Chapter 1: The Messenger

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The corpses swung in the breeze, the gallows creaking under the strain. For the second time in as many minutes, the moon disappeared behind some clouds, casting the palace grounds into darkness.

The young woman with freckles and reddish hair shivered as she walked out onto the terrace. She tried not to look at the corpses in the town square on the other side of the palace walls.

A familiar red-haired lady stood at the parapet, looking out into the distance and guarded by a soldier; and the young woman froze at the sight.

She tried to make a quiet exit, but it was too late – the soldier looked up. Her eyes met his, and she relaxed.

It’s him, she thought, I’m safe; he won’t tell on me.

Just in case, she raised a finger to her lips, and watched the soldier nod. Still unnoticed by the silent watcher at the parapet, the woman began the descent to the main palace.

A fusillade of knocks shattered the silence, causing the young woman to nearly jump out of her skin. She crept down the last flight of stairs, taking refuge in the shadows as the guards at the door argued with the late-night visitor.

She heard one of the guards tell the visitor, “Whatever message you have can wait until morning! Her Grace the Queen Mother is not to be disturbed at this late hour, do you understand?”

The young woman wondered for a moment what could be so important, before banishing the thought.

It’s none of my business, she told herself.

The visitor – a soldier, but with an unfamiliar uniform – spotted her.

“Your Grace!” he called out.

The guards turned around, looked at her, and scoffed.

“Fool,” one of them snapped at the visitor, “Can’t you tell the difference between the Queen Mother and her maid?”

The other guard ambled over to where the young woman stood, frozen in place.

“Dun,” he greeted, in a not-unfriendly tone, “What’re you doing out of bed?”

“I just came to check whether I’d closed the windows of the library properly,” replied the woman, Dun.

The argument between the visitor and the guard at the door intensified, and it was not long before the soldier from the terrace had joined them.

“Her Grace the Queen Mother wants to know what all the noise is about,” he yawned, “She’s on the terrace, by the way. Hello, Dun.”

She nodded in response to his greeting, her cheeks flaming.

Why does everyone have to notice my existence on the one day I’m sneaking out of bed?she wondered.

“Well?” said the soldier who had descended from the terrace, “How long do you intend to keep Her Grace waiting?”

The visiting soldier gave the guards a triumphant look, before allowing the soldier to accompany him upstairs.

Dun wished the guards good night and went to bed.

***

The Queen Mother stood at the parapet, looking out over the vast grasslands surrounding the town. Every now and then, her gaze would stray to the men who had been executed only that evening, and whose corpses still hung from the gallows.

She remembered what their crime had been.

They committed treason, she thought, And they paid for it with their lives.

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