Everything was dark. In the darkness, Maria could feel something soft like velvet tickling her cheek. Where am I? The last thing she remembered was the doctor taking the leeches off and talking solemnly with her parents in the next room while the sounds of the siege continued below. Then the priest, then the praying, and the oil and the Eucharist… The Last Rights. So Maria would go to Heaven despite her sins.
This wasn’t Heaven. There were no saviors in the dark. Maria ran her fingers over the velvet that surrounded her. She didn’t feel like she was on fire, and certainly she’d be able to see the flames if there were any, so this wasn’t Hell either. Could Purgatory feel like this? No, it wasn’t possible.
If Maria wasn’t dead, then where was she? The doctor had given up. The priest thought she was dying. And the time, so much missing time, until she’d woken up here. She’d woken up, but she should have been dead. Where do the dead go? Straight to their graves. That was impossible. The siege had been raging on for nearly six weeks, and the graveyard was far outside the castle walls. Everyone who had died during the siege had been temporarily entombed in the catacombs far underground.
The darkness, the velvet… it had to be the inside of a coffin. Maria could feel the weight of the lid above her, the nails keeping her trapped, what seemed like miles and miles of stone between her and the sky… She screamed. The velvet muffled her voice and trapped it just like it trapped her.
She kept screaming until her throat was sore, but it didn’t do anything. No one was around to her panicked cries-- those who could fight were on the battlefield, and everyone else was up in the towers hiding from the enemy.
With her voice exhausted, Maria started banging hopelessly on the lid of the coffin. She was still weak from her near-death experience. She wouldn’t be able to open it, or even splinter a hole in the lid, but maybe she could tip it over.
There was barely any room to move. Maria rocked from side to side, but the coffin didn’t budge. With one final heave, the coffin tipped over and the hinges on the lid snapped off, which left a small crack for Maria to wiggle through. Food had been scarce since the siege began, and she was practically a living skeleton.
The darkness of the catacomb was scarcely an improvement over the coffin, but at least Maria could move around. She could hear water dripping softly in the distance. A cool breeze flowed from somewhere higher up in the castle. Maria thought she could hear the rattling of a thousand bones surrounding her. She could feel them closing in, closer, closer, their hollow skeletons rattling with every step they took-- or was that the massive door opening? Doom, or salvation?
A faint sliver of light appeared high above her head, like an angel descending from Heaven. The door scraped open even farther. A tall man was silhouetted against the dim torchlight, but he didn’t notice Maria. She picked her way carefully over the broken stone floor to the foot of the staircase. The man was holding his torch far out in front of him so it didn’t catch his face, although Maria could see the glint of a blade in his hand and the faint reflection of flames in his armor. The insignia on his surcoat was cloaked in shadows-- was it the crouching crow of the castle’s lord or the proud lion of the attacking duke?
She straightened her back to face him, no matter who he was. She would meet her fate with her head held high.
The knight stopped suddenly on the stairs and waved his torch in front of him. “Who are you?” he shouted gruffly down at her.
So that’s how it would end, then. He didn’t know who she was, which meant he was one of the attackers. If I must die here… She shuddered. If I must die here, I will have lived longer than I had any right to live.
“I am the last person you will ever see,” she responded defiantly as the torchlight hit the lion on his surcoat. Death was waiting for them both.
The breeze she had felt earlier swept down the staircase. Even though it originated from the castle’s living quarters, it brought the smell of death on some dark angel’s wings. If the attackers were in the castle, was everyone already dead?
“Are you a ghost, then, come to make me pay for the lives I have taken? I don’t recall you being among that number.”
Maria shrieked and flung herself up the stairs at him. He had not expected this walking corpse to attack him, and she caught him off guard.
The knight stumbled backwards and dropped his torch as he shifted his sword into a two-handed grip. “What kind of banshee are you, girl? This crypt is no place for the living.” He glanced down at the torch. Little fingers of flame were reaching out to tickle the shattered remains of Maria’s coffin. “Soon it won’t be any place for the dead, either.”
Maria struck at his face. It was the only place that wasn’t covered in armor. He yelled and jumped backwards, then grabbed the back of her filthy white gown and dragged her up the stairs. “Let’s see what the duke thinks of you.”
No matter how much she struggled against him, Maria couldn’t break free. Suddenly the catacombs seemed like a safe haven compared to the massacre that must be happening in the world above. Maria thought of what would happen to the castle once the battle was over. Would carrion crows come to feed on the corpses, her family’s emblem betraying them and washing them away? Would anyone bury the bodies, pray over their graves, or even care that they were gone?
His armor clanked with every movement. As they climbed higher and higher, the sound of swords clanging against swords grew louder. The knight kept a tight grip on Maria as he dragged her through the castle, always climbing higher, always just out of sight of the battle. With no exterior windows in sight, Maria couldn’t see what kind of devastation had befallen her home. All she could do was smell the blood in the air and pray. Her feet were bloodied inside her thin shoes, and she slipped with every step.
After what seemed like an eternity, the knight threw open a door at the top of a staircase and dragged Maria out into the blindingly bright summer sun. They were on top of the castle’s highest tower, where Maria had stargazed with her cousins when they had been younger and the world more peaceful.
Now the tower was an island in a sea of blood. The cruel duke who had started all of this stood at the very edge looking at the massacre in the courtyard below. The sun was almost directly behind his head, so all Maria could see of him was the sharp silhouette of his face. In another life, she could have considered him handsome. Then he turned to face her, and the effect was ruined by his dead eyes and thin-lipped sneer.
“So this is Maria,” he said with contempt. “Your uncle told me you had died. Pity. You seem like you were quite beautiful once. Sir Aaron, unhand her.” A thin red mist hung over the battlefield and made the air around him look like the fires of Hell.
Maria stumbled forward as the knight shoved her towards the edge of the roof. Luckily, she caught herself before she tumbled to her death.
A dismal sight greeted her below. The castle was filled with the duke’s soldiers swarming over the bodies of the slain defenders. Their targets were pressed against the tower wall, swords flashing as they vainly defended their lost cause.
“Do you recognize them, Maria? Don’t look away now,” the duke crooned.
Maria had known who they were the second she had seen them, but the duke didn’t deserve a response. She had known the two men her whole life. The soldier on the left, with his bloodied surcoat and even bloodier sword, was the lord of the castle. On his right stood his brother, his closest companion, and Maria’s father.
“You understand that they will lose this battle. Where will you be once they have perished? This world is not kind to lonely ladies.” If it had been anyone else other than the duke, Maria would have thought he was being sympathetic.
Maria straightened her back and lifted her chin. “After they perish, I will be the lady of this castle. I will be responsible for its defence and I will punish intruders accordingly.”
“You will most certainly die before you can succeed.” The knight drew his sword, but the duke held up a hand and he retreated. “Do you have any last words?”
“Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.” Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. “Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus.”
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners.
Maria inched her way along the tiles of the roof towards the duke. He was distracted by the sweeping victory of his troops below.
“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.” Now and in the hour of our deaths. Amen.
Maria threw herself at the duke. He had leaned over the balcony to watch, and he couldn’t recover his balance in time to save himself.
The bloodsoaked cobblestones below didn’t notice as two more bodies joined the carnage.