One breath in.
One breath out.
Another breath in.
Nicole focused on the simple act of breathing, on the rise and fall of her own chest, as she lay on her side in the dim cell. As long as she focused on that, she wouldn't think about the pain pulsating from her back. The technique also made it easier for her to ignore the sound of her companions' voices. Her friends. The ones she couldn't protect. The failure weighed heavily on her already aching shoulders and she couldn't bring herself to look at the two men she had gotten captured.
At the very least, the two of them could have escaped even if she couldn't. But she hadn't been able to hold off the soldiers long enough for them to run. Now all three of them were trapped in Robert's dungeon because she hadn't been strong enough.
Fish's familiar voice reached her ears and she realized she had lost focus. She tried again to regain the state she had been in, listening to herself inhale then exhale, but it was no use. She could still hear Fish.
“Nic, we know you're awake over there,” he said. She didn't respond, and a moment later, she heard chains rattle as Fish stepped closer to the edge of his cell. “That's fine. You don't have to talk. Jus' listen,” he said. “We want you to know—Levi and I, that is—we know what you're thinkin', and we want you to know we don't blame you for this.”
The words were supposed to be a comfort, but she took none from them. They didn't blame her, but she knew better.
“Come on now,” Levi chimed in. “We'd be dead if you hadn't warned us about those arrows.”
Nicole squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus again.
One breath in.
One breath out.
They hadn't died in the ambush, but maybe that would have been kinder. There were no reinforcements coming to save them—the Resistance wasn't powerful enough for a rescue mission in Robert's castle—and even if she could move without her abused body screaming at her to stop, she doubted she would have been able to come up with an escape plan. Not with two guards on them at all hours of the day. They had survived the ambush, only to rot away in the dungeon.
Some leader she had turned out to be.
One breath in.
One breath out.
One brief image of red hair flashed through her thoughts.
Waverly furrowed her brow and frowned. That wasn't right. She shifted in her chair and tightened her hold on the smooth top of the skull beneath her palm. She tried again.
One breath in.
One breath out.
A memory of feverish, brown eyes watching her, not quite lucid, but not completely lost to the fever that had taken hold.
Waverly scowled and opened her eyes so she could glare at the skull on the table, focusing on the dark, hollow sockets. When it refused to give up its secrets, she sighed and slumped against the back of her chair. She supposed she couldn't blame a dead man for her inability to focus. Not when she knew the true cause of her distraction.
Once more, she placed her hand on the top of the skull that rested on the table. The thrum of energy—one she had become familiar with over the years—pulsed beneath her palm, and she took another deep breath, hoping to focus long enough to See where the skull would lead her.
But all she saw was Nicole slumped forward, only on her feet because the chains that held her were too high on the wall to let her fall. Her skin too pale and slick with sweat and blood.
Waverly gasped and jerked her hand back.
The chair scraped against the stone floor as she shoved it away from the table and stood. She paced the length of her room, occasionally glancing at the traitorous skull taunting her from the table. It wasn't the source of her distraction or the distressing memory, she knew that, but it was easier to blame the skull for the vivid memory than think about the actual cause.
She stopped pacing and shifted her gaze back to the skull. She could try one more time, she supposed.
A pounding at her door drew her attention away from the head. A moment later, the door swung open. When she saw Bobo filling the doorway, guards at his back, Waverly shifted her gaze to the floor. The door creaked shut again and when she looked up, only Bobo remained in the room while his guards waited outside. He glanced at the skull and the maps and star charts spread out around it, then returned his attention to her.
“I see you've been busy today,” he said. His long coat dragged along the stone floor as he approached. He placed his hands on her shoulders and studied her for a moment. If he noticed her nerves, he didn't show it. “Tell me you've found something.”
Waverly wished she could.
Her silence was answer enough.
Bobo sighed. “Waverly, the Stone Witch will be here by week's end. If you haven't Seen something by then—”
“I know, Bobo,” she said, “and believe me, I've been trying, but I can't seem to focus.” She crossed her arms over her stomach and looked at the floor. She hated disappointing him. Worse, she hated the thought of not Seeing something before the Stone Witch arrived. She still had nightmares about the last time the witch had helped her focus, the young servant's screams haunting her dreams.
Waverly shuddered at the memory of the pained expression on his face as the witch tormented him.
“I won't let her harm you, Waverly, I can promise you that,” Bobo said, as if knowing where her thoughts had taken her, “but I can't protect everyone within these walls from her. You know that.”
She lifted her gaze from the floor. “I do, but it's hard for me to focus in here.”
“I know what you're going to ask me, and the answer is no.”
“But Bobo, maybe some fresh air and a change of scenery—”
“I said no!” He released her shoulders and stepped away from her. “Have you forgotten the night I found you? Wandering the forest, barely more than skin and bones beneath the rags your captors had deemed fit for you?”
“I haven't forgotten,” she said, “but Bobo, I would only be just outside the castle. I wouldn't leave the grounds and I'd have the guards with me. I'd be safe.”
“Damn it, Waverly, you are safer in here!” He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his hair. “Listen,” he said, his deep voice a softer rumble than it had been before, “I know you think you would be safe out there, but while there are rebels lurking around, there is no safer place than inside these walls. And haven't I let you have your freedom within them since you've been here?”
“Well, yes, but it isn't the same!”
“I know,” he said with a sigh. He rested his hand on her shoulder again. “When things settle down, I promise, things will be different. You'll see.” He didn't smile—he never did—but the hard glint to his eyes had softened and Waverly relaxed. “But for now, find me the next bone.”
“I will,” she said. “Before the Stone Witch comes, I'll find you another.”
“Good girl.” He squeezed her shoulder and any worry that she may have had that he was angry with her dissipated. “Now, will you be taking dinner here or will you be joining me tonight?”
“I think I'll take it here tonight, thank you,” she said. “I suppose if I sit with the skull long enough, he'll be more willing to share.”
Bobo chuckled. “Alright then, Little Waverly,” he said. “If you See anything—”
She smiled. “You'll be the first to know.”
Nodding, he said, “I'll leave you to it then.”
Once he had left, Waverly's shoulders sagged, and her gaze drifted back to the table where the skull sat, mocking her. Her lips twisted into a sneer. Despite what she had told Bobo, she doubted she would be getting any further with the skull for the day.
Not when her mind kept wandering to the dungeon and the woman within it.
Near the bars of her cell, Nicole shivered beneath the scratchy blanket Waverly—No, that woman—had given her. The cold air of the dungeon slipped beneath the edges of the blanket and she wished she could curl in on herself to trap what little heat remained in her body, but she hurt too much to move again. Forcing herself to inch closer to the torch and the little warmth it provided had aggravated the wounds and made the pain flare across her back and in her shoulder. She had long given up on her breathing exercise. Once the pain had started to make itself known again, it had been impossible to block it out.
The heavy thud of the door startled her, and the sound of footsteps made her heart beat harder in her chest. They stopped in front of her cell and she heard a sigh.
“How did you end up over here?”
The strange woman’s familiar voice soothed the fear that had crept up on her and her heart stopped thudding painfully against her chest. The door to her cell creaked open. A moment later, the woman's hand was on her shoulder, but Nicole kept her gaze fixated on the dirty wall. She heard the woman mutter to herself before she stood up and left the cell again. When she returned, she placed a wooden chest in front of Nicole and for a moment, she had the fleeting thought that the woman had been sent to force information about the Resistance out of her. When she opened the chest and pulled out new bandages and several bowls, though, Nicole relaxed.
Her relief was short-lived.
The woman made her sit up after she had filled the bowls with water, and Nicole couldn't stop the groan that escaped. Soft apologies were offered, but they did nothing to ease her discomfort.
“I know it hurts, but I'll try to finish as quickly as possible.”
Nicole gritted her teeth so she wouldn't swear in response.
The blanket slipped down to her waist and pooled over her legs. As the bandage around her torso was unwound, the cold dungeon air against her bare skin made her teeth chatter even harder. The woman knelt in front of her, a wet rag in hand.
“You know, I've never met someone like you.” The touch against Nicole's shoulder was gentle as the woman cleaned the wound, wiping away the remains of the old poultice. “I mean, well, I've met people, obviously. It would be silly if I hadn't met people,” she continued, her brow furrowing as she focused on her task, “but you're different. I can tell.”
Nicole watched as the woman placed a new poultice against her shoulder. She gently lifted Nicole's arm so she could wrap a new bandage around her shoulder to hold the poultice in place. After she carefully lowered it again and tied off the bandage, the woman gave her an apologetic smile and shifted so she was behind her.
It bothered her, Nicole realized, that she couldn't understand this woman. Couldn't understand how someone who served Robert could give her such kind smiles. Couldn't understand how she could cause pain one moment, only to erase it a moment later with gentle touches. Couldn't fathom how she could care about her well-being when Nicole herself refused to care what happened to her.
“This is going to sting a little.”
Then the warm, wet cloth was against the torn skin of her back, and Nicole wasn't able to bite back the curse on her tongue.
That was far more than a sting.
“You know,” the woman said as she continued to clean the wound on Nicole's back, “there's a mountain around here—I've never seen it myself, but I've read about it—where a lone warrior took a stand against a dragon that had taken up residence there. Except, this warrior wasn't much of a warrior and more of a shepherd, really—they barely knew one end of a sword from another—but after months of the dragon stealing their village's cattle and sheep, they decided they needed to do something, and if that meant confronting the dragon, then that's what they would do.”
Nicole gritted her teeth as the woman's touch moved from her left shoulder, down to the middle of her back where the wound was deeper and far more tender. The soft voice, however, continued the story, and Nicole was able to focus on that rather than the pain in her back.
“So the shepherd-turned-warrior left their herd with a trusted neighbor, saddled their strongest horse, and bought the best used armor they could afford along with a sword they didn't know how to use.” She paused for a moment to rinse the rag, then resumed the story and her ministrations. “It was a long ride from their home and the shepherd had to evade bandits, scavenge for food, and survive harsh storms that later caused floods of mud in the forest at the base of the mountain. It was after such a storm that the warrior finally arrived at the mountain, armor soaked through and covered in mud, shaking from hunger, cold, and fear as they called out for the dragon.”
There was another pause as she dunked the rag again. Nicole prepared herself for the next painful touch, but it never came. Instead, the woman was placing another poultice against her skin. Then she was wrapping a clean bandage around Nicole's torso and tying it off.
A moment later, she was in front of Nicole again, packing up the chest, then cleaning up the soiled supplies from the floor of the cell.
“You're just gonna leave it at that?”
The woman startled and dropped the bowl of water. She sighed and knelt down to pick it up, but before she rose again, she looked at Nicole. “What do you mean?”
“The story. You're not gonna finish it?”
Even in the dim torchlight, Nicole could see red flooding the woman's cheeks. She tucked her hair behind her ear and looked down at the floor. “I um... I didn't realize you were actually paying attention.” When she looked back up, there was a small smile on her face. “But if you liked it, I'm sure I can finish it next time.”
She stood and finished packing up the chest. She left the cell for a moment and when she returned, a bundle of furs was spilling over her arms. Nicole watched as the strange woman laid one out on the floor not far from where she sat. When she knelt in front of Nicole again, a kind smile was on her face and she placed her hand on Nicole's forearm.
“I know you're tired and sore and don't feel much like moving, but it's only a small distance, and you'll be much more comfortable on the furs.”
Nicole stared longingly at the heavier blankets piled on the floor. She nodded her head and a moment later, she allowed the woman to slip under her uninjured shoulder and help her move. Despite the short distance, it took the last of her strength to reach the furs, and she would have collapsed against them if it weren't for the gentle hands that guided her down to the floor. A moment later, she was covered with one of the heavier furs.
Once she was settled, the woman left her side and gathered the remaining blankets in her arms. She heard the door to her cell open, followed by the rattle of chains across the hall. Then the door to her cell opened again and the woman knelt in front of her once more, her arms empty. She lifted the corner of the heavy fur and quickly joined her beneath it, surprising both Nicole and the guards.
She waved them off. “It's okay. I'll be fine,” she said. “She won't hurt me.”
But the two guards continued to argue with her.
“She's a prisoner, Miss Waverly!”
“She is a person,” she snapped, and the anger in her voice startled Nicole. “One who could freeze without proper care, yet the two of you haven't even bothered to light a fire in the hearth down here. So this is me, caring for her, since the two of you have decided not to.”
Silence followed the outburst, only to be broken by an uncomfortable cough.
“They're um... they're prisoners, Miss Waverly?”
“Yes, we've established that, Miles, so haven't they suffered enough without the threat of freezing to death looming in their futures?” Her eyes narrowed as she said, “If the gods are merciful, you'll never be taken prisoner, but if you are, is this how you would like to be treated? Like dogs?” The gruff man offered no response. “I didn't think so,” she said before she returned her attention to Nicole, offering a small, apologetic smile. “Sorry. They lose all sense of manners in the barracks, I swear.”
Nicole thought it had less to do with that, and more to do with the fear of what Robert could do to them if the woman was harmed. That alone told her she was important to the man, but in what regard, she had no idea. It was common knowledge that Robert had no spouse to care for and no children either. So who was she?
“Are you warm enough?”
“Warm enough,” the woman repeated. “It was cold in my study, even with the fire, so I suspect you must have been freezing down here. Are you getting warmer now?”
“Okay, well, I'll just stay here a little longer then. Make sure you're more than just fine.”
Nicole wished she could hate the bright smile the woman gave her, but she found herself wanting to return it. Under different circumstances she would have, but as it was, she settled for focusing on the wall behind Waverly instead.
Her thoughts lingered on the name. She had tried to avoid it, to distance herself from seeing the woman as a person, but the soft story and the careful touches—painful as those had been—had worn her down.
It was a strange one, she decided, but it suited the odd woman sharing the furs with her.
Waverly sat in front of her desk, the skull staring up at her, daring her to touch it. All week, she hadn't been able to connect with it, though her mind had, thankfully, stopped drifting to Nicole. Well, most of the time. There were moments, such as when she was taking her meals or lying in bed, when she would find herself wondering if Nicole was alright. She had told Miles and Luca to keep the fire burning in the hearth so she wouldn't freeze to death, but she hadn't had the chance to check on her since then. Instead, she had spent the last few days with the skull, trying to find the connection she needed, only to fail time and time again.
But it was the morning before the Stone Witch was meant to arrive, which meant she was running out of time to find the thread she needed and decipher it. She groaned and rested her forehead against the desk. She only allowed herself a quick moment to wallow in pity and frustration, then she lifted her head back up and settled in the stiff chair. She took a deep breath, then placed her hand back on the skull and closed her eyes.
One breath in.
One breath out.
She tried to relax and allow the connection to come to her as it had in the past.
Another breath in.
A thrum of energy pricked at the skin of her palm, but she kept her eyes closed. Forcing it to come to her hadn't worked in the last four days, so she would wait until she was sure. Her brow furrowed as she felt another thrum of energy, this time against her fingertips.
The tug she had been waiting for.
Her grip tightened on the skull while she allowed the rest of her body to relax. In her mind, she could picture the cord, thin and vibrating. Where it led, however, she couldn't see yet, so she imagined herself taking hold of the cord. She could feel the buzz of power in her palms. She took another deep breath and let herself fall.
Images rushed by her as the cord pulled her along. Dead trees of the northern forests. Frost-covered fields that bled into brown then bright green. Small towns made of rough, leaning cottages. All of them were a blur, pricking at the edges of her vision. When she jerked to a stop, gasping for breath, the first thing she noticed was the putrid aroma that made her gag. Once she had regained her bearings, she realized she was up to her knees in water, green with algae and moss. She grimaced, but returned her attention to her surroundings.
Sunlight filtered through the leaves above her. Mud clung to her feet as she tried to step forward, only to release her with a soft squelching sound. Tall weeds broke through the water's surface. Insects buzzed in her ear, but she paid them no mind. They couldn't touch her here, wherever here was. She frowned and closed her eyes again. The cord from the skull still thrummed in her palm and she was sure to keep a steady hold of it as she stepped forward.
Several steps later, she was in the low swells of a valley. A small river cut through the hills, most likely draining into the swamp she had just been in. Another step forward, and the rush of water filled her ears.
She found herself staring at the wide river that tore through the earth, whole trees trapped in its current. The Talla River. She had Seen it before, but its strength never failed to amaze her. She let her gaze wander, enjoying the bright, warm colors that surrounded her. Then she tugged the cord thrumming in her hand.
She gasped as her body jerked in her chair. The skull rested in front of her again and the crackle of the fireplace reached her ears. She lifted her hand from the smooth skull and shook herself, trying to feel more at ease in her own body. After she felt more settled, she pushed the skull back towards the wall and pulled her collection of maps into its space. She flipped through them until she found the one of the southern region of the country.
The skull had given her several clues, but the most helpful had been the gaping river carving its way across the land. Its powerful roar still thundered in her ears as she scanned the map for the thick line that represented the Talla river. She found it near the edge of the map, at the base of the mountain range that ran along the south east border of the region.
As she tracked the river with her fingertip, she tried to remember what it had looked like in her vision. When she reached the fork, where it split into its smaller sister river—the Tula—she followed the thicker line. It had been too wide across to be the Tula, its rapids too powerful. She stopped tracing the Talla when her fingertip reached the sharp bend of the river. Smaller lines branched off from the thick, hooked line, and Waverly followed each one until she found the one that cut through a valley and drained into the swamp she had found herself in. She opened a small container on her desk and pulled out a stick of charcoal and placed a small x over the area.
Once the map had been marked, she opened the drawer of her desk and pulled a blank piece of parchment from its confines. She lay it over the maps and dragged the piece of charcoal over it. She thought of where she had been in the swamp, the fallen logs and the long weeds. Anything that might make it easier to distinguish from the rest of the swamp. When she was done, her fingers had been stained grey and left splotches on the sides of the parchment as she held it up in front of her. Satisfied with the rough sketch, she stood from the desk and, after changing into a simple dress that was more presentable than her nightgown, she left her room in search of Bobo.
He wasn't a hard man to find when he was expecting an audience.
Waverly approached the doorway to the throne room, her map and the sketch clutched in her hands. She had hoped she had arrived early enough that she wouldn't have to see the Stone Witch, but there the woman stood beside Bobo's throne, her bony fingers digging into his arm as she spoke with him. The hairs of her neck stood on end and beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Ignoring the shaking in her hands, Waverly stepped into the throne room and cleared her throat.
“Well if it isn't your little pet,” the Witch said, her eyes glimmering. Waverly bristled at the comment. “Don't just stand there, dear. I'd like to see if you've made yourself useful. Or do you need another bit of motivation?”
“Constance,” Bobo growled from his throne, and she rolled her eyes. Bobo ignored it and turned his attention to Waverly. He nodded towards the parchments in her hands. “You've Seen something then?”
Waverly nodded and approached his throne. She kept a safe distance between herself and the Witch as she placed the map and drawing into his hands. He studied them for a moment, then nodded and laid them on his lap.
“Thank you, Waverly. You're free to go.”
She held back the sigh of relief she so desperately wished to release and took a step back from the throne instead. Before she could get far, however, a bony hand had clamped around her wrist and tugged her in front of the Stone Witch. A shudder ran down Waverly's spine when she found herself trapped in the woman's dark, piercing gaze.
“Tell me, dear. How is that servant boy doing? I haven't seen him on my last few visits. I do hope he's alright.”
Waverly's stomach turned at the mention of the boy. She tried to tug free, to get away from the Witch's sickly smile, but the grip was too tight.
Bobo's voice boomed through the throne room, and Waverly stumbled backwards when the Witch released her wrist. Her sharp laugh cut through the air.
“Oh please, Robert. I need to have some fun on these visits. You know how I get when I'm bored.”
Bobo shook his head, but then turned back to Waverly. “Go,” he said. “We'll talk at dinner.” His gaze flickered to the Witch. “All of us.”
Waverly bowed, quick and sloppy, then left the throne room as fast as she could without appearing as if she were rushing to get away.
Judging by the Stone Witch's laughter that followed her, she had been far from successful.
Nicole was in the strange realm between waking and sleeping as she lay beneath the heavy furs Waverly had brought on her last visit. It was the closest she had come to actually sleeping since she had woken up in the dungeon. Somewhere out of sight, a small fire crackled. It wasn't much, but it offered more light and warmth than the lone torch near her cell. She sleepily wondered if that had been Waverly's doing as well.
The creak of the door upstairs interrupted the quiet moment, rousing her from what had almost been sleep. She opened her eyes, hoping she had no reason for the harsh pounding of her heart against her chest. The sound of light footsteps reached her, but it wasn't until she saw Waverly walk in front of her cell that her heartbeat slowed. While she didn't understand the woman or her motives, she was, at the very least, familiar.
Yet she seemed different today as she stepped through the door of Nicole's cell and set the chest on the floor. Her movements were distracted—she struggled to unclasp the locks of the chest, then proceeded to drop the water bowls after she pulled them out—and she had not greeted Nicole nor spoken with the guards like she normally would. Her touch was still careful as she eased Nicole into a sitting position, but her thoughts seemed to be far from the task at hand.
It was strange, not hearing her chatter on about something as she unwound the soiled bandages around Nicole's torso. It was too quiet, even though she could hear the guards talking at their rickety table, but she didn't comment on it. She had plenty of troubles of her own without worrying about those of someone who worked for Robert.
But without the lilt of Waverly's voice, there wasn't much to help Nicole take her attention off the sharp tendrils of pain that snaked across her back each time Waverly pressed the wet cloth against her skin. She gritted her teeth and tried to focus on her breathing instead, but normally deft fingers were clumsy today, and one particularly clumsy touch sent a painful jolt along Nicole's spine, and she jerked away out of reflex, which only made the pain worse.
“Sorry! I'm sorry.”
Nicole struggled to breathe through the discomfort. It had made her head spin and for a moment, her vision had blurred. Soft hands were on her shoulders, steadying her, then Waverly was kneeling in front of her, concern replacing the furrowed brow.
“Are you okay?” she asked, only to shake her head a moment later. “Don't answer that. It was an idiotic question,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I'm sorry about that. I don't know what happened.”
“Please don't... do it again.”
Waverly looked up and held Nicole's gaze. “I won't.”
She maneuvered herself back behind Nicole again and went back to work cleaning the wound. The strange silence hung between them once more, only broken by the guards arguing over the rules of whatever game it was they were playing and the drip of water as Waverly dipped her cloth into one of the bowls.
“Last time,” Nicole said, cringing at the way her voice shook, “last time you were telling me a story.” The hand against her back paused. She took it as a sign to continue. “You said you would finish it.”
Waverly sighed. “I don't know if I'd be much good at storytelling today.”
So something was wrong.
“It helped,” Nicole said. “The story, I mean. About the shepherd? It helped.”
When Waverly didn't respond, Nicole resigned herself to suffering through quiet, painful touches. She had held out hope for some kind of distraction, but it seemed the mood that had taken hold of Waverly was there to stay and she would have to live with it. She tried to let her thoughts wander to the crackling fire instead of the sloshing of water as Waverly dunked her cloth again. She tried not to think of the painful touch that was sure to follow. Before she felt the sting of the cloth against her skin, however, Waverly spoke again.
“The shepherd-turned-warrior, soaked to the bone from the storms, and shaking with cold and hunger, called down the dragon from its home high in the mountain. They called until their voice grew hoarse and could barely be heard over the rain. Finally, the dragon swooped down from the mountain side and landed heavily in front of the shepherd, wondering how such a small, insignificant creature could make so much noise.”
Nicole laughed. She hadn't meant to, but she laughed nonetheless, and Waverly's hand stilled against her back for a moment before she started speaking again.
“The dragon didn't care much for the shepherd who had interrupted its slumber and the shepherd didn't care much for the creature who kept stealing their sheep. The shepherd, with their hoarse voice, told the dragon as much, but the dragon had more important things to do than listen to a squeaky-voiced shepherd. So it lowered its massive head until its snout was level with the nuisance. Then, with all the ferocity it could muster, it roared, its breath foul and hot. But the shepherd stood their ground.”
Waverly only paused for a moment to dunk the cloth again.
“You see, the shepherd had traveled so long and hard, it would take more than the dragon's foul breath and gleaming teeth to scare them away. And the dragon, impressed with the shepherd's courage, decided against killing them. However, the roar had caused a rumble in the earth. Rocks, already loosened by the weeks of rain, had been shaken free by the dragon's cry and now came crashing down upon them. While it wasn't an issue for the massive dragon—”
“A tiny shepherd stood no chance.”
“Well, I wouldn't say no chance, but the dragon did fare better in the end,” Waverly replied, and Nicole laughed again. “Still, even after their body was broken and bruised in the rock slide, the shepherd was too stubborn to die. They were still clinging to life a day later, when a beautiful woman with sharp silver eyes and silky white-gold hair found them trapped beneath the rubble.”
She paused again to rinse the cloth, but resumed the story before she pressed against the torn skin of Nicole's back.
“When the shepherd awoke in a soft bed of a cottage they didn't recognize, they wished they hadn't woken at all, for they were in a great deal of pain. The silver-eyed woman who had found them did her best to ease it, taking on the role of caretaker for this stranger they had found in the forest. And as she tried to ease the physical pain, she also tried to ease the anger and hatred she could feel stemming from the shepherd's heart. Hatred for the dragon that had trapped them beneath the rocks.”
“It was many long months before the shepherd could leave. Months of the silver-eyed woman caring for them. Speaking with them. Eating and sleeping beside them. And there were times when the woman would disappear for days on end, only to return with a gift to lift the shepherd's spirits each time. And while the shepherd had finally allowed happiness back into their heart, the hatred still smoldered at the core of it. So one night, they gathered their supplies and snuck out of the cottage so the woman couldn't stop them.”
Nicole heard her drop the rag into the bowl one last time before she felt the cool poultice against the deep gash. Then Waverly was wrapping a clean bandage around Nicole's torso once more, her hands steadier now than they had been earlier.
“All done,” Waverly said after the bandage was tied off.
She stood up, but as she started to walk back to the chest, Nicole reached out and took her by the hand. It hadn't been planned, but the dark coloring around Waverly's wrist had caught her eye, and she wondered if it had anything to do with what had caused her distraction earlier. To her credit, Waverly didn't jerk away in fear, which didn't give the guards a reason to leave their table. Instead, she cocked her head to the side, waiting for whatever it was Nicole wanted.
“You could stay,” she offered, as if the dungeon was a place anyone would want to spend a moment in of their own free will. “To finish the story, I mean.”
Waverly studied her. “You said it helps?”
“Then I'll stay.”
Nicole couldn't help but notice the smile on Waverly's face as she helped Nicole lay back down on the soft fur and covered her with the other. She watched her go through the routine of cleaning up the supplies and packing them back into the chest. Waverly carried it out of the cell and returned a moment later empty-handed.
She lifted the edge of the heavy furs and, after Nicole nodded, she slipped beneath them. A pleasant warmth reached Nicole's skin, warmer than the heat the fire provided. Luckily, Waverly's voice stopped her from thinking about that fact.
“So. The shepherd,” she started, and Nicole nodded. “Well, they snuck out of the cottage and went to confront the dragon that had injured them so badly. But the silver-eyed woman had sensed they were getting restless and had resolved to keep an eye on them. When they snuck out, she knew, and she followed, knowing they were in no state to travel such a far distance, but also knowing they needed to make the attempt. Another part of her was curious what the shepherd would do if they found the dragon again.”
The warmth beneath the blanket and the softness of Waverly's voice made Nicole's eyelids droop. It was almost pleasant now, listening to the story without the sting of her wound accompanying it.
“They traveled for many days, the shepherd and the woman, but with each day that passed, the shepherd felt a different ache in their chest. One stronger than the pain caused by the hatred they carried for the dragon. Each day, the woman watched from the trees as the shepherd's resolve to confront the dragon lessened until, one day, they packed up camp and turned back, heading for the cabin and the silver-eyed woman they had left behind.”
When Waverly had taken her hand, Nicole didn't know, but she was too tired to pull it away.
“But the dragon was only one danger lurking in the forest near the mountain,” Waverly said, her voice grave. “The shepherd was only a day's walk back to the cottage when bandits ambushed them. With nothing of worth to give up, they were prepared to have their life taken from them instead for there were far too many bandits for them to fight alone. But as the rogues' leader was about to give the order, a familiar roar echoed above them and a great beast crashed down upon the trees. The shepherd couldn't believe their eyes as the dragon they had confronted so long ago devoured the bandits that had been about to kill them.”
“When only the shepherd and the dragon remained, the dragon lowered its head and rested its chin on the grass at the shepherd's feet, waiting for the shepherd to take their revenge. But the fatal blow never came. Instead, the shepherd sheathed their sword and placed a hand against the side of the dragon's head, gesturing for it to raise it up off the ground. They offered soft words of forgiveness until, beneath their touch, the dragon's form began to change and in its place stood the silver-eyed woman with the white-gold hair.”
As Waverly’s voice trailed off and Nicole finally started to fall into the restful sleep that had evaded her for days, she found herself smiling at the ending.
Every version of the story she had heard before, the dragon died and the shepherd remained alone.