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23: The Well

There are stories, whispered in taverns and around campfires, stories about the honor of my family and how we look out for each other, how we have raised vengeance to an art. It is quite possible that my family invented those stories — do not harm a Wanderer or his family will exact a toll ten times as great — as a form of protection. Or perhaps legends like that need no help to grow in a world filled with fertilizer.

But Vengeance requires loyalty, and you’ll not find many with that character flaw in my family. Loyalty is an excuse to do stupid things. There is, however, one corner of our legend rooted in fact: It is true we never forget the death of a family member.

Ours is a dangerous business. When one of us falls to an opponent it is recorded in our oral annals; we learn from it, and teach our children not to make that same mistake. Thus the memories of our cousins’ deaths become the family’s greatest asset, an almost endless store of lessons to learn. I have been made wiser by the deaths of hundreds of my predecessors, their graves unmarked but their names forever tied to their last fatal mistake. Some of our names have taken on lives of their own: “Don’t be like Morgan.”

Mine is not a family in which one desires to become renowned. The greatest of us die old and forgotten. We do not possess mystical abilities, but we do possess wisdom and restraint, learned through the mistakes of others over untold years.

Vengeance? There is no profit in that.

My dear mother would have been frightfully disappointed to hear me vow to kill all the Soul Thieves should that be necessary to protect Elena. It is not the sort of vow that keeps one such as us alive. Had I said those rash words in her presence, she would have shaken her head and blamed my father for putting ideas like that in my young, still-soft mind. Perhaps she would have been right. Even now my father was sowing his poison in the lives of my family.

I had made the promise to a dead man. Another dead Soul Thief, tucked forgotten in his cell. I cast about the chambers for anything else of interest, but there was nothing down there but suffocated men. Captors and prisoners, torturers and the tortured, all dead, all blue-tongued, all the same. Any records of the prisoners were kept somewhere else, and likely not even ash remained.

Up from the bowels of the castle I crept, slowly, furtively, into the chamber of death. Far above I heard the cries of a rescue party, shouting out to any who might still be able to answer. My quiet time alone was soon to end. I locked the metal door behind me. No need to let people know where I’d been.

I took another pretty little knife from a corpse who occupied a fancier uniform. I hid it less well under my shirt, to give Baldwin something to take from me. The captain was no fool; he’d know I’d armed myself. I just hoped he wasn’t fool enough to search me too thoroughly. I was finished with being naked.

I moved through the room, stepping over the dead. A small river of water now cascaded down the steps from the exposed room above, pooling around the bodies closest to the door. Above, the shouts of men were punctuated by a crash of falling stone and a cry of pain. That would teach them caution, I thought. Perhaps give me a little more time.

I was not yet ready to join my fellow men above. If there was any more to be learned in the broken fortress, I wanted to find it first. From the door of the chamber of death I looked up the stairs. I could see no one, so I extinguished my torch and slipped farther up the stairs, until I could see the sky through the broken ceiling of the pantry. It was only a matter of time until there was further collapse, and the others were staying well back from the hole. I moved to the top of the stairs and scuttled into the shadows of the room on the far side of the collapse, under groaning ceiling beams. Farther ahead I heard more activity; I assumed men were clearing the stairs down from the courtyard and working to keep the roof from falling on their heads.

I ducked through the arched portal on the far side of the room and was gratified when I caught the first moist, musty scent of the fort’s well mixing with the smells of cooked stone and metal all around me. It took me a few tries before I got my torch relit, and then I followed my nose down a passage cut entirely from living stone. After twenty paces I came to a natural cavern. Another, smaller chamber of death.

Judging by the uniform, one of the corpses that sat with its back to the raised stone wall of the well was the commanding officer of the fort. The five dead men around him had the look of an elite bodyguard; their armor was just a little shinier and their muscles were just a little bigger. All the soldiers had suffocated. All of them had drawn their swords.

Two others bodies lay to one side, a man and a woman in the costumes of simple laborers, he with his throat cut open and she with a hole in her chest. Around them their blood had been baked into the uneven stone floor.

When the fortress came under attack by Soul Thieves, this is where the commander and his best men had come. With death certain for all, they had yet found it prudent to kill two others.

There was something in the well. Something that the commander had not wanted the Soul Thieves to have. Therefore I wanted to have it, but I knew I had no hope of getting whatever it was out of there before anyone else reached this place. My only hope was that whatever treasure lay down there would stay at the bottom of that well until I was ready to come back and get it.

The commander went over the wall first, to splash below after three tense heartbeats. Next his armored guards, weighted enough to carry them to the bottom. Finally, the other two. The last one didn’t splash.

When a group of men rushed in, I was peering down the well speculatively, holding my torch to try to see the bottom. “I think some people jumped in,” I said.

“Not surprised,” the leader of this loose pack of townsfolk said. He stood next to me an peered into the darkness, his rough clothes dripping from the rain. “Something like this would make you do all sorts of crazy things.”

“Have you found anyone?” I asked.

He snorted and ran his hand through rain-slicked hair. “Nah. Not likely to, I’d say. You’re the one that climbed up.”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

“That was brave. Figured you’d probably be cooked.”

“Almost was.”

He snorted again, fiddled with his wet clothes. “You better go find your girl before she starts another fire with just her words.” He shook his head. “She called me a twig-penis donkey scrotum.”

I gave him a fleeting smile. “Scrotum has been a favorite lately.”

“Told me to be careful not to snap my twig off while I’m yanking it.” He held his torch up behind his head as he peered down into the well. “Think I see someone down there,” he said. “Least that’s one we can bury.”

I didn’t want them hauling the bodies out of the well, but I couldn’t come up with a story that would stop them. My attempt to hide the importance of the well was doomed to failure. If anything, I had made the well more interesting, and eliminated any hope of finding what was down there before the bodies were pulled out. And eventually someone was gong to ask how the bodies came to be down there. I surveyed the milling knot of rescuers. Killing them would only add to my problems.

My grand-uncle would say, “When you’re at a party, always know when it’s time to leave.” It was time for me to distance myself from this place, and to leave whatever secret lay at the bottom of the well for others to discover and use. Lingering was a leading cause of death in my family.

“I better go find her,” I said. I didn’t want to use Elena’s name. I’m not sure why.

“You got that right,” the villager said. His voice gentled. “Get her into town. We’ll find a place for you to sleep. There was nothing you could do here.”

I stepped back from the well. “You’re right,” I said. I let my shoulders fall. “I thought I could help.”

“Any time you take a risk to do what’s right, you help,” the villager said.

“That’s a very pretty thought,” I said, and turned back up the tunnel to the rainstorm above.