Continued from 140/366 – The Witch of Fort Alnor (Part 1)
“Don’t-No!” Terrell called after Charlotte as she disappeared from view. “Shit.”
Terrell tore after her out of the room and into a decrepit hall leading through the fort. Moss hung from the ceiling where water dripped slowly to the floor before it vanished into the floor. Doors lined each side of the hall, leading to various rooms, most of which had caved in from the battering of the elements over the centuries. He found Charlotte through one such door that led through a crumbled wall out into a small courtyard.
“Why do you live here?” Terrell asked, “Doesn’t the state of the fort bother you? Or the fact that people want you dead?”
“Does it bother you that I saved your life?” Charlotte replied as she picked herbs. “Could I ask you a favor?”
“I mean, I suppose. I’m not really sure what to do now,” Terrell replied, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You can make yourself useful,” Charlotte said, smiling at him, “Life is better that way. In the barracks to the south, there is a crate of old weapons. Would you fetch them for me and bring them here?”
Terrell didn’t reply. He walked to the south, where he found the barracks. To his surprise, he saw that bunks of old rotted wood still occupied the space. All of them were broken, and the pads that had once been the mattresses were no little more than soil on the floor with moss growing out of them. On the far side of the room, he found the crate. He gripped it tight, expecting them to be heavy, but instead, the sides of the container pulled straight off the bottom, and the weapons tumbled out.
“Great,” he muttered as he bent and began picking up the rusted swords and daggers. “Just what I needed.”
Terrell. Warning! Don’t return to Shadowpaw, Justra branch. The military has killed most and taken others. Will contact soon with further developments. Duncan Hildran, Communicator.
The message had come in suddenly, startling him, and he dropped a few swords in his shock. His mind raced about the happenings in Justra and hoped that his mentor would be okay. How had the military found their base? Why would they attack Shadowpaw?
“Everything okay in here?” Charlotte asked as she came through the door, “I see, the crate gave out on you. I thought that might happen. Here, let me help you.”
Charlotte walked over and began lifting the weapons, tucking them into a fold of her dress. She paused when Terrell didn’t move.
“You look like someone just killed your cat, are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Just received a message from Shadowpaw,” Terrell replied, shaking his head as he resumed collecting the weapons.
“Everything okay with them?” Charlotte asked.
Terrell stopped and stared at her for a moment. Everything about her mannerisms suggested that she was genuinely concerned. He thought about it for a moment and convinced himself that since he was likely to kill her once the blood debt was paid, it wouldn’t hurt to tell her anything.
“Justra has turned on Shadowpaw. They’ve killed many of us there, and captured others,” Terrell replied as he grabbed the last of his quarry and began walking back out to the courtyard.
“That’s horrible! I thought Shadowpaw was well hidden, though,” Charlotte replied, falling in step behind him.
“They are,” Terrell muttered as they stepped outside, and Charlotte raced around him, leading him to a cauldron that wasn’t there previously.
“Put them in here, please,” she said, dropping her collection in.
Terrell did as requested and looked up at her eager face. “What’s all this for anyway?”
“I’m going to melt them down,” Charlotte replied, “I use the steel to make other things.”
“Like what?” Terrell asked as Charlotte waved her hand, and flames erupted beneath the cauldron. “You know that you need a forge to melt down steel, right?”
“You only need a forge if you’re not using magic,” Charlotte replied with a sly grin. “It’ll be ready to use in about ten minutes. Are you getting hungry?”
“I still don’t understand what’s happening,” Terrell said, shaking his head. “If you knew I was here to kill you, why’d you save me? Why are you continuing to be nice to me after I pointed a crossbow at you? I don’t get it.”
“Sometimes, things go easier when you take the time to understand the people around you. As I haven’t had anyone around me in a long time, I figured that we could talk and get to know each other. Who knows, maybe you’ll change your mind about killing me at that time. Have you even considered why Shadowpaw wants me dead?”
“No,” Terrell admitted. “I don’t try to weigh out why we do what we do. I try to follow orders. That’s what my mentor told me to do.”
“Blindly following orders is how you get a corrupt organization—knowing what you know now, about my abilities. Why do you suppose they sent an assassin-in-training to kill me without proper warning or equipment? Do you think that they anticipated this happening? I can tell you that many of the Shadowpaw have entered my home over the years, and very few have left, but you seem different than the others,” Charlotte said.
“They know my talents and abilities,” Terrell said, lifting his chin. “That’s why they sent me.”
“They sent you because you’re expendable. The last Shadowpaw that came here was a mid-ranked individual. She was mean and ruthless but ultimately failed the mission and fell into the gorge,” Charlotte said as she began swirling her hand over the cauldron making the weapons stir themselves as they melted. “The Shadowpaw know plenty about me as well. They just want the bounty on my head from the king.”
“The king put the bounty on you?” Terrell asked.
“Yeah, turns out when the king tries to force himself on you. He doesn’t like it when you swap places with his wife, and then he needs to explain what’s happening,” Charlotte replied. “That’s the last time I will ever volunteer for a court position.”
“Wait a second,” Terrell said, holding up his hand. “My assignment, and however many others, were all because of the king acting like a pig?”
“Just about the sum of it,” Charlotte said with a shrug. “The worst part is that I’m not very chaste. I wasn’t lying earlier. You’re cute. I could see you without your armor on.” Terrell felt his face flush. “Had he just asked his wife like I suggested, all of it would have been avoided, but now his pride is on the line, and he keeps upping the bounty. That’s why I came out here so that maybe he would forget I existed.”
“Why would the king force himself on you? He’s honorable. He’s noble. He has a slew of women that would beg to bed with him,” Terrell asked. “There’s never been a better king.”
“There have been better, some I met, some I didn’t, but there have been far better than his royal ass-ness,” Charlotte replied as she glanced into the pot. “Almost ready.”
“I don’t believe it,” Terrell said.
“You could ask him yourself if you thought you’d survive the question. He is the king. Therefore he dictates the history of the kingdom, and he pays the minstrels and bards to spread his stories. It’s a well-oiled propaganda machine, nothing more,” Charlotte said, dipping a finger into the swirling molten metal and pulling it out as though it were cake batter. “Perfect! Quick question, what’s your weapon of choice?”
“I-uh-I use mostly short swords and daggers,” Terrell said, “Why?”
“No reason,” Charlotte asked as she plunged her hand into the metal. As she drew her hand out, she pulled a shortsword by the hilt. It glowed as though it had been heated and hammered for days. She set the sword on a stone bench next to the cauldron and plunged again, retrieving another. After that, she pulled a series of small daggers, lining them on the bench next to each other. With each retrieval, the level of the molten metal dropped until there looked to be only an inch left. “And now for a staff,” she said as she pulled a long steel pole from the cauldron.
“How are you doing that?” Terrell asked. “Sticking your hand in the metal like that.”
“Practice mostly. You see, metal retains the shapes it’s been forced into, I simply asked it to take that shape again. Most of it was fine with it, but this staff,” she paused, tapping the bottom of it on the ground as the top opened like a flower, “preferred not to be bladed. Metal is funny that way sometimes.”
“I’m sorry I threatened you,” Terrell said, thinking about what Charlotte had said, “had I known, I think I would have said something to Shadowpaw.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. You would have come out here anyway, more resolute than ever because you had accepted a botched job from the start,” Charlotte said. “I’ve seen many things, Terrell, and this is only one outcome of many. Would you like some weapons?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, scratching his neck, “I don’t care for magic, really.”
“You keep saying that, but you use it often enough, and someone with your talents should certainly not limit yourself that way,” Charlotte shrugged. “Those weapons will be sharper and more accurate than any I’m sure you’ve used before. I figured you deserved a reward because Shadowpaw is probably not going to accept you after failing this mission.”
“I haven’t failed,” Terrell protested.
“There isn’t a single future in which you’ll kill me now. I know, I’ve seen it,” Charlotte said before looking at the staff, “Now, we have to find what your purpose is.”
Terrell stood there as Charlotte walked away, talking to the staff in her hands. His gaze fell upon the black steel weapons that lined the bench, and he felt drawn to them. He wanted to test them and find out if she was honest. He felt uncomfortable and exposed standing there. Charlotte’s statements were right, after all. He wouldn’t kill her now, and Shadowpaw, if they did know about her abilities, had set him up for failure.