The Needle and the Coat
My name is Rhiannon, and I have been on the run for the last four hours. The wind is bitterly cold, and I know I don’t stand a chance of surviving the night. Not in my wet clothes. I am clasping a cloak tightly about me. Despite the waves of terror and revulsion rippling through me, I am grateful that I had the presence of mind to take it. I can’t afford to freeze just yet.
I’ve been running away from the Mediobogdum fort, but the noose is getting tighter. The barking, carried effortlessly by the wind, is telling me as much. The mounted soldiers have brought their hounds. They will lose my trail down at the river, but the water won’t buy me more than two hours. I have only two hours left to kill that Dalmatian monster…or die trying.
Climbing up a gorge, I can feel the moss underneath my hands. It’s full of splintered ice. I can barely sense it, but it reminds me of my sister’s hands. Icy cold and cracked when doing the laundry at the river. Icy cold and cracked when lying in a pool of blood… I’m shivering again. He must have suffocated her with my cloak! Anwen’s face was all blue underneath it, her innocent dark eyes staring blankly at me. I regret not having the time to close them. Hearing him shouting outside, accusing me of killing his slave, I grabbed the incriminating cloak and jumped out of the window into the freezing night.
There’s no alternative for me now but to push on. It’s his word against mine. And since a slave’s word amounts to nothing, I am as good as dead. But I am taking him with me! For the sake of Deryn, my youngest sister, who is still alive. The anger and loathing are giving me the strength, searing through my veins like molten iron. I can no longer hear the dogs far below. This steep hill is a shortcut to a lodge. He will be heading there tonight because his favourite boar hunt starts early in the morning.
The guards know me. They haven’t heard about the murder yet, so no one is objecting to my sneaking into his private quarters. They are used to it. I squat next to a fire-place and try to dry my freezing frame. When my fingers defrost, I loosen my hair. Then I plat it back again, concealing a long needle in the thick bundle. Ten minutes later, I hear him arrive. The door flies open, and my life suddenly hangs on a thinner thread. He steps in, and I am petrified.
‘You!’ he snarls in surprise.
I know my life could end soon. The success of my gamble depends entirely on his whim. He could call the guards straight away, or he could have some fun first. For the first time in my life, I am relieved when his face shape-shifts into a lewd grin. I guessed correctly. He sniggers and shuts the door. The bar falls into its place, and I am reassured. Unknowingly, he is making it easier.
Iron spurs echo his weighty steps. I instantly pity any horse that has to carry such a powerful and ruthless legionary. A bejewelled dagger sparkles at his waist. Too much to tackle with my needle. I must wait. Let him have his way, so he stops suspecting me.
‘Wine!’ he orders and slumps onto a chair. I fetch it, but he gestures for me to drink. I take a sip.
‘Drink up!’ he growls. He must be convinced that I managed to poison it in his absence. I drain the cup. The wine is plentiful and intoxicating. This is no good. I must keep my wits about me!
He lifts his legs, and I obediently take off his boots. When I’m done, he grabs my hair, just above the long needle, and hisses into my face.
‘Why are you here?’ His breath stinks of alcohol.
‘For Deryn,’ I croak truthfully, concealing the hate in my voice. I can feel the wine usurping my brain.
‘Just like your servile mother!’ He pushes me away with disdain, and I find myself on the floor. Ever since my mother’s death last year, I have been paying the ransom for my sisters’ fragile safety.
‘Have you paid for Anwen this week?’
‘No, my lord.’ My eyes fill up.
‘So, it’ll cost you double,’ he sneers. I nod, tears now running down my cheeks. He remains towering above me, visibly excited.
‘What would you have me do?’ I ask shakily.
‘Strip!’ he barks, still suspicious of any concealed weapons. I obey clumsily and watch him check every piece of my clothing. His growing smirk makes me tremble. Finally, I watch him ceremoniously throw my cloak on the floor. He points at it. Numb, I stare at the wool that’s just suffocated my sister. I can hear him unbuckle his belt. When I don’t move, he shoves me forward and gives me a savage beating with his girdle.
Ruthlessly, he continues to exact my debt, and I panic. My hands are locked in his grip. Have I underestimated him? I yield to his impulses, but he remains cautious. Only when his eyes glitter with ecstasy does he finally let go of a hand. Swiftly, the long needle pierces through his bare chest, under his ribs, and straight into his brutal heart. His dark blood instantly mingles with mine.
‘This is for abusing my mother,’ I hiss as I push his lifeless bulk away.
‘And for killing my sister,’ I add as I salvage the blood-stained cloak.
‘And for the child!’ I whisper while prising out the needle that once prevented an unborn baby from ever suffering the darkness of the father. His blood gushes out.
I am shaking, but I can’t cry. Somehow, I must escape. The morning hunt is about to reveal a very rigid predator and very human prey.