Chapter 10

For five days, nothing much happened. Twice a day a plate of unappetising swill and a cup of tepid, sour tasting water were pushed through a slot in her door. Twice a day they were fetched back. It was the same guard each time. He was a greasy-haired, slovenly man with bowed legs and black fingernails but he was no fool. His attention never wandered and he would not speak - a perfect jailer. Isolde gave up asking him questions after one attempt because it was obviously a waste of time. This man, with his small, sharp eyes and closed lips, would not be made to speak, no matter how much she begged or what she offered. She would gain nothing from trying, except perhaps his contempt. But his silence was as welcome as it was frustrating - he did not gloat or insult her, laugh at her or yell curses. He seemed completely indifferent, in fact.

He did not, however, empty the waste bucket. Isolde pushed it as far into the corner of the cell as it would go and piled up around it a small heap of the oldest straw but it still bothered her. She felt filthy and was sure she smelled worse. Her gown grew more and more bedraggled, the lustre lost under a thickening layer of grime, the colours faded. Her hair sagged out of its artfully curled ringlets and hung down her back in matted strands, full of bits of straw. Her nails grew as black and ragged as the jailer's.

She could ignore all that. Worse was the fear that rolled in her stomach, rising and falling. Sometimes it rose in a wave so high it threatened to sweep her away, dragging her into its choking depths. Sometimes it only lapped at her gently like a low summer tide. But it was always there, always waiting. She might begin to think of something else or become lost in a memory, and it would follow, welling up inside like poisonous bile into her throat. Isolde grew tired of it. Tired of fighting it. Her anger became a stale thing, old and worn and useless. A poor defence against her fear.

Then, on the sixth day, the guard unlocked the door and held it open.

"Up," he said. In the corridor behind him Isolde could see two more guards. He had to say it again before Isolde understood him.

She got to her feet, wincing as a cramp seized her right foot. "Where are we going?" she asked. Her voice sounded harsh and scared and she regretted saying anything. The jailer didn't answer, only jerked his head impatiently and she stumbled out of the cell. The other two guards were ready to receive her. One took hold of her arms and turned her round, holding her wrists so tightly she felt her bones grind and had to bite her tongue not to cry out. He held her pinned while the other fastened icy shackles around her wrists.

"Don't try and run now miss," the jailer said. "You won't get far if you do and you'll wish you hadn't." His tone wasn't unkind. The guard turned her to face him and she nodded.

"I won't try,"

"Good," he said. "Now follow."

Isolde followed, hearing the other two fall into step behind her. Were they taking her before a magistrate? Would they grant her an advocate? She had thought and thought in the cell. They had no real evidence against her, only Golightly's word - which was worth nothing. They had nothing. She refused to speculate further, shouted down the suspicions and fears of that traitorous, unknown other. There was no one. The men who'd caught Golightly had been lucky. There was only herself and Golightly and she would have to ensure that she was the one they believed.

To reach her cell they had come down stairs so Isolde assumed they'd be going upwards. Instead, at the end of a short passage they turned left and took another flight of stairs down. It was very quiet, the air cold and damp, though fresher than in her cell. At the foot of the stairs was a door, small and plain.  The jailer knocked once upon it and called out in the manner of one repeating a prearranged signal. He was answered immediately by the clinking of a heavy chain and the rattle of a key.

To Isolde's astonishment she found the door opened to the outside. Daylight made her blink and she caught a glimpse of hard-packed earth. They are going to hang me! she thought, feeling suddenly faint and sick with fear. They were not going to try her. No one would hear her case. If she could have moved her feet at all she would have run then, but a deep cold had entered her blood and frozen her, and her arms and legs felt as heavy and immovable as if they were cased in rock.

"Move," one of the guards behind her said. He nudged her forward as he spoke and Isolde had to take a step to stop herself falling.

She looked around, but there was no gibbet, no block, no executioner. There was only a small, bare courtyard, three more guards and a small covered cart drawn by a tired-looking gray pony. Rain was falling in a fine icy mist, tiny droplets that stung Isolde's cheeks. The jailer turned to go back inside but the two other guards moved forward, seizing her arms and dragging her towards the cart.

"Where?" Isolde panted, finding her voice. "Where are we going?"

"To be questioned," one of the guards told her. He was older than the other by a decade or so. "Up at the palace," he added.

"At the palace?"

The younger guard snorted. His was fair and freckled, sandy lashes giving his eyes a sleepy look. "Maybe you killed someone important!"

"I did not kill anyone!"

"No use telling us," the older guard said. "No use at all. Sorry girly, but you haven't a hope. Shame really, nice-looking young lass like you. Get that door open!" He called to the guards by the cart. Isolde was pushed into the dark and cramped interior. With her hands shackled she could not balance and fell onto her knees. One of the guards - she could not tell which - pinched her through the cloth of her skirt and she shuffled desperately forward, tears of anger and fear welling in her eyes. The door slammed shut behind her and almost immediately the cart moved off, jolting and lurching. Isolde was bounced around inside, feeling like a pea on a drum. She couldn't hold onto anything and there was nothing she could brace herself against.

To the palace to be questioned. She shut her eyes. Someone important.

Clients were rich, or how could they pay such steep costs? But never important - at least, not important in the way the guard had implied. She'd assumed Jarrolson was no different, his offense mundane. She'd imagined he'd offended someone's family - ruined a much-loved daughter perhaps - or become involved in the wrong kind of business and owed a great deal of money. The palace meant politics. Politics meant... trouble. I'm going to disappear, she thought. I'll be tortured and killed. No trial, no one to speak for me, no one to witness.

 Isolde wanted to scream. Her heart was pounding with hopeless anger, her jaw clenched. Sharp prickles of fear danced over her scalp and down her spine. Her hands were damp and trembling.

She knew nothing, yet they'd never believe it. She was given nothing - only a name and a day and a place. To protect clients and other branches of the organisation, messages were coded and meetings rare and anonymous wherever possible. Of those she worked with she knew only a half a dozen - and many of those only by an alias. She did not know where they lived or what they might be called in ordinary life. This was as it should be. She did not want to be a traitor. But she would be tortured anyway, for her inability to give them what they would want to hear. It occurred to her, as she lay bruised and shaken in the lurching cart, that she'd never truly believed she would ever be caught. And even when she had considered it, she had confidently imagined being able to escape somehow.

The cart stopped much too soon. The door was opened and hands grasped her ankles, heaving her backwards so sharply and suddenly she was pulled out of the cart and onto the road, cutting her chin and scraping her shoulder on the cobbles. She tasted blood on her lips and her head was aching but the guards allowed her no time to recover. They lifted to her to her feet and began to march, forcing her to match their step or be dragged.

Her head was spinning and she felt sick again, bile in her throat, but she caught a glimpse of the high stone wall. She recognized it as belonging to the Royal Park. No other place was protected by walls so thick or so high. As she was taken through the guard house she thought for a moment she heard children's voices. Isolde shook her head, and was marched on.

 She was taken the soldier's route, passing the stables and storehouses and barracks and outhouses that huddled in the shadows behind the gleaming palace and its sumptuous grounds like dull, dark cygnets crowding a graceful swan. The original guards were relieved and replaced by others. These wore the uniforms of palace guards, pristine white and gold. Not one of them spoke but to give an order and when she opened her mouth the nearest guard hit her ear with the stock of his musket.

Isolde was feeling too ill to pay much attention to their route.  Hunger and thirst were making her nauseous and she was so tired and lightheaded that her body began to feel numb and distant. She stared at her feet. They shuffled along as if of their own accord, stumbling now and then. At first the guards held her to prevent her escape but gradually they supported her more and more until they held her merely to prevent her collapse. She was alert enough to observe they now passed through narrow corridors of bare stone. A door opened in front of her and Isolde was pushed into a small cell. The guards let go of her arms and she heard the door close behind her, a key turning in the lock. 

 

The End

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