Woodhurst’s gaol wasn't much larger than a storeroom. To cells were built into it, one reclaimed to store benches, barricades, and wagon parts when the guardsman had grown tired of its lack of use. The other was much less furnished—a bedroll, stool, and bucket the only luxuries besides the meager torchlight. Dytha entered the room quietly, not wanting to wake the figure on the other side of the bars in case he should be resting.
Will sat with his back against the wall, knees bent, feet flat, and gazing up at the only source of light in the room. The light took away any doubt to his young age, and the contemplative expression he wore, with guilt knit into his brow. He didn't notice the opening of the door at first until he heard the approaching footsteps that came after. They were different from the heavier foot falls of the men who brought him food, and so he turned his head. He blinked at the woman and stared openly at her for a moment, raking his hand through his hair.
The young woman wasn't much older, a few years maybe, but she carried a confidence earned by experience and not solely from the high birth the richness of her garb suggested. The silver brooch of a rampant bear winked from her shoulder. She found a stool and sat, facing the bars. The guard he'd grown used to listening to by the doorway was gone.
"Hello," she said, her features serious out of respect for the situation in which they both found themselves.
The young man looked at the Rohirrim woman a moment longer, then slowly got to his feet. His clothes were dirty and he was unwashed. He moved to the bars and curled his dirty fingers around them as he gazed at her, "My lady," he said quietly, managing to chase the contempt from his tone. He couldn't remember seeing her before then, and he was wary of what she'd come to him now for, though she lacked the mocking grin so many of the men who guarded him seemed to have. He waited for what else she would say.
Dytha glanced him over, checking for bruises that might be more fresh than any he had earned in the skirmish two weeks before. Her expression was closed off. If she felt pity it was hidden. "My name is Dytha, Destendaughter. "
Will nodded, though the name carried no familiarity with it. If he had bruises, they were hidden by his clothing. The stiff way he moved suggested as much. He furrowed his brow in confusion and looked through the bars, "What would Dytha Destendaughter ask of Willelm, son of Geth?"
Dytha nodded, grateful to be offered his name. "I would ask how you are, first of all."
Will's brow furrowed at the question and he dipped his head. "Begging your pardons, but I do not understand why you wish to know. I am dirty and hungry. Caged like an animal." He gave a mirthless chuckle, "To your eyes, perhaps I am one."
Dytha tilted her head to the door, though her gaze remained on his. "They want you tired, and hungry, and desperate. They think it will make you talk." Her tone was patient despite his hollow laugh. "I think that the best way to talk...is just to talk."
"What would you have me say? I am...guilty. I await for my death. There is nothing to tell." He moved from the bars and paced a bit. "My quiver was full when I was discovered," he admitted, "I had not even nocked an arrow against my bowstring." He stopped to look up at the light from the torch, "Long years I have made an attempt to live my life peacefully. I bother no one. I ask little, and receive hatred and bitterness in return, from Dunlending and Rohirrim alike." He shook his head, "No one will buy my harvest, and I nearly starved the last winter. I needed...something...to hold to."
"Not reporting a crime is still a crime," she pronounced. "Whether you loosed your bow or not, you knew that men would die, and you did nothing." She wasn't angry. Her tone did not accuse. "I don't think, however, that you went looking for trouble. I think you were familiar with it—" she stretched open her hand, motioning to the hardships that had cobbled his life, "—so when it came to you, you didn't turn it away."
Even as the words left his lips, he shook his head. Why this woman would move him to speak, he didn't know, but he sensed that she meant for justice to be served, rather than an open hatred to who he was. Perhaps that was why the words fell so easily from his lips. He scoffed at her words and shrugged, "It does little for me now, either way. I am the one left to account for the evil I let happen." He hung his head, "And I will swing," he added quietly.
"Maybe," she said honestly. "Or maybe your punishment will be less, even if it isn't likely. You are not from Woodhurst, so you do not have to answer to the men who witnessed the deed. Your own Thane will pass judgment over you."
With that news, Will dipped his head even more, with a frown setting deep into his face. "The man who hired me is dead, and all who might have given more clues are gone as well. I hold little hope to more than a swift judgment," he answered quietly. After a moment, he lifted his gaze to hers, "Why did you come to me, Lady Dytha?"
"Because," she answered, leaning in, "although we tell our children otherwise, the truth is that there are no fen-stalkers. You are not a monster birthed from the swamp. You're a Man." The first hint of emotion crept into her voice, softening it to the same pallor as her sun-bleached hair and brow. "Unfortunately, you cannot be judged on the choices you did not make, but those you did. Something very specific led you to those choices, and I want to know them."
He shuffled again to the cell door and curled his fingers around the bars, "I'm a half-breed," he said, correcting her, "The man who sired me saw to that. Maybe he is the monster, and I am his spawn." His tone was sardonic and self-deprecating, his eyes hard on her face, "Only playing at what would amount to a life worth living. Did you not hear me before? Why punish myself over the wrongs of my kin when I could join them, and maybe have the small chance of living as one of them. A tribe. They say the time's ripe for marching to war, after all..." He gave another empty laugh as if he didn't believe it, "What have I got to lose? Either way, I am always the outlier. The outsider."
Dytha didn't yield the ground she had claimed. Her tone, open a crack to empathy, was steady. "You don't have to be. There are different kinds of tribes, and some are bound by stronger things than blood and coin."
"It is the blood in my veins which bars me from such tribes," he said quietly, "Not the blood I did not shed." He furrowed his brow, "I've a brother, half-blood brother, who will not even acknowledge I exist, if he even knows it. If my own blood is not bound to me, I do not know what other bond there be."
"When I was given the choice between that and starvin', I took it. And I regret it each breath I take since."
"The bond of words," she rebutted. "The bond of oaths. A promise you choose to make is more important than any that were forced on you by family. But promises made over the hope of gold last only until the gold is gone. I wish you had waited." She paused, pulling her heart back from treading too close. They were still on opposite sides of the bars. "You say the man who hired you is dead. Who was he?"
"Waited," he repeated incredulously, "Until I am old and shriveled." He left it there and moved his thoughts to her subsequent questioning, "He was called Grim, but I do not think that was his given name. And he answered to another, who I do not know," he shook his head, "There is no one else I know of. It was just a job. A trial of sorts. I knew the moment we left that it was wrong, but I stayed. And hid. And now I am here."
"Another?" Her brow was so pale as to barely be seen, but the crease that grew between them was deep. "There was someone who was not present at the scene? You say it was a job. So you were hired. You did not seek the goods for yourselves."
"It was a job, and I was hired to see if I would do it, if I had the gall to turn on my kin in that way. Proof of loyalty, he called it, but I couldn't stomach the way he talked. I wanted the coin he promised, not whatever they planned to take, and I know several more were the same." He shook his head, "I do not know if Grim's man wanted it for his own. I learned very little."
Dytha nodded. There was water somewhere, even if this well was nearly dry, she would try for every last drop. "Someone knew where it would be and when. You knew no one else in your group. Did they seem to know each other?"
Will hesitated in his answer, not to hold it back, but to try to think on it. "Some did, but not all. I was not known to anyone, and they shared little. Only things I can say is what I overheard. But I'd say there were orders from outside. Grim, whoever gave it to him, if they did."
"You may not have been the only one whose first time it was," she confessed. It was only fair to be as honest with him as she believed he was with her. "What were your orders? You killed everyone but one, and another who escaped to raise the warning. Why leave an injured man alive?"
He was quick to interject, and his voice was sharp, "I killed no one." His eyes had widened some, but now he cast them down in shame. "I stayed my hand, and hid. If one got away, it was a lucky chance. The order was to leave none alive."
Dytha watched, giving him the space and silence to react. She accepted that he killed no one. She couldn't say the same for herself or most of her kind. "You are my responsibility, now. Woodhurst owns your cell, but I own you. I won't see any more harm come to you until you stand to answer before your lord. You'll have water with which to clean, fresh clothes, and every night a mug of ale. I believe you when you say you know nothing, but someone knows you, and I am going to keep you close until I find them. After that, it isn't up to me."
He scarcely believed what he heard, and he stared at her again in open confusion for offering such things to him. The only word he could counter with was, "Why?" His dark brow furrowed over his eyes as they lowered to look at her feet.
Dytha focused on him until the bars between them blurred. "Because you didn't run."
Will looked up to meet her gaze until he couldn't hold it. He shook his head, "No. Worse than that, I hid." His head dipped down and he rested his forehead against the bars, "I do not deserve pity. I take what judgment my lord would will upon me. I would only ask that it be swift."
Dytha let her eyes slip gently to his shoulder when he couldn't maintain his gaze. "You hid from death, from dealing it and having it dealt. You didn't hide from justice. You could have run. I believe you when you say you have regrets."
The young man remained silent for a time, working his jaw. At length, he spoke up again, quietly, "Regrets will not bring back what has been lost." His brow puckered enough that he looked to be in pain.
"No," she echoed, her tone solid. "But they can speak for the past. I don't pity you," she reminded. "You made a choice. People died. But people don't have to continue to die. The one who gave the order will be found. Where is your village? Who is your lord?"
His gaze kept down as he spoke up again, "My lord is Burgweard, son of Hereward, and Thane of Cranborne." He looked up at her again, "I am his crofter."
Dytha paused a moment as her mind searched for the name, but it was a footnote on some forgotten page somewhere, a pebble in the wide riverbed of Rohan's ruling class. "Then he is the one who will decide your fate."
Will looked at her skeptically, "Begging your pardon, but who will believe me? Tis my word against that of all who found me. There is no hope for my voice to be reckoned above that."
"It is likely that no one will believe you." She didn't attempt to console. "Trials are not about truth."
Will frowned at this, and after a moment, nodded, "I will get my due, in this life or the next. I can only hope that my lord be fair in his judgment, and swift in....in executing it."
Dytha stood and stepped towards the bars, her hands by her sides. "If you want a swift execution, it can happen." It wasn't a threat, but an offer. "I think, though, that your story is not ready to end."
Dirty hands grasped the bars, and guilt-ridden brown eyes lifted to meet Dytha's gaze. "I do not want to hang," he said, "But neither do I want to live with this heaviness I have brought upon myself." He shook his head and swallowed thickly. "If there is any hope to be had, it is in some miracle."
"You will not hang," she promised. More than his safety was her responsibility now. "If that is your Lord's pronouncement..." The promise of a quicker, merciful death was there, but unsaid. She laid it and moved on. "Try, think, do what you can...there are others to blame for this, and if you guide us to them, you will not need a miracle."
He looked hard at her for a long moment, piecing together the unspoken words. His jaw clenched as he nodded. "I will do what I can," he said uncertainly, his voice all but spent in the face of thoughts of his destruction.
Dytha stood a moment, but she had nothing else to give. "Thank you, Willelm," she said as softly as she'd offered her own name. "So will I."
Will nodded once more, but found it easier to look her in the eyes. Given what he offered, it was the least he owed her. He stood up from his lean against the bars and took a step back from them, his movements stiff.
The Lady turned to leave the gaol. She would not return again, but her promise of water, ale, and fresh clothes would be proven that evening when the guard returned. His bread wouldn’t be moldy, and there would be no more cause for bruises. The days waiting until the riders took him from Woodhurst to his home village and the justice of his Thane would be spent, whether it was merciful or not, in peace.
Just before Dytha reached the door, with clutching fingers wrapped around the cold iron bars, Will pressed his forehead to the cold metal and called out, "Thank you." Whether she heard it or not, he would not know, but his conditions improved that very night, taking away at least one of the things plaguing his mind and body.