She climbed the side of the tower. Humidity bulged in the air, filling up empty space with the presence of discomfort and weight. The cold night-filled stone slipped under her fingers as disturbed condensation ran down the smooth surface. Her head was tilted down and her eyes squeezed shut against her stinging sweat. Stretching and contracting, her muscles pulled her up against gravity. Her fingers searched for the next hold and felt a pock-marked ledge, tightening to pull her towards her destination. She slipped for a moment and her breath caught in her chest. Then she regained her balance and with shaking limbs squirmed onto the sill.
She peered through the heavy darkness and discerned her Target, seemingly helpless in sleep, at the far side of the room. She picked up the brass candle snuffer, and it tinkled as the bell swung against the handle. She froze. No movement came from inside. She meticulously moved the snuffer until it hung above the struggling candle. As she lowered it gently, smoke rose in soft tendrils against the wallpaper.
“Ascella,” purred a soft yet dangerous voice from the oppressive darkness, “I see you have a lot to learn.” Silence came from the silhouette in the window. “I can guide you.” Smoke still rose from the candle beside her and the wick glowed orange. A slight sigh from outside brought candle's flame flickering back to life in the damp air.
* * * * *
Ascella shivered in the dark interior of her woven prison. A terrible silence came from the outside of her hiding place. She waited. A series of shuffling steps made her heart flutter in fear. A door slammed open as she heard steel slip against sheath. Still more steps. Slow stuttering steps shifting strength and stealth. Ascella heard the squeak of old wood and a gasp of surprise. She heard screaming and pleading and pain; there were many quick movements and sounds. Then all was once again quiet.
The tears Ascella had been holding back poured down her face. Her sobs were stifled by the wicker basket that was both her prison and protection. She huddled deep inside the woven shell where her mother had concealed her, inside her small house, under the shining sun and cluttered clouds. She was only three years old and already alone.
* * * * *
Ascella stretched her arms back behind her head so far that her fingers brushed against the wall. Her toes hung over the end of her bed after she had shaken the last of her nightmare away. She rolled over to get up out of her entangled sheets but instead fell heavily on the floor. Pulling her feet back under herself, she stood up slowly. Seeing that the sun was already high in the sky, she scrambled to strap on her armor. She grabbed her single-pointed spear and strutted out the door only to be sent right back inside by her friend and superior, Nicholas, because half of her armor was on backwards.
* * * * *
She stood at the edge of the cliff, her chest heaving up and down with the deep breaths of air that she swallowed painfully. Slick sweat shimmered down her face as the very last enemy warrior wove through his fallen comrades. Seeing Ascella perched on the edge of the cliff, he rushed upon her to seek vengeance by steel. Ascella parried and held his blow but the rock and sand under her feet shifted and sent her tumbling down the steep face of the mountain. She bounced and rolled with rocks and stones tumbling after her until the slope began to even out and she slid the rest of the way down on her bottom. The warrior let down his guard and laughed until Nicholas silenced him with a blow from his blade.
Ascella dropped her two-headed spear at her side, holding in her frustration. Grating her teeth, she clutched her head in her scraped and dusty hands as the sun set behind her.
* * * * *
The air seemed starched in the ornate tent with the red and gold embroidered cloth panels that seemed to have been pressed into perfection. Ascella sat down in the uncomfortable straight-backed chair on one side of a table covered with a red flag and piles of pristine red papers. Her commander sat crossly across from her, hands folded tightly under his chin as he watched her squirm in the stiff silence.
“You,” he began, “have failed to eliminate the Target.” He glared at Ascella down his nose as she stared at her feet. “You must understand that I, as your commander, cannot accept this.”
“He is too powerful!” Ascella blurted out before she could catch herself. She turned away and looked down at the floor. “I'm sorry, Nicholas.”
“I know, Ascella. The power in his voice and persuasion is great. Yet I have already given you many chances, and it seems you cannot hold your rank.” He sighed and for a moment a concerned look passed over his face. “I will have to report that you do not deserve three spear points if you cannot prove yourself in this assignment.”
* * * * *
Ascella climbed the side of the steep, rough tower. She felt light and insubstantial in the dry air. The warm stone barely held her grip as her sweaty palms clung to the surface. Her head was tilted up so she would not see the ground while sweat ran in rivulets down her temples. Her fingers grasped the ledge she was searching for, and cool stone greeted her skin as she pulled herself onto the thin lip of granite. There she waited under the protection of a wider ledge until night crashed out of the heavens and darkened the earth.
She slithered up the next ledge and crouched in the window and reached for the candle snuffer that she knew would be there. Smooth smoky wisps rose from the stub of wax as she put out the candle's remains.
A voice, once powerful and slick, now rasped out from the darkness within the room. “I see that you are still just as incompetent as when we first met. Perhaps it is not too late for you to accept my tutelage.”
“You are wrong. I have learned far more on my own than you could ever teach me.” Ascella hissed.
She raised her heavy spear and ended his life. As the golden bell tied to the spear-shaft jingled, the candle's wick blackened and smoked before finally ceasing to burn.