“The Moonlight” is one of the outstanding stories of the first biannual International Short Story Contest 2018 written by Nuthara Karunarathna, Lyceum International School, Panadura, Sri Lanka.
The manor was elegant as well as luxurious. Four Gothic towers reached up to the sky, their impossibly high points alone is a sea of deep blue. The architecture was stunning, every detail perfectly built, perfectly carved. Half-moon windows peered out from the long, thin structures that trapped between them a shorter cathedral-like structure built with the same precision. Stained-glass windows peeked out from its walls.
Beautiful. It must have cost the military commander a fortune, and more.
And yet very well protected.
A high wall surrounded the manor, shards of pottery and rock embedded in it to discourage a climber. The tower walls were smooth and impossible to climb. The windows barred. The doors were made of the strongest metal. The only entrance a gate manned day and night. Fifty guards stationed at various points in the building itself.
When Flavius Theodosius Augustus wanted someone safe, they were definitely safe.
When his support of Christianity and his protection for those who defiled the Olympian temples well known, the commander of Moesia knew that he had many enemies.
The place was impenetrable, to protect those he wanted to protect.
But maybe not this night.
The assassin crept along the side of the wall. She checked her position. If her information was accurate, then she was exactly where she needed to be. The easiest access point.
She gritted her teeth and gripped a shard of a shattered vase, and pulled herself up. She hissed in pain as the sharp edge cut her skin. Wet trickled down her arms, the ruby-red shining a glistening black. Her foot found purchase on a sharp rock, and she reached upwards again, to find another grip. Her foot was cut, and her arms again and again, but the pain didn’t matter. She made not a sound. Then she was on the ledge, rivulets of black blood inching down the wall she had climbed. She stood for a moment to get her balance and crouched again. She had been visible for miles around for the fraction of a second, standing on such a high wall. She hoped no one was looking.
She leaped, grace itself, even injured. She landed on the soft earth with hardly a thud, and was on her feet immediately.
It was the waning moon tonight, everything bathed in the softest light. She wore a hooded black tunic, her long hair tucked into a braid. She was little more than a shadow. Her weapons were all sheathed in black about her person.
She ran. There were no trees to cover her approach, so she had to rely on speed to hope that no guard was alerted.
She knew all the layouts, the location of the guardhouse, and the hours they changed shift. None of them saw her.
She reached the shadow of the cathedral with relief. Planning this mission had been mainly guesswork, even with all her information. That it was still running smoothly was lucky indeed.
She looked up at the north tower, its tiny window barely slits. Just one window was unbarred, the one at the very top, a mere dot from the ground.
In the very top of that tower, her target was waiting.
She slid to the tower base. It was built from bricks, the edges smoothed beautifully. Very difficult to grip, and impossible to climb.
She slid a hand into her left sleeve and brought out two thick gloves, the outer palm studded with spikes. She slipped them on, and then a pair of boots with spikes lining the edges.
She put a hand to the tower wall. The spikes embedded it in firmly, and the friction allowed her to pull herself up. Her hand burst in pain, and the wounds bled again. But she put her other hand above the other, and then a foot. She steadily started climbing the tower wall.
She made it halfway up before she reached her limit. Her arms and legs shuddered badly from the strain. Her cuts and bruises screamed in protest. She could go no further.
She risked looking down.
She was dizzyingly high, too far to attempt to jump and find another way up. The only thing stopping her falling was the spikes, and she thanked the gods that she had thought of it beforehand.
She was shaking with fear and regret. She hadn’t finished her mission. Looking down had made her dizzy and sick.
“I am sorry, father,” she whispered with the last of her strength. The words carried in the clear night air, the wind carrying them away to her long gone father. “I have not avenged you.”
There they were, the words she had not said out loud then. The real reason she had chosen to carry out such a barbaric mission.
A blood price. A life for a life.
“Mother,” she said next.
“I do not know you,” she said, surprising herself. “Father described you as a shining angel, a messenger of the moon. I have never known a mother, and now I never will.”
The moon shone brighter.
“I am sorry,” she said. She prepared to yank out her arms and legs from the wall and fall. The bravest way out.
But she did not feel brave.
She felt regret, that her father would be so ashamed if he saw her now. A paid killer.
“Goodbye.” The word hung in the air as she let go.
She did not scream or cry out. She wanted to be brave to the end. Strong.
But she did not fall.
She hung suspended, halfway in and half out. And suddenly the moon blazed out impossibly bright, blinding her.
Strength filled her like a good cup of wine, fueling her.
She clung with both hands to the tower. Making it to the top no longer looked or felt impossible. In fact, it felt easy.
She stared at the moon in amazement. “Mother?”
There was no response. She had not expected one.
The moon. Her mother had answered. And for a moment she saw a silver chariot pulled by four golden deer in its surface.
“Diana,” she whispered. “Lady of the Moon.”
So many mysteries left untouched. She was at an indecision. But a memory of her father smiling at her broke the confused thoughts in her head and surfaced.
This was no longer a mission, but a bid for vengeance.
She climbed again with renewed vigor.
She reached the top sooner than she’d thought. She grabbed the tapering ledge of the deep window slit and swung herself in with difficulty.
The stained glass was beautifully fractured, cracked outward like spider-webs. She stared at it. So beautiful, she thought idly.
Then something snapped.
“Mother?” she said in angry shock. She had been in a temporary daze, a kind of moon madness. It felt like her mother didn’t want her to do this.
To kill the commander’s young daughter.
But she did, and there was no turning back now.
She drew back her fist and punched the glass. With a tremendous splintering crash, the glass gave way, shattering into a thousand pieces. The gloves, thankfully, protected her wrist from the shattered glass.
She slid into the tiny room at the very top of the north tower.
“Are you here to kill me?” Aelia Pulcheria Augusta asked, from her seat on the edge of the bed.