I stood at the edge of the well, casting jewels into the water. The facets of gold and precious stones glinting in the murky black, and I found myself reminded of the stars. I looked up to the night sky, and idly wondered what sort of being might do penance thus.
The satchel empty, I slung it over my shoulder and retreated to the woods. I left it there, beside a tree, along with the blood-soaked tatters of a dress that I had once crafted. Well, indeed, it had been a craft, but not to make anything per say. I thought of the lady who had been wearing it, and bowed my head after I'd rumpled it and placed it. I whispered a prayer, that whomsoever she might have been, she would forgive me for profiting twice from her death. Having done this, I looked once more at my well of treasures, and left it all behind me.
The memory of that night is lost in the haze of exhilaration. It had been only a week since I had felt as though I was getting away with something I wasn't supposed to be doing. But this was the first time in my life I felt it so strongly, and knew it was what I was supposed to be doing. I had walked for almost two solid days, my heart beating so fast that I didn't feel the need for rest until my legs could no longer support me. Even as I fell, I had laughed. It was over, and I had a new life waiting for me somewhere far from here. I eventually made my way to a ferry, sailed across a river the size of a sea, and found my new home of Oppurschta. A small trade village where, incidentally, I had a son.
Years passed, and for a while, I fooled myself into thinking I was free. I laughed with friends, I worked an honest living in the village. I found and lost lovers. I raised my son by my own hands, into the wiry, clever young man who was my greatest joy. But it finally hit me. I wasn't free, or even happy. My soul still felt like the inside of a blood stained sack, stuffed with gold taken from a dead man. What hadn't I done? I had resigned my wealth and staged my death. I had repented. Years ago. What more did I need to do?
I found myself pondering this at a tavern one evening. Friends, revelry and spirits circled around me, and felt utterly, eerily, alien. I sipped the tankard wearily, pondering what was amiss. And then my past came back to haunt me.
They had called it a readiness cry. It sounded like a pigeon swaking, and meant for everyone to be ready in position to attack. If there were chirps to follow, it meant everyone was ready. I thought it was strange, for as long as it had been since I had had heard it, that it was so easy to discern. And also so familiar, even nostalgic, although it meant we were all about to die. I looked around, wondering why they would make the cry audible inside a crowded tavern. The chirps began, as I scanned over every face in the room: friends, lovers, traders, travelers. A dizzying blur of faces, but nothing I could recognize. I had the distinct feeling I saw being stalked, which feels much like that tell-tale neck tension that lets you know when someone is watching you. I turned towards the feeling, and my blood ran cold. Meeting my eyes with a killer's intent, the bartender chirped, condescendingly.
I slammed the beer down and whirled in my stool. I was on the ground then, my vision turning different colors and my temple aching against the floor boards. I was rusty. I hadn't noticed that I'd been drugged. I heard noises over the whistling in my ears, and knew that the bandits were already attacking. My friends, my lovers, I struggled to get to my feet with these thoughts. I picked up the bar stool and charged at one of them. I didn't need to register that they were the same ones. Same armor, pelts, weapons, insignia.. I might even have known his name, as I smashed the bar stool across his neck, bringing him to the floor. I bent down to pick up one of the polls, and doubled over again. I heard Samuel the carpenter yell, and the sound of steel being drawn somewhere nearby. I rolled to the side, gripping the broken bar stool pole and swinging blindly. The impact let me know I'd struck someone, and I reflexively bent my elbow and stabbed the body with the makeshift weapon. It fell, and I crawled to my feet.
I felt my body wretch, and tried to hold back the need to vomit, when there was a sickening thud that spread through my whole head. I would later learn that I had vomited after all. I woke up in a pool of it, my hands and legs tied by leather, the floor boards of the ruined bar covered in bodies and blood. I would have wept then, but I still couldn't believe I wasn't having a bad dream.
Three men were nearby, helping themselves to the drinks. One of them saw me stir, and I heard him laugh to his fellows. Heavy footsteps on the floor boards followed as he walked close to me, and I could heard jeering behind him. He kicked my, lightly, in the side, and spat in my face. And then he bent low to my side. I grimaced, waiting for my chance to lean to the side and bite him. He bent to my ear and whispered to me, scathing.
"I can't believe they did this to you." My eyes went wide, and I no longer felt like biting, although weeping was becoming considerably more likely. "Listen, this is the only chance we get. I said I'd stay behind because I wanted to have you first." I nodded: that answered the second question. I felt him start to lift me up onto his shoulder. He turned and jeered, and one of the others mentioned putting me in that tattered blood-stained dress I had laid for them to find. He laughed, and led me into a dark room with a window. There, he set me down on the bed, and began to wipe the vomit from my face. I started weeping uncontrollably.
"These guys really hate you, mom," he said, soothing me as best he could. I blubbered questions to him, like how the bandits trusted him, who was alive, and how they found me. He held me and answered quickly. "The bandits let me join in return from what I'm about to tell them I did to you. They've known you were here for months. The barkeep is one of them. And I don't know who else is alive." Clever, patient, and quick. Even on my darkest day, I could count on my son to make me proud.
"Listen, you need to get out of here. No where in this country is far enough." He stood and grabbed some black clothes out of the closet. "Put these on. In a few minutes, you get through the window, and you get to your stash." I quirked a brow at that. "Mom, the bandits told me. You took a king's ransom and buried it somewhere. Or gave it away, or something. You need that money so you can go overseas." He looked at me worriedly. "It's not in town, is it? We can save a few people if it is." I shook my head, and my heart dropped the length of a dagger in my chest. I could have ransomed my town.. My son sat down beside me, held me again and gave me the garments. "I might not see you for a while. I don't want to know where you plan on going, in case they try to make me tell. But I love you, mom. I'm going to miss you, like hell."
We embraced. My dear, dear son. I don't recall ever having spent the tears I did that evening. I nearly wanted to give myself up to the bandits and spare him, but.. he was right. I needed to leave. It wasn't pride, or apathy, that let me know my son could handle himself. I just knew that he could. In time, I knew he'd be able to find me, as well. He stood suddenly, and shouted hurtful, jeering things that I knew were lies, and went to stand outside while I changed and left through the window.
It was easier to get out of town than I thought it would have been. I snuck behind buildings here and there, and was on the road eastward in no time. But this road was heavy to travel, and wept most of the way through it. It was so strange, the last time I had crossed the river the size of a sea, I felt felt elation and freedom beyond my wildest dreams. But now, it was like a private dirge. Somehow, my attempts to run from what I hated had destroyed everything I really loved.
At some point along the trip, I began to wonder if I wasn't in my right mind. The jewels and gold that I had dumped into that well so long ago weren't intended to be a stash. That was everything I ever stole or took from anybody, with a little honest extra added to compensate what I had spent. And it was all supposed to be gone. Was I truly about to unearth it, and everything that came with it, so I could keep running? And then the screams of Oppurschta came back to me, and I faltered in my grief. Yes, I was. My son had given me this chance, and I would take it, if only to honor him.
At last, I found myself back at the well. I stood for long moments, contemplating the inky blackness where a king's ransom had been tossed one night. It felt wrong, horribly wrong to be back here, trying to undo the best thing I had ever done, only to keep running from the worst. But I shook my head, and the worries with it. I didn't have time to rethink it. I pulled a rope out of my pack, and tied it to a tree. With the rope in one hand, I walked back to the well and took a deep breath, went over the side, and down into it.
The water was disgusting, as I dropped down into it. I bent low, my arms sifting, and for a strange moment, I couldn't decide if I would be relieved or terrified if they had already been found. But as I bent lower, my hands found the familiar touch of chains. And then jewels. The metaphor of stooping into this inky black muck to retrieve blood stained treasures was not lost on me, but I did feel a certain pride when I pulled a ruby the size of my fist out of the water. In a flash, I remembered why I had done it, and how much fun it had really been. I remembered the trill of the chase, both pursuing and being pursued. I remembered my vanity, adorning my body to decency in nothing by coils of gold chains, resting on a pile of silks and jewels. I had felt like a dragon in her cave. Yes, I remembered, why it was worth the killing, the stealing, and destruction. I had sealed it away, and now it was back. That was the third worst feeling in my life, the second experiencing Oppurschta being destroyed by my old group of bandits.
The first was when I climbed out of the well, with a satchel laden with all manner of jewelry and precious stones, to see my son standing beside the tree, his sword drawn. "Mother? Is that you?"
Patient, cunning, and quick. I had raised him too well.
"You followed me!" At first, my don seemed hurt. And then I watched him transform as he dropped the act. His eyes went cold, the cold you can only get to when you've grown accustomed to killing. And his face... his face slipped into that very same sneer I had worn when I felt like the dragon. The very same face as my own.
"Come on, mom. Do you really think the barkeep wouldn't have tried to recruit me before that night? With as much as they hated you for turning traitor? I've been with them for over a year." I was aghast. I fumbled with words that were never uttered. "Oh don't blame yourself. We both know you would have caught me in a lie, if grief hadn't addled your brains. That's the treasure, then? Throw it on the ground, please."
I did so. And as soon as I had done it, he cut the rope.
My body was submerged in the black water of the well. The back of my head stung horribly. My eyes fluttered open, and I saw the stars drifting across the sky through the top of the well. Once again, I idly wondered what manner of being would pay penance by tossing jewels into an ocean of milky darkness. I supposed I had an answer, but it wasn't pleasant. There was no penance in what I had done, only in what had been done to me.