She considered it lucky they made it as far as they did.
It had been a fool’s gambit. Fitting that a healer would come up with it, she thought, looking at the now-occupied cell on her left.
Ghia looked at her glumly. “I’m sorry we failed.” She talked through a fat, bloody lip, her breathing a whistling sound.
Molly shook her head and reached her hand through the bars to touch Ghia’s working one. “We tried. Foolish though it may have been.” She gave a wan half-smile.
Ghia shifted position painfully, bringing her broken right hand to rest in her lap. A small gasp escaped her. She turned her head and regarded Molly through her right eye, the other one hidden under a mass of swelling. “I’m not ready to die, Molly.”
Molly had nothing with which to respond, having been long resigned to death herself. She just stroked Ghia’s hand, knowing it could bring no comfort.
They’d made it to the stables when they’d been caught. Molly had already been astonished by Ghia’s breaking her out — she’d watched the guards fall unconscious as one, and then Ghia stood, her hand outstretched, and the doors to hers and Jester’s cells stood open.
“Come on,” the healer had said, pale and swaying on her feet.
“What are you?” Molly asked in wonder, allowing her thunk-step thunk-step gait to follow Ghia to an unlikely freedom.
The healer didn’t answer, just turned to Jester. “We’re escaping.”
One eye flickered open. “Yeah. Good luck with that.”
“You’re not coming?” They were already walking away, not wasting time.
“I’ll just end up back here. Saves time this way.”
They’d fled then, flying through the halls as fast as stealth allowed, not even stopping to say goodbye.
“Ghia,” Molly dared to whisper as they got closer to the stables where horses awaited. “Why now? I thought Anala and Yarrow were going to finish it today, and then I’d be free.”
“Yarrow’s gone,” Ghia said, cutting her off as they flew down the last stretch to the stables, “Zardria’s Empress, and you’re to be executed today.”
Molly fell flat against Ghia’s back then as the healer ran into something — a wall?
Maybe it would have been better if they’d been caught only by guards, helpless peons taking orders. Maybe not. She didn’t know.
They both looked up into the smiling face of Empress Zardria, who stood just inside the entrance to the stables, resplendent in a dark red silk peplos.
“Why, Healer Ghia,” the Empress purred, “you wouldn’t be depriving me of my post-birthday celebration, would you?” Then she’d hit Ghia across the face with her Sceptre.
Molly had flung herself at Zardria, but the time in the dungeons had weakened her, and from that moment she watched events unfold from her spot on the ground.
Ghia rose shakily to punch the Empress but Zardria caught the healer’s hand in a vise-like grip and Molly heard bones crack audibly. Zardria’s leg darted out from the slit in her peplos, then, fast as lightning, and kicked in Ghia’s left knee, breaking more bones. As Ghia’s other knee buckled in pain and she fell to the ground, Zardria drew back her other fist and and punched the healer square in the eye. Ghia went flying back with the force of the impact and landed on the stone floor with a thud, her head making a sickening crack against the rock.
The Empress’ Guard stepped out of the shadows then and a few of them picked up Ghia’s prone form. Zardria looked at Molly sharply. “I don’t expect you’ll resist now — or are you as stupid as your friend?”
Molly shook her head and let them take her, not wanting to give Zardria an excuse to do any more damage.
The trip back to the dungeons had been much quicker than their flight to the stables, which seemed an insult, as if the very castle were laughing at their failed exploit.
Ghia had waked up soon after they’d been locked into their cells, and now the two women sat, looking at darkness.
“I said goodbye to my fiancé this morning,” Ghia said, her voice slurred and cracking. “He didn’t know that’s what it was. I left before he woke.”
Molly’s finger brushed the band of metal on Ghia’s crippled right hand and she felt like crying. “I’m sorry, friend.”
A slight head movement. “It’s an honour to die beside you. Even if I’d really rather put it off.” To Molly’s great surprise, Ghia giggled.
The laughter was infectious and Molly giggled too, and soon the women were giggling hysterically about nothing in particular, inciting looks of confusion from a guard or two.
“What are you two fools laughing about?” Jester asked from Molly’s right.
“I don’t know,” Molly said, her laughs subsiding to breathless gasps, tears sliding down her cheeks. “But what else to do in the face of Muerta?”
Jester looked up sharply. “What are you talking about?” she asked, but before Molly could answer there was a small commotion at the dungeon’s entrance.
A foppish man came down then and stood in front of Molly’s cell. She thought she recognised him, vaguely, but couldn’t place his face.
“Lares. No,” came a gurgled noise from her left, and she turned to see a tear slide down Ghia’s cheek.
Before any questions could be asked or speculations made, the man spoke. “Molly deRosie, you have been charged with counts of high treason, the penalty for which is death. Do you resist your fate?”
Molly shook her head, in a bit of a daze that this day was finally here, and she staggered to her feet, putting her hands out in front of her.
Her cell door opened and two guards came in to put leather cuffs on her wrists and ankles, and she was then slowly led out to follow the foppish man.
She turned to say her goodbyes to Jester, and saw the woman stood at her cell door, reaching for Molly. Her hand grasped the clothing of the condemned briefly before it was beat back by a guard’s discipline stick.
“Sister!” she cried out, and Molly let herself cry at the family she’d never know.
“Stay strong,” she said, and then was out of the dungeon, out of reach of her fellow doomed.
The walk to the Square was long and arduous, crippled as she was and hampered by cuffs. She was not beaten for her slowness: a small mercy, she supposed. There was a crowd — probably all of Atherton — a silent mass of people that watched as the cuffs were taken off her ankles; silent still as she awkwardly climbed the stairs; even quieter as she crossed the wooden platform to where a bare-chested woman with a black hood waited — the executioner, said to represent Muerta Herself. A slow drum beat penetrated her numb senses, and she suddenly realised it had been going all this time, a beat that would end when she did.
She was led to the centre of the platform then and made to stand on a wooden box, which briefly gave her a nice view of the country beyond Atherton’s walls. She took one last look at her home, breathed in the fresh air, drank in Athering in spring, and then the hood was dropped over her head. She felt them fit the noose around her neck, heard them take a step back. She heard a voice reading out her crimes over the drum beat that seemed more insistent now, though she knew the speed hadn’t changed. An eagle cried out once, twice, and then there was a sudden drop in her stomach and in that moment between life and death she saw a brilliant flash of light behind her eyelids, and Luis’ voice bid her welcome home.
Then a solid crack, and all was darkness forevermore.