The tall woman bent down, sunlight and shadow dappling her short brown hair, her simple robe. The slanting afternoon sunshine caused the topaz at her neck to glow.
“Let me help you with that,” she said, her nimble fingers sorting through the snarl of brambles, leather and linen that had trapped the panicked girl deep in the forest with afternoon fading into dangerous evening. “It’s simple, really, if you take it a step at a time and don’t fight it.”
Her smile was warm enough to chase the tears that brimmed the child’s eyes and threatened to paint new streaks on her grubby, tear-stained face.
“I’m called Elske,” the woman said. “And you must be Carega. Your parents are very worried.”
“H-how did you find me?” the girl said, her voice raspy from weeping. “I thought I was lost forever!”
“I saw that you needed help,” Elske said simply, “and I came.”
Metal shrieked against hard glass, causing Carega to grit her teeth until her jaws throbbed with pain.
“Enough!” she screamed, her voice shrill with pain, with frustration.
Hupsu, armored in overlapping plates of gleaming steel that accentuated rather than disguised his mighty frame, ignored her. He drew back his battle-axe and smote the door of Castle Vitre again, with the same result: His blade glanced off the massive topaz-colored decoration that was the door’s only adornment. Vibrations shivered the air, assaulting her ears, though she stood well clear of the knight.
She could only imagine what the reverberations were like inside Hupsu’s helmet. And in his nearly empty skull as well, she thought. This is what it comes down to: One knight — not the best, but the best who was left — beating on Vitre’s door.
Carega shook her head, trying to chase the sound from her skull and wondered again about her motive. The lines between justice and vengeance blurred at such moments, but pain was still red, screaming pain. Still, she knew she was in the right. Gwydra was murderer and thief and usurper.
Through a crimson haze, she heard the laughter, as screeching and painful as the futile blows, as Gwydra taunted the knight, appearing beside him, then fading away before a blow could be turned toward her. Eventually, Carega knew, she would tire of cat-and-mouse and kill him, then retreat, safe within the castle’s Octagon Room of Thenglass and Whenglass.
Elske’s room, Carega thought. Poor, dead, simple Elske, creator and custodian of the Octagon Room, who was the most powerful being in the world and didn’t realize it. And Carega had loved her for that.
“I like to think of the room as a series of shops,” Elske had told her. “You see somewhere, somewhen in the window” — she pointed to the broad crystal panes of Thenglass — “and you step through the door. Simple as that.” Suiting action to words, she walked through the gold-and-cyan Whenglass — the portals that allowed users to travel into those different time periods.
Carega, newly appointed chatelaine of Castle Vitre, had watched her through the Thenglass. “Gives me shivers every time,” she whispered to Gwydra, the replacement she had hired for her former assistant’s job. The woman didn’t answer, watching avidly as Elske untangled a scared ten-year-old and guided her home in the gloaming.
“Why don’t you seek treasures, stop wars, become queen of the world?” Carega had asked Elske as the weeks lengthened into months and she witnessed small miracles, too many to count, through the Thenglass.
“All that striving and that power is too complicated,” was the simple reply. “Each action is valuable in its own right, I think, and small ways add up to big things in the end. Should I turn this castle into a fortress and thus become a prisoner to power? And what if I left out one detail in my quest for godhood? Who knows what pebble would crumble the walls and bury us all? Best to keep things simple.”
Carega’s bittersweet memories were interrupted as Gwydra appeared beside the knight and thrust a dagger behind his gorget. Hupsu sunk to the ground with a groan and a gout of blood and died.
Gwydra turned a scornful gaze toward Carega, brayed a sneering laugh, then fingered the topaz at her throat and vanished back into the castle.
And Carega, giving into the frustration-laced guilt building over five long years, collapsed to the ground and sobbed, utterly defeated, a lost girl once again.
The sky was teal and tangerine in the west when she roused herself, and began trudging toward the sinking sun and her parents’ cottage. As she walked away from Gwyrda’s stronghold, a breeze sprung up as if the world had been holding its breath all day. On that hint of air, Elske’s voice seemed to whisper “… one step at a time… keep it simple.”
And Carega thought about how a simple dagger thrust at the right moment could turn a mountain of steel-encased muscle into clattering ruin.
Turning back, her shadow stretching before, she picked up a stone, a jagged-edged, ugly thing, and hefted it thoughtfully. What pebble had Gwydra overlooked?
Taking aim at the glowing amber center of the door, she drew back her arm and let fly.
TW Williams is a Chicago-area writer and magazine editor, who has magazine and anthology credits in fantasy and science fiction genres.