by R.L. Oram
Animals flew or scurried away to hide behind sheltered safety, as the sound of boots striking rock echoed out of the ravine below. The woods became eerily quiet. Janice stood motionless, peering down the trail toward her pursuers. She was weary and cold, her breath forming a heavy cloud of steam as she panted. The sound of clinking steel renewed her energy, but knew too, she could not keep this pace up much longer. Poised to run, she watched a moment longer, hoping they would take a side trail, giving her time to regain some lost energy.
The tangled tops of this ancient forest kept most of the snow from reaching the ground. That made tracking her a little harder, but the hounds did not need tracks to find a trail. They would pick up her scent again soon enough. This was an unknown land to her. She thought of leaving the trail, but reason told her that it would not be the wisest idea. Someone had made it, so it had to go someplace. She tried not to think about where it ended, focusing instead on being the fastest root to travel. Speed is what she needed now and dodging branches, trees, and other unknown obstacles were out of the question.
A bearded face rose up from the ravine, looking right at her with an evil looking visage. He yelled over his shoulder, pointing in her direction. The language was unfamiliar, but she knew he was telling the rest of his company to hurry. There came a response of cries and howls from farther behind. Voices on both sides were much closer. A few more moments and they would be on her. Knowing the only escape was to press on, she turned and fled.
After the rise, the trail plunged to the valley floor. No sign of excitement showed; descending the hill with manacles on being almost as challenging as the climb up. Falling, more than running down the steep incline, she gained little distance. A few loud commands came from behind her followed by a large commotion. Her heart sank. They let the hounds loose. There was no way she could outrun them.
The trail veered sharply to the right just ahead. Panicked, she slowed little, barely making the turn. A quick glance revealed a deep chasm on her left and an idea formed in her mind. Stopping as fast as she could, she looked back at the curve. It was not quite dusk, but the low light might just work for what she had in mind. There were only a few moments before they were on top of her and she was not sure she could even do what she wanted. She wasn’t even certain the trick would work.
Janice stood staring at the point she wanted it to happen. Desperately, she tried to remember how she had seen it done. With hands outstretched in front of her, she tried to pull the image out of her head. The bindings prevented her arms from moving the way she needed and nothing happened. She tried again, this time with just her fingers doing the movements. Still, nothing and now the hounds were only strides away. Tears began to well up in her eyes. She felt hopeless and knew her life was about to end. Frantically, she put all her intent through thought and motion, releasing her will.
Darkness suddenly appeared in front of her. It was nothing spectacular. A small, lightless orb that barely covered curve and cliff. The cries and crashing that resounded from below, verified that it had worked. The hounds, running at full speed, had no time to avoid the darkness and could not see the edge they plummeted off of. She felt a sudden sadness for the creatures, but accepted that it was necessary and turned to run on.
Large muscular hands wrapped like a vice around her waist, roughly picking her up off the ground. Surprised at how stupid she was for letting him sneak up on her, she let out an angered scream. Kicking and flailing to loosen his grip, she reached toward his face to scratch his eyes. He was far too large and her reach could not make the distance. Her nails landed on his neck, but did little damage. She could feel his muscles tighten as his free hand grabbed the chain and in one forceful motion, pulled her arms over and behind her head.
With her head tilted back, she could see the expression on his face and that brought new waves of fear. There was something far worse than death planned behind those sinister eyes. He held her tighter and did not loosen his grip until she stopped struggling. With a fierce howl, he tilted his head to the sky and shouted something in that language she did not understand. Whether of victory or claiming his prize, he did not pause for any reply. He just started down the trail without waiting for his companions.
They had come to the end of the trail just before nightfall, including seven other men involved in the chase. There, they found what looked like an abandoned tower of some kind, jutting out over the cliff face. It was a tower in that it had a round stone foundation and a few partial walls. The upper levels had all collapsed over time and only the stone slab first floor and a part of the second floor remained. A fireplace stood on one remaining wall, where they made a cooking fire. There was an intact cellar, though, and they closed Janice down there as soon as discovered.
It was dark in this corner of the cellar. There were no windows and the slab exit closed. Other than a few cracks in the deteriorating mortar, there was no light. She was born and spent all her life in the darkness of the deep places. Captured and forced to live on the surface, this felt close to home. She was not going home and she was not going to be someone’s plaything or a slave. It took several moments to force her eyes to adjust, but she could now see in the dark again.
She could hear the muffled voices and hideous laughing through the floor above. It would not be long before they turned their attention back her way. She did not want to stay trapped in some old basement when that happened. Determined to be free, she searched the tiny room. The outer walls were too heavy to push, but there was an alcove that had much smaller stone insets. If a few of those came loose, there might be a chance to tunnel out. If that failed, a few stones would make a fine weapon, a final stand. Once, lucky enough to escape, perhaps she could do it again. There were not eight of them the first time, though.
Her long years in the wilds of dark caverns, caves and every kind of connecting underground passages, had heightened her senses in these kinds of surroundings. Where she first saw only an alcove, she found to be much more. She could smell a passage beyond what was actually a stoned up doorway. It was an old passage leading deep into some even older rock. Excitement building she pulled at the stones. Try as she might, they would not budge. It seemed as if something unnatural was keeping them in place or teasing her with knowledge that she could never use.
She could hear footsteps heading for the slab that covered her basement prison. Her mind raced and she could feel her heart beating faster. She looked over the floor again for any kind of makeshift weapon, but there was none to be had. She could hear the slab lifting and saw the light from the fire spilling down the stairway. They would be coming for her and she could not defend herself. Putting her back against the alcove, she braced herself for what she knew was about to happen next.
The alcove wall swung open without warning and she fell backward into the passageway. Lying on the floor, she heard the click and watched the door swing closed again. There were more muffled voices, but these ones sounded angry. Then the sound of metal crashing on the stone was all that she could hear. Sliding away from the doorway, still on her back, she wondered how long this run of luck would hold. The pounding began to intensify and dust was showering down from the ceiling and walls. Determined to break through as they were, she needed to move and now.
Janice gathered her wits enough to pick herself up. She moved down the corridor at speed, until coming to a steep stairway going down. Designed for someone much shorter than her, she took the steps two at a time. This complex had been cut from living stone with a precision, she had not encountered before. She wanted to study it, but was more interested in saving her skin. She promised herself to return one day if she survived long enough.
The last step landed her in a much wider corridor. She could see the passage opened into a large room with a dim glow, beyond. She recognized its source, but could not quite remember what exactly it was or where she had seen it before. The muffled sound of breaking stone pushed her forward, foregoing any caution. They were going to break through that wall soon and she knew she needed to be far gone when they did. She ran headlong into the room.
Her breath caught when she saw what was producing that glow. She tried to swallow, but her entire body began shaking with terror and would not let her. She let out a small whimper. It took all her will, just to breath again. Luck was playing evil tricks on her today and it was becoming tiresome. Tears started to form and this time, there was nothing to stop them. She had released the thing imprisoned here and now knew that she was going to find out what suffering was all about.
“Why does one weep?”
The voice was gentle and surprised her. She could understand what it was saying. She forced her eyes to look up and saw not a beast, but a young being with soft features and deep blue hypnotizing eyes. She wanted to fall into those eyes and forget all else that has happened. Her mind was calm.
“You need not fear me, child. I am in your debt for releasing me. How did you come to be in this place?”
The being’s voice was almost musical. It was full of life and energy. She did not fear him. “I was escaping from capture,” she held up her shackled hands to show him, “I came from a place above here, by accident.”
“I see,” he said with an eyebrow raised. “Well, that is only a minor thing and I’d be most happy to fix it, if permitted.”
He continued to gaze into her eyes, as if peering into her very soul. There was a calming nature in those eyes and his speech. She did not think twice about it, as she walked forward, holding her arms out to him. He touched the locking pin holding one band closed and it fell out like butter. He did the same to the second. There were no words or gestures. He touched them and they fell away.
“How did you do that?”
“I asked them to fall and they listened, nothing more. I could teach it to you, if you’d like. You were born with a gift that you do not know how to use and I could guide you.”
He smiled at her in a playful way. It was a smile that reminded her of the first time she smelled a flower. Something beautiful and relaxing. Like a dream for the senses.
A clamor came from the stairway and she turned to see torchlight growing in the corridor. Her time was up. They would have her now. She could feel her heart racing once more and her breathing became more shallow. She turned to run, but stopped. The one she released from the stasis prison was standing in her way. He was looking past her to where her pursuers were about to emerge.
“They are men, are they not?” he questioned in even tones.
“I don’t know. I once saw a man when I was younger, but he was off in the distance and I didn’t get a good look.”
“They smell like men, slave trader men. I despise slave traders, men or otherwise.” A scowl formed on his face and his brow deepened. He put his hand on her shoulder and whispered into her ear, “Ask them to leave. Don’t do it gentle.”
For some reason, that hand on her shoulder stopped any questions she might have. It was not only reassuring, but empowering. Doubt slipped away, replaced by confidence. She stood as tall as she could, focusing on what she had to do. She knew it all along, but only now does she understand exactly what to do and how to do it. She held her arms over her head and waited. She felt like a coiled viper about to strike.
The men stepped slowly into the room. One by one they circled the two figures standing at its center. They saw their prize and were eager to have it. She was not sure if they even noticed the other person standing beside her, so fixated were their eyes. As one, they raised club or rope and stepped forward.
“Stop!” she shouted. Ignoring her demand, they continued.
“Stop!” she said it louder, but this time, she let the shackles fall to the floor.
The bindings hit the floor with a loud metallic ring. The men stopped, mesmerized by what they just saw. It did not last long and they started to run towards her. They knew she had no way out. It was over.
She dropped her arms, hands clenched in tight fists at her side. When they were five steps away, she closed her eyes and put all intent into her will. “Leave,” she whispered.
She breathed deep as long moments passed. There was no other sound. When she opened her eyes, they were gone. She felt the hand squeeze her shoulder. Without thinking, she put her hand on his. Then she turned and threw both arms around him. Through happy sobs, she could only get out, “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me. I only showed you what needed doing. You’re the one who figured out how.”
“I don’t even know what to call you or why you were in that prison.”
He touched her cheek with a gentle hand and wiped away a tear. “I am Elden Que’m Alum, my child and my imprisonment is a much longer story. I don’t even know the current year.”
She nuzzled her face into his chest. It was comforting. The most comforting thing she had ever felt. “I’m known as Janice, of House Devon. I don’t know the surface calendar. I am sorry.”
“My dear Janice, why don’t we go up and find out together. I still have much to teach you and I would love your company.”
He bent down to kiss her on the forehead, but she looked up at that exact moment. Their lips met and the rest, as they say, is history.