut. “You know? It’s Christmas Eve. Let’s not do this.”

His gaze roved once about in distaste, pausing upon the chamber pot in the corner with hardly a thin veil of concealment. “And if you need to make a trip there, send Pepper for me. I’ll take over and you can go up the stairs. Or I can guard you from prying eyes.”

She wrinkled her nose and gave a toss of her honey gold hair. “I’ll hold it. You made a fine guard on our excursion to HillSlope.

He rolled his eyes, and removed a blanket from the top of the basket, tossing it at her. She pushed it away.

“You’ll catch cold Sophia Rosalind,” he snapped. “And I won’t be ecstatic if I have to cancel tomorrow’s plans because you’re thick-headed.”

He’d always been bossy, but it was becoming unbearable. His mother left the discipline of his younger siblings to him, and of late she wondered if it had gone to his head. “When did you become my mother?”   

“Fine. Thick-headed woman.” He stomped for the stairs, but paused there to turn and gaze at her once more, as she began lighting the lamps. He sought to lighten the air. “Merry Christmas, Sophie?”

“Ditto.”

He rolled his eyes, and left her be. “I love you,” he hummed casually, as he went.

“Ditto.”

Such was their usual response. Some nights she wondered if he really meant it when he said it. Some nights she wondered if her response was really in jest.  

She glared at the darkness about her, as though her glare itself could cause it to disperse.

She couldn’t have known then what events would transpire in the dank dark of this dungeon.

All she knew at the moment was that this place smelled atrocious and she was getting really tired of Rusty, and one of the prisoners was staring at her – and she most definitely did not like the feel of it.

Chapter One

Sophie finished lighting the lamps and ignored the feel of prisoner eyes upon her. Her gaze lit upon the basket Rusty had left behind. She lifted the lid and was momentarily tempted to charge up the stairs and apologize for her cutting tone.  

A tankard of ale was nestled in the basket, surrounded by food: quail eggs, stuffing, butter rolls, mini meat pies, a slice of ham, a still-chilled tin of cake pops and even rare and wonderful chocolate covered strawberries, which could only be imported this time of year. Rusty could be decent.

Oh, and there was a paper-wrapped present and cinnamon candle. She lived for the tingling scents of cinnamon and evergreens come Christmas time, as he well knew.

She quite forgot to unwrap the gift, for lighting the candle and angling the lanterns to best enjoy the scent and light her book while she ate.  

Reading was not her favorite pastime, but it did indeed pass the time. So she settled into the little holidayish atmosphere she had created for herself, pulled close the bowl of stuffing to nibble at, and she read.

For about five minutes.

Books had to be special to capture her attention and this one was not. She continued to feel eyes on her, and at long last looked up to see who they belonged to.

A young gentleman was huddled in the cell directly before her, staring at her with vacant expression. He’d a box on his lap, atop of which was a journal, which he seemed to have been sketching in.

“Evening,” she greeted, with blandness, turning the page.

He did not cease to stare. “I’m David. David Gates.”

He was silent then, as if waiting for her cordial introduction.

“Sophia,” she put forth, with little enthusiasm. “Rosalind.”  

“You must forgive the staring but you are the nicest thing I’ve seen in weeks. What’s a lass doing on guard duty? In a place like this?”

If she understood right this man and the sleeping criminal a cell over would die a day after Christmas. She absently relayed, “My captain caught me under the mistletoe and wanted more of a gift than I was prepared to give. So he’s punishing me by putting me on guard duty when I’d very much like to spend Christmas Eve with my family.”

She thought the man’s eyes darkened momentarily, but she could not be sure, as in the next moment he was asking casually, “How does your husband feel about your... knightly position?”

“ ‘My family’ would consist of my mother, my sister Sarah, my sister’s husband Jim, and their twins, Claire and Colton.”

“No man and kids of your own?”

“Shazrad, our captain, seems to think he’s my man. And my dog, Loafer, he’s a sort of a kid.” 

“Was that your beau then, who just left?”

“No.”

“But he loves you.”

Well, goodness. She snapped her book shut and gave him a very chilly stare. “He is my dearest friend. He’d better.”

There was a moment of silence. After she was sufficiently sure her stare had abashed him into extended silence she plucked up breaded quail eggs to pop into her mouth, and the man went back to doodling. But the book was not interesting, so she got over her resolve to silence him, and acknowledged his existence again. “What’s in your box?” 

He smiled for being acknowledged.

There was nothing sinister in his way at least nothing she’d expect from a convicted killer. In fact, he faintly reminded of her of her father for his calm but warrior-like gaze.

Father. She had spent a great deal of time trying to capture in words exactly what it was Father had possessed. When people asked her what he had been like she could never quite encapsulate it. She had finally decided that Father was a living dichotomy, a fierce kind of gentle. He’d the carriage of a man of war, hardened by battle but softened by a family.

She didn’t like thinking of Father during the holidays. The frustration manifested itself in a haughtily cold gaze, directed at the prisoner.

He was curiously tepid as he spoke, even if it was a forced tepidity. “My mother kept a trunk of memories, and I always liked the idea. I didn’t have the liberty to carry about a trunk in my work, so I kept a small box.” He pushed the sketchbook aside, and she saw that his hands were trembling. The man was anxious beneath his lax voice, she decided, and was glad for the distraction of her presence.

He lifted the lid. “They took some things away when they imprisoned me. But the important things remain. They left my mother’s ring.” He lifted it in one hand.

The ring was a pink, almost coral opal encircled in delicate silver swirls.

She lost her chilly composure. “Oh, how pretty!” she blurted, and wished straightaway to take the words back. She was a wretched sucker for shades of pink and coral, and for antiquey jewelry. But that was a secret.

She sat back, and started on a butter roll, deciding to ignore the convict. But as she slowly chewed and he haphazardly sketched, she found his doodle of the Roselands fields far more interesting than her book.

Blast her wretched curiosity. Her good sense could never keep up with it. “When are you set to die?” she asked, though she knew, and she spoke without looking at him, burying her eyes in the book.

“Day after tomorrow I’m told,” he said, charcoal pausing over page, his expression finally taking the form that it ought to. Forlorn. Anxious.

“I see.”

She reached into the basket for another egg and her hand brushed the metal tankard. She’d no need of it. She picked it up, set aside her book, and approached the man in the cell. She proffered the capped cup. “You could perhaps use this more than I.”

He smirked softly. “I thank you, but I’m sort of a temperance man. Now.”

“Oh?” She returned to the table. As she did she realized that she was an idiot. She had promised Rusty earlier that she wouldn’t step within arm’s length of any prisoners. She wondered if the ten second rule applied to promises.

The man lifted from his box a miniscule wooden goose, and she found herself turning towards him again, curious. He tossed it to her. It was shoddily crafted, but recognizable for what it was.

“I’ve been drunk a time or two in my life, but never so drunk as the time a farm family found me conversing with their geese. I woke up in their barn the next day, where they put me to work repairing the damages I’d drunkenly done to their property.”

He sat back. “And once they saw what a worker I was they made certain that word of my impudence got ‘round town, so theirs was the only house I could go to for hire. Their little boy carved this for me. I kept it as a reminder.”

“Not to be a goose?”

“Something like that.”

“And has it worked?” 

“In that respect, at least. I’m grown man enough to admit that I’ve the alcoholic tolerance of a mouse.”

She didn’t like speaking in conversational tones with a convicted criminal, particularly a handsome criminal. He certainly might seek to beguile her into securing his escape. She’d become accustomed enough to dealing with men and with prisoners. Tactics, all the same.

But she did wish he wasn’t the only interesting thing in the room.

She tossed the goose back to him and sought to return to her book. She flipped pages forwards and backwards in search of an interesting point, but those parts did not make sense without the others.

“You’ve an unusual way of reading books.” 

“I picked a bad one. The story is dull as death. I do wish you’d stop talking and let me read.”

“You’re the one who keeps asking me questions. I’ve told you one of my stories. What’s your story?”

My story?”

“On the sea we live for stories. I’d like to hear yours, or some of yours, even.”

But their conversation was abruptly broken by the sharp, scraping sound of the door above being unbarred. Heavy boot steps clattered down the steps, and her heart began pounding. Blast. Not him.

 


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