Clouds cloaked the moon. Perhaps it would have been full if it was visible, the Gatekeeper speculated. He liked seeing the harvest moon caught in the trees through the gatehouse window. When it was near the horizon it seemed bigger. Almost supernatural.
But not that night.
That night, the darkness seemed all-pervading. Stars winked and dimmed as the clouds shifted across the sky, carrying the hidden moon with them. The wind sighed and whispered, sharing secrets with the swaying trees and grass. A cricket's chirp hung eerie in the misty air.
The Gatekeeper waited.
The watchtower bell clanged, its reverberating tones echoing through the fog. It was two in the morning. The Gatekeeper yawned and scratched his beard. Seconds dragged into minutes, minutes dragged into hours. The chirping of the crickets and the soft wind blowing mingled into a constant, relaxing drone. He drifted off.
And then the knock.
At first the Gatekeeper did't notice it – the dull thud seemed to blend into his misty dreams. But it came again, the sound of a solid, heavy fist pounding the wood. The Gatekeeper sat up in his rough wooden chair and blinked, groping for the keys. Shaking sleep from his eyes, he rose, stumbling about the dark room, lit only by a dim gas lamp. Finding a candle, the Gatekeeper touched it to the lamp, igniting it, then made his way to the door.
The stranger was about to pound again when the Gatekeeper slid the small eye-level window open, holding up his candle.
"Who goes there?" he said gruffly. He couldn't speak any other way at four o'clock in the morning on a miserable and chilly autumn night. "State your name."
The responding voice contained gruffness to match his own, and yet it belonged to a woman. The Gatekeeper squinted, straining to see the stranger. He was able to distinguish a hooded figure in the fog. "What's that? Ebony?"
"It's my name."
"You got a surname?"
"Where you from?"
"I don't have a home."
The Gatekeeper frowned. "What's your business in Calanthe?"
"Just passing through."
"You'll have to tell me more than that. Plan to see anyone in particular? Do anything?"
"I'll stay at the inn, maybe. Not going to see anyone."
"Alright. Are you carrying any weapons?"
A grim laugh carried through the mist. "You better come out and see for yourself."
The Gatekeeper didn't like that laugh. He removed his sword from its hook on the wall and carefully unbolted the door. He stared in awe and amazement at the girl before him.
She stood with her cloak thrown back and arms spread wide. Dark olive green pants hung wide and baggy around thick black boots. Her blouse was once white and was covered by a worn leather vest. The blouse was unbuttoned low and beneath it the glimmer of chainmail was visible. She clanked softly as she moved – her whole body was covered with belts and buckles and straps. And knives. Everywhere, glimmering darkly. Sheathed in her waistband, strapped to her legs, draped across her back along with a quiver of arrows and a bow. Wild ash brown locks were strung in a loose braid that hung over her shoulder, decorated intricately with beads, hemp and dye. A dirty red kerchief slanted sideways across her forehead, lending her an air of mischief.
The Gatekeeper realized that his mouth was wide open, and snapped it shut. The girl could not be older than eighteen – younger than his own daughter! As if he would let his daughter parade around at night covered in knives! The Gatekeeper discreetly pinched himself behind his back, wondering when he would wake up from what had to be a dream. He closed his eyes for a moment, but when they opened again the girl still stood before him, looking amused. Her lips twitched upwards cynically and vivid green eyes flashed. "Not what you expected, I presume."
The Gatekeeper swallowed, wetted his lips, shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I – I can't let you into the city like that, you know."
"Of course I know, but why? You work for the government, don't you? They don't care what happens to anyone. And you're afraid that I'm going to hurt people."
"I don't work for the government, that's the thing. I work for this city. And I'm not in it for the money. I just want to protect my home, my people."
"I must say, that's not an attitude shared by many these days."
The Gatekeeper averted his eyes guiltily, like a beaten dog. "You wouldn't understand," he stuttered. "We all know the government doesn't give a thought for our welfare, but in Calanthe, we defend ourselves and our people. People like you…it's different—"
The girl interrupted in disgust. "People like me? You think I'm a criminal? A mercenary, perhaps? Here, look at this." From a hidden pouch in her belt she produced a strange device. It had a curved ivory handle and two long silver tubes that protruded, open at the end.
"What is it?" the Gatekeeper breathed.
"It's called a gun. Standard government issue."
"What do they do with it?"
"And you got a hold of one? See, I knew you were a mercenary!"
"Oh, not so at all, I assure you." The girl seemed to take this accusation as a complement. "You see, guns are government issue only. Absolutely no one else can get their hands on them."
"Are you trying to tell me you work for the government?" he looked around nervously then continued, as if it was a dirty word, "the Liberators?"
"Quite the opposite again! Not very bright, are you?" The girl said. "I killed a soldier and snatched this off him. Don't you see? I feel the same way that you do. I'm against the government. I'd do anything to remove the filthy dictators!"
"I – I don't know if I believe you, and I still can't let you into the city so armed." The Gatekeeper grimaced. "I could lose my job, and how would I support my family?"
"I thought you said you weren't in it for the money."
"Look," the Gatekeeper said, aggravated. "I'm not going to discuss this with you, because frankly, it isn't your business. I can't let you into Calanthe because I don't know who you are, and more importantly, I don't know that I can trust you. As it is, I'm afraid you don't have a very good chance of survival in there. Strangers are not accepted well in my city. "
"That's apparent," the girl rolled her eyes, blowing a stray wisp of hair out of her face.
"Now see here, miss." The Gatekeeper was quickly becoming agitated. "If I let you in, and you are discovered, I will be to blame and most likely lose my job. I cannot risk that. Not for you."
"Ah, ah, forgive me, Gatekeeper," she said. "I think we can reach an agreement. Look at this." With swift movements, the girl tucked her knives and quiver out of sight. They disappeared behind the billowing black cloak into hidden pockets, and into the girl's thick boots. Within a minute no weapon was visible. She stood tall, no longer clanking, an ever-present grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. "See," she said, "You never knew I had any weapons, alright? So you're innocent, and I'm free to enter the city."
The Gatekeeper hesitated, unable to make up his mind. "How can I be sure I'm not going to regret this?"
"To be honest with you, you can't. But believe me. I'm just passing through and all I want is one peaceful day at the inn. I won't hurt anyone. You have my word. Your city is safe."
The Gatekeeper nodded, doubt and uncertainty playing across his face. If I let her in, chances are I'll never hear from her again. But if I refuse or raise the alarm she'll kill me in a heartbeat. "Aye, I suppose." His eyes were downcast as he stepped over to unbolt the gate. He reluctantly placed the key in the giant iron padlock and swung the gate open.
The girl smiled, her eyes glinting as gears in her mind processed unseen thoughts. "Thank you, Gatekeeper." She fingered the hidden ivory handle at her belt.