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“I took my bruises, took my lumps, fell down and got right back up.”
–“Beautiful”, Marshall Mathers
“They’re here!” Mother whispered in panic, her eyes wild. “Who?” I asked, not sure whether to be confused or frightened but decided on both. “The soldiers,” she spat, adding a word I didn’t know. She began rummaging under the bed in a frenzy. I watched her, perplexed, but not daring to ask when something was so obviously weighing on her mind. Finally, she withdrew a small necklace. I had never seen such finery in a poor peasant village. She approached me solemnly and forced the necklace into my hands. I tried to give it back to her, not knowing why she chose now to give me a piece of jewelry. She pushed it back into my hand, curling my fingers over it. “Take it! Go to the forest and stay there until I come get you!” she ordered, pushing me toward the door. “Why?” I asked, resisting. “Revolts are not for children. There are many things you will never understand,” she replied, pushing me to the door. I heard a clamor as the soldiers attempted to enter the village. “Go!” Mother urged with a final shove. Spooked by Mother’s manner, I ran to the woods swiftly, constantly looking back. If I had known what would happen next, I would have never left. If I had stayed my life might be very different, or, more likely, not at all.
Every month the soldiers would come to collect tribute and leave, simple as that. I didn’t know what tribute was, but I knew that the adults spoke of it in angry voices. As I ran to the forest, I saw another figure fleeing the village. I looked closer and discovered it to be the boy next door with the purple eyes. I hardly knew anything about him as he avoided all of the other children. He was an orphan living off the help of others, never staying with one person for long. I waved to him, but he veered away and sped into the forest like a frightened animal. I could tell he was just as scared as I was. I slipped into the forest as the uproar reached its zenith. I turned to look, but made out little. Then I got an idea.
I began running toward what the others call "Lookout Hill" as it rose high above the treetops. I knew the forest like the back of my hand and had reached my destination in a matter of minutes. I scrambled up the steep banks until I reached the top. I peered toward the village and nearly fell over the steep edge in shock. Bright tongues of flame danced across the thatched rooftops, sending up deathly black smoke. I had no idea what was happening and raced down the hill as fast I could, half running and half sliding. In my haste, I tripped and rolled down the hill colliding with a tree. “Ow,” I complained, rubbing my side. Only now I remembered the necklace I still held tightly in my fist, the surprisingly sharp tip digging into my hand. I looked for the first time at the pendant. It was a silver broadsword with a small jewel embedded in the hilt. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my simple life. Rarely did any nobility pass, but when they did, they always put on opulent displays of wealth, some women wearing jewelry like this, although never this plain. I couldn’t fathom why Mother had given it to me, but I could speculate upon that later. I was needed elsewhere.
I resumed sprinting through the forest in the village’s direction with the feeling that I should have never left. As I reached the village, the fire was already smoldering. Hardly anything was still standing and all was eerily quiet. “Mother!” I called desperately, my voice traversing the entire empty village. I stumbled through the burnt debris, searching for someone, anyone at all. I did not feel the broken pottery pierce my bare feet or the dying fire burn my skin; I felt absolutely nothing. Then, I found my house, or what was left of it. All that remained was a portion of blackened mud. Then I saw a sight that I will never forget, my mother.
Her body lay peacefully on the blackened earth as if she were sleeping. But, young as I was, I knew better than to hope she was merely sleeping. A small pool of blood had formed around her, making her death painfully clear. My mother, my only family, was dead and I was completely alone. I leaned against the wall, still warm from the dead flames, oblivious to the loud voices coming from the other side of the burnt village. Nothing registered in my grief, only the raw pain tearing viciously at my heart, like a starved wolf at a fat deer. I yanked off the necklace in mourning and fumbled with it, replaying the last time I had seen my mother, only a few minutes ago. I tried to push the image of her still form laying lifeless a foot in front of me. I wanted desperately to curl up and die. But that thought was soon brushed away by an immense hatred. I wanted revenge. I gripped the sword pendant as if it were a real sword, pretending to skewer my mother’s murderer. I could imagine the full-length sword in my hand, ready for vengeance. But wait, could I still be imagining the sword or did I truly feel the sword’s weight in my hand?
I slowly extended my other hand, reaching for where the imaginary blade was. To my great surprise, I felt the cold touch of metal beneath my fingertips. I dropped the sword in astonishment, resulting in a loud clanking noise as it hit the ground. The imprint of a sword was obvious in the dust, but all I saw was the small necklace. My mind raced, but there could only be one solution. I was not particularly bright, but the answer, fantastical as it seemed, was clear enough to me. The necklace was the sword, or vice-versa. I gingerly picked up the sword pendant and marveled as it grew into a three-foot sword. I had heard stories of such swords existing, but never believed them, until now anyway. I dropped the sword with a clank and it returned to its original size. I repeated the action again and again, never the less fascinated. What I did not realize was the racket I had created. As I picked up the pendant again I paused, convinced I had heard voices behind me.
“It’s coming from over here!” a male voice said in a rather loud voice meant to be a whisper. “Agreed,” another replied. “Do you think someone actually survived?” the first asked, almost incredulously. “You know we can’t have survivors,” the other answered. My blood flash froze, and then began to boil. These people were responsible for killing my mother, my only family! I picked up the necklace again, transforming it into a sword. I could avenge the village, or at least my mother. I leapt out from behind the wall and immediately regretted doing so. The two voices belonged to two young, heartless men. My whole body began to tremble in fear. “A child!” the elder one said, laughing at the hopelessness of my plight. I was twelve years old; I was no child! I felt blood rushing to my face, but found myself paralyzed by fear. The two soldiers drew their swords, almost lazily. “I say we use her for an example,” the second said with a cruel smirk. “Perfect,” the other replied. I didn’t like the way he said “example.” “Now, be a good girl and come nicely,” the first said in a sugary, coaxing voice. “You will have to come get me,” I said coldly, raising my sword in challenge. Despite my imminent death, I felt defiant and strangely proud. They advanced and I made a wild slash, cutting the younger one on the cheek. I had no idea how to use a sword, girls were strictly forbidden from even touching them. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how my mother had gotten this sword. He growled, the cut was small, hardly bleeding. He retaliated with a sweeping gash across my sword arm. I screamed, just managing not to drop the sword. I took the sword in my left hand stubbornly; despite the burning pain in my right arm that made me want pass out from the pain. The soldiers looked surprised to see me still standing. I made another wild cut, more successful this time. I cut a small gash in the taller man’s shoulder. I could not fight much longer though. Hot pain seared my limp arm, now stained red with blood. I began to run to the forest. The soldiers laughed in sadistic delight and began to catch up easily. I sprinted faster, willing my sword to shrink. I threw the necklace over my head just before the soldiers caught up. I had nowhere to run, but the soldiers would never take Mother’s necklace. I sank down on my knees, giving in to the intense pain, praying for the end to come quickly. “Child!” a soldier spat and the hilt of his sword connected with the side of my head and I fell into a pain-filled blackness.
I woke with a throbbing headache. As my situation returned to me, I felt the pain in my arm flood my senses. The deep wound on my arm still bled freely. My hands were crudely tied and I discovered myself to be flung on top of a horse. I sat up and nearly passed out again. “Look who woke up, just in time too!” a soldier jeered, starting a fit of mocking laughter. I looked around and discovered myself to be entering a small village similar to mine before it was razed. I struggled and fell off the horse, winding myself. I heard another chorus of mocking laughter. A soldier leapt off his horse and tied a piece of rope to my shackles. Without waiting for me to stand, he mounted his horse and yanked on the cord, causing me to stumble. In this manner, I was paraded to the town center. A crowd of onlookers gathered to gawk at me, nervously eyeing the soldiers. When we reached the announcement platform, I was tied to a pole, like a slave. I tugged at the cord, trying to wiggle free. I felt the ropes loosen and I felt that I could escape them at any moment. I was tempted to run now, but I knew to try while I was still surrounded by soldiers would be futile. I stopped and listened as the soldiers began their announcement to the hushed crowd. “We have heard rumors of rebellion stirring here,” the leader started. A nervous whisper rippled through the crowd and I guessed the rumors were true. “The nearby village of Inizio tried to rebel as many of you were probably aware. Everyone died, except for her,” he said with a gesture toward me. All eyes were on me. I averted my eyes and glared at the ground, seething. “Let her death be a warning to you all,” he concluded with a morbid satisfaction. I now looked up and saw the crowd ripple with anger, but no one made a move to aid me.
The soldier proceeded to draw his sword and walk slowly and meaningfully toward me. His sword was already stained with blood. I needed to escape, now. I jerked my hands downward and broke free. I began to charge through the crowd heading for the comforting green of the forest nearby. The onlookers parted for me and closed behind me, blocking the pursuing soldiers. They were helping me! My hopes soared. I wove between the small houses, making my way to the nearby forest.
As I entered the welcoming forest, I searched desperately for a hiding place. I saw a small den and, heedless to what might lurk inside, dove in. I wiggled through just as the soldiers caught up. “Where did she go?” one asked his comrade, perplexed. He was loud, but I did not hear him. My gaze was locked on the other inhabitant of the den, a great gray wolf lying just opposite me. My mind weighed my options. Which was worse, a wolf or soldiers? I watched the wolf, barely breathing, but something seemed off. The wolf’s eyes were glazed and its chest wasn’t moving. It was dead. I felt sad for it, but relieved nonetheless at the easy solution to my dilemma. The soldiers soon left, cursing loudly. Just as I began to leave, I heard a faint yelp. I turned to see a small black bundle pulling itself away from the dead wolf. It was a small black pup. A soft whine heralded another pup, this one light brown. Their ribs were clearly visible through their coats. The sight was so pitiful; I turned and approached the tiny pups. The bigger black pup stumbled toward me fearlessly, awkward on its disproportionate paws. It reached me and pushed against my leg, searching for warmth. The smaller brown pup followed more timidly after its sibling. I glanced quickly at the dead mother, as if asking her permission, even though to do so was absurd. I scooped up the pups in my arms and held them to my chest and felt their small hearts beating. They snuggled into me and fell promptly asleep, trusting me, a complete stranger with their safety. I felt deeply touched, their trust filling part of the recently opened tear in my heart. They were like me, alone and helpless. “Don’t worry,” I said, stroking their soft fur. “We’ll find a way to live,” I said, feeling a fresh wave of determination. The black pup woke briefly and gazed up at me with intelligent blue eyes. I swore it understood my every word. It went back to sleep, nuzzling against my chest. Despite my pain, I smiled.
I put the pups down gently and proceeded to rip off the lower portion of my tunic. I wrapped it around my bicep tenderly. I hoped it would serve as an adequate bandage. I then fell asleep, right next to the little wolves.
Something nipped my ear none too gently. I brushed at it, accidentally swatting the brown pup in the face. It whined in complaint and removed its needle sharp teeth from my ear. I smiled; misery loves company. I woke up fully and became aware of the urgency of my plight. “We need food,” I stated simply, although to whom, I didn’t know. The black pup gave a bark of agreement. “How though?” I asked, still addressing no one in particular. To this, the pup simply looked at me, the answer seeming to be written in its eyes. “The town,” I said, but immediately decided against it. To start, I had no money to buy food. “Do you think someone could help me again?” I asked, now asking the little pup, hope tinting my voice. The little pup gave me a look that practically said, “We’ll just have to hope.”
“Stay here, I’ll be back. Probably,” I said, exiting the cave. I walked toward the town cautiously. As I left the tree’s cover, I felt painfully obvious. I started to think the village was a very bad idea, albeit my only one. I strode into the marketplace and the place seemed to freeze in surprise. With wary looks around, the villagers began to smile in a mischievous manner. Had I made the wrong choice? Were they about to turn me in? But my fears were in vain. Just before I could bolt, an elderly woman approached me and handed me a pouch of dried strips of meat wordlessly. “Thank you very much,” I said. She simply nodded and shuffled off hurriedly. A young boy then approached me and shoved a loaf of bread towards me reluctantly. As soon as I took it, he ran back to his mother nervously. “Thank you. I truly appreciate everything,” I said, not knowing what else to say. I wasn’t very good with polite words. Vulgar words and snide remarks I was very good with in contrast though. The adult villagers simply nodded knowingly before turning back to their busy chores, as if nothing had happened.
I quickly returned to the forest and entered the cramped den. As soon as the pups smelled the meat they began to run in circles in their excitement. I laughed at their antics and placed a majority of the meat on the ground. They leapt on it and practically inhaled it. Thirty seconds later, the ground was spotless. The pups licked their chops and looked at me expectantly. For being so small, they had quite an appetite. I saved a strip for myself and gave the pups the rest. They devoured this just as quickly, but did not beg for more. They curled up next to me and took a nap. Apparently wolf pups need to sleep most of the time.
I ate the rest of the food greedily and left the cave in search of more. I couldn’t beg at the village anymore, as it was a great risk to the whole town and me. I wandered a short distance and began searching the ground for anything edible. I found a few small bland roots, which I placed inside the pouch I had gotten the meat in. I meandered further until I heard the quiet trickle of water. I quickly reached the stream. I knelt next to it and drank the icy cold water. I retrieved the roots from my pouch and continued to wash them. After finishing, I looked around and found a small berry bush. I recognized the bright red berries from home. I bit back tears at the memory and hurriedly picked the berries in an effort to distract myself, the memory was still painfully raw. I returned to the den to find the pups still asleep. As I entered, they stirred. I pulled out the pouch and left them sniff it. Upon failing to find any meat, they left in disappointment, allowing me to eat some of the contents unhindered.
When I finished I looked at the pups, which were tussling playfully at the moment, snarling and yelping as they pounced and rolled. “I wonder what your names are,” I said to myself quietly. The black pup left its sibling and boldly climbed onto my lap. “I’m Nuvola!” it yipped cheerfully. “Did you talk?” I asked, taken aback and beginning to question my sanity. “Of course! ” she replied merrily. “Then how can I understand you?” I asked. Perhaps the berries were rotten and I was hallucinating. That was probably the reason! “Are you as stupid as a rabbit? You have been using wolf-speak ever since you got here! What do you mean ‘How do I understand you?’” she answered. “Never mind,” I said, only a little less confused. I rubbed my temples but decided not to fight my delirium. “What’s your name?” I asked the brown pup. “Varen!” she replied with a little jump as she joined her sister on my lap. Their little claws dug into my legs. “Who are you?” Varen asked. “Mandisa,” I answered. I wasn’t sure if I liked my name anymore. In just a few days, it had become the name of a criminal.
The next day, I left the cave at dawn, being unable to sleep. I wandered and took out my sword. I needed to learn how to use it. I tried to remember how the soldiers held their blades. I mimicked their posture and position as best as I could. The position felt natural enough although still somewhat awkward. I swung the sword and nearly knocked myself off my feet. Note to self, a little less power is needed. I tried again and managed to stay mostly on balance. I played with the sword a while, finally getting a feel for how to use it without knocking myself over. I spent hours toying with it, trying to puzzle out every way to use it.
In the evening, I stopped, remembering I needed to find meat for the pups. After a quick search, I found a tree with slender limbs. Using my sword, I cut off a few branches and began to fashion a snare. I wasn’t a hunter, but I had learned to make a decent snare in my village, Inizio. It was one of the few things there girls and boys were both allowed to do. I progressed to make two more snares and started searching for places to put them. I placed them and returned to the den.
Nuvola walked up to me and asked quite simply, “Food?” “Not yet,” I answered. Apparently I wasn’t crazy, they were talking! She looked crestfallen and moped back to her sister. Feeling guilty, I left again to try to find something. Without a bow and arrow my chances were low, but I had to try. I couldn’t expect an animal to walk into one of the snares everyday. I would have to hunt, at least until the pups learned to. It wasn’t long before I found a small brown rabbit.
It sat nervously chewing on a seed. I crept as quietly as I could close to it. The rabbit froze and its nose twitched, it had smelled me! I ran at it as it bolted. I swung my sword, but I was unskilled with it. The rabbit easily outran me. I cursed my bad luck, but what could I expect? Chasing an animal with a sword is a pretty inefficient hunting method. Then I heard a snapping noise. I went to investigate and found the rabbit had run into one of my snares, one I had forgotten was nearby. Perhaps luck hadn’t abandoned me after all! The pups would be happy tonight! I quickly dispatched it and began running back to the den. Even before I entered the pups rushed out to greet me, salivating madly at the smell of the fresh rabbit. “Open your mouth” I said. “Why?” Nuvola asked. “Just do it,” I said as sternly as I could muster. Nuvola obeyed, her little teeth were sharp, but not quite strong enough for raw meat. I climbed into the cave and began to shred the meat with my sword as best as I could as the two pups watched me intently, not taking their eyes off the rabbit for a moment, staring at the meat hungrily. When I finished, I laid the meat in a pile. The two pups leapt on it ferociously and began to devour the meat as if they hadn’t eaten just yesterday. The two pups gorged themselves on rabbit, eating the whole thing until their stomachs bulged. They curled up for a nap, looking impossibly full. I swore they looked ready to burst. Despite the trouble they caused, I was glad they were there. I finished the contents of yesterday’s pickings and left the den again.
I strolled to a small clearing and drew my sword. I practiced with it ceaselessly. I tried moving with it in hand. It seemed to come naturally enough, simply an extension of the arm, a very sharp extension. I slashed and thrust and lunged at an invisible opponent. My arm, which was still healing from my brief capture, ached, but I ignored it. I would need to learn to fight someday! I danced around twirling and slashing with the sword, as the shadows grew longer. I felt as if swordplay was in my blood, it came easily to me. Before I knew it, the moon was shining brilliantly down upon me. Only then did I feel fatigued and threw the necklace back on. I would practice again tomorrow. I returned to the den and found the worried looking pups wandering around the den. “Did you miss me?” I joked. “Tell us before you leave next time!” Varen scolded. “And interrupt your nap?” I retorted. Varen simply gave a play growl and jumped on me with a small yip of playfulness. Nuvola barreled after her, ramming her soft little head into my stomach and managed to wind me slightly. “Get her!” Nuvola growled and pounced on my arm and nipped it. “Hey!” I said, pushing her off. Varen pulled on my hair from behind. “Two against one isn’t fair!” I complained although I really didn’t mind. I wrestled with them a while and acquired a handful of small bite marks, but didn’t care. I wouldn’t need to feel concerned about them learning to fight at least. If only I could teach them how to hunt. Then I got an idea.
The next morning I woke early. Remembering yesterday, I whispered in Varen’s ear, “Be back by afternoon.” She growled at me for waking her up. So much for wanting me to tell them where I was going! I left and checked my snares and found a small mouse. Perfect. I erected a small cage of willowy branches and put the frightened mouse inside. “Sorry, but how else will the pups learn to hunt?” I said. I searched for more plants to eat, the mouse squeaking in its cage. The sun rose higher and I remembered my promise to Varen. I returned to the den and the pups raced out, smelling the mouse. “What is it?” Nuvola asked curiously as she sniffed the frightened mouse. “It’s a mouse, and prey. I’m going to release it and you try to catch it. If you catch it, you can eat it. Understood?” I explained, simple am I right? They both nodded and I saw their instincts already kicking in as they crouched, ready to attack. I walked a couple feet back to give the mouse a chance. The second I opened the door, the mouse darted out and swerved to the left. With a growl, the wolves pursued. They got closer and closer. “Come on! Almost there!” I encouraged. Varen leapt at the mouse but missed as it slipped from between her paws. Nuvola pursued it a little longer before pouncing on it and missing as well. The mouse scampered away into the underbrush. Nuvola turned to me apologetically, moping. “You can’t expect to succeed every time. You’ll get the mouse another day,” I said, patting their little heads. I realized how much I sounded like my mother, bringing tears to my eyes. If she were here she would know what to do. But she was not; I was just going to have to fend for myself.
I practiced with my sword more, starting to feel confident with it. The days turned into weeks and weeks into months. But, I needed a way to test my skills. Is experience not the best teacher? Otherwise, I would never get better. But how could I practice? A single answer appeared to me, soldiers. One night, I returned to the den where the pups awaited restlessly. They were hardly pups anymore though and were quite large. They hardly fit in the den anymore! I had stopped bringing them food as they recently started hunting for themselves, preying mostly on mice and rabbits, but it was undeniably progress. Now I ate all the meat I caught. I had settled well into the outlaw life. I hid in the forest, practicing my blade work and making everything I needed for myself, with the exception of clothes, which I purchased in town. I had even bought myself a pair of sturdy shoes to protect my feet from the debris littering the forest floor. I even decided to hollow out the heel of one so I could store money and herbs when I traveled. I had everything I needed for a relatively easy life isolated from society by the shadows of the forest. I was meant for an outlaw life. “Nuvola, Varen, I will be leaving for a while. I need some way to test my skills with a sword. Would do you like to come with me?” I asked, although I already knew their answers. Their eyes, which were gaining the amber tint of a mature wolf, glittered in excitement. “Yes, yes!” they answered. “Tomorrow then!” I said. “Sleep well!”
The next morning I awoke feeling invigorated, the adrenaline already pulsing plentifully through my veins. The two wolves were already awake and stood next to me impatiently. I quickly devoured some berries and picked up my pack. “Ready?” I asked. “Yeah!” Nuvola answered ecstatically. I left the forest rarely for clothing and every time I left the concealment of the forest I felt extremely visible. This time though, I wanted to be. I walked through the thriving village, drawing hardly more than a look. I blended in well, save my distinctly amber eyes, which gave me away every time. The villagers here knew me well enough and some even greeted me, but never by name. They all knew I was a criminal and did not wish to attract unwanted attention. I soon reached the road and began to walk along it with the wolves hiding in the forest along the road. I soon reached a small village and entered it curiously. The place was deadly quiet. Memories of my home, Inizio, came flooding back to me. I shook them away. I saw eyes peek out from a dark corner. “Here!” a voice called. Looking around I approached the person. “Are you crazy walking around before a revolt?” the person whispered to me as soon as I came near. The man was tall and muscular, but looked nervously over his shoulder every other second. “A revolt?” I asked. This was my chance! “You aren’t from around here are you?” he asked suspiciously. “No, but we share a common enemy. I bring you a warning. Soldiers razed my home during a rebellion. I am the only survivor. You are going to need help. May I aid you?” I asked, trying to sound mature, experienced. “How?” he asked incredulously, “You don’t even have a weapon! Not to mention you are just a girl.” “Well if you don’t want my help,” I said. “No, you can help,” the man said quickly, “But you have to bring your own weapon.” “Let me retrieve it,” I answered and ducked around the corner, taking off the necklace and transforming it. “Voila!” I said, displaying the sword for the man to see. “Fine,” the man agreed, although still incredulous, probably for letting a girl handle a blade unpunished. “Who are you?” he asked as I turned to leave. “Mandisa!” I called and ran off, to the forest. A feeling of dread had settled over me. I told the wolves about the situation. A lupine smile crept over their faces. “What is it?” I asked. “Follow us!” they answered mischievously exchanging a glance.
They walked a short distance into the forest and crouched behind a small hedge. I looked through the hedge and couldn’t believe my eyes. A small tent camp of soldiers was hiding in the forest just outside the town. A long cooled anger inside me began to rage anew. I wanted to tear into camp and seek revenge for my mother and my village. Sensing my urge, Nuvola pounced on me as I started to push through the bush. Her weight pinned me down on the soft forest floor. I took a few deep breaths to calm myself. “Let’s avoid killing our self, shall we?” she said, removing her great paws from my chest. I nodded and stood up. “Let’s go back and tell the town. I don’t want another village burned,” I said, gritting my teeth, the images of burning Inizio dancing through my mind. The wolves simply began walking back in the village’s direction, but I could feel their shared anger rolling off them.
I entered the town and walked back into the shadows where the man had pulled me aside. He was still there and attacked me the second I entered. “Relax!” I said, dodging a spear point. The man froze, recognizing me. “Sorry,” he said, lowering the spear. “I know where the soldiers are hiding,” I said bluntly. He looked surprised and asked disbelievingly, “Where?” “The forest,” I answered, “Bring your men and we can ambush them.” He nodded and ran off. I felt surprised he would trust me so easily. I waited for a while before he returned, followed by about twenty men. I heard some of the men snicker. “Before you criticize me,” I said to some of the men whispering to each other, looking them dead in the eye, daring them to look away, “I’ve survived a rebellion. You haven’t yet. Trust me on this.” They instantly silenced their whispers and some even looked at me with something resembling confusion and respect. “Come,” I beckoned and began to lead them to the forest. I showed them to the camp and they began to become nervous at the sight of so many soldiers. The man I had encountered earlier, apparently the leader, signaled for them to fan out. The setting sun hid the silent men in shadow. Two half amber half blue eyes peered out of the shadows. “Stay put,” I whispered. They blinked and disappeared ruefully.
The man, apparently the rebel leader looked around, making sure all men were in position. “Now!” he yelled suddenly and the villagers charged into the surprised camp from all directions. The startled soldiers sprang into action, grabbing swords. One soldier caught sight of me and smiled. I recognized him instantly, his face forever burned into my memory; he was one of the two soldiers who attacked my town! If I remembered correctly from my blurred memory, his name was Gemein; the word seemed to leave a vile taste in my mouth. I pointed my sword at him in challenge as I had done that fateful day. The world seemed to blur around me in a flurry of noise, motion, and color. Only Gemein remained in sharp focus. He came toward me, whispering something briefly in his comrade’s ear. His comrade ran off, probably to spread a message. The soldier drew his sword and charged me. I sidestepped his attack and tripped him. He toppled but sprang back to his feet. I was not afraid of him anymore. He attacked me again, slashing to the head. I ducked and countered with a slash to his forearm barely missing the artery. He grunted angrily and made a wild swing. I parried and dodged another strike. I danced around him tauntingly. He feinted to my head. I went to parry as he swept his blade around, making a long cut across my abdomen. I doubled over in agony. I had never encountered such a maneuver, particularly one so crippling. I righted myself, clutching my stomach with my other arm. He laughed at me. “Children shouldn’t play with swords!” he taunted. “I am not a child,” I replied, trying to remain calm. Why must I always be called a child? He attacked me again and I sidestepped, tripping him. I quickly placed my foot on his back and pointed my sword at his neck. “Drop your weapon,” I commanded. He released his sword and I put in underneath my other foot. “Ironic isn’t it?” I jeered. I raised my blade for the final strike. My life was climaxed to this very point; vengeance was at hand!
“Yes,” a voice replied from behind me and I felt the sharp edge of a blade push lightly against my throat. “Lift your foot,” the man with his sword at my throat ordered. I obliged furiously and Gemein scurried to his feet. He did not reclaim his sword, but slunk away in disgrace at being beaten by a girl. “Drop your sword,” the man behind me hissed. I was reluctant to do so, if I dropped it, it would become a necklace and if they found out how it worked… I did not want to think of the consequences. My mind raced. “Drop it,” the man ordered. A desperate idea occurred to me. I willed the sword to return to its original size. As it shrank, I pulled it up into my sleeve and kicked Gemein’s sword out from underneath my foot and briefly into the air. My breath froze, would the soldier fall for the translucent trick? To my immense relief, he did. He kicked the sword away. “What’s your name child?” he growled. “I see no child,” I responded. Now was no time for smart remarks, but I couldn’t help myself. It would be the death of me! “Do not play games with me, what is your name?” he snarled, pressing his blade tighter against my throat. “Mandisa,” I spat, “Don’t forget it.” “Well Mandisa, you have a record according to Gemein. Do you know what that means?” he asked, amusement tinting his voice. Before I could answer with a biting remark, another soldier approached. “We have to retreat!” he said urgently. Seeing me he ordered, “Kill her and let’s go!” “She has a record, she’s coming along,” he replied and I could practically hear him smiling maliciously. “Do you have spare shackles?” the soldier with his sword at my throat asked. The other handed him some iron manacles, which were promptly clamped over my wrists. The soldier sheathed his sword, but held my chains in a death-grip. “Come,” the soldier ordered, jerking on my chains.
“You still lost,” I taunted as the rebels pressed closer to the tightly packed soldiers. I was in no position to say such things, but if I was going to die, why not? Typically, if you have a “record” and are being taken somewhere in chains, that somewhere can’t mean anything good. “This time perhaps,” he answered grimly, not denying me. The rebels pushed the soldiers back and someone finally noticed me. “Mandisa!” the man called, pushing towards me. Lightning fast, the soldier guarding me whipped out his sword and put it to my throat. “Come any closer and she dies,” he said, sadistically gleeful. I looked at the man, trying to convince him I would be fine, that he should advance. He misinterpreted my message and ran off into the fray before I could call out. “It appears you may be of some use yet!” the soldier whispered cruelly in my ear. “Get behind me!” the soldier yelled. The rebels were pushing in on us, many of them still remaining, although none were unscathed. “Stop,” the soldier yelled to the furious rebels. They stopped in sheer surprise as they saw me. “Let us leave in peace, or I slit her throat!” he ordered. I looked at the captain, willing him to fight. What was one for many? He saw my message and shook his head. My heart sunk. “Oh, are we important?” the soldier whispered in my ear, “Rebels led by a child! To think!” At the word child, I shoved my elbows into his ribs. I winded him and he looked murderous. “You’ll pay for that you little wretch!” he whispered, delivering a well-aimed blow to my ribs. I doubled over, trying to clutch my ribs, but couldn’t. I saw the rebels lurch forward. The soldier laughed. “Goodbye, for now,” he called to the seething rebels and he pulled me roughly onto his horse and joined his comrades in retreat.
As the soldiers fled, I attempted to staunch the blood from the cut to my abdomen with my arm. Hot blood leaked between my fingers and I felt dizzy from losing blood. To think, after a year, the soldiers had finally caught me. What fate awaited me now? I did not know and didn’t care to learn. I began to lose unconsciousness in waves. I began to slump, my sight blurring and my senses dimming drastically. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw half amber, half blue eyes in the shadows. “Go!” I warned in wolf speak. “What are you doing?” the soldier asked. I ignored him and received a blow to my side. It winded me, but my body had long since gone into shock and lost the ability to register pain. The eyes blinked and I felt relieved. To my dismay, the two wolves leapt from the bracken seconds later, snarling and growling fiercer than a tempest. The soldiers look startled. I half tumbled and half jumped off the horse in the surprise and began to run into the forest. The wolves stood their ground, backing my retreat. I stopped only briefly to thank them. The soldiers drew their swords and charged the wolves. I watched from the shadows. Nuvola and Varen pounced ferociously on the nearby soldiers, their claws extended and jaws open. I heard the soldiers give a yell, but didn’t remain to watch. I ran into the safety of the forest, trying to make the most of my wavering consciousness. Two shapes whipped past me, heading for the road. I did not think what they might be, but focused on my goal, escape. I ran and ran, the battle sounds growing dim. I tripped over a root and stumbled. My energy was spent. I began to slowly crawl forward, but could not stand. With that, unconsciousness finally swept over me, granting me peace. It did not last.
I woke with a pounding headache. I looked around, slowly remembering my plight. I pulled myself up and began running. I did not know where I was going, but anywhere was better than in the hands of soldiers. I heard shouts as I began to run. The soldiers were close behind and I was weak. I sprinted faster, desperate. A dark thought crossed my mind. If the soldiers were here, what had become of Nuvola and Varen? I brushed away the thought and ran faster. “There!” a man called. Like a frightened deer, I raced so fast that I thought my legs might collapse beneath me. But in my weakened state, I was no match for the soldiers. I tripped and fell to the ground. As I lost my balance, I lost all hope of escape. The soldiers fanned around me, swords ready at their sides. I pivoted on my heels, trying to see all enemies at once. Forgetting my necklace in my panic, I put up my fists. They would win inevitably, but not without a fight. I faced the leader, furious. “I applaud your spirit, but you cannot win this fight child. Give up and submit to your fate,” he said in a cold voice, edged with malice. “I am not a child sir, and I will not come without a fight. You will have to try harder to subdue me,” I answered with a surge of defiance, and foolishness. I emphasized my point by spitting at his feet. Already three times today I had said stupid things that more than likely would end in me dying a slow painful death, but it felt good saying them. He looked outraged and gave a signal to his men. They closed in slowly, like sharks. I spun around, trying to see in all directions. A rough hand grabbed me from behind. I struggled, but could not break free of the strong hold. I had failed, again. “Farewell,” he said with a laugh. Something hard connected with my head in an explosion of pain, and I slowly sunk into the all too familiar blackness.
When I awoke, my head felt like it was about to split. Worst of all, I wasn’t on horseback anymore, but locked in a prison cart. I was beyond rescue. As my eyes adjusted, I peered out the window and noticed my escort had grown immensely. Further down the road loomed a massive ugly structure. I knew immediately it was a prison. We rapidly reached the prison, the gates clanged open ominously. As the gates closed, I saw the soldiers visibly relax. My every hope of rescue vanished. The cart door opened and I shrank back, like a wild animal. “Not so brave now are you?” the soldier I recognized as Gemein taunted. Insulted, I pushed my way out of the cart and saw all of the soldiers and prisoners watching from the sidelines look shocked. I felt positive I was the only girl in the entire miserable place. A few guards even laughed at me! I straightened up in a poor attempt to mask my weakness, still gripping my mid-section. Prison is no place for the weak. The soldiers in my escort left except for Gemein. He sneered at me and began whispering things in a guard’s ear. “No need to whisper, I enjoy hearing my accomplishments recognized,” I interrupted. The guard laughed, but Gemein simply glowered and finished in a louder voice, “and escaping capture, twice.” “You are quite a bold child, aren’t you?” the guard said mockingly. “No, I remind you, I am no child,” I answered. Why did everyone call me a child? He laughed mockingly at me. I could tell my stay in prison would include multiple uses of the dreaded word “child.” The guard led me to my cell, but I was too tired from my arrival to resist much.
The entire place was a prison and many cells were unoccupied. The guard brought me to a cell and pushed me inside. I glared at him but took the chance to lie down against the wall and inspect the wound on my abdomen. It had stopped bleeding so freely, but my shirt was completely soaked and foul smelling. I tore off the lower portion of my tunic and bound it around the wound in a makeshift bandage. After doing so, I began to get my bearings. It was a small concrete cell with a barred window and iron door. I saw no means of escape, particularly with my hands shackled. Hot tears trickled down my cheeks. I was in prison, my mother was dead, and my only friends, Nuvola and Varen, probably were too. My situation was hopeless. I wiped away my tears and focused, my mind working furiously for a solution. But every time I thought of an escape, I realized I would need a miracle. I would never leave.
That night I slept restlessly. I woke at dawn, startled by a loud noise. “Wake up!” a loud voice called. A soldier walked down the corridor, bellowing into the inhabited cells. I stood up groggily. The man passed, still bellowing his wake up call. He doubled back to my cell. He looked in my cell and instantly shook his head and laughed. “Are we desperate for prisoners?” he muttered to himself before resuming yelling. I glared after him. Soon, a man followed after with a cart. He opened each door in turn, placing a piece of bread and small glass of water inside. I quickly ate the bread, and drained half the water glass. The bread was stale, but I didn’t mind, I had other things weighing on my mind. A few minutes later, a dozen or so guards appeared, toting key rings. They slowly began opening cell doors and pulling out prisoners, putting them in the middle of their ever-growing circle. A guard unlocked my door. Not in the mood for fighting, I allowed myself to be pushed into the huddle of miscreants. Many of them were muscular ruffians and others lithe thieves. They all looked at me in surprise. “Something wrong with me?” I asked them, knowing the unspoken answer. They all averted their eyes in embarrassment. “Honestly,” I mumbled to myself. After picking up a few more prisoners, the group was herded through winding passage after winding passage. Then after one particularly long corridor, we reached a set of large double doors. Two guards at the doors pushed them open, revealing a large lush green field. I was confused, were they letting us go? My question was quickly answered when I noticed a tall fence dotted with sentries encompassing the field. We were doing labor. I looked over the crop as we drew closer and noticed it was a large leafy plant that seemed to be still growing. I vaguely recognized it from Inizio, but couldn’t recall the name.
Another prisoner, a lithe mischievous looking young man with an impish appearance and I were separated from the group as the other prisoners took solemnly to the fields. “You,” a guard said, addressing the man next to me, “teach her about the fields and be quick about it!” The man looked down at me. “What’s your name?” the other prisoner asked. “Mandisa,” I answered in a neutral voice. I had no reason to be mean, but no reason either to act friendly. I sized the man up; he looked to be in his early twenties, a seasoned traveler and fast looking. “I’m Ellende. You’ll learn fast enough, but you need to learn the real important stuff, consider it a favor. Anyway, the fields are important to the soldiers and prisoners. The soldiers need the crop for money and we need it for escape,” he started, a sly glint in his eye. “How?” I said, eyeing the guards pacing the walls vigilantly. “All sorts of things grow in the fields, not just the crop. I heard some people find sommeil and shinachii even!” he whispered excitedly. I recognized the names from Inizio. Sommeil was a rare herb that induced the illusion of death and shinachii was a healing herb. I could see how those herbs could prove invaluable here. “What is the plant they grow?” I asked, the name on the tip of my tongue. “Soldi,” he answered. He launched into a brief description of how tend the plant, which I only half listened to, my mind turning over new escape possibilities. The procedure for tending the soldi was simple, but sounded painstaking to maintain. Eyeing the impatient guards, Ellende said in a louder voice, “Come on.”
We worked side by side, weeding the soldi. The sun beat down as we reached the end of the field where most of the prisoners were thirstily drinking water. I grabbed a canteen and gratefully drank. As the last stragglers, older prisoners, finished, the guards passed out watering cans of a sort. I felt starving but did not complain, as hunger was not unfamiliar to me. Ellende and I worked together in different rows. We soon ran out of water and ran back to the soldiers to get refilled. We returned to the spot we left off and resumed watering, often returning for water. By the time we finished, the daylight was faded and everyone looked exhausted. We prisoners were escorted back to our cells. Soon, the food cart arrived with bread and water. I devoured the small meal and fell asleep.
Days passed, all the same as the previous one, monotonous and laborious. Ellende and I talked, bragging about our crimes as was common among all prisoners. The only catch was you couldn’t let the soldiers see you talking. I noticed the other prisoners talking to each other in their pairs. Some prisoners even looked related. One day, almost two weeks later, I asked Ellende in a hushed voice, “If soldi is the prison’s income, how come nobody sabotages it?” He looked grim.
“They tried once. The prison went bankrupt and fed the prisoners less and less. Some died of starvation. It was a bad time, plus all the sommeil and shinachii died as well. You see, the fields are the prisoners’ lifeline, not just the prison’s,” he answered grimly.
“You were there?” I asked.
“Yeah, I led it,” he answered ruefully. He went silent, lost in thought.
“What happened?” I asked.
“When they found out? I was ‘questioned.’ If they summon you for ‘questioning’, run!” he whispered. I think I had a pretty good idea what questioning was, if the haunted expression on his face didn’t say it all already.
“Thanks,” I whispered as I caught a guard looking in our direction.
I did not sleep well that night. A sense of dread hung over me, not to mention the food person had skipped my cell that morning and evening. That couldn’t be good, not to mention I felt starving. I heard footsteps down the hall. I dismissed them as the night guard until I realized there were multiple people. I sank back against the wall, hoping it was nothing to worry about. If only it had been nothing. The footsteps stopped at my cell. A single soldier looked in and opened the door carefully.
“I see you,” he said, looking right at me. "What do you want?" I growled in response. "You've been summoned for questioning," he replied, his voice impassive. My mind flashed back to my previous conversation with Ellende, but I could not run, not yet. "You need not use the word questioning to conceal your true intentions. It is but a bare cloak to mask the word torture. I may lack the wisdom that accompanies years, but I assure you I am not naive," I said in a voice meant to hide my terror, stalling as long as I could. I rarely spoke so formally, but I hoped it might sound intimidating. The guard laughed. "Well spoken, but realize this, you have no choice in the matter. Now will you come nicely?" he asked lazily. He sounded far from intimidated. "You speak as if you expect me to cooperate," I noticed. "I do and with reason. You are a child and therefore I have nothing to fear of you and you have everything to fear of me," he answered, unsheathing his sword to emphasize his point. "Ah, but am I child or a criminal? You put people you fear in prison. Surely you do not fear a child?" I taunted. "Child or not," he replied, annoyance finally tainting his impassive voice, "you must come." I noticed he did not answer my question. "I may receive no choice in the matter, but I assure you of this. Every step to subdue me will cost you as well," I said, slowly backing away like a trapped animal. The guard pressed me back into a corner. "I welcome your challenge," I said, adrenaline placing a crazy smile on my face. With that remark, I punched the man in the stomach, causing him to double over. I swiftly stole his sword and broke for the open door. As I ran out, I practically crashed into the waiting guards. At the last second, I swerved and sprinted in the opposite direction. The guards pursued, blowing loudly on whistles hanging around their necks. To my great dismay, I heard replies and began to panic. I wove randomly through the passages, but my luck had run as dry as a brook in the heat of summer. I ran straight into a wall of soldiers.
I turned back, barreling through the two soldiers from my cell, earning a few small cuts on my arm from grazing the drawn swords. I now had a dozen soldiers on my tail, not to mention any that may join their comrades in the hunt. I raced down the empty halls, searching desperately for an escape. All I found was a dead end. I spun around, the stolen sword in hand. I assessed my situation, but saw no opportunity for escape. There was nowhere to flee; I was trapped. The wall of soldiers drew closer, ringing around me. One broke from the circle and approached me, sword ready. "Your escape will cost you. Drop your sword and surrender. Be a good little girl," he coaxed. "You will have to take it from me," I answered, an obvious idea finally occurring to me. I glanced at the soldier outside the circle without a sword, the one in my hand. He looked murderous. The guards pushed closer, swords pointed. I singled out one and ducked beneath his blade, scoring his flank. He tripped backwards and I pushed past him, but all to no avail. I was jerked back by the powerful arms of his companions. The man whose blade I stole approached me with a smirk. He made a powerful blow to my midsection, causing me to fold over in turn. I guess I might have earned it. He contorted my hand, forcing me to release his sword, albeit cutting himself in the process. "Serves you right," I mumbled to myself. He nodded to the men restraining me and struck me again. I guessed he heard my remark. The soldiers began practically dragging me to the "interrogation" room, as they seemed to call it. Even though I lost, I fought every step of the way.
As we arrived at our destination, the guards pushed the doors open, revealing a small room containing two curious vertical posts. Two men stood solemnly in the room. One man held a worn leather whip, but my attention was otherwise diverted. The other man had a commanding aura, obviously the man asking the questions. I took a deep calming breath as I glimpsed the cruelty lurking behind his eyes. The two guards marched me to the posts in the center of the room. Now I noticed each post had a chain attached, how curious. The guards swiftly unlocked my manacles, firmly holding my arms to prevent me from bolting. They tied my hands to the chains so tautly I could not move more than my feet. They worked with such efficient fluidity I had no chance of escaping for a second. The two guards nodded to the two men respectfully before exiting. All was silent and I studied the men with scrutiny as they did likewise although they both looked at me with traces of disgust.
The man with the whip slowly approached his partner hesitantly and whispered in his ear, "Are you sure? She is just." The man quickly cut him off, roaring, "Are you brave enough to do your job or not?" Before the man could reply, I took the moment to interrupt. The situation did not warrant interruptions, but I was so infuriated I could not help myself, or perhaps I simply did not try to refrain from commenting. "You call torturing an immobilized girl bravery?" I asked, incredulous and scornful. The "questioner" turned red faced and stalked toward me until we were face to face. "Outlaw, what do you know of bravery?" he asked, punctuating the last word with a blow to my abdomen. I seized up and was racked by coughs as my diaphragm attempted to cope with the impact. The question was obviously rhetorical but I didn't care. "Bravery is the willingness to do something you are afraid of doing to benefit others beside yourself. It is a principle you may wish to study, as it is something you severely lack, along with a sense of justice. Cowardice is easier than bravery. Only cowards would beat an opponent helpless to defend themselves. You, sir, are a black hearted coward," I spat as he turned away, probably to deal with the other man's "lack of bravery." I almost instantly regretted saying the words, but they had slipped easily through my mouth. As the last word escaped my lips, the man froze before snatching the whip from the other man's grasp. "Go!" he ordered and the other man promptly left, although not without obvious relief. "Seeing as I can kill you," the man started, failing to keep the anger from his voice, "I would refrain from saying such things and answer my questions. Do you understand?"
I must have been begging for a beating. "What I understand is that I hold information you badly desire and you hold my life in your hands. What you do not understand is that I refuse to give that information, no matter what, to the wrong people, like yourself. Therefore, I am in power and will speak as I wish and answer as I wish. I will start by telling you can save yourself time and effort by killing me now as the end result will be the same," I retorted icily. By this time in my life, I did not fear death, but almost hoped for it as it might fix my miserable existence. The man turned even redder and cracked the whip across my face, just above my eye. The man stayed silent, trying to regain his composure. He failed to do so until three lashes later, meriting me three cuts across my chest. I barely suppressed my yells of pain. The man straightened himself, raising the whip.
"You will answer my questions. Who else survived the revolt in Inizio?" he asked in his most commanding voice, whip poised. My mind flitted back to the blond boy with the purple eyes. As he was an orphan, he had little to lose in the fire of the rebellion. I felt certain he had not returned while the soldiers were still there. For the first time ever, I realized I was not truly alone. It was a wonderful thought to cling onto. The whip cracked across my arm, jerking me back to reality. Answer!" the man growled. "Oh, are we afraid another 'child' will thwart us, are we? How damaging to your reputation!" I mocked. The whip cracked again and again, but the man got no more than insults from me. Certainly the ordeal was painful, but ever since my life as an outlaw began, pain had become a common element. By the time the man gave up on the question, I was breathing hard and sagged in the ropes, but was as annoyingly defiant as when I had first arrived. Blood from the cut over my eye slowly trickled down my face. The man mustered his dignity and moved onto a new question. "Who led the rebellion in which you were taken into custody?" he demanded. "Don't you wish you knew?" I replied. With every lash, the man grew more and more frustrated and I more and more beaten. Finally, the man capitulated and asked a different question. By then, I was covered in long cuts, breathing laboriously, and supported only by the ropes. In this manner, the man worked through more questions, each meriting little more than insults from me and lashes from him. I still do not know which was sharper that night, my tongue or his whip. As he finished his last question he glared at me, not for the first time that night, as if wondering whether to kill me or not. Fortunately for me, he decided against it. "There will be other times,' he muttered before knocking on the doors. Almost instantly, the guards appeared. They must have been standing at the doors the whole session. I felt certain they were eavesdropping by the mirthful expressions on their faces. They untied the chains and clamped on the shackles.
This time, they dragged me back to my cell, not because I was struggling, but because I lacked the strength to stand in my fight to remain conscious. As my cell door opened, the guards shoved me inside, causing me to collapse after a failed attempt to stand. I lay on the hard floor convulsing and retching but, as I had consumed nothing but water and my own blood, nothing but bitter bile came forth. To my great dismay, the guards did not leave or even bother to close my door. One, I could not tell which in my half-conscious state, squatted next to me. "You better answer me, child. You might think you're being sneaky, but I can see right through you! What are you planning with Ellende?" he whispered menacingly. I remembered some of Ellende's multiple prison antics. Even if I had wanted to answer the guard, which I certainly didn't despite the fact I wasn't plotting anything, I couldn't speak as every remaining ounce of energy in my body was diverted to clinging to consciousness. Frustrated, the guard kicked me hard in the ribs and left, closing the door loudly. Unfortunately for me, the guard uniform included steel tipped boots. I heard a faint crack and felt a brief shooting pain in my side. I had, beyond a doubt, cracked a rib. My body had stopped registering pain a while ago, but it did not keep out the cold, the cold of death. I was a fragile inch away. My life was hanging by a thread. There was nothing really for me to live for anymore. I would embrace death, if only it would have come. With that thought, I stopped fleeing the blackness and passed out.
My first sensation was pain. It was a pain covering every inch of my body. The rising sun peeked throughout my barred window, as if checking to see if I had survived the night. To my great surprise, I had. "Wake up you louts!" the wake-up man yelled as he did every morning. He skipped my cell, probably figuring me dead. I struggled to my feet, nearly blacking out again. The icy cold had warmed slightly, but still persisted like a frost covering my body. My side hurt immensely and simply breathing was difficult. I took one step and another and another until I reached the door. The food cart rumbled nearby and I looked out the door, trying to make sure the man did not skip my cell. The man saw me and turned pale as if he had seen a ghost. "Please!" I pleaded, abandoning my typical spunk and sense of pride. Hesitantly, the man obliged. His expression was almost sympathetic. I collapsed on my knees, oblivious to the pain and practically inhaled the meager meal. The man left without a backward glance. It seemed as if no bread had ever tasted so good.
A few minutes later, the soldiers reached my cell, followed by a huddle of prisoners. I looked out my door. Would they skip me? Alas, they did not. Seeing me watching, one opened the door and led me none too gently to the rest of the prisoners. I stumbled in and was caught by two other prisoners. One was Ellende. "You look like a living corpse!" What happened to you?" Ellende exclaimed, the answer hitting him three seconds later. "Did you run?" he whispered. "As far as I could," I replied gravely. He walked next to me, catching me every time I stumbled. I was forced to work in the fields despite my condition. My work was slow and every step excruciating. Next to me, Ellende hung back to keep me company, looking indecisive. At long last, he whispered to me, "Mandisa!" I turned towards him indiscreetly; I didn't want another cracked rib. "Fall," he whispered, flashing the purple leaves of a shinachii plant in his hand. I understood and tripped myself, which wasn't hard in my unbalanced condition. He stopped working and helped me to my feet, slipping the shinachii into my hand. "Thank you," I whispered, touched by his generosity. He nodded and resumed working. I quickly devoured the purple leaves, casting a sideways glance towards the guards. I finally reached the end of the field, the leaves' bitter aftertaste still lingering in my mouth. As usual, water was distributed to everyone, but for some reason, the guards skipped me. Was I not worth the water I drank? I began watering the plants, stealing a mouthful of water when the guards turned their backs. "Ellende," I said quietly, "I'm going to escape someday!" He smiled, although it was more of a grimace, but did not look up.
The next day, I felt better as the deathly cold had thawed and the wounds had begun to heal. Now the greatest problem on my mind was finding an escape.
Weeks passed and became months. I spent my fourteenth birthday in prison. I worked the fields day in and day out, nothing incredible ever happened aside from finding the occasional shinachii plant which I hid in my cell for safe-keeping. My hands grew rough and calloused from handling the tough soldi crop. In the earlier portion of my stay, I had multiple questioning sessions, all of which ended fruitless for my questioners. Eventually, the sessions ended and I earned a reputation for my stubbornness. Ellende and I became close friends, but sometimes it seemed more than that. I never gave up hope of escaping, nor did Ellende.
One day as I weeded the fields, these hopes became plausible. As I weeded I found a small plant and was about to discard it when I saw a small blossom hiding beneath one of the leaves. Curious, I inspected the plant and nearly dropped it in surprise. The little flower was the singular black of a sommeil blossom wit the red streaks on the petals. At long last, I had found sommeil! I glanced around warily before stowing away the precious plant. Despite my efforts, Ellende noticed. “What did you find?” he inquired eagerly with the tone of one catching a child stealing candy. “Sommeil,” I answered quietly, an unbidden smile crossing my face. “Tonight, but I’ll come back,” I whispered in answer to his unspoken question. He did not acknowledge me but worked faster with his head down. I could tell he was lost in thought, beyond where anyone could reach him.
When I arrived in my cell, I carefully retrieved the sommeil from its hiding place. It would work, but I only had a little time. I hid my necklace in my hair to prevent the soldiers from getting any ideas about stealing it although I doubted they might want it, but still. I took a deep breath and screamed at the top of my lungs. The effect was instantaneous. I heard a clamor as startled guards hurried to the scene. I rapidly consumed the plant and collapsed seconds later as the herb took immediate effect. I was dimly aware of my surroundings, but could not see. The experience was odd, like being in a constant state of semi-consciousness, but without the struggle. My breath stopped in my chest and my heart beat so slowly that not even the best doctor could have detected it. It was almost as if I was frozen in time.
I heard the door creak loudly open, but it sounded as if the noise came from the end of a long tunnel, not one foot away. A little later, I was aware of the sensation of being lifted and roughly moved. Time dragged on indeterminately as I was transferred to somewhere. Doubts started flashing through my mind that I hadn’t considered in my haste to reach freedom. Alas, I could not change course now, for better or for worse. I started to hear a mixed jumble of deep voices that sounded garbled as if they were coming from underwater. I was very abruptly dropped on a hard surface, winding the breath left in my lungs, but strangely, I did not inhale but remained in my winded state. I truly was a living corpse. The thought was more than unnerving. I felt a large indefinite warmth I guessed to be a hand at my neck searching for my pulse. “None,” a distorted voice proclaimed as the warmth was removed. A few minutes later, I was proclaimed dead. I was almost free! I felt myself be slung over a shoulder and roughly carried somewhere. I felt myself ascending and guessed I was headed towards one of the thick walls surrounding the prison. Very suddenly, my support disappeared and I very distinctly felt myself falling. I braced myself for the inevitable impact, although I failed as my muscles refused to respond. I felt the impact push what little air that remained in my lungs out. A few seconds later, my body registered the pain, but it was dull, like remembering an old injury, rather than feeling it fresh. I lay on the ground, unmoving, not breathing.
Slowly, I felt the sommeil’s effects begin to fade. My sight returned and my senses sharpened keenly. My lungs filled gratefully and my heart coursed blood through my once still veins. Feeling returned to my limbs and I began to move ever so slightly, twitching a finger here and shifting my foot there. I moved my eyes slowly, looking for anyone who might notice a corpse getting up and running. Nothing stirred. I quickly jumped to my feet and ran as far away from the dreaded prison, Marlon, as fast as my feet could carry me.
I ran and ran through the night, not stopping to rest until dawn. I slowed and began to think through my precarious situation. I was an outlaw, covered in scars, wearing prison rags, had no money, food, or water, and was supposedly dead. I walked slowly, pondering my dilemma when I reached a small village I did not recognize. Did I dare enter? It was a desperate plea as even a child could recognize me as being on the wrong side of the law. Then again, I was supposedly dead and therefore nobody would look for me. Besides, it was my only option remaining that was halfway sane. I weighed my options and rashly decided to try my luck in the morning.
I entered the town and merited many a backward glance, but nobody stopped me. It was only then did I realize I had made an unnecessary gamble as I had no money or anything to barter with. As I turned back for the forest crestfallen, I bumped into someone, causing me to fall. I picked myself up, pretending nothing had happened and glared at the person who knocked me over. Of all the people in the world, it was Gemein. “You!” he hissed, lunging for me. I raced for the forest, weaving between startled people as I passed. It only figured I would run into soldiers at some point, why not the one who hated me most? As Gemein chased after me; I heard a faint jingling, the distinct clinking of coins. I was already an outlaw, I desperately needed money, and I could easily outrun Gemein in the forest. Plus, Gemein had at least this coming to him anyway. I stopped running and spun around to face Gemein. I easily spotted the plump bag of coins hanging tantalizingly close on his hip. I ran toward him, ducking under his arms and plucked the bag of coins from his belt. The coins felt satisfyingly heavy in my palm and I clutched them so tightly my knuckles turned white. “Thief! Thief!” Gemein yelled, but no one came to his assistance, some even stifled smiles. Irritated, he charged after me in hot pursuit.
I swerved back towards the forest, but Gemein blocked my path. “You’re going to pay for your little antics!” he growled. In answer, I ducked behind a house and transformed the necklace. How I missed the sword’s comforting heft in my hand! I had never dared draw it in prison; it would have been my only hope if things had gone wrong. Gemein found me, his sword drawn. A look of surprise etched his face as he faced my sword pointed in challenge yet again. “No one can rescue you now,” I hissed. He turned pale, but did not flee although I could see he was sorely tempted. He advanced towards me tentatively and flinched every time I so much as twitched my blade. I slowly retreated towards the forest. Upon seeing this, Gemein gained confidence and lunged for me. I easily evaded his slow clumsy blade. As he attempted to recover, I used my legs to shift him off balance, toppling him in the dusty alley. Before he even realized it, I pinned him down, one foot on his chest and the other on his sword arm and my sword at his throat. Best of all, none of his cronies were here to prevent me from finishing my business. His eyes widened and sweat rolled down his face and I could see him praying for a miracle, but he was out of luck.
This man had ruined my life and he deserved death for all of the lives he had taken, like my mother’s! Now I had him at sword point and could finally avenge her death! But my time in prison had provided more than enough time to reflect and mitigate my rage. To deal death took everything a person ever had, not to mention what others may have. Just look how death had effected my life! Alas, I was not one to kill another; it would lower me to Gemein’s vile level. “Do not even think you are forgiven,” I spat and stepped off the blackguard. I ran madly for the forest, not even bothering to see if the villain would follow. I entered the forest and instantly collapsed as the burden weighing on me for two years was finally relieved. But I had other things to attend to.
I looked around the forest, drinking in my freedom. Now that the urgency of my situation had abated, I felt almost frightened. After a year or so in shackles and confinement, the forest seemed vast. I was loath to ever return to such confinement ever again. But alas, the forest was missing something, the ever faithful Nuvola and Varen. Overwhelmed by a sudden grief, I let loose a deep mournful howl that seemed to split the morn. It echoed through the forest, winding between the trees and through every nook and cranny. I heard replies of solace, but none belonged to Nuvola or Varen. Alas, if Nuvola and Varen were still alive, they would return the call in adult voices, not the feeble pup howl I so vividly remembered from my earlier stay with them. Alas, when I had left them though, they were leaving pup-hood, they had been so close. But, I could not lose time dwelling in the past; I must rejoin the present. My past, present, and probably, future were all dark and painful, wallowing in one would not alleviate any pain.
I traveled until noon until I came upon another village, which I did not recognize. I strode in, trying to blend in despite my rags and abundant scars. Despite the futile attempt, I cultivated many suspicious looks, but was not rejected. I approached the nearby vendor, a weathered old man, and purchased some food and a dark red cloak to conceal my rags and wounds. I pulled on the rough cloak, ducked my head, and slipped into the forest. I crouched behind a thick tree and devoured the meat I purchased. No cook could have made something taste better. Anything tasted good with a seasoning of long withheld freedom.
I resumed my travels with renewed energy. I ran until sunset, finally reaching the familiar woods of my home, or den really. I practically sprinted until I reached the well-worn path that wound toward the den. To my surprise, the trail seemed untouched by time as not a single plant crept across the narrow dirt path. I found the den easily and hesitated, did I truly wish to stir memories by entering? But, alas, my supplies were in there. I could retrieve them and relocate. Steeling myself, I crawled inside. The entrance was smaller than I remembered. To my further surprise, I found my supplies as I left them, my clothes neatly folded and my food still piled in a small hole I had dug for it. I glanced around before swiftly changing into a fresh set of clothes. I relished the soft cloth on my skin and its heaviness in contrast to my threadbare rags. I discarded my tatters, leaving them behind; they were simply more memories I didn’t want. I did save the cloak though and donned it. Very suddenly, a strange feeling occurred to me, that feeling you are being watched. I slowly looked around and realized the den still appeared inhabited, not a single cobweb adorned the earthen walls. The light from the entrance briefly flickered; something had passed the cave. I looked around warily and spotted a fresh footprint, or rather paw print, a large one undoubtedly belonging to a wolf. I had a feeling what awaited me outside. Could it be Nuvola or Varen? My hopes soared but were soon crushed by the impossibility of the situation. Two half-grown wolves could not defeat so many soldiers. Whatever waited outside, friend or foe, more likely the latter, was not Nuvola or Varen. I prepared myself, not bringing my provisions; I needed my hands free if it attacked. I fastened the cloak and crawled out of the den. The second my torso emerged, a heavy weight appeared on my back, four sets of claws digging into my back.
I swiftly unfastened the cloak and twisted onto my side, throwing off the weight. I scrambled to my feet and nearly lost my balance, I was face to face with an elated Nuvola. “Nuvola!” I exclaimed, throwing my arms around her furry neck. Hot tears of joy rolled down my cheeks and soaked Nuvola’s silky fur. She gently licked my face, lapping up the salty tears. I hugged her tighter, almost causing her to topple over on top of me. At long last, I let go, wiping away my tears. “Where’s Varen?” I asked, dreading the worst. I felt a sharp nip on my ear. “Are you truly that blind?” came Varen’s honey like voice from behind me. I laughed and turned around and faced Varen and almost started to cry again. “Glad to see you,” she teased and tenderly nuzzled me. I ran my fingers through her silky brown fur, savoring the moment. For once, something had gone right. I sat for a few moments, taking everything in. The wolves lay patiently next to me, happily being stroked.
“How did you guys escape?” I asked finally. “Last I saw, you were facing at least twenty soldiers!” I said incredulously. “We got some help,” Varen hinted mischievously. On cue, two wolves emerged from the shadows, their eyes wary and staring directly at me. One was a stony gray and powerfully built. He looked to be the same age as Nuvola and Varen, but even larger. His companion was a light brown, like tree bark. I guessed the two were brothers by their similar build. The two wolves studied me cautiously, looking ready to attack if I made a sudden move. I was pretty sure they didn’t encounter humans very often. “I can’t thank you enough,” I said, looking the stony gray wolf in the eye. The two almost jumped in surprise at my wolf-speech. “I am Mandisa,” I said, feeling awkward addressing wolves other than Nuvola and Varen, it felt like I was alien, foreign. When I spoke to Nuvola and Varen, it felt what I imagine talking to a sister would feel like, but this was something else entirely. Nuvola and Varen looked small in comparison to the males despite the fact both she-wolves were almost at my shoulder height with long powerful legs. “I am Tuono of Lost-Pack,” the gray wolf replied in a deep gravelly voice. “I am his brother, Kii of Lost-Pack,” the brown wolf answered in a surprisingly ancient sounding voice, like the voice of a tree almost. The air still felt tense, but some of the mistrust seemed to have dissolved ever so slightly. “Do you still live here, it seems a little small,” I asked, turning to the she-wolves, trying to disrupt the tension. “Actually, no. Tuono and Kii found a great place! Come, we’ll show you!” Varen replied cheerfully, glad for the excuse to be moving. I caught Tuono glaring at her. “Great! One minute!” I replied and crawled through the entrance to the den, trying to ignore the burning weight of Tuono’s glare on my turned back. I scooped up my meager possessions in my arms and emerged from the den. I piled the food and clothing in a small sack and hoisted it over my shoulders. “How far?” I asked, looking up at the darkening night sky as the last ray of sun slipped behind the horizon.
“An hour or two by foot, not much,” Nuvola replied. “Good,” I said, although I felt fatigued from running all day. I straightened up, bracing myself. The two male wolves were almost as tall as me! For the first time in two years, a wolf scared me. I needed to keep a careful eye on Tuono in particular; he was always looking at me in a sideways manner, a glimmer of some deep hatred flickering behind his intelligent amber eyes. It made me suspicious, not to mention very nervous. If it came to a fight, I didn’t like my odds. “Come,” Nuvola beckoned playfully. I moved towards her and Varen and felt Tuono’s keen eyes. I moved closer to them, trying to protect myself from Tuono’s glare.
We took off at a run, Nuvola and Varen in front, Tuono and Kii in back, and me in the middle. My legs protested, saying they had already run all day and deserved some rest, but I pushed onward, slowly falling to the back. Neither Nuvola nor Varen noticed. Tuono and Kii passed me, not looking back. My legs, weak from running all day practically non-stop, slowed until I was a few feet behind. At long last I capitulated to my exhaustion and stopped altogether. I sat down gratefully on the soft earth, pausing to momentarily to catch my breath. The wolves kept running, ignorant of my absence or, in Tuono’s case, not wishing to acknowledge it. The wolves disappeared from my view and I stood, feeling little refreshed. I sprinted until I caught up. I ran perhaps only ten minutes with the wolves before I was forced to stop, nearly tripping Kii in the process. “Sorry,” I muttered. I righted myself, breathing heavily. Kii halted in front of me and gave a quick half-bark, his expression difficult to decipher. It looked a mixture of sympathy and disgust. The best word I could find was pity. I did not want anyone’s pity. Nuvola and Varen turned curious; Tuono faced me with more than a hint of annoyance. My face flushed with embarrassment as all eyes were on me expectantly.
I hate being weak. Being weak is what lands you in jail. Nobody wants to be weak, weakness if for those who lack the will to be strong.
Their gazes weighed down on me, waiting for me to say something. My legs then took that moment to betray me. I sank down on my knees, betrayed by my own weakness and filled with shame. I managed to get to my feet, not looking anyone in the eye. “Are you okay?” Varen asked tentatively. “Yeah,” I grunted, silently cursing myself. “How much farther?” I asked, praying it was not much more. Nuvola considered and looked to Kii. “About half an hour at most,” he replied thoughtfully. Not a single wolf appeared to be breathing hard. I groaned to myself, I could never make it that far. I forgot how well wolves hear and every single one of them heard. Tuono looked disgusted and Kii appeared impassive. The two she-wolves looked at me sympathetically. I didn’t want sympathy; I wanted rest. “Can you run or not?” Tuono grumbled obviously annoyed. I couldn’t, not much more than five minutes at best. “Yes,” I replied, not even close to honestly. I could tell no one believed me, but they all turned and resumed running, Tuono smirking. I mustered my strength and followed, albeit even more slowly than before. Five minutes or so later, my predictions came true. Mid-stride, my aching legs failed me yet again, causing me to topple onto the soft damp ground. No one noticed but Tuono whom I heard distinctly mutter scornfully, “Humans!” I was tempted to call out, but promptly decided against it, not seeking further humiliation.
I struggled to my feet and attempted to pursue. Alas, I could not. I sank down against a nearby tree, breathing hard and utterly exhausted. I sat there for possibly half an hour, unmoving as stone. My heart beat slower and the sound of my heart beating no longer rang in my ears. My chest stopped heaving and I relaxed entirely. After what seemed an eternity, I stood and soon found the wolves’ tracks, their great paws leaving clear prints in the moist earth. I walked solemnly after, sulking in self-disgust.
Humans, alas, were not made to befriend wolves. Humans cannot run like wolves, cannot hunt like them, nor so silently stalk in the forest, nor fight so courageously. Humans are not wolves; Tuono was right to shun me. Compared to wolves, I was weak. These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind, but the spark of defiance inside me broke through. Had I not saved Nuvola and Varen’s lives when they were pups? And as children they were weak, right? Am I not still a child; I will get stronger, right? I decided I hate being a child, but I had earned my place with the wolves, I just needed to reclaim it! With this thought, I felt reinvigorated and I found myself walking faster along the tracks until I broke into a flat out run, despite my fatigue. Soon enough, I discovered the tracks to be skirting a small village nestled at the mountain’s base. It appeared uncannily similar to Inizio. I felt a deep pang for home, but my home was gone. I clenched my teeth and averted my eyes.
A little later, the tracks finally came to an end. I pushed my way through the close trees that seemed to form a natural screen in the thick forestry. A small spring reflected the bright half moon, its water like quicksilver. The moonlight painted the tall trees in silver and a cool breeze whispered through the trees with a tranquil rustling. Soft green grass carpeted the ground, bent only where the wolves had trod upon it. I inhaled the sweet scent, lingering. A small cave of raven black stone hid in the shadows, reflecting a great multitude of shining stars, like specks of gold. I entered the cave, my solitary footsteps echoing loudly on the hard packed earth inside. I rubbed my hand over the smooth black walls, savoring the cold touch. But I was just stalling, and I knew it. The tracks had left off here; the wolves were near. I squinted around, searching for signs of inhabitance, or the inhabitants. Something in the shadows moved, barely visible. It almost seemed as if the thing wasn’t in front of me, but I had seen a shadow. I spun around and saw nothing. My hand instinctively flashed to my sword pendant, or rather, sword. I hesitantly removed my fingers and moved cautiously toward the cave wall where I thought the thing had been. I reached the far wall and found nothing but solid black stone, but I felt a draft down by my bare feet. Intrigued, I crouched down and discovered a small tunnel. Despite its size, I slipped through easily and began crawling towards the dim light at the end.
Very suddenly, I sensed the tunnel widen into what I guessed to be a sort of room. A hole, a little bigger than my head, in the ceiling allowed a little moonlight in, illuminating the very center of the chamber. Creepy shadows danced around the room and flitted from corner to corner with impressive speed, almost like the sputtering and wavering of a candle. Each eerie shadow seemed independently animated, as if the shadows were alive, not needing someone or something to cast them. “Hello?” I called, sensing not only shadows lurking in the murky dark. No longer did the pale moonlight seem friendly, but almost sinister as if hiding something. Four pairs of intelligent, two of them somewhat mischievous, amber eyes peered out from the shadow and I visibly relaxed. Three sets looked relieved and the other, almost undoubtedly Tuono’s, appeared disappointed. The wolves emerged from the shadows, stepping into the silvery light.
We were silent for a moment, the wolves, Tuono excepted, all looking guilty. I smiled, wolves really aren’t all that tough, but don’t tell them that. “You stay here?” I asked, breaking the tense silence. Nuvola relaxed and answered, “Sometimes. We typically sleep outside, but in here on the harsher nights. And we don’t really stay here long, we spend most of the time outside hunting and such.” “Well, I like this place. It’s so much bigger than the den!” I said, every word the truth. Besides, anywhere is better than a prison cell. Nuvola nodded her consent. “Do you mind?” I asked, unusually timid. It had just occurred to me that this cave also belonged to Kii and Tuono. Kii nodded and I smiled. Tuono simply turned away, neither agreeing nor consenting. It was progress.
I laid down to sleep, but felt as if my every move was monitored. I tried to ignore it and curled up on the cold hard ground to sleep. As I fell into slumber, I heard voices. I snapped myself awake, but did not move a muscle. I soon recognized the voices belonged to the wolves and relaxed, but strained to hear.
“Why must you carry that human with you? She is little more than a burden! If not for us, you would have died trying to rescue her! What did she do for you that is worth dying for? She is a human!” I heard Tuono growl.
“Have I not told you many times before? She saved our lives as pups. She could have left us to starve, but she fed us and nearly starved herself in doing so. She helped us learn to fight and hunt. Without her, we would not be here. Besides she is as much a burden as you! She feeds herself and cares for herself. She is different from most humans! Why can’t you see past that?” Varen shot back defensively.
“Humans killed my pack! Humans ruined my life! Humans are all the same, vile, greedy, ignorant, and weak! And as much as you might pretend she isn’t, Mandisa is a human! Humans are all the same!” Tuono growled.
“Humans massacred my pack as well! Humans nearly killed Varen and me and it was also a human who saved our lives! Mandisa is not like those humans! You are blinded by your hatred! I beg of you, give her a chance!” Nuvola pleaded.
“Fine, but for you, not the girl. But if she so much as reveals just how human she is, she will leave! Alive or dead,” Tuono threatened. My blood froze; my worst fears had just been confirmed. I noticed Kii said not a word, but remained silent, neither against me nor in my defense giving me a flicker of hope.
“Such harsh words are not necessary Tuono! Mandisa is different, you’ll see.” Nuvola said, ending the argument. Tuono gave a small huff, but stalked off. I was safe for now, but I would have to prove myself. I would need to prove myself; there was no margin for error. With that troubling thought, I fell into a restless slumber.
I woke the next morning feeling very much refreshed. Albeit I got quite a fright when my first sight upon waking was Varen’s bright gold eyes inches from my face. “Good morning Varen,” I said, the initial shock wearing off. Her eyes betrayed her worry. Before she could speak, I whispered, “I overheard last night, no need to say anything.” She looked surprised, almost shocked. “How much?” she asked, obviously embarrassed and more than a little flustered. “All of it,” I replied as I stretched and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Well, saves me some explaining then,” Varen said in a slightly more cheerful tone. The dawning sun filtered into the room, illuminating it beautifully. “If you don’t mind,” I said, standing up, “I have lots of work to do.” “Of course,” she murmured. “Cheer up, no need to worry,” I reassured her, giving her a playful nudge. “I know,” she whined. I sounded more confident than I felt.
After a meager breakfast, I began studying the chamber. I found a small indentation in the floor and put my few belongings inside. I soon went outside and promptly began searching for any recognizable plants. I found a few herbs and berries, but nothing significant. I filled my pouch with these to replace the ones that had decayed in my absence. I distinctly noticed all of my meat had somehow vanished. I had a pretty good feeling where it all disappeared to. Around noon, I returned and began thinking of everything I would need. It had been so long since I had lived in the wild! The foremost things I needed were snares. I began wandering the forest in search of a tree with willowy branches. What I did find was Kii.
“Kii!” I called. I could see he was simply roaming in search for prey, relaxed and off guard. He turned and approached. “Yes?” he asked, obviously uncomfortable; that made two of us. “Do you know where there are any trees with flexible branches are? I need them for snares,” I explained. “To trap what?” he asked suspiciously. “Rabbits and such,” I replied casually, although somewhat surprised by his suspicion. “Oh,” he replied, albeit not without some relief, “I know where some might be.” “Thanks!” I said. He simply started walking purposefully back the direction I had come. “I can run, really,” I said, realizing his intent and slightly annoyed by it. “Sorry,” he mumbled. I felt bad about being so gruff, he had only meant well. He began running at a steady lope with me right behind. Within a few minutes we arrived at our destination, a small grove of tall slender trees. I recognized the trees and knew they would work nicely. “This is perfect. Thank you Kii!” I said, not sure of what else to say. I wanted to offer something in exchange, but did not know what to offer. Would he be offended if I offered some of the meat I caught? I decided he probably would. “Do you need anything?” I asked as he turned to leave. “No,” he answered, although I could tell he was glad I asked. Unlike his brother, Kii wasn’t blinded by hatred. I was glad he was there; he could make a good ally.
Using my sword as a makeshift ax, I cut some branches and began the process of dragging them to the cave when I noticed something odd. The hair on the back of my neck prickled, I was being watched. “Tuono,” I called, not turning, “no need to watch me so.” I heard the bush rustle and sensed Tuono leave. Tuono had been thwarted for now, but for how long? I spent the remainder of the day making a grand total of six snares with whatever I could salvage. As evening drew near, I wandered the forest again carefully placing the snares and drawing an “x” on the tree above it so as to warn the wolves what lay near. By the time I retired for the day, the snares were strategically set and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Settling back into my old life was surprisingly easy. Perhaps I was meant to live as outlaw. I would rather live the life of danger with friends rather than a safe one without.
As I retired to bed, Nuvola entered the cave. I sat up quickly and approached her. “Nuvola!” I called. “How are you?” Nuvola replied cordially. “Fine, I set some snares today,” I answered nonchalantly. After more idle chatter, I excused myself to sleep. To my surprise, Nuvola joined me, curling up against me like when she was a pup. “Good night,” I murmured, stroking her silky fur. Within moments I too was asleep, lulled by Nuvola’s comforting warmth.
I woke the next morning to find Nuvola gone, but I was not alarmed. Even as pups, both she and Varen woke earlier than me. Besides, I had overslept and the morning sun had already risen high. I inhaled my breakfast and patrolled the area surrounding my “camp.” I found nothing in my snares. I returned to the cave and began to speculate upon what else I might need. I decided my next priority was storage, not a necessity, but definitely useful.
I did not need to worry about food, water, shelter, or protection. For a feral life, I needed little and had so much! I examined the cave, looking for any place with potential. I soon found a part of the wall with a gentle slant that seemed ideal for my purposes. With a stone I began the long slow process of primitively chiseling out a shelf to put my things on. I didn’t want to risk Tuono sabotaging my food stores to prove his point. I wouldn’t have put it beneath him. Besides, it left more room for the other of inhabitants of the cave. I spent two weeks on this project. In the morning I would gather plants, work on the shelves in the afternoon, and check the snares in the evening. The whole time, Tuono watched, searching for any flaw of character, any misstep. Alas, he found none as I discovered one night almost two months later. By then I had everything I needed and more, a reliable food source in the form of a small garden, storage for all the food I found, a large quantity of healing herbs, and a bolt of linen I had bartered for in the village when Tuono wasn’t watching. I had sensed him watching less everyday, which gave me hopes that he had capitulated. But yet I rarely saw him during that two-month period.
One night, almost exactly two months after I had arrived here, I heard voices outside. Intrigued, I crept to the entrance of the cave and spied the wolves huddled together. I stood upwind in the shadows, unbeknownst to the wolves.
“You have watched her a while now, tell me, do you think she is not like other humans?” I heard Nuvola press. The dispute over me would finally end, but how? I tensed, in the case I needed to run. Kii spoke first.
“I approve. She has done nothing wrong that I can tell. She is not a wolf, but I do not mind anymore, she seems genuine enough,” he consented. Him speaking surprised me, but I remained silent, my hopes rising. I relaxed ever so slightly.
“I will not pretend I disagree with my brother, I too was wrong in my judgment as much as it pains me to say so,” Tuono admitted gruffly, obviously wishing he didn’t have to say so.
“She may stay then?” Varen asked hopefully. Both wolves nodded. I relaxed, grateful that the danger had passed. Not staying for the rest of the conversation, I crept back to bed and fell asleep.
I woke smiling the next morning. I stretched and walked outside for a drink. Stooping to drink at the spring stood Tuono. I smiled to myself. I approached the spring and he remained relaxed to my immense relief. I scooped up the crisp cold water in my hands and drank repeatedly. I did not notice Tuono stop. I looked up, wiping my mouth on my arm. Tuono was looking at me curiously, as if not sure what to do. “Good morning Tuono,” I said cheerily. “And you,” he replied gruffly, albeit without his previous edge. I smiled at him, which seemed to unnerve him slightly. I turned to leave, feeling that I could not hope for conversation. “Mandisa,” Tuono called hesitantly. I was surprised to hear him call me by name as he very rarely called me more than “that human” or “the girl” when he spoke of me to his brother when he thought I wasn’t listening. I had overheard many of his conversations with Kii, none of which ever merited a good opinion of me from Tuono. Albeit Kii never spoke ill of me as I learned he had a much different and more lenient attitude than his brother. It’s funny how different siblings can be. I turned to face Tuono, “Yes?” I asked. “Um, I’m sorry,” he said, looking ashamed and embarrassed. “You need not be. You changed and that is all that matters. The result matters just as much as the process, does it not?” I asked. “Yes,” he said nodding, obviously glad to have it over with. Perhaps he did not quite like me at that time, but he no longer abhorred me.
The next month, Tuono was a different wolf. He was not overly friendly, but particularly protective and helpful, as if he was trying to make up for himself. I grew fond of both him and Kii. We even became friends after a while. It is always an interesting experience when someone changes so suddenly, as if overnight. Now that I no longer worried about Tuono, my mind wandered. Something troubled me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. One night, perhaps four months after my arrival, I remembered.
The answer came to me in a dream. I had fallen asleep next to Varen after a particularly busy day.
In my dream, I was back in the prison at Marlon. I was fourteen again, weeding the soldi with Ellende. I stumbled across the sommeil. “What did you find?” Ellende asked. “Sommeil,” I replied. Before he could ask, I said “Tonight. But I’ll be back.” Then the dream transitioned to an empty cell. I watched as Ellende entered, tired after the day’s work. He looked older, less lively, not like when I had been in Marlon. He sat in the corner glumly, whispering to himself. I strained to hear what he said. “Mandisa will come,” he chanted, “She will come.” The words echoed in my head, stinging me like a swarm of bees.
I awoke clammy with sweat. Varen roused next to me. “What’s wrong?” she asked drowsily. “Nothing,” I said, “Go back to sleep.” She obliged and promptly fell asleep. I had forgotten Ellende. He was still in prison, waiting for me. How could I forget him? I felt immensely guilty and cradled my head in my hands. I needed to rescue him; I had promised to return for him. But how could I save him? It would have to wait until morning; I was too upset to think clearly. I lay down shakily until I fell into a dreamless sleep.
I jolted awake the next morning. “Oh, Ellende, I’m so sorry!” I muttered to myself and quickly changed into some fresh clothes. In my angst, I skipped breakfast and paced worriedly back and forth. Tuono entered the room, probably to see why I hadn’t gone on my usual morning walk yet. “What’s troubling you?” he asked. I explained the whole mess with Ellende, the words flowing out of my mouth as easily as water cascades down a waterfall. I had to break him out! When I had finished my agitated tale, Tuono looked thoughtful. “How do you plan to break in?” he asked calmly. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Stay here,” he replied and took off. A few minutes later he reappeared with Nuvola, Varen, and Kii. “Would you tell your story again?” he asked calmly. I told the story again, a little calmer than before. When I had concluded, Kii spoke up. “A promise is a promise. Now we just need to figure out a plan,” he said, trailing off. The others murmured their agreement. “I’ll need a new weapon. It’s too hard to fight multiple soldiers with just a sword,” I said at long last. “Agreed,” Nuvola concurred. “A bow perhaps?” Tuono suggested. “No, it would be too easy to kill someone on accident. I can’t kill people. Plus, it is almost useless in a confined space,” I said shaking my head. “What about a staff?” Nuvola suggested. I considered silently. “Yes, a staff,” I agreed at long last. “I guess that’s a start,” I said, strolling over to one of my shelves where I stored my money. For good measure, I placed a few herbs in a pouch, in case I needed to barter. “I’ll return soon,” I said as I strolled to the tunnel to the cave entrance. The wolves watched, but all sat lost in their own worlds.
I easily reached the town in a few minutes. I entered through a backstreet before entering the road. Fortunately, it was market day and vendors lined the streets with their wares. I perused the merchandise but found no staffs. I approached a weapon’s dealer. “Do you know where I can find a staff?” I asked innocently. “Why does a child need a weapon may I ask?” he answered. I badly wanted to make him pay for calling me a child when I was in such a delicate position, but calmed myself. “My father sent me to find one,” I lied. Did fathers do that? I wouldn’t know; my dad had died when I was five. The merchant seemed satisfied with my answer. “I passed a merchant selling them on my way here. He’s selling his wares one village over,” the vendor advised. “Thank you,” I replied and hurried back to the forest.
“Where is your staff?” Nuvola asked as soon as I entered. “One town over,” I answered distractedly. I started running in the direction the merchant had gestured. “How far is it? Do you need food?” Nuvola asked, at least her mind was in the right place. I shrugged, my haste blotting my foresight. Then again, I never really care about foresight; I live in the moment. For some reason, everything seemed urgent since my promise was so long delayed. I ran as fast as I could the five miles between the two villages. I arrived outside it breathing hard, but making good time. Not wasting time, I entered the town and searched out the staff merchant. I spotted him surrounded by young boys. I pushed through them until I reached the wares table. I found a selection of five staffs and examined them. I decided on a thick staff about my height. It was tipped with metal and made to last. I liked the wood’s thickness and felt certain it could survive a few sword hits. “How much?” I asked the vendor lifting the staff. “Who’s it for?” he asked suspiciously. “Father,” I answered. I might as well stick to the same story. “Eight gold pieces,” he answered, suspicious, but not about to turn away a customer. It was nowhere close to a bargain, but I needed a decent weapon. I resolutely handed him the money and strode off with the staff, the little boys gawking after me. I smirked at them, juggling the staff from hand to hand. I headed back to the forest, staff in hand, feeling out of place. The second I was out of sight, Nuvola approached. “Can I see?” she asked. I held out the staff, which she clamped her jaws around. “It tastes good,” she remarked. “Glad you think so,” I replied wondering what a weapon’s taste had to do with anything.
I ran my hands over the dark brown wood, feeling the curving grain. It was a quality weapon, tipped with metal on the ends for extra strength. I twirled it experimentally, just to see how it moved. I discovered the movement surprisingly fluid and similar to that of a sword. I would have to start over again with a new weapon. Ellende would just have to wait a little longer. As much as it may have pained him, my conscience would hurt me even more. How could I forget about Ellende, the only person who was kind to me? Alas, I had. “Let’s go,” I said to Nuvola, already turning homewards. I ran a little slower this time, my urgency now replaced by regret. I hoped I was not already too late.
I reached the cave at nightfall, staff in hand and Nuvola close behind. Kii waited for me at he cave’s entrance. “Welcome back,” he said, eyeing the staff curiously. I held it out for him. He briefly examined it inquisitively before looking up at me. “Do you know how to use it?” he asked. “No, my village forbade girls from having weapons. I’m going to have to learn the hard way,” I replied. “Which is?” he asked. “Experimentation, mostly,” I answered with a laugh. He nodded and departed to do whatever but I could tell he was wondering by “mostly.” Kii wasn’t particularly talkative, ever. I entered the cave, pushing the staff ahead of me through the tunnel. I stood up in the darkening chamber, looking around for somewhere to put the staff. Seeing no shelf long enough, I placed it on the stone floor casually. I pulled a blanket made out of sewn together pelts off one of my shelves and spread it on the hard floor. Without eating dinner, I curled up on the blanket and fell into a troubled sleep, my fingers clenched around the staff in a death-grip.
I woke the next morning feeling nervous, like when you sense danger around the corner. I knew no danger awaited me or at least yet. The true cause for my jangled nerves was probably an apprehension to reach Ellende. I sprung from bed, haphazardly throwing the blanket on an empty shelf. I went for my staff, but stopped when my stomach roared ferociously. After eating breakfast in record time, I rushed out the cave, staff in hand. As I left, I almost collided with Varen. “Sorry,” I apologized and skirted around her. I began heading for a small clearing I knew to lie nearby. I would have more than enough space there.
When I entered, I felt confident in deciding to practice there. The place had a focused aura, like a battlefield just before a fight. I placed both hands on the staff about a shoulders-width apart. The men in Inizio often carried such staffs and I had witnessed them many times bout together after a day in the fields. The boys of the village were always bragging about their skills loudly in front of the girls, but I never listened. If only I had paid closer attention. I racked my memory, searching for any details of those long forgotten bouts. I placed my feet apart, right foot forward, knees bent. I realized it was very similar, almost identical, to the position for sword fighting. Interesting. The staff seemed to hum in my hands, as if yearning to be used. I tried moving with the staff in hand and found it much more difficult than a sword as the staff occupied both hands, forcing me to face straight forward. I took a quick swing and found my swing limited as well. I spent the day toying with the weapon, trying to decipher its code. I recollected easily how to parry, but striking or even moving was much harder than I had thought. I discovered almost a week later that I could lengthen my reach and move faster by holding the staff in one hand even though it sapped much of the strength in the strike. I needed to circumvent that as well.
I spent the entire month working with the staff and testing every idea I could imagine. I soon found ways to transition from attack to attack, from two hands to one and then back to two. I found ways to put more strength into my hits and to move quickly and effectively. All this and more I learned in the space of three months, but an important portion of my training still lay ahead. I needed to fight a real opponent; I needed to test my tactics. I had dreaded the day I would need to do so, but it was inevitable.
One morning, I rose, feeling inexplicably ready. After a brief meal, I tied a strip of cloth over my shoulder as a sling for the staff. I threw a small amount of food in a sack along with some herbs. I strapped on the staff and exited the cave. I neglected to bring the wolves; I had to do this alone. I tried to avoid thinking about my trial ahead, but I could not push the troubling doubts away. Despite my efforts, they persevered with my every hesitant step. The last time I tested my skills in combat, I had both succeeded and failed. Yes, I had won my duel if that mattered. What did though was the following year in prison. Was I ready? I thought so, but most everything in my life had gone wrong, why not this? Alas I could not stall any longer. Everyday I did nothing was another day Ellende had to wait in the miserable prison. For his sake, I could no longer postpone. Almost in a trance, I began to run faster, brushing away all thoughts but one, find an opponent. I just needed to be careful, I told myself. I did not stop at the village nestled at the mountain’s base, but the one I purchased my staff in.
The sun beat down blindingly on my lone figure. I did not stop running until I made out a cluster of people ahead. Squinting my eyes, I made out the distinct uniform of foot soldiers, specks of reds and browns. Seconds later I caught the flash of metal, likely swords. In the center of it all was a small cart. The group traveled steadily in my direction, likely to the next village. By their demeanor, I could tell I had gone unnoticed for the moment. I was sorely tempted to run away while I could, but I scolded myself for being such a coward. As I stood rooted in the center of the narrow road, the adrenaline started to kick in, boosting my confidence tenfold.
Adrenaline is one of my favorite things in the world. It can achieve the impossible and make it look easy. It has helped me these past years, allowing me to defeat the worst odds, most of the time. There is just one small catch; it drastically blurs even the most logical of minds. I already had poor judgment and a tongue sharper than any sword. Put adrenaline on top of that and I did and said some extremely foolish things. For example, the many times I insulted soldiers when outnumbered at least ten to one. Or, in this case, how I did not attempt an ambush but stayed planted in the road and clear view, forfeiting any advantage I might have had.
I drew my staff as the soldiers approached, leaning casually on it right in the soldier’s path. They came closer and I counted a force of twenty. Finally, albeit too late to be of much help, my sense returned to me. I backed away into the forest, fast. Alas, it was too late; I had been seen.
As the soldiers reached where I had stood, they stopped. The leader was decorated, his uniform tasseled with gold threads, making him look important compared to the austerely clad footmen and even more simply dressed archers behind them. He halted atop his white horse and turned towards me, although a foot or two to the left. “I see you,” he lied, that or he had really bad eyesight. “Whatever you’re looking at isn’t me,” I answered, obviously startling him. I laughed at his rumpled pride, my presence concealed by the high undergrowth. He searched for the source of my voice and I immediately stopped laughing. His face flushed in further bewilderment. “Who speaks to an officer so? Show yourself!” he ordered, mustering as much authority as he could manage. “I think I won’t yet. But is it truly so hard to guess?” I answered in mock offense. Now I was just stalling. They were silent. Now I was actually somewhat offended. “You are so dense!” I exclaimed and emerged from the forest, staff in hand. A majority of the soldiers stiffened in recognition. “Hello,” I said with a false smile and exaggerated bow. Maybe that part was a little over the top, but it certainly got them riled. In response the archers notched their arrows, but much too slowly. I ducked behind a tree as the pursuing arrows thudded into the bark. I laughed, or rather, the adrenaline did. With the unexpected obstacle of arrows, things were about to get interesting. If I could get close without being shot, the archers would be practically defenseless. I just needed to get close, do my work, and get out, without being shot. It wouldn’t be too hard if I could surprise them.
I heard the archers notch their arrows in anticipation. Swiftly, I dropped to the ground until I was practically laying down with the staff in my right hand. I crawled forward, hidden by the dense undergrowth. I peered out through the leaves and branches to where the archers stood ready, arrows gleaming in the sunlight. I moved a little faster, trying to circumvent the archers’ immediate range. I stood up behind a thick oak like tree, staff ready and my palms sweaty. I was close enough to the end of the procession by now.
Steeling myself, I raced out quietly in an attempt to buy myself a second. The archers turned and launched their small volley. I hit the ground hard, the deadly missiles whistling past. A lock of my own ink black hair fell to the ground next to me. I hadn’t even escaped by a hair. I leapt to my feet and closed the distance, flying into action. I jumped high into the air and vaulted over the archers. My staff was a blur of motion and before my feet even hit the ground two of the seven archers were slumped on their horses, unconscious. I was off to an auspicious start. Five arrows whizzed towards me. I ducked to the left and rolled, narrowly dodging the incoming fire. I arrived at one archer’s feet. With a swift upward strike he was unseated and another swipe unconscious. I ducked to the right, evading the inevitable volley which littered the ground where I had stood a second ago.
Two minutes later, not a single arrow was fired, as all the archers lay unconscious in either the road or upon their horses. The shocked footmen began unsheathing their swords, surprised by my success. Promptly, I slipped momentarily into the forest, breathing hard. Miraculously though, I had emerged unscathed.
I heard a small clamor as the soldiers lumbered afterwards in clumsy pursuit. I crouched low, trying to quiet my breathing. Two sets of boots close to my right caught my attention. Almost without thinking, I jumped out. I felled one with a blow to the head. I aimed a blow to the other’s side and he fell to the ground with a moan, clutching his side. I took their swords and hid them away in the bushes before hiding behind the tree. “Over there!” someone called. Many bodies began moving in my direction. Before I could be surrounded, I leapt out with a shout, temporarily surprising my foes. In seconds, I broke through the wall of soldiers, knocking out two. But, it wasn’t quite enough. With surprising speed, the soldiers fanned out, enclosing me. I barely evaded two blades by dropping into a kneel. I was facing seven soldiers, two of them staying behind to guard the cart. I could do this, I told myself. I whirled around, but missed against the much more skillful swordsmen. I barely managed to recover my balance and parry the retaliating strike. I lashed out at my attacker, knocking him to the ground. Suddenly the skin on the back of my calf split as I fell prey to a strike from behind. I yelled and made a blind thrust. To my satisfaction, I heard a groan as my staff made sound contact. Now facing my remaining five opponents, I made a sweeping strike. Four ducked the blow but the fifth crumpled to the ground. As if on cue, the four soldiers struck back. I parried two of the strikes, but the other two grazed both of my arms. I gritted my teeth and retreated slowly, limping. This seemed to bolster my opponents’ confidence. I made my way to the forest, but not without knocking two of the soldiers unconscious. I ducked into the undergrowth to catch my breath and briefly assess my injuries. Nothing was too serious although the wound to my calf might be a liability. The soldiers turned, thinking me defeated. In a rage, I raced out onto the road and knocked both unconscious before they could turn around. It may have been dirty fighting, but nothing below what my opponents would have done if I had turned my back on the fight. Now the only obstacles between me and victory were the remaining two men. One held a small knife, but the other had a staff. I approached cautiously, wary. The man with a knife scampered off. The other man twirled his staff in challenge.
I answered his challenge with a crazy grin and a lunge. The man deflected the attack and I just evaded his returning blow. I danced around him, trying to distract him with little feints. I managed to crack him on the hand, but he was good. As we circled, the man suddenly smiled. Fearing an attack from behind, I ducked, but too late to altogether dodge the blade. Pain exploded in my left shoulder. With a yell of both pain and fury, I jabbed behind me with my staff and turned to face my attacker who was clutching his side and moaning on the ground. I cursed at him, but did no more as I barely parried my last opponent’s attack. I shifted the staff into my right hand and folded my left arm behind my back to keep it from harm’s way. The pain throbbed in my shoulder, but I ignored it, my full focus on my final opponent. I slowly circled, but I could tell he was simply stalling, waiting for me to bleed out. I feinted and struck, but to no avail. And then, an opportunity presented itself. I flicked the tip of my staff behind one of the man’s legs and hooked it there. In one fluid movement, I brought my staff upward and counter-clockwise, causing my foe to flip over and land on his face. I had never used the move before, but it worked beautifully, as if I had used it a thousand times before. Swiftly, I struck him on the head.
With that, my battle was won. I leaned against the small cart to catch my breath. Grimacing, I reached over my shoulder and found the hilt of the knife, still embedded in my shoulder. Gritting my teeth, I gave a great yank and pulled the blade free. Fresh pain assailed me and I could not suppress a yell. I clutched my shoulder, trying to stopper the steadily flowing blood. I needed to bandage it soon or the consequences would be dire. Another case of my own bad judgment, I had neglected to bring bandages. But that could be easily resolved. Curiously, I peeked into the cart. Then everything made crystal clear sense. I very quickly headed toward the village, forgetting my pain in my excitement.
As I entered, I found the place close to empty, but the few milling about looked sullen. “Come!” I called, excited. The people turned to face me, as if wondering if I was worth bothering with. “Trust me on this! It’s worth it!” I pleaded. Some looked suspicious, eyeing my wounds, but most, as if they had nothing better to do, came over. “On the road,” I said, pointing. Now everyone looked curious. They shuffled out the village gate and looked shocked at the sight. Soldiers lay strewn across the road and in the center of it all lay the cart. Upon seeing the cart unguarded, the men, women, and children all raced towards it with a shout. I watched them run in a mass to the cart, scooping up its contents and returning to their small mud houses where they emptied their loads before joining the fray. Everything made sense. The group of soldiers had been tax collectors, but obviously, they hadn’t protected themselves adequately. Remembering my shoulder, I went to the cart and retrieved a handful of coins, nothing much. Nobody even noticed me in the excitement. I went back to the town and a piece of paper caught my eye. I approached it, curious. I could not read, few people could, but I had a very good idea what it was. In front of me was a wanted poster. From the parchment, my own face stared back at me. Glancing around, I ripped down the poster and tossed it on the ground. I looked around for any more, but found none. By now, the frenzy had calmed and people began to remember me. Was it wise to stay for supplies? I decided to risk it and paid off for the gamble. Within minutes, I had a small bolt of coarse cloth. After paying, I left quickly, not wanting to linger even though the villagers acted friendly enough, but it was only a matter of time until someone remembered the poster.
In the forest just outside, I drew my sword and proceeded to cut the material into rough strips. I proceeded to wrap my bloody shoulder and other injuries. An idea came to me. Looking out of the trees, I spied the still form of the man with the staff, right where I had left him. Many of the soldiers’ weapons had disappeared, but apparently no one had use for his staff. I darted out into the road and took the staff for later. He could always get a new one. Besides, I had won it fairly in combat and there was no use letting it lay there in enemy hands. I examined my prize carefully. It was a bit heavier than mine, but taller and sturdier. It was hardly notched and looked as if it had seen little wear. I slung my staff over my shoulder and held this new one in my hand to spare my shoulder the added burden.
When I reached home, I was tired and sore, but no longer bleeding as much. As I crawled through the tunnel, something bit my foot, not hard, but enough to hurt even through my shoe. I turned as best I could and found Varen directly behind me. “What?” I whined, irritable from my exhaustion. “Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?” she complained. I entered the room and turned to the following Varen. If one thing hadn’t changed at all about Varen it was her fierce protectiveness, she never wanted me to leave her grasp! I guess it was loving of her, but it got annoying when all I wanted was a private place to sulk, or in this case, fight. “If it’s of any consolation, I told no one,” I answered. “Tell me now,” Varen ordered, although not very menacingly. I didn’t answer for a few moments. I tossed the staffs aside and began searching for my healing herbs and bandages. I pulled these down and looked at Varen who watched me expectantly, there was no denying her. “Practice,” I muttered, unwinding the bandage around my calf. The material smelled disgusting and I worried the wound was infected. I began chewing one of the herbs into a paste. It tasted sour but I ignored it. “Practice what, fighting?” Varen asked, her voice edging on exasperation. “Yes,” I answered, spitting out the paste into my hand. “You didn’t do a very good job then,” Varen remarked. “There were twenty!” I retorted. I immediately could tell she wanted my reaction. I might as well have let slip where I went too. Varen smirked as I rubbed the medicine into the wound. The cut was short, but deep, cutting through part of the muscle. I bound it tightly and moved onto my shoulder. Varen plagued me with questions, but I kept quiet and simply tended my injuries. I piled the blood-soaked cloth and stalked outside, my nose filled with the vile smell. I walked a ways away before burying the bandages in a patch of dry soil.
As I turned, Tuono approached me from the shadows. “Good evening,” I said, casually, not really wanting to talk. “Fighting?” he asked, almost disdainful. “No, practice,” I answered, brushing past him. He said nothing in reply, but I felt his gaze as I left. His silence was almost as bothersome as his questions.
Back in the cave, I ate little, having lost my appetite. I felt guilty about not saying anything, but I really had to fight my own battles. I went back and forth between guilt and defiance until I simply gave it up. I slept peacefully, but alone.
I woke just before dawn, my limbs stiff and sore. I stretched, rubbing my shoulder. Nuvola sat watching in the corner. “Morning,” I called, not looking at her as I dressed my shoulder with more paste. I needed to restock. “Please tell me what you did yesterday. It’s over, what can we do?” she argued. She had a point. “I fought and I won, that’s all you need to know,” I replied. Must everyone be so nosy? “You don’t look like you won,” she retorted. “Varen already tried that,” I said. She muttered something to herself that I couldn’t hear. “Please,” Nuvola begged, almost like when she was a pup. “Fine,” I capitulated, softening. “In essence,” I began, “I went to the next town for training, fought twenty soldiers or so, got stabbed in the shoulder, and came back. Satisfied?” Nuvola seemed content enough and left, probably to tell everyone else. I heard movement outside. “You all happy now?” I called annoyed. My only answer was the wolf version of laughing. It is something half between a growl and whine, but distinctly mirthful. I ended laughing as well, I could never stay mad at them.
I spent the rest of the day collecting herbs and such in preparation. The next week was a blur of gathering herbs, food, and preparing for travel. I even purchased a stiff leather jerkin, which I hoped might take some of the blows for me. I sharpened my sword, which had dulled recently, until I was pleased with the results, a blade which I had obsessively worked on until simply running my finger over drew blood.
One night, Tuono approached me. “You aren’t leaving again, are you?” he asked, eyeing the small bag in the corner in which I had placed my supplies. “Maybe I am,” I answered, although it was obvious I was. “When?” he asked. “Two days,” I answered truthfully, it was near impossible to fool Tuono. “Then we’re coming,” Tuono concluded, glancing behind him where three sets of amber eyes gleamed from the shadows. “Are you sure? I going to Marlon,” I asked. For a moment, Tuono was silent with shock. “Why?” he asked incredulous. “I left someone there,” I answered, picturing poor Ellende and wished I could leave that very day. Had Tuono forgotten? It seemed everyone had. Tuono turned to the other wolves, his eyes speaking for him. “You aren’t alone,” he said finally, facing me. I smiled gratefully.
Two days later, I felt sick to my stomach with worry. Had I remembered everything? What if the wolves didn’t want to go? Was I good enough? What if Ellende wasn’t there anymore? Doubt after doubt raced through my head. Nuvola, who had just entered the room, sensed this. “Don’t worry so! It’ll be fine,” she said, nuzzling me reassuringly, although I could sense the growing doubt she was desperately trying to conceal for my sake. “I hope so,” I answered darkly.
Half an hour later, we left. Marlon was two and a half days away by foot. As we left, I said to Nuvola, my angst having returned even worse, “I wish we could travel faster.” “I might have a solution for that,” Nuvola replied with a sly grin. “What?” I asked, genuinely curious. Nuvola crouched down, her body language clear. “Are you sure?” I asked, surprised. I had imagined almost everything but this. “Of course, unless you’re scared,” Nuvola teased. “I’m not, just surprised, that’s all,” I replied, climbing easily onto her back. I had never ridden a horse before, much less a wolf.
I had never heard of a human ever riding a wolf. Yet here I was, my legs spread across Nuvola’s broad back. None of the wolves looked remotely surprised, as if they had been expecting this for a while. I certainly hadn’t. My perch was surprisingly comfortable. I ran fingers through Nuvola’s ink black fur in search of a good grip. I leaned forward on her back, shifting my weight as little as possible as not to upset her steady rhythm. Everything seemed quiet, the only noise Nuvola’s light footfalls and her breath, which frosted in the winter air. I felt her warmth beneath me as she soared across the forest floor, flanked by her pack-mates. Around mid-day, I dismounted to give Nuvola some rest although she acted as if I weighed close to nothing. By just after noon the next day, we reached the prison.
The great structure loomed in front of me, bringing back memories I had hoped to leave to decay in the back of my mind. I took a deep breath, trying to hide my fear, but everyone could feel it heavy in the air. “How do we penetrate it?” Kii asked, obviously awed. I did not answer for a moment, my eyes searching for a door I remembered to be hidden on the eastern wall. The soldiers discussed it often; not knowing the prisoners could hear them. The soldiers had never been very wise. The forest came close to the walls, but still left an empty space to traverse. I opened my pack and pulled on the leather jerkin. I edged as far out of the forest as I dared and after squinting at the smooth stone wall found what I was looking for. Very faint in the stonework lay a few cracks that marked the hidden door. I turned to Kii. “Here’s how,” I began, a smile on my lips.
At a few hours past midnight, I slipped through the trees, followed by the wolves. I quickly crossed the barren space, dancing around the lights issued by the sentries. I felt my way along the wall until I found the cracks I was searching for. I leaned slightly on the door and it clicked open almost silently. I peered inside and found the passage empty. I drew my knife and hacked at the door’s hinges to keep it open. I might need a fast way out. Satisfied that the hinges were stuck, I turned and signaled the wolves. They all dashed to me, weaving between light and shadow. In seconds they were all behind me. “Wait a little before you follow and try to stick together,” I instructed. Nuvola nodded. Bracing myself, I climbed the small staircase silently. The wolves trusted me so much; they would have followed me into the worst situation. I owed them so much, yet could never hope to repay them. I put my ear to the door, not a noise. Cautiously, I turned the knob and entered the passageway.
The hall was lit by flickering torches that cast long, dancing shadows. I looked around, searching for a landmark. I found none but walked quietly down the hallway, ears pricked for any noise, eyes open for the most distant flicker of flame. Operating solely on memory I did not know I had, I wove from corridor to corridor until I reached the portion of the prison I had stayed in. Every now or then I would freeze and duck into the shadows when a guard passed, but otherwise my plan proceeded without a hitch, until I reached the cells.
When I reached the cells, the amount of guards was higher than I remembered. I knew Ellende would be in this hall, but which cell? I needed to find out fast as the guards were posted at five cells intervals, giving me ten cells to search before my first encounter. I calculated quickly and figured my odds of success were pretty high. Of course, not every cell was full. The first cell I looked into displayed a heart-wrenching sight. A young man sat hunched over in the corner, sobbing softly. I had never seen a grown man cry and the sight astonished me. In the dim light, I made out dark bruises and whiplashes covering his body. His skin was pale and he looked drawn. He looked up at me, but his eyes were seeing elsewhere. They were glazed and unseeing. And then he laughed, a crazy laugh that chilled my very soul. It was the laugh of one dying. How I longed to help him, but could not. I struggled for comforting words, but knew he would not hear them. I remembered all too well how he felt. It could have been me. I moved past, the picture forever fixated in my memory. For sure it would haunt my nightmares for years on end.
The next cell held a surly man sleeping soundly, healthy in comparison to his inmate. A great scar ran down his face, bright red, but old. I moved past gaunt prisoner after prisoner, all pitiful in some way that ripped at my heart. But not one of them was Ellende. Now I reached the first pair of guards, facing each other and looking bored. Silently, I crept up to one and, using the stolen staff as I had left the other one at home, knocked him unconscious easily. Surprised, his companion whirled around, but before he could make a sound I knocked him out as well. I caught him before he hit the ground so he would make as little noise as possible. At one’s hip I found a set of keys, which I confiscated and wrapped in cloth to keep from jangling.
I peered into four more cells before I found my target. Ellende sat almost invisible in the corner of his cell, awake. His hair was matted and dirty. His rags hung loose on his scrawny form, clothes tattered and ratty. All traces of my impish mischievous friend had vanished, replaced by this shadow of Ellende. He looked like an entirely different person. To think, I was the one who did this to him. He was distraught, hopeless. “Ellende!” I whispered urgently. He appeared to not hear me. “Ellende!” I called as loudly as I dared. This time he heard.
He snapped his head up, irritable as if I had interrupted deep thought. “Mand-“ he started before silencing himself. I held my fingers to my lips and unwrapped the keys. A lopsided smile appeared on his lips. His eyes had changed; he looked wild. “Even my mind betrays me! It conjures what I want most and the second I believe it, it disappears! No, I will not be tricked this time!” he muttered to himself and shook his head. Ignoring his ranting, I began testing the keys as quickly as I could. “Niemand? What are you doing?” a voice called out. I started to panic and fumbled with the keys, my fingers trembling. Finally, one fit. I shoved it in and with a click opened the door. “Come!” I called to Ellende, no longer whispering. He shook his head like a small child. Annoyed, I grabbed his hand and yanked him to his feet. Very suddenly, Ellende came to at my touch. “Mandisa? Is it really you?” he asked, bewildered. “How many other people do you know that will come spring you from jail?” I asked, somewhat less annoyed. He stayed silent and I pulled him forward and just got out the door when I ran into a guard. With a flick of my quarterstaff, he crumpled to the ground. “What was that?” I heard a voice ask, the question echoed down the corridor by other voices in the dim light I so relied on. I couldn’t afford to lose time. I jerked Ellende forward. “Follow me,” I said, releasing his arm. I ran swiftly down the hall, Ellende following obediently and a small group of guards on our tail.
Whistles began to blow and the game officially began. For us, it was a race against time. I wove through the passages and wondered where the wolves were. Faster and faster we raced, the amount of hunters steadily growing. After what felt an eternity, I reached the door on the East wall. Hardly stopping, I grabbed a sword lying near the entrance, left by some careless soldier. “Take this,” I yelled, shoving the hilt into Ellende’s hands. “Can you fight?” I asked. “Of course!” he replied in pretend offense. The Ellende I knew was returning quickly. We sprinted across the barren space, which seemed much larger than I remembered. I gave an ear-splitting whistle, my signal to the wolves that we were out. I heard the reply just to my right and saw the lupine figures battling at the door. The operation was running smoothly and we could outrun the clumsy soldiers. So I thought.
As I reached halfway across the bleak patch of ground, my hopes plummeted. Very clearly, I heard the sound of hooves thundering out of the gate. There was no way to avoid confrontation. “Faster!” I yelled. Ellende obliged, stumbling here and there. Just as we were about to enter the forest’s embrace, Ellende fell with a cry. I turned to him, about to extend my hand to pull him up again. A long knife had embedded itself in his thigh, all the way to the hilt. I turned to our mounted adversaries and spotted one of the men with a similar knife in hand, poised to throw. I ducked and it whizzed over my head, less than an inch from its mark. I pulled Ellende to his feet. “Can you stand or do I need to pull it out?” I asked, eyeing the blade with concern, my plans crashing before my eyes. “I can fight,” Ellende answered, although I could tell the knife was already taking its toll. Then they were upon us.
Ellende and I got back to back to keep from being enclosed, and to keep Ellende upright. The force appeared a mere fifteen; we might still have a chance. I spun my staff in challenge, trying to divert most of the soldiers toward me. Ellende’s limited movement made him easy prey. The tactic worked and only four soldiers turned for Ellende. Beads of sweat ran down Ellende’s pale face as he strained against the pain for the strength to fight. All of the men dismounted to get closer. Before they could dismount I had knocked two unconscious, but it seemed to only infuriate their comrades. Ellende fared well at first, stabbing one through the heart. I despise killing, but these were dire circumstances; it was understandable. I fought harder against the torrent of soldiers, taking another three. Then an opportunity arose beautifully. Four soldiers trying to attack from my right were sneaking over very close, an arm’s length away. Artfully, I caught the one in front in the chest, sending him stumbling back into his comrades. As my staff made contact, time seemed to slow down, almost until it seemed to stop altogether.
Nobody else seemed to notice, only me. The four soldiers were frozen falling over or teetering on one foot. If not for the circumstances, I might have found it funny. Then I saw it. In my attack, I had left my chest vulnerably exposed. And, worse, somebody had noticed it. One soldier, hardly much older than Ellende, had his blade infallibly aimed straight for my heart. I tried to move out of the sword’s path or at least to parry it, but my limbs were leaden, it was like trying to move through honey. At that moment I knew, I was about to die. My life did not flash before my eyes; no heavenly force came down to sweep me away. Nothing happened but the sword’s slow progression to its final destination. A million thoughts flashed through my head, like a swarm of bees. One though struck the hardest blow to me; I had failed, yet again. If I died, the odds of Ellende living were slim and then, what was the point of me coming at all, to raise his hopes and then crush them? At least I had tried. Alas, trying was not enough, never is. The blade made its way slowly towards my chest and I got almost annoyed. Must my death take so long? The sword’s point was still a foot from my heart. I tried to take a breath, to close my eyes, to brace myself, but could do nothing. I was trapped by my own foolishness. And then something moved, fast compared to everything else. Time lurched very suddenly back into its normal flow.
I felt myself falling backwards, to the ground. To my immense surprise, no sword was buried in my heart. Something fell in front of me. It took me a moment to realize that something was Ellende. No, the blade was through his heart. A surge of rage, almost as passionate as the day my village died forever, ran through me. “So close,” the soldier muttered and pulled the sword from Ellende’s torso carelessly with a great jerk. A great crimson stain blossomed across Ellende’s chest, the flower of death. I clubbed the murderer on the head as hard as I could, wishing I could shatter his skull, although I doubted I possessed the strength to do so. I turned to the soldiers I had knocked over and dispatched them all. I knelt over Ellende, tears flowing freely. He began to breath raggedly and his skin paled until he was white as a ghost. “I’m so sorry,” I cried, still fighting off attacks from above, the blades I missed ripping into my shoulders, but I did not feel them. “No,” he whispered, “I’m free.” With those last three words, almost inaudible beneath the din of battle, the life vanished from his eyes and his last breath escaped his lips. “No!” I cried, tears streaming down my cheek, watering the death flower blossoming on Ellende’s still chest. And then, in the midst of battle, I kissed those death cold lips, my final parting gift. I stood, pained to the deepest depth of my heart. The scar in my heart, healed by time, burst open, bleeding sadness again, just as freely as when my mother died. Only then did I realize something; I had loved Ellende. If only I could have told him. Alas, you never realize what you have until it’s gone. But, as always, the fight must go on.
I cursed loudly with every strike, wishing to kill Ellende’s murders, but finding myself incapable of doing so, despite my raging hatred. I fought and fought, but my heart was no longer in it. It was a fight for survival and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live. What was there for me to live for? At long last, I simply gave up. The pain was simply too raw, it hurt me more than any sword could. Now I could join Ellende, leave this world forever, leave my pain. My staff fell to the ground and I knelt, waiting for the death strike, but it never came. The next thing I knew was black and the world was gone, but only for a while.
I awoke with a splitting headache. My hands were shackled in front of me. As I got my bearings, my pain flooded back to me, still raw. I was back in Marlon. How I loathed prison! To have escaped once and return was almost more than I could bear. I would just have to leave again, that was all. The sun was high in the sky now, no longer still budding on the horizon. A face appeared through my door, a surly face scarred repeatedly.
“What do you want?” I asked, sounding a lot braver than I felt. He opened the door without an answer and entered. I put up my fists, prepared to fight my way out. “Is that necessary?” he asked, gesturing to the guards behind him. “Yes,” I answered, my voice wavering ever so slightly. He shook his head and, surprisingly fast, grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip. I tried to pull away, but to no avail. Another man, appearing from nowhere it seemed, grabbed my other arm in a similarly strong grip before I could react. I struggled, hoping desperately I wasn’t headed for questioning. As we went, I discovered we weren’t though, to my immense relief, and then, sudden terror. This was certainly not the way to the fields, so what new fate awaited me? Was there something worse ahead? I got my answer as I was jerked into the bright sunlight. In the middle of a small courtyard sat a prison cart, doors wide open. This seemed almost worse. I struggled harder, but the guards simply tightened their grip. In a minute, I was shoved unceremoniously into the cart.
Where was I going? The cart lurched into motion. I inspected my surroundings, searching for an exit. I found none. I sat down in despair; now hoping wherever I was going meant death. It seemed only death would remedy my life, if one could call it living.
The cart rumbled onward for a few hours, headed, somewhere. By sundown, we reached our destination, apparently a different prison. Why? Marlon wasn’t full. Then the answer occurred to me, I knew how to escape Marlon. They brought me to somewhere they thought I couldn’t escape. I resolved then and there I would, if not only to spite them. As night rolled in, the cart passed through the gates. I studied the stream of soldiers and found them to congregate towards, something. I made a mental note to remember the spot.
The cart doors swung open with a clang and I stood, backing into a shadowed corner. “I can see you,” a soldier at the door called. I cursed underneath my breath. I walked forward into the light. “Come along now,” the man coaxed, like one talking to a young child. “Do not treat me like a child,” I replied coldly, staying where I was. “Just come,” he called, his voice firmer and more irritated. “That’s better,” I said and stepped out, landing lightly on my feet. Two more guards grabbed me. I stayed put for just a second to survey my surroundings before being dragged off.
The new cell was similar to my old one with an iron door, barred window, cot, and stone walls, supposedly impenetrable. The guard took a chain bolted to the wall and expertly attached it to my wrists, chaining me to the wall. That might be a slight complication. I tested the chain and found the small links to be stronger than I expected. The guard smiled, in a cruel kind of way, and left.
As soon as his footsteps faded, I stood up and looked cautiously out the window. The chain was long, but not long enough to get out the door. Nobody was watching. I removed the sword necklace and placed it under the cot, where it would be difficult to find. It was then I got an idea. Could I use the sword to escape? The wheels in my head began to turn faster and faster. I drew the sword and tried to saw through the chains. They were strong, but I felt they would give if I worked them in the right places. The contact made a soft whining and I hoped nobody heard it. Apparently no one did. When I finished, the chains felt no further along, but I remained defiantly hopeful.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of wheels rolling down the silent hall. It appeared to be a few hours past dawn. I stood, alert, and peered out the door from the shadows. A young man, almost still a boy, flanked by guards was pushing a cart. I wondered what was inside and got my answer seconds later. The man stopped at one of the cells and opened the door. I watched, curious. He pulled a small tray from the cart and placed it inside the door. He was delivering food. My stomach rumbled hungrily at the thought. I sank back into the shadows and waited for my turn. Soon enough, the cart stopped in front of my cell. I watched silently as the man placed the food inside. At first he didn’t see me. He glanced upward and looked me straight in the eye. I held his gaze. He looked intimidated. Was it me that scared him? It would seem so. I laughed at the thought. Surely anyone with her hands chained to a wall couldn’t appear threatening, yet here it was. The boy seemed unnerved by this and hastily left.
As he left, I grabbed the food greedily. All on the tray was a half loaf of bread and a small jug of water. Famished, I devoured the bread. As I finished it though, I felt quite peculiar. I felt suddenly tired even though moments ago I couldn’t have been more alert. I sat against the wall, speculating upon this, and fell asleep.
When I awoke, the sun was setting on the horizon. Alarmed, I jumped up. There was quite obviously something wrong with the bread. I thought on this and came to the obvious conclusion. The bread was drugged. How could I have been so foolish? Warily, I took the water and looked it over. Aside from being somewhat dirty, it didn’t seem all that different than any other water. I hazarded a small sip. When nothing happened, I took another sip and another. Before I knew it, the pitcher was half-drained. Looking around, I removed my sword and set to work at the shackles. A few minutes later, I heard the cart making its way down the passage. In a panic, I hid my sword again. I crouched in a shadowed corner. The person delivering food did not even look up at me as he hastily placed the food inside my cell.
When he left, I was faced with a conundrum. I could eat the bread and sleep or not eat it and starve. Or I could find a way to make the drug useless. I tore open the bread and discovered the drug was a powder. That could be a complication. I tried to get the powder out of the bread by hand but readily gave up on it. After multiple tries, I found an adequate solution. I dipped a corner in the water I had which seemed to dissolve the powder. Sure, I would have to eat soggy bread, but it was worth it. Now I wouldn’t be distracted.
I developed a routine in those next few days. As my chains came closer to breaking, I began to think on how I would get out. My options were either through the door or the window. The window seemed the better option. Now I turned my focus on the bars blocking me from freedom. I was small enough to fit through the bars if I could remove at least one. A quick study of the solid welding changed my opinion on that. Perhaps if I bent the bars the hole would be big enough. That night, when all was still, I drew my sword. Moonlight reflected on its smooth silver surface, illuminating my workspace beautifully. I got the sword into place and pushed, using it as a lever. I was afraid the sword itself would bend, but it held against the tough bars.
Night after night, I chipped at the chains and bent the bars and they slowly gave way to my unconquered sword.
One night, as I worked underneath the bright moon, I noticed a small darkness. A black rain cloud crossed the moon just for a moment. More clouds followed after it until they blotted out the moon almost entirely. I concealed my sword again, not wanting to work in the dark. Playing with a sword in the dark probably wasn’t the brightest idea. I hunched over in the corner, lost in thought. Now that I wasn’t preoccupied by my escape, thoughts I tried to push away forced their way back. I watched Ellende die again and again. Each time ripped at my heart just as painfully as the day he fell to the sword. He had saved my life and for what? He had died to send me here, to prison. Of course, not that he knew that. How I hated myself! I had to leave here. In prison there is only grief, like a blanket coating the place, making everyone miserable. I needed to escape the ghosts pursuing me. Tears slipped down my cheeks, tears of both frustration and sadness. At least the wolves were still with me, somewhere, probably. This cheered me slightly. Small raindrops flew through my window, sprinkling me. I did not move but let them come. They were like the sky’s tears to me. I mingled my own with them. I fell asleep, embraced by the rain.
“A normal life is boring,”
- “Lose Yourself”, Marshall Mathers
I pulled off my sweaty fencing gear and tossed it in my bag. I casually zipped the bag up and took a swig from my water bottle and wiped my brow. “Ready to go?” my father asked. “Yeah,” I answered.
I jumped into the car, my sweat soaked shirt freezing in the cold winter air. The cold fat raindrops weren’t helping me get any warmer, but they felt good running down my forehead. I threw my fencing bag in the backseat haphazardly and shut the door, plunking down on the passenger seat. My father backed out, sending up a splash of water. I smiled, leaning back against the seat. He got onto the street, stopping at the red, about to turn. As he lurched to a stop, my fencing stuff flew forward. I swore inwardly and unbuckled to grab it. Just as I turned to grab it, my dad turned, right into another car. The impact sent me flying forward. The last thing I remember is hitting the windshield. I didn’t see the glass shatter or my blood upon the dash, not my sabers flying after me. All I knew was black and the quiet sound of rain.
“There are just too many things to explain when it rains.”
- “Going through changes”, Marshall Mathers
I woke groggily, my head pounding thunderously. Before even opening my eyes, I noticed my hands were chained behind my back. Startled, I opened my eyes suddenly. I had awoken in a small prison cell. I blinked my eyes, convinced it was a trick of the light. Alas, it wasn’t. Trying to stay calm, I surveyed the dim room. It was your typical cell, but, honestly, I wouldn’t know. This was my first time in a prison. Either way, the room contained an iron door, small barred window, cot, and concrete walls. It looked like some medieval dungeon. I examined my chains, nothing extraordinary. What I did notice though, was my wrists. They were red and sore, chafed from struggles forgotten. Only then did things suddenly seem extremely off. Sure, the prison was strange. I looked down at my arms. They were dark colored, or at least quite tanned, scarred, scratched, and definitely not mine. I crawled over to a jug of water by my cot and peered in. Although the water was murky, the reflection was distinctly not my own. Although, the face felt familiar. The answer teetered on the edge of my memory. I had no more time to speculate upon the subject though. Solemn, ominous footsteps echoed down the silent hallways. Fall asleep! A voice in my head, decidedly feminine, ordered. Was it my conscience? I didn’t think about it and obeyed. I collapsed onto the cot and tried to stay limp. A guard walked over to my cell and my heart drummed inside my chest. Soon, another guard joined him. I labored to stay silent and not whimper.
“Are they sure it’s her? She’s been here two weeks and done nothing. She seems so harmless! She appears hardly able to stand now, let alone raid Marlon! Do you think they might be wrong? Just this once?” the first guard whispered to his neighbor. I listened intently, curious. So I supposedly was some sort of rogue teenager? Interesting. “Agreed. But the council concurs this to be the one and only, the infamous Mandisa, night warrior, unbeaten with a sword and bow!” the other replied. The voice inside my head laughed and said, Thank you, thank you! “I thought she would be more impressive honestly. Anyway, we should get going. We have other prisoners to check,” the voice finished.
Now I knew what was going on! Well, sort of. I had dreamt of a girl named Mandisa. This was all a dream! I pinched myself. “Ow!” I exclaimed. My hopes of this being a dream sailed out the window. In summary, somehow I had been turned into Mandisa or traveled into a parallel universe or something. Now I just had to escape.
Hey Mandisa? Are you in there? I thought. Yes, who did you think it was, your conscience? came the reply, the voice from before. Mandisa laughed. Things were beginning to make a little sense. What now? I asked. Look under the bed. Sure enough, under the bed was a necklace. I thought I had seen this before. It was a simple black string with a silver sword pendant hanging from it, a small gem in the hilt. Pick it up. I obliged and the pendant extended into a full-length sword, taking me by surprise. Very useful. I followed Mandisa’s instructions and ended up doing a decent job hacking at the chains, somehow managing not to kill myself in the process, and bend the bars in my window. No one appeared and by the time I was done, the chains, which had already been loosened by Mandisa previously, felt ready to break and the bars well bent. I slipped the necklace back under the bed. As noon arrived, I was visited three more times by the guards and once by a boy with food. For each and everyone, I feigned slumber. I wondered why no one thought that was odd, until I got the food.
The meal boy looked into my cell worriedly. He obviously thought I was a criminal. It didn’t matter. I heard keys jangle as he opened the door cautiously. He then proceeded to open the door and hurriedly place the food inside. My stomach rumbled hungrily. I reached greedily for the bread. Don’t eat that, cried Mandisa. Why? I’m hungry! I asked. Smell it, there’s sleeping powder. Trust me, I learned the hard way. It makes you sleep all day. That’s why it’s so quiet. That’s why all the guards weren’t surprised you were asleep, she replied. Oh, I said, feeling stupid. I chucked the bread out the window. You shouldn’t have done that, Mandisa scolded. Sorry, I grumbled. Mandisa, how am I going to escape? I can’t fight or scale walls or sneak around quietly; I’m just a teenager, not a fighter! Do you have any ideas? Mandisa was silent for a while, obviously thinking hard.
Hour after hour, I learned to be Mandisa. Trust me, that was a tall order to fill. She taught me how to work the chains and make the bread edible. Days passed and we began to think alike and Mandisa had to reprimand me less and less. Then we practiced fighting, which was difficult with my hands behind my back. We need to escape, or we can’t get anywhere. We’ll just have to get lucky tonight, Mandisa said, a week after I woke up here. This definitely was not a dream. I gulped.
As night fell, I retrieved the necklace and finished cutting of my chains. They fell quietly to the floor. I pulled myself silently out the window, just making it through. As usual, Mandisa had judged perfectly. We weren’t free yet. Keep low under the eaves and work your way to the far wall. If you see a light, hit the ground, Mandisa instructed. I stole through the shadows successfully and soon came up to the wall. Over there, in the corner, I think, Mandisa urged. Sure enough, there was a door I had overlooked. I put my ear to the door, all quiet. Mustering my courage, I crept inside. The bunker was empty. Hurry! Mandisa urged me. I ran on tiptoe across the room and exited out the other side of the wall.
The air felt fresher now. I slipped towards the far wall, dodging more probing light beams. I reached the far wall. A horn sounded and I froze, fearing I was discovered. Above my head, guards scurried around. Get to the roof, Mandisa said coolly. Have you lost your marbles? They’ll see us straight away! Do you want to be killed? I was starting to panic; at least I had figured out I hadn’t raised the alarm. Just trust me! Mandisa pleaded. Fine, but it’s crazy, I replied. I scaled the metal rungs on the nearest ladder. By some miracle, we weren’t seen. Now jump, Mandisa commanded. Dang, this is insane! I replied. I jumped and landed not very lightly on the ground 30 feet below. Um, Ow! I complained. My ankle felt on fire for a few seconds. I crept limping into the shadows as a coach pulled up. So that was what that ruckus was about! We’re not out yet, we need to get to shelter still, Mandisa reminded me, rather cruelly. The gates closed behind us ominously. We have to run for it, the nearest civilization is a couple miles north. We can probably get there through the forest, Mandisa explained, now thinking logically. What about my ankle? I asked. We’ll get there when we rest, she replied, sounding little concerned.
We sprinted to the forest’s cover. Just as we reached the edge though, an alarm went off. The gates clanged open and soldiers rushed out. I didn’t need Mandisa to tell me. I ran like the wind. As I reached the forest, I began to dodge between the dappled trunks, trying desperately not to trip. I heard the guards clumsily lumber after us. Thankfully, Mandisa was strong and we ran at full speed, slowly losing our pursuers. After an hour, Mandisa finally suggested to rest. She listened carefully, but nothing could be heard except a wolf howling in the distance. The sound felt somehow comforting. Howl, Mandisa directed. Feeling embarrassed I howled into the night, but instead of sounding foolish, the howl was deep and musical, as if I had done it many times before. Closer now, came a reply. I sat down on a stone in the shadows and realized dawn was emerging. We needed to find shelter or would soon be found. Then I heard a rustle in the bush and out leapt the most beautiful black wolf.
Behind her leapt another large wolf. It must have been her mate. Greet her! Her name is Nuvola and his is Kii, in case you were curious, Mandisa said. “Um, hi?” I started, feeling really stupid. “Mandisa, are you okay? You aren’t yourself,” Nuvola said suspiciously, her lips curling back and raising her hackles. I explained the whole episode as best as I could and her expression changed from disbelief to concern to amusement. “It’s definitely you,” Nuvola concluded. “We should get some supplies from Narvon, but can’t stay more than needed. We are still in hostile territory.” “Agreed,” I said. We need healing herbs, water, some food, and perhaps a flint-stone, Mandisa added. Do you have any money? I asked. I think there is some in the heel of the left shoe still. I pulled of my left shoe and sure enough there were eight gold coins. I slipped them back in. We ran under the protecting shadows of the forest, sprinting across open fields. I watched, amazed, at the wolves’ endless, elegant lope. As the traitorous sun began to set, we finally reached the village.
The wolves hung back in the forest’s shadow and watched me with vigilant amber eyes. As we walked into the market, I was greeted by wary glances. I approached the nearest peddler and haggled for the needed supplies. Just as I tucked the last strip of dried meat into the bag I had purchased, footsteps and the clang of armor carried loudly down the road. Dread gripped me, and I tried to slip out of sight as inconspicuously as possible. I managed to find an empty back street; I didn’t want to miss this. The soldiers whom just arrived called a meeting. Slowly, villagers gathered apprehensively. Did this happen often, living near a prison, always wondering what miscreant was loose?
“Attention! Last night, a dangerous prisoner escaped. She is a teenage girl, five foot five, with black hair and distinctly golden eyes. She is possibly armed and dangerous enough with just her fists. She often travels with wolves and should be in the nearby area. If you encounter her, capture her, for she is a seasoned criminal in for life. She must be closely guarded. Whoever can deliver her alive, preferably, to the prison will receive a bounty of two thousand gold coins. You are to post these wanted posters on every public building. If you have any information concerning the escapee, please report it immediately. Good night,” the leader proclaimed. In the background I heard the peddler say, “I saw her! She left as you arrived! She can’t be far!” Now my flight was about to get harder. I heard a great commotion as the soldiers arranged a search party. I figured from the noise that two thousand gold coins was a lot of money. We need to get out of here, now! Mandisa reminded me, worriedly. I slunk down back streets and alleyways, with a few close calls too many.
Then bright torch light illuminated my path. “There!” a man bearing a torch called. I began to sprint, fear gripping my heart. Now they were raising a ruckus and I heard the sound of hoof steps. I had to escape quickly or fight. Seeing no way out, I ducked around a corner and grabbed the necklace. Within seconds, the sword was in my hand, gleaming in the rays of the dying sun. My heart raced, anticipating. Then I got an idea. I began sprinting towards the woods. I whistled as loud as I could, but I was unsure if the wolves heard me. I would have to hope they had. If they did, I needed time. I began knocking over barrels in a rushed barricade, but the pursuing horses leapt over them easily. At least the villagers on foot were slowed. I weaved and zigzagged, but I was on foreign turf. Then I hit the dead end.
I tried to scale the wall, but I couldn’t find sufficient handholds. I whirled around and sunk into the shadows, hoping for the element of surprise. I had learned fencing on Earth, but this was barely similar. The knowledge was hardly comforting. Soldiers galloped into the square and realization hit me. There were six soldiers. I wouldn’t stand a chance; Mandisa might, but not me. They approached cautiously, like approaching a wild animal. I tried to slip past them, but was spotted. “There!” one called. The soldiers fanned out in a semi-circle, pinning me against the wall. “Drop your weapon!” the one in front of me, obviously their leader, commanded. “Never!” I hissed. Two archers raised their bows and notched arrows. The others unsheathed broadswords. Worse, judging from the noise, the villagers were nearly here. “Surrender!” demanded the leader. I was sorely tempted, but defiantly cried, “Over my dead body!” I feared that would soon gain a very literal meaning. “As you wish,” the leader replied grimly. The villagers were here. The archers drew their bows. Thwing! The bows sang and I barely managed to evade the arrows. They pressed in and the archers notched more arrows. I was done for.
And then, a great howl broke through the night sky like a thunderclap. Villagers scattered and the alarmed soldiers froze and whirled around. There was Nuvola and Kii, teeth bared and growling. Three of the soldiers fled, but the others remained, their horses snorting and tossing their manes nervously. That left one for each great wolf and one, unfortunately the leader, for me. My hopes soared, hit the barrier of reality, and plummeted. I would have to get lucky. At least I had an advantage on foot against a mounted soldier in a confined space. Then the soldier leapt off his dappled horse. My hopes disappeared altogether. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the wolves lunge at the soldiers. Likewise, my opponent charged me, sword raised, ready to smite me down. Then my instincts kicked in, with a little yelled encouragement including swearing at my slowness from Mandisa. I prepared to block his blade and then sidestepped the blade at the last second and countered with a slash to his flank. He yelled in fury, and stalked more cautiously now. He jabbed and I barely parried, scratching my arm, ripping my thin tunic. I grunted and riposted, barely managing to make a gash in his leg. My opponent fell. I couldn’t bring myself to finish the deed though. But I couldn’t afford to be followed. I hit the side of his head with my hilt, knocking him out. I felt no guilt about it. I turned to see both of the wolves victorious. Thankfully, they didn’t kill anyone. Both of their foes lay bleeding on the ground, their mounts having run off in fright. Did I mention I hate fighting?
“Let’s go!” I called out. Villagers were starting to muster their courage, which worried me. Their bravery quickly vanished with a snarl from Nuvola. “Climb on!” Nuvola urged. I hopped on her furry back and feel her heart beating. I could get used to this. I grasped her silky, jet-black fur between my fingers and hung on. Her lope seemed no slower as she bore me swiftly towards the forest’s welcome embrace. I felt every pounding footfall, Nuvola’s steaming breath, and her steadily beating heart. We felt the same, our hearts beating the same, breathing the same, living the same. Unfortunately, very few people experience such a feeling of life. It is truly exhilarating. Even as we reached the forest’s refuge, we kept running. Reinforcements would likely be in pursuit by dawn.
By about midnight, I heard water. “Stop!” I told Nuvola. “Shouldn’t we keep going? We need to put some space between us and Narvon,” Nuvola objected. “Just do it, please!” I insisted. Begrudgingly, but not without slight relief, Nuvola halted and I climbed off. She would never admit to it, but I could tell she was beginning to fatigue. I found the small stream and filled my canteen. Do you think I can start a fire? I asked Mandisa. I think it’s safe enough out here, she said after a thoughtful pause. I dug through my pouch and after a sharp prick I found the flint stones. I stumbled around on the ground for kindling and amassed a small amount of dry dead twigs and leaves and such. I got a small fire started and dug out the herbs I had purchased. I treated my throbbing ankle and put gauze made of a mixture of herbs and water on the wolves’ and mine wounds. I threw some meat in the dying embers and ate, giving the wolves the most of the rations. It seemed almost peaceful, like a campout. But I was just casting that illusion to try to distract myself from the truth. I clung to my own lie.
Soon, it was nearly dawn and I figured it was too risky to stay much longer. We put out the fire and I scattered the ashes and attempted to cover the traces of our campsite. We set off at a brisk pace, trying to reach the next town by noon. We stopped briefly at a spring in the morning but ran continuously otherwise. I avoided every road, knowing they were most likely to be watched. When we arrived at the next village, we were much more cautious. I snacked on a piece of dried meat and examined the town. It looked like soldiers hadn’t gotten here yet, but this town was still in the radius of towns that would likely be alerted. Our visit would be short and sweet. I was reluctant to enter, but the wolves ate more than I expected and we would need more rations to continue at our pace to escape the tightly closing net of capture. The scary part was we weren’t even out of the thick of it.
Then I got an idea. I simply couldn’t be recognized, right? In market I bought more supplies and a long green cloak. Perhaps I could use it to escape notice. At least it would blend in with the forest. The bad news was, we were nearly out of forest. We had just left the village when a cloud of dust appeared further down the road. I couldn’t shake the feeling they were more soldiers, I guessed about fifteen. We slipped back into the quiet cover of forest and escaped unseen just in time. The chase was back on.
I made a rash, but necessary decision. We would travel by road. Our cover was thinning and the road was faster, even if there would be no protection. It was a bold venture. “Do you think I can ride you again? It might give us more speed on the road,” I asked Nuvola. “I believe so. I don’t mind, but we’ll need to stop so we can switch between running and carrying,” Nuvola consented. Through the night, morning and evening we rode, breaking only in the afternoon to take cover from the open visibility upon the road. One afternoon, another dust cloud arose behind us. My first thought, riders. And so they were, mounted soldiers. By now all of the forest had thinned out to a few trees scattered here and there, but no cover. The small cavalry approached too swiftly to outrun for long. I took another bold move; I would not run from the approaching hunters. I sent the wolves into a small field of tall grass. There they lay, prepared should the plan go wrong. I rapidly tidied myself as much as possible and pulled on the forest green cloak and pulled up the hood to shade my face. With a little luck, we could evade capture. I wrapped the string of the necklace around my right arm so that the pendant hung at the ready, in case I needed a quick escape. I began walking down the road and adopted a pitiful expression. Soon the riders drew up.
“You there! Halt!” I heard a soldier call behind me. My heart beat faster. “Are you talking to me, sir?” I asked as innocently as I could, turning around. My guise was extremely transparent, a desperate plea, but the soldiers weren’t famous for being too bright. The rider in front seemed to soften a little. “State your name!” the soldier ordered. “My name is Arwen, sir,” I replied with a small curtsy I thought appropriate. I had remembered the name from the market in the last town and decided I liked the sound of it. “A common name. What is a young lady like yourself doing out by herself when there is a criminal about?” the soldier inquired skeptically. This was the probably most dangerous part of my plan, if it could even be called a plan. “There is a criminal about? How terrible! I’ve been on the road a few days to visit my aunt in the next town. But I have grown lonely. Would you kind gentleman please escort me to the next town?” I asked sweetly but sounding particularly stupid. My heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings. After a pause, the soldier, their leader I guessed, said, ”Of course! You, help the lady upon your horse.” The tone in his voice was hiding something and I sensed something had gone awry. I had to hope that Nuvola sensed this too.
As we continued down the road, my trip felt less like that of a guest and more like that of a prisoner. Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of the wolves, vigilantly following at a safe distance, just out of sight of everyone else.
As the town came into sight, the soldiers pulled off the road to “rest.” I heard the distinct sound of chains moving. I felt pretty sure I knew what they were for. I barely managed to restrain from grabbing the pendant and conjuring my sword. I heard hushed voices and saw many backward glances. I glanced to my left and Nuvola gave me a meaningful look. It seemed to scream; “You can start running any time now!” I obliged.
As I took off, a yell went up, “She’s escaping! Come on!” Wisely the wolves remained hidden. They were the Aces up my sleeve. No use staying disguised I figured. I pulled of my hood, revealing myself fully, my braided black hair flying out behind me. There was a clamor as the soldiers raced to their horses. They must have figured they could catch me, for they started to laugh, as if this was some foxhunt. Laugh while you can. “Come get me!” I yelled back to the soldiers as they mounted their horses. Just for fun, I curtsied. Mandisa laughed and congratulated me, saying I might be her yet. I began to sprint down the road. As I had joined the soldiers, a new forest had begun to solidify and was now good for my escape. Plus, they would have trouble hunting me from horseback in the tight woods. The soldiers began to gain, and I pulled my first card, the sword. With an impressive flash, the sword appeared in my hand glinting in the sun, taunting the soldiers. They soldiers hesitated only briefly, but it gave me a second’s advantage. I had to make them think I was going to the town, or better, fight back. Soon enough though, they gained on me and the town was too far away. Time to pull my second card. I gave a loud whistle. Theatrically, the two wolves burst from the bracken with a leap. I heard horses rear in fright. I turned and saw about eight riders tossed off their horses, trying to get them back under control. Seven more to go. Nuvola crouched and I acrobatically jumped onto her back from a run, trying not to lose speed. As soon as I touched her back, she hurtled forward, faster than any horse. The wolves, with me on Nuvola’s back, rocketed forward and we put down ground. Swerve to the village, charge through, and circle to the forest when the soldiers arrive, Mandisa instructed. I parroted her instructions to Nuvola, who agreed. Within a few minutes we were at the village, charging like we were being chased by death itself, which in a way, we were. We leaped carts and startled people and disappeared around a bend. A minute passed and all fifteen soldiers emerged, running their horses to the breaking point. People pointed them in the direction we went. We set to reaching the forest and evaded the hunters narrowly. We slipped into the forest’s sanctuary and came to a halt. No pursuit. We continued at a slightly slower pace through the forest until sundown when we took a rest. Not at all that day did we hear footstep or thundering hooves. We were almost out.
We progressed further without incident. I figured that the soldiers searched the town before catching on to the trick. At the pace we were going, they’d kill their horses before they caught us. We traveled for one more day before we reached a small mountain range. Finally! A little security! Mandisa exclaimed. At the mountain’s foot sat a small village, but I saw nothing particularly helpful. We traveled through the rocky, forested terrain at a slow pace. By afternoon, we reached a small rowan grove. Inside a ring of close trees, was a small spring and cave. A perfect lair for a rogue. I smiled. The rowans provided a natural screen and the spring a constant water source. I was impressed. “I’ll return in the evening,” Nuvola said and ran off joyfully, followed by her mate, Kii, who gave a small woof of excitement. I inspected the cave and found that it was empty. I was confused. Go to the back, Mandisa prodded. I went to the back part of the cave and found a narrow crevice, small enough for a wolf, or me, to crawl through. I took off my pack and slipped through and a few feet later, the tunnel suddenly opened. The room was well lit by a hole in the ceiling. I figured it was good for letting out smoke at night as well. The room was spacious with shelves and ledges that looked like someone had chiseled them out. Great, isn’t it? Mandisa asked. Definitely, I replied. I stowed my pack on a ledge and stumbled on a sleeping mat. I curled up on the surprisingly comfortable bed and fell promptly asleep.
I woke later that evening, feeling refreshed. I explored the cave and came up with a question I couldn’t solve. How do you get supplies? I asked. I have money, you saw it, she replied. Where do you get money? I asked. Barter, mostly, she replied nonchalantly, although with a hint of remembered mischief.
Soon, the wolves returned and I met two more, Varen and Tuono. They were also larger than any wolf I ever knew existed, but Nuvola and her mate still proved largest. I ate dinner and talked with them, but something was bothering me.
Later that night, as the fire’s embers died, I asked Mandisa, Do you think there’s any way we can separate? You know, get you your body back and me get mine?
I don’t know, she replied. I went to sleep, troubled.
Later the next morning, Mandisa broke into my thoughts, I’ve been thinking. I think I know a way to separate. There’s rumor of this plant, Mandisa trailed off. Yes, I prodded. Well this plant is rare, but it’s said to contain wild magic. I don’t know what would happen if it was eaten, but it might solve our problem, Mandisa proposed. Where can we find it? I asked. It was our only chance and I wasn’t about to let it slip. That, I don’t know, Mandisa replied ruefully. But I think I know where we can find out, she added more brightly after a moment’s consideration.
The next day, I slipped down the mountainside, quiet as a shadow. I had bathed and wore a sky blue dress, which I hated but gave my eyes a slightly greenish tint not to mention made me look halfway civilized. I looked entirely transformed. It was a much deeper disguise then the green cloak. We arrived at town in the late morning without a single wary glance in my direction. Following Mandisa’s instructions, we made our way to the elder’s hut. Mandisa told me she was the best source for information on herb lore for many miles.
I knocked on the door gently. I heard shuffling and a wizened, ancient looking lady opened the door. She welcomed me in to her small house, two rooms in size. It was tidy and well kept with glowing hearth fire. I sat down on the dirt floor and she in a creaky wooden chair. “May I ask what brings a foreigner to my door?” she asked curiously. “I heard you are wise in herb lore and I am seeking important information that you might hold. I am seeking a plant called ajikku. What do you know about it?” I asked. At the name, the elder looked taken aback, but not surprised. “I know little of it. It is a rare and dangerous herb. It is the literal growth of ancient wild magic. It holds the ability to heal and destroy. I know its supposed location, yes, but I must know why you seek such an impossible goal. Why?” she inquired, looking me in the eye. I met her gaze, “For freedom,” I replied. It was true. I needed to give Mandisa back her body and reclaim mine. The elder considered this. “You speak the truth, but you aren’t telling me everything. Tell me this, whose freedom?” she asked. “Mine,” I answered. “Very well. It is rumored to grow on the summit of Mount Reve,” she said at last, still not satisfied. “I thank you very much,” I said, handing her a few gold coins. She handed them back, “Don’t thank me yet,” she said gravely.
Of all places it grows on Mount Reve! Mandisa ranted when we reached the cave. What’s so bad about Mount Reve? I asked. It’s not too far, but the most impenetrable fortress ever built guards the entrance. We would need an army to break through, and then scale the peak to find a plant that might end up killing us. It’s suicide! Mandisa replied, her voice growing more and more agitated. Great, I grumbled. Is there any other way to get up the mountain? I asked, starting to worry. I know of no other way, she answered miserably. I might never get out of here.
The next day, I decided to head over to the mountain. It sat a day away, far enough from civilization to make the rumors surrounding it even more dreadful. I readied my pack and set out on foot with Varen. At sun down, we arrived at the forest just outside the fortress. When I laid eyes in the stronghold and prison, my hopes sank. There was no way a single person and a few wolves could attack that place and survive. The entire fortress ringed the mountain’s broad base. It was modeled like a castle, with watchtowers and slits in the walls for archers, not mention other nasty contraptions lurking behind its walls. This did not look good for my prospects at all.
The next few days I spent memorizing the structure. I circled the mountain, staying out of view. I began to despair. I headed back to the cave dejected and despairing of ever leaving. Mandisa pined along with me, not trying to offer any solace whatsoever.
I have an idea! Mandisa exclaimed suddenly one night, perhaps almost two brooding filled weeks later. What would that be? I asked, instantly perking up. It’s risky and likely to kill us, she warned. Just tell me! I insisted. Mandisa laughed. Obviously there’s now way to force ourselves in, but what if they brought us in? She hinted. You don’t mean as, prisoners? I asked, comprehension dawning on me. Exactly, she said. You’re crazy, but so am I. Teach me to fight, I answered. We had time, and there was no way I could escape another prison without fighting. She agreed readily.
The next day, my lessons began. I’d start by learning quarterstaff and then a sword. I could use the quarterstaff in the beginning so the guards wouldn’t search me for the hidden sword. This plan could actually work. In the back of the room, I found a strong quarterstaff, tipped with metal on both ends. It was as tall as me. I picked it up and discovered it had some heft to it, probably weighing ten pounds at least. Mandisa told me it was her first staff. The handholds were glossy and smooth from continual usage; I could tell it was a good weapon.
First you hold it with two hands, a shoulder-width apart, Mandisa instructed. Later you can use one hand for attacks, but start with two for blocks. After I learned the basic blocks and hits, she taught me footwork. When using a heavy weapon, movement is important. Put your right foot a bit forward, bend your knees, and put your weight towards the balls of your feet. Mandisa instructed. Now center your balance between your feet. Good. Keep your torso facing forward so they don’t see which way you move. It helps to point your left foot to the left a little, Mandisa guided. By the end of the day, I hadn’t hit a single thing and had practiced walking. How long would this take? Patience had never been my forte. Sarcasm, yes, but not patience.
All of the next few weeks were devoted to footwork. I learned balance, changing direction swiftly, and a manner of other things. I began to grow impatient to learn to fight. Finally, Mandisa consented to progress to fighting.
Using the quarterstaff was more difficult than I had imagined. For starters, the staff was as tall as I and weighed about ten pounds, I wager. The hardest part, though, was moving the staff quickly. For a week, we focused on the blocks and strikes. Later, I drilled sequences as I learned to use both ends of the stick. As time went on, I learned to lean for more power or use a single hand. The easiest, and most effective lesson was disarming. After all, all you needed to do was rap their hands hard enough and they would drop their staff like a burning coal. I could guess why. My drills grew more complex, as I learned how to fight in different places and use them to my advantage. After what I guess to have been a few months, Mandisa announced we were going on a field trip.
She described the test to me and I excitedly packed my supplies. I also asked Nuvola and Varen to accompany me as Mandisa recommended, both agreed readily. The next day, we set out swiftly. I could hardly wait. I could tell Mandisa was a little less excited, apprehensive.
After a few monotonous days of travel, I arrived at my destination. The prison, my first, loomed over me. But now, I was unafraid although not necessarily confident. Mandisa’s plan was to ambush a prison cart. I would test my field skills and annoy the prison, two birds with one stone. The sun began to set, and still no one entered or left the prison. Just as the moon began to rise, and I grew irritated, a cart appeared along the winding road.
I counted eight soldiers, two driving and six ringing the cart on horses. Not to mention the prisoner inside. Mandisa told me this wasn’t too many. My heart thudded so loud I feared that they would hear it. At the same time, my adrenaline spiked and the smile of a crazy person crept upon my face. I planned to spook the soldiers a bit. It might give me an advantage. I snuck to the back of the cart and ran across the road, brushing the flanks of the horses in the back. As I ducked into the cover on the other side, the horses snorted nervously and pawed the earth, shaking their manes, like horses tend to do when a predator lurks. I kind of enjoyed that thought. All I needed was a little chaos. A stick snapped underneath my foot. I cursed my clumsiness; things were about to get dicey. “Who goes there? Reveal yourself!” a soldier, somewhere near the front, ordered, his voice tinged with fear. I laughed; I was in total control. Mandisa was right; this wasn’t very hard at all.
Judging by the shudder going through the near soldiers, I could tell the laugh unnerved them. “Here’s a hint,” I called mockingly. I crossed the road again, tapping a soldier on the head. I glimpsed the shadow of a person inside of the prison cart, looking forlorn. The guard turned around just as I finished crossing the road. “Can you guess?” I taunted. I needed them to come to me. Preferably individually. I ran to the next tree, hoping someone would spot the motion. I had the right effect. I saw a soldier whisper something to his neighbor and point in my direction, a sly look on his face. They thought they were being clever when I was already a step ahead of them, if only they knew. I hardly suppressed another laugh. Both discreetly dismounted and slowly walked over in my direction. They split on either side, intending to attack from either side. I jumped over a small bush in front of me and hid behind it in wait, smiling and biting back my mirth. They appeared on either side of the tree, weapons poised. They looked where they thought I was and disbelief etched their faces. They searched for footsteps, but found none as they had walked right over them. They circled the tree twice before deciding I wasn’t there. They really weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer.
An idea struck me. I picked up a small stone on the ground next to me and threw it at a tree to my left, making a decent noise. Both soldiers nearly jumped. How thick do you get? The taller man put his fingers to his lips, beckoning in the stone’s direction. They crept over to the where the stone landed, oblivious. I jumped out of my hiding place, knocking out the taller one straightaway. The other whirled around, raising a short sword. Now my test began.
I feinted to the head and swept around to the chest strongly. Another hit from me later, the fight was over. The fight was quick, not half as hard as I expected. But the scuffle was long enough to make noise enough to bring all four soldiers in my direction. I slipped into the shadows. A moment later, the soldiers appeared and, seeing their comrades stretched moaning on the ground, looked around warily. Things might get a little complicated. If only I could separate them. I crouched waiting. I would have to make a move. I swiftly backhanded the nearest soldier before slipping back into the shadow. My advantage was spent. The man groaned and sat down, clutching his side and gesturing in my direction. If I was lucky, he would stay down. The remaining three ringed around him. I made a rash decision; I stepped out into the open. The guard facing me looked startled. A quick swipe and he was on the ground. Things were going well. The two guards were upon me, swords drawn. I fell back in a defensive stance. They attacked simultaneously and I blocked one and nearly dodged the other. Nearly. Pain seared my shoulder and scarlet blood stained my dark green shirt. The fight was definitely real. I backhanded the soldier’s knee. He attempted to block, but to no avail. He crumpled to the ground with a groan clutching his knee, his leg bent awkwardly. I winced at the sight. I had only one opponent, but by attacking his partner I had opened myself up. He made a jab to my gut and I barely managed to deflect the deadly blow, but the parry fell short and the sword scored a deep gash in my leg. I sank down upon my knee as fiery pain coursed up my leg. “Drop your weapon!” ordered the soldier, his sword at my throat. I obliged and the soldier relaxed. In that second, an opportunity revealed itself. In a final desperate attempt, I swept out his legs with my good one and grabbing my staff, knocked him on the head. He was out cold. In the split second of energy, I had spent my last wind. I wouldn’t be able to fight another soldier. Thankfully for me, that was the last. Using the quarterstaff as a walking stick, I returned to the road where the cart waited. I tried to conceal my weakness and confidently strode over to the driver and plucked the keys from the rack by his head. I shot him a look, daring him to challenge me. He stiffened and glared, but did not object more than that. Probably because of all the soldiers that went in, only I came out.
I quickly hobbled to the back of the cart and unlocked the door, revealing a startled man of about seventeen. He put up his fists as if to fight me. He was in hardly any better condition then me. I simply jangled my keys and comprehension dawned on his gaunt face. I quickly studied him. He was tall and strong, like one who does a lot of travel, and fighting. But the most intriguing feature about him was his eyes, which were a vivid shade of intense purple. His short blond hair hung matted and mottled with blood over one of his eyes. He was in poor condition and it was obvious from his fresh wounds that he hadn’t come quietly. I smiled slightly; he was a fighter. I set to work removing his shackles, avoiding his probing violet gaze. Suddenly, the driver’s companion appeared, slamming the door on us. Seconds later, the cart sprang into motion. I rolled my eyes and began to unlock the door from inside. The idiot forgot I had his keys. With a clang, the door swung open. “Come on,” I beckoned. He silently came forward. I jumped out of the cart, falling as my leg gave out and fresh pain shot up it. I moaned and stood up, leaning heavily on my staff. Concern quickly flashed across the strange man’s impassive face. Mutely, he nodded and ran off into the night. I could tell he would make it. The question was, could I? I had the wolves though. I’d be fine.
Amber eyes emerged from the darkness, followed by the wolves themselves. Varen held my pack in her teeth. I took it graciously and slung it on my back and started to totter into the forest. Only now did Varen see the wound on my leg, a dark shade of shiny red in the moonlight. Varen yelped as if the wound was her own and commenced to licking it as a mother licks a pup, but I gently pushed her away, showing her a roll of linen from the pack. I slumped against a tree and began wrapping the wounds on my leg and shoulder. As my adrenaline slowed, I began to feel dizzy from the blood I lost. Yet I stood up and turning to Nuvola, asked, “What now?” “Climb on,” she replied grimly.
After we had ridden a few minutes, Mandisa spoke up. You did well, but you have to always watch your back, Mandisa started. I noticed, just ask my shoulder, I grumbled. When I tested, I got knifed in the shoulder, Mandisa offered. Did I do well enough? I asked finally. Very well, just watch out from behind, Mandisa said and our conversation ended.
At the first light of dawn, we halted. I ate little and changed my bandages, but focused mainly on satiating the wolves’ ravenous appetites. I limped around the clearing despite Varen’s efforts. We progressed slowly as I insisted on giving the wolves rest and doing some walking. They consented unhappily. After walking only a mile or so, Varen, the more protective of the two, stood in my path purposefully. “Quit being stubborn. I know you’re hurting yourself. I appreciate the sentiment, but you have to stop! Plus, we’re losing time!” she pleaded.
“Fine,” I capitulated, realizing she was right. I abhorred feeling useless, like some added burden with no purpose. I clumsily pulled myself onto Varen’s back. She set off at a deliberate pace, but every footfall was as light as that of a hare. I do not know how long she ran, but her lope was graceful and seemed infinite. Wolves were built for running like this. I wondered if me even being on their backs made a difference. I resolved to ask sometime. Every day, at dawn, I persisted in walking for a while, despite Varen’s protests. We made good progress and not once crossed paths with any soldiers, although I felt their presence on our trail. As we traveled, I found my thoughts returning to the strange man with the purple eyes. I raised so many questions. But the foremost question in my mind was, what did he do? People don’t go to prison for no reason. I determined that someday, I would find him.
When we returned home, I focused on healing quickly. But most importantly, I honed my skills more. My brush with death was more than enough to motivate me. One day, I asked Mandisa, Do you know the man with purple eyes or something? It’s just you have been practically silent ever since you saw him. For a moment she was silent, but she replied, No, but something about him seems vaguely familiar. I just can’t place it! I didn’t reply. I had a feeling we hadn’t seen the last of him. I wasn’t sure if it was reassuring.
As time passed, I felt more confident in my skills with my staff, but I didn’t dare to try my luck in the field. You could say I was scared. But, Mandisa finally convinced me to learn swordplay. She said I needed to move on. Using a quarterstaff, she said, would keep me in the doldrums. So, I consented to the logic in her argument having none better of my own.
We spent little time on footwork, as it was similar to what I learned for the quarterstaff. In fact, it seemed practically identical. In comparison though, the sword felt as light as a feather. The biggest difference though, was the parries. Because of the sharp edges, you had to be particularly careful. I practiced with my sword almost joyfully. It reminded me of home for some reason I could no longer recall. The strange thing though, was that when I got here I remembered less of my real life. Nowadays I couldn’t even remember if I had a sibling. It was like a dream, the harder you thought about it; the faster it slipped between your fingers. But one point of my former life was clear, my name. My name was Rain. As I practiced my swordplay, I would brood upon my name. For some reason, it seemed important. Swordplay took me half the time quarterstaff did. Mandisa said I was a natural, which thrilled me. Mandisa was often more likely to be snide than praising, like me. I didn’t care if I was perfect though. I spent every day perfecting it, as if I was trying to prove something. I didn’t know to whom though.
Months later, I grew restless for a new challenge. One day I asked Mandisa, When are we going to Mount Reve? She stayed silent for a moment or two. Soon, but we must prepare, she replied grimly.
A week later, we made preparations. My wounds were long healed. The plan was rough. After being taken prisoner in the fortress, I would explore around and make an escape up the mountain. I would reach the summit and get the ajikku. I’ll be the first to admit, the plan was really sketchy. It would require a lot of luck, something Mandisa and I often ran out of quickly. I packed a few rations for the journey and I traveled with the quarterstaff, the sword necklace dangling around my neck.
I would use that weapon, which would be confiscated while the sword would be concealed and unlikely to be searched for. No one knew about the necklace and so they would search for something more obvious. I also purchased a cheap hunting knife to hide and use to remove any suspicions. That was the most detailed part of the plan though. I had no clue how to proceed, seeing as no prisoner ever escaped the fortress, yet; I planned to be the first. The day to depart arrived and I began to worry. What if the gamble failed? The plan was only a rough sketch, if the smallest thing went wrong it would collapse like a house of cards in the breeze. But, I could not dwell on what might be. Otherwise nothing would happen. The day prior to my entrance, I set off to my probable doom. I really needed lighter thoughts. I went with Nuvola alone. The trek felt like the one to the gallows before an execution. I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that was dragging on me like a weight. But I must go on. Then I actually arrived.
I was at a loss for how to get myself captured without raising suspicions. I decided to find a road by the woods and relax there and fake an injury. It seemed the best way without injuring myself too much. I felt in a trance as I fought my most basic urges. By noon, a cart rolled up the road. I steeled my courage trying desperately not to flee. I could do this! I slumped down by a tree. The cart approached and I saw a lone soldier approach. I got up, faking a limp. “Who are you?” the soldier asked gruffly. I tried not to tremble. I couldn’t back out now. “What does it matter to you?” I replied in an attempt to seem defiant as Mandisa used to. “Tell me your name!” he ordered. “No,” I replied simply. “I’ll teach you manners wood brat!” he thundered angrily, someone had temper issues. I didn’t retreat but let him come. I whipped out my staff, striking his arm when he came into distance. He grunted angrily, drawing his sword. I assumed a defensive stance but before he could strike, I hit him upside the head. He swooned and collapsed in the dust. I returned to the tree and sat down, smirking. The cart drew up and upon seeing their comrade in the dust the soldiers came towards me angrily. “Explain this!” one ordered, pointing to his fallen companion. “He bothered me,” I answered nonchalantly, shrugging. “Would anyone like to bother me?” I asked innocently, tilting my head and looking the man in the eye. “ I will child!” a soldier answered. I practically felt Mandisa cringe when he said child; it bothered me too. Before he even drew his sword I had stepped forward and struck him down. The soldiers grew into a riot with collective anger. But, the leader quieted them. “Who are you?” he asked curiously. “You didn’t guess? The name is Mandisa,” I replied with a curtsy. “There is a bounty on your head girl,” he replied, drawing his sword. “As I am well aware,” I answered. The soldiers fanned out weapons drawn. “Surrender child. You will not be harmed if you come quietly,” he said, trying to tempt me. “No thanks,” I replied sweetly batting my eyelashes. Mandisa practically rocked with laughter, making me smile in turn. Two soldiers approached from either side. After my first experience with the prison cart, I knew better. I drew back and lashed out at one before pivoting to strike the other. Both advanced. The one on the left attacked. I sidestepped easily and used my staff to trip him. Another soldier dismounted to join the fight. I promptly knocked out the one I tripped and spun around to face my other threat. I was back to two opponents.
The staff seemed to come alive in my hand, whirling and thrusting of its own free will, faster as more opponents joined the fight. I ducked and sidestepped mindlessly, practically laughing in the face of danger. My thoughts blurred, but one thing was clear, fight. Little noise reached my deaf ears; I did not hear my opponents fall to the ground nor the swish of their blades nor the frenzied calls to each other nor the thud of my staff as it struck true. All I could hear was the beating of my heart, like the wings of some great bird taking to the air. I danced between strikes, my staff a blur. My feet fell lightly on the dusty road, never lingering long, always moving in the dance of combat. The action began to slow and I remembered my goal in a break of adrenaline.
I had managed to beat all the soldiers down to the last two and the leader. All three attacked. I managed after a few scratches to narrow it down to just the leader.
I had to lose this round. I pronounced my false limp. We circled each other and I suddenly sank down on my knee, as if my leg had given out. I sprang back up, but he had taken the bait. He came closer, waiting to exploit my pretend injury. After a brief scuffle, I pretended to fall and he had me at sword point. “You played well, but you are up. Drop your weapon,” he ordered, smirking. If only he knew he had been set up. I dropped the notched staff; I hated to have to give it up. From his belt, the man withdrew shackles and put them on my wrists and marched me to the back of the wagon. I struggled a little for show, but I didn’t need to. I was in. The other cellmate looked at me curiously. I shot him a sly grin. He looked away. He probably thought I was crazy. He was probably right.
We sat for a while in the cart as the soldiers came round. Many of them walked over to the back of the cart making threatening gestures. I simply laughed at them. I could tell they were embarrassed about being beaten by a girl. I fiddled absent-mindedly with my necklace, careful not to draw the sword. My staff was confiscated along with my pack and dagger. Soon enough, we rumbled towards the fortress.
As we reached the gate I realized the enormity of the place. We entered and I peered intently out the window, taking in anything that might help me. I particularly focused on the guards and where they went, but gathered little. Soon the door was unlocked and two soldiers ordered us out. I calmly marched out, as if choosing to do so by choice. Any soldier who came to close was kicked away. I wanted control and would get it. Other prisoners watched from their cell windows, eyeing me and the other arrival curiously. I waved to them. Some waved back solemnly and others waved back with a laugh and shake of the head. I might be prisoner, but no one would put me down. I could tell the guards were annoyed, all the better. I walked willingly ahead, not fighting at all, but simply haughtily leading the way. I was lead to a cell and I walked inside and sat down. “You have a trial tomorrow morning. Behave and your ruling might be better,” he said. “You’re dismissed,” I said. He marched off unhappily. How am I doing? I asked Mandisa. Good, I couldn’t have done it better myself, she replied with a laugh.
That evening a guard appeared at my door. “Yes?” I asked. “Dinner,” he said blatantly, opening my door. I exited and was escorted down the hall to a mess hall. There, prisoners of every type were sitting down for a quick meal before returning to confinement. As I entered, heads turned. I noticed I was the only female, and the youngest. Prisoners, even guards, turned and whispered quietly to each other. I ignored them and grabbed some food and found a table. I quickly smelled the food. It smelled stale, but not potentially harmful. I took a few careful bites. I ate little. When I cleared my plate, some of the younger prisoners approached me. “Who are you?” a bolder one asked. “Mandisa,” I replied. “Really? No kidding? Do you know how famous you are?” he said, surprised. “I don’t care about the fame,” I replied although I truly didn’t know I was famous at all, after all I did live in a cave. I felt no desire to talk. “I know something,” he said, trying to get my attention. I took the bait, “What would that be?” “You’re a runner, right?” he said slyly. “What’s it to you?” I replied, not denying it.
“Well little lady, there are two halves to this place, where you are now and ‘Runner’s Row’. If you try to escape and they catch you, they move you there. It’s right up against the mountain, so you have to cross the entire place to get out. No one goes up the mountain, if they did, it would be a death sentence. My advice, make it once or not at all,” he whispered deviously. Interesting. Plus, the guards wouldn’t expect me to go towards the mountain. My spirits lifted. “Thank you,” I answered, contemplating. “You’re still going to try, aren’t you?” he said. I remained silent, but gave him a look that said everything. I walked off and surveyed the room. There was no way to escape from here. Guards ringed every door. Unless there were hidden doors I couldn’t see. I just needed time to find them. A harsh ringing sounded and the guards stiffened and began escorting various miscreants to their cells. A surly soldier approached me. He reached for my arm and I dodged. “I’m fine by myself, thank you,” I said and began walking to the door where I had entered. As I returned to my cell, followed by the dejected guard, I studied my surroundings. Every few doors, a guard was posted, no way I could bolt now. I entered my cell and sat down. The cell appeared practically identical to my first, save the fact that a small window on either side of the cell for talking to the other prisoners and no bed.
I peeked through both windows and discovered both cells to be empty. I was alone. Night fell and torches were lit, casting their ghostly light. I peered outside my door; no guards were watching my cell. I sank onto the ground and best as I could, removed my necklace with my manacled hands. I looked around my room for a safe spot to hide it, but decided it best to keep it on my person. The sword grew and I shoved the point into the lock of my manacles. But it was too large. I shrank it back down and probed the pendant’s point inside. After much prodding, the shackles clicked open. This was way too easy. Fearing the guards might have heard the shackles open, I snapped them back on. Now I just had to find a way out of the cell itself, that wasn’t half as easy. I paced back and worth. My window was large enough, but there were too many bars to remove or bend. The only way out was through the door. A plan began to form roughly inside my head. But I must be patient in order to implement it. I needed to learn my way around. I curled up on the straw-covered ground and fell into a restless slumber.
I rose early the next morning. I had decided that if there was any way to escape, I needed to keep in prime condition. Plus, it was a way to pass time, of which I had plenty. I practiced forms and footwork. I did pushups and sit-ups and a manner of other things. Sweat crawled down my face. I mopped my brow and stopped. A strange noise caught my attention, footsteps. I ran to my door and peered out, the shift was changing. The old guards all headed down the hall and left. Where did they go? Was there a secret door there? I resolved to investigate it. About an hour after dawn, a group of soldiers came down the hall. I sank back into my cell, hoping they weren’t for me. Unfortunately, they were. One arrived at my door and came inside. “Your trial,” he spat. He reached for me, and I pushed him away. If only these oafs would learn! I marched down the hall, my eyes peeled, but I saw nothing. We made many turns before arriving before two large wooden doors. The guards shoved them open and went inside with me in front. My old fears returned as I viewed the large, cold room. A man who looked to be of some importance and four other men, sat in the front of a platform in the back of the room. I was escorted roughly to the men. “Sit,” one ordered. I remained standing.
“Mandisa,” the man in front started. “You are brought here for the raid at Marlon, attempted murder, and thievery at best. Do you deny these?” “No, it’s nice to be recognized for one’s deeds,” I replied cockily. Mandisa egged me on. “You realize these acts result in a life sentence?” he asked, both surprised and confused. I guessed most people denied such accusations. “Of course,” I replied. A collective gasp rose from the other men. “Dismissed,” the man finished in a final voice. He hadn’t seen the last of me! The guards in the room looked surprised, but I ignored them.
Back in my cell, I contemplated my escape. That next night, I practiced picking my lock. I still needed to find a way out my door. The next day, I spoke with the man who had approached me my first day. “Has anyone escaped before?” I asked, not very discreetly. “Plenty, just not successfully,” he replied smirking. “How?” I asked. “I don’t know. They all get moved to Runner’s row before they can tell anyone anything,” he replied. “I see,” I said gloomily. I practiced removing my shackles until I got it down in ten seconds. The next day, a cart rolled in. I lazily walked over to my window, hardly bothering to at all.
A single man stumbled out. He was a farmer by the looks of him. I turned around and sat down, trying to find some way out of my plight. Not much later, I heard a clamor. The guards brought the prisoner down the hall. As luck had it, they shoved him into the cell next to me. He leapt back with a yell, but the door was closed. He started angrily pacing his room. “Hello?” I whispered. He spun around and charged toward my window, like a madman. “Calm down!” I scolded. He glared at me, but stopped pacing. “Who are you?” I asked. “Nobody,” he growled. I laughed. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who called their selves “nobody” to just to be spiteful. “Night,” I said and left. “Night,” came the almost inaudible reply. I wasn’t alone.
The next few days, the man next door became more sociable, but still refused to share his name. Then, one night I woke to a loud uproar. Somehow, my neighbor had managed to steal a guard’s keys. His eyes were wild and fierce. More incredibly, he had managed to free himself. No one ever more resembled a madman than he at that moment. With a wild shout, he ran into the hall. Guards raced towards him, swords raised and calling to their fellows. Realizing his predicament, he hurriedly unlocked my cell. I ran out, not caring to undo my shackles. We fought off the guards, but a fresh wave was sure to arrive. We desperately ran down the hall, weaving through the corridors. I stopped momentarily to unlock my manacles. They fell to the ground. I didn’t know where I was going, but I ran. We reached a split in the corridor. “Thanks,” I said. He nodded solemnly and we split in different directions. A loud clanging sound warned me of pursuit. I didn’t grab my sword though. Something told me now was not the time to play that card.
I made turn after turn, oblivious to my destination. Although I ran like the wind, I couldn’t lose my pursuers. Then I ran into a place I shouldn’t have, a dead end. This seemed much too similar to my last prison escape. But now my wolves couldn’t help me. My heart beat faster than I thought possible. Twelve guards turned the corner. My escape had failed. They approached me leisurely, knowing I didn’t have a chance to fight back. I balled my fists. They laughed. A guard approached me, sword drawn. I aimed a wild punch, my adrenaline spiking. He dodged and slashed; just grazing my arm, but the pain didn’t register. I fought back as best as I could, but the odds were too high. I was bleeding all over and had only managed to land a few punches. I felt ready to give up. I circled and made the mistake of turning my back on the other guards. Something hard hit the side of my head and everything went black. The last thing I heard was laughter.
I woke up with a nasty headache. As I blinked I remembered the previous night’s mischief. I really hoped waking up in prison didn’t become a habit. I felt sore and aching all over. I slumped against the wall, wishing to never move again. This cell was hardly different from my previous one save the fact I could see the mountain clearly from my window. Miraculously, I still had my sword. I examined myself. I hadn’t realized just how bloodied I got last night. Nothing looked serious, but the scratches were numerous. Dread overcame me; I had failed utterly. Now an escape would be even harder. At least I was closer to the mountain. I stared off into the ceiling, despairing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of purple at the window into the next cell. I stiffened in recognition. Against all odds could it be? I struggled to stand and walked over to the window. I saw nothing. I sank down against the wall. My gamble was lost and I was seeing things.
Every morning though, I still exercised, but not because I believed I could escape. Two times a day, a guard brought food. They weren’t risking anything. This food also had the sleeping powder. I soaked it in water and ate it slowly to keep from sleeping, but I still felt drowsy. After two weeks, I saw a shadow in the cell next to mine. Quietly, I crept over to the window and peeked in. There sat the boy with purple eyes. I hadn’t been simply seeing things! He didn’t notice me though, but laid on the ground, eyes blankly staring at nothing. “Hey,” I whispered. He jolted awake and spun toward me. “You?” he said, incredulous. I had never heard him speak before, and it was the melancholy sound I had ever heard. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I got away, but a month or so later they tracked me down. Having escaped that last prison earned me a ticket straight to here,” he replied although not angrily, or at least not with anger directed at me. I could tell e had other reasons to be here, like perhaps the one meriting him the trip to the last prison, but I didn’t push. “What about you?” he asked. “It’s a long story, but I’m here on purpose,” I replied. He looked at me like I’d said I bang my head on the wall for fun. “What’s your name? I never caught it,” I inquired. Footsteps echoed down the hall. “Marshall,” he said quickly, before withdrawing. I slunk back and pretended to fall asleep. The footsteps stopped as two guards appeared in front of my door. “See! I told you nobody was talking!” the older of the two said. “Fine, but I was certain!” He looked at me suspiciously. I lay still, trying to look as if I’d been sleeping for a while. I didn’t dare try to speak to Marshall for the rest of the day. It didn’t matter though as he sulked in his cell, brooding as what appeared to be his taciturn manner.
That night, a fierce gale swept through to the mountain. The cell became freezing. My teeth chattered and I wrapped my arms around myself. The wind howled across the bars of my window, creating a spidery frost. My breath froze in the air in puffs of steam. I jumped up and down, trying to create some heat. All night the winds howled with pelting sleet as the storm battered the earth in vengeful spite. I went to my window and looked out. Sleet stung my eyes in the wintery storm as the air itself turned white. I nudged the bars, slick with ice. I had an idea. I took my water jug and poured its contents along the sill, recalling that ice expands. If I was right, the area around where the bars attached would break. Hope blazed inside me, warming me better than a bonfire. There was still a chance. I walked over to the window dividing Marshall’s cell from mine. “Marshall,” I whispered, but my voice was carried away in the fierce winds. “Marshall!” I called a little louder. His dark silhouette turned from where he sat, silent. He came over to the window warily. “What is it?” he asked, his voice tinted with annoyance. “I know how to escape,” I answered. His violet eyes blazed like I had never imagined. The frost that had seemed to coat them melted in an instant. “You’re not messing with me are you?” he said. “That would be cruel,” I answered surprised he didn’t trust me. “How?” he asked, a strange, but not unshared, desperation in his voice. “I’m not sure if it will work, but pour water in your sill,” I instructed. “How will that help?” he asked. Not wanting to explain how I knew, not even I really knew how or why, I answered, “Just trust me.” Having no alternative, he did. “Now what?” he asked. “We wait,” I replied. He looked disappointed, but said nothing.
The next morning, I walked over to my sill and wiggled the bars. They shifted ever so slightly. I would have to repeat the process, but this could work. The spark of hope inside me flared. I walked to Marshall’s cell, a stupid grin on my face. “Marshall?” I called. No reply came. I looked as much as I could into his window, but didn’t see him. Worry welled inside my chest. Where was he? It didn’t look like he had escaped. Then I noticed something odd. The straw on the floor was pushed to the walls. Something had happened. Then I saw it, red spots splattered on the floor and smudged on the far wall, blood. “No!” I whispered. Something was very wrong. I sank back against the wall. For some reason, I desperately wanted to cry.
I didn’t see Marshall at all for two days. On the third morning since his abrupt disappearance, I heard footsteps. I sank against the wall on the side away from Marshall’s cell. Were they here for me? The answer was worse. The door to Marshall’s door opened and something heavy fell to the floor with a sickening thud. My breath stopped in my chest. The footsteps left. The second their echoes faded, I rushed to the window, and nearly vomited. Marshall was back. Marshall staggered to his feet, but fell again. He was a bloody mess. Wounds covered his entire body, most of them still bleeding. A scar ran just above his eyes, mottling his blonde hair. He looked as if he had lost all rebellion inside of him. He looked beaten. Mandisa winced inside me. That happened to me once, she said blatantly. I did not answer, not knowing what she meant. His eyes looked sadder than I ever thought possible. His face was gaunt and drawn with pain. I averted my eyes. Poor Marshall groaned and slumped on the floor. I longed to help him, but I cannot walk through walls.
That night was as brutally cold as the one on which Marshall disappeared. I feared Marshall wouldn’t survive the night, but could do nothing to aid him. His cell was eerily silent. I poured the contents of my water jug onto my sill. At last I dared to look at Marshall. He lay on the floor, unmoving and staring blankly at the ceiling. Please let him be alive! But I wasn’t sure if he was.
The next morning, I peered into Marshall’s silent cell. He looked hardly different from last night, but now I could see his chest heaving laboriously, but slowly rising and falling. Hot tears streamed down my face, even though I hardly knew him. Emotions can be curious sometimes. “Marshall?” I whispered. He stirred in his feverish sleep, but did not awake. He would have brave this alone. Only now did I remember to check my bars. They shifted slightly, but did not give. I hoped Marshall wouldn’t give either.
As the days passed, Marshall grew worse. One night, a week after his return, he finally managed to stand. He took a few wobbly steps toward me. I glanced out my door to confirm that no guards were watching. I tore off a strip from my tunic. Marshall gripped the bars to steady himself. I wet the strip and began to clean his wounds as best as I could. He grimaced and looked ready to faint at some times, but he stubbornly stayed where he was. Some of his wounds still freely bled and my cloth turned a scarlet color. I wrapped one of the largest wounds with the strip and proceeded to salvage cloth from where I could. Soon, his worst cuts were tightly bound, although I wished I could have helped more than his top half. It would have to do. I forced water between his lips. He drank readily. Marshall had eaten little and drunk little in the spaces of consciousness he could manage. He might still survive. I just had to admire his spirit. He sank back to the shadows of his cell, but reserved some consciousness. He had a chance, but I yearned to help him more.
Every day, he managed to return to the window and I changed his crude bandages. Every day, he looked better and better, although from that wasn’t too hard in is poor condition. Thankfully, no more fierce storms came to freeze the night for a long time. One day, I decided to remove his bandages. He was scarred all over. But, miraculously, nothing looked infected. Or so it had appeared. The next night held an icy storm. I poured my water and was settling down to brave the bitter night when I heard the coughing. It started quietly, but Marshall couldn’t suppress it. “Marshall,” I called. He walked over to the window. But this time I didn’t know what to do. I could try to wash his wounds, but I already poured my water on the sill. Besides, it would freeze on him. “Hold on,” I said. He nodded and left. His coughs racked the night. And I winced every time.
In the morning, water and food came. Marshall came to the window. “I don’t know,” I said, answering his unspoken question. “I have nothing. Just put the water on your sill. The sooner we escape, the sooner we can get supplies,” I said. He nodded. A sort of bond had formed between us ever since the night I helped him. He trusted me. But yet, every time I asked him about the night he disappeared, he would shake his head and remain silent. I would find out sometime. Two nights later, a harsh winter storm blew through; I once again put water on my sill. The bars were nearly done. I heard Marshall do the same thing over on his side. By now, his coughing had started to become feverish. It had started as a minor infection, but untreated, I didn’t want to imagine the consequences. I needed to hurry. Seconds later, the sword was in my hand. I quickly tampered with my bars, but it was pointless. I had to wait until the next night.
The next morning I checked my bars. They could be broken at a moment’s notice if need be. I didn’t need to work at the bars. Marshall did though. I began to contemplate on giving him my sword. How much did I really trust him, would he take my sword if I gave it to him? Soon enough the answer came to me, I trusted him enough to give him the sword. That night, I called Marshall over.
“How are your bars?” I asked in a hushed whisper. “Nearly there,” he said, and then coughed. “One second,” I said and went to check the hall. No guards were watching. “Watch,” I instructed. I removed the necklace and converted the sword into its full size. The look on Marshall’s face was astonished and absolutely priceless. “How long have you had that?” he asked in disbelief. “Since I got here,” I replied with a smile. I shrank the sword again. “You know what to do?” I asked. “He nodded. “Don’t lose it,” I said. He nodded again and took it gingerly, as if it were the key to his cell, which it practically was. I heard a faint noise as Marshall worked on his bars. Throughout the night, he worked relentlessly to loosen the bars on the windows.
At dawn, I heard, “Mandisa, Mandisa!” I turned sleepily. He dangled the necklace through the bars. Then I heard footsteps. I rushed to grab the necklace and threw myself on the hard ground, as if I wasn’t awake. I heard Marshall do the same thing. A surly guard peered into my cell. I labored to even my breathing, but it was painfully obvious that I was up to something. I clenched the sword so tightly my knuckles turned white. The guard wasn’t fooled. In a quick sleight of hand, I slipped the necklace up my sleeve. The door clanged open. I grabbed some straw from the floor. The man came closer. I looked out from underneath my eyelids. “I know you’re awake. Open your hand,” he ordered. I ignored him stubbornly. He bent down and pried my fingers open, only because I let him. “Straw,” he growled, disappointed in not catching me in the act. One point for me, none for the guard. He grumbled and stalked off, but not without a parting kick to my ribs. He didn’t have to be a sore loser. As his footsteps faded, I got up and hid the necklace by using it to tie my hair. To think they didn’t suspect a thing! I looked outside; the guard was two doors down, alertly listening. He knew something was up. I rubbed my sore side and fell asleep, for real.
When I woke up, the sky was white with snow and the wind whistled. “Mandisa,” Marshall called, purple eyes glowing brightly, like lanterns with violet shades. I woke up groggily and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Then reality came back to me. Tonight, we escaped. I went to my door. The guards looked bored and sleepy, which was good for us. I gave Marshall a nod. I pushed on the bars and they broke free with a crack loud enough to wake the dead. I winced; there was no way the guards would ignore that. Within seconds, footsteps drew close. I lay down in the shadows, trying to look innocent, but the guards went to Marshall’s cell. I heard his door open, but didn’t dare watch the episode through the window. “What was that?” the guard asked, as if Marshall had woken him up. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. I guess guards can get pretty lazy when their prisoners sleep all day. But, Marshall and I refused to sleep. “I do not know. The storm conceals the truth of sounds,” Marshall replied cryptically. Way to go Marshall! “What does that mean?” the guard roared, sounding drunk. Marshall did not reply and I could practically see him smiling smugly at the enraged guard. From the sound of it, the guard paced the room, but found nothing. Apparently, the guard wasn’t bright enough to check the window. He huffed off, slamming the door behind him. I looked out my window and saw the guard slowly patrolling the corridor. I nodded to Marshall and we both soundlessly leapt out our windows, to freedom.
As soon as I landed, I turned to see Marshall’s vague silhouette. The howling winds flung sleet and snow high in the air with arctic blasts. I felt like I was standing inside a giant snow globe. Marshall walked over to me, his footsteps muffled by the shifting snows. He gripped my wrist gently. I suppose he did it so as to not lose me in the blinding whiteness, but his touch was oddly reassuring. I had explained to him a while ago, that I was climbing Mount Reve, and he agreed to accompany me on the dangerous ascent if it meant a means of escape. Now began our icy trek.
We set off briskly, for we did not know when our absence might be noticed. The trudge slowed as the snow deepened as we struggled higher. But still I felt Marshall’s comforting warmth. Silently we hiked, like black dots in the vast shifting whiteness. As we ascended, we heard a deep sound like that of a foghorn. Even muffled and distorted by the blizzard, it was a clear alarm. Marshall clutched my wrist tighter. “Come on,” I urged, but the words seemed to freeze in my mouth. I looked back and thought I could make out movement at the mountain’s base. Marshall began plowing forward faster, sometimes tripping in the thigh-high snow. At least they couldn’t find our footsteps as they were erased by the brutal winds. How I longed for my warm green cloak to shield me from the icy gale. I felt bare in my ratty threadbare clothes. Next to me, Marshall fell, pulling me down. I got up and hoisted Marshall to his feet, but it was clear that his will and energy were quickly failing him. Until now, I had forgotten about his illness. Had I made a mistake by exposing him to the unyielding fury of the blizzard? No, I was here. He wasn’t alone; he would be fine. Marshall was a fighter; I would have to rely on that. I slung his arm around my shoulders and he leaned on me heavily. Now, I could feel his body burning with fever. I began to doubt myself again. I shook my head; I couldn’t go back now. As we climbed, he leaned more and more on me until I was practically carrying him. I waved my hand in front of his face, but he did not respond. Great, I was dragging an unconscious man up a mountain in the middle of a blizzard while being pursued by soldiers, likely wearing snowshoes. My odds of evading capture or simply surviving were practically in the negative numbers. But still I drudged on, determined to complete my arduous task. But I needed to find shelter. By now, my feet were beyond numb and my limbs felt like lead. But still I persevered. I wandered for what seemed an eternity before I spotted a suitable shelter.
It was a small cave, hardly more than an indent in the sheer rock face, but it was all I needed. The cave was big enough for Marshall and I to rest out of sight. Using my last ounce of strength, I pulled Marshall and myself inside. And then, my white world went black.
I woke in an almost tangible silence. I sat up and hit my head on the cave ceiling. Now I had a bruise on top of a splitting headache, how wonderful. In the dim light of early morning, I saw Marshall lying next to me, his head beaded with sweat. I mopped the perspiration of his forehead tenderly. I don’t know why, but it felt right. I cautiously glanced outside. The view was breathtaking, especially without prison bars obscuring the sight and the taste of freedom once again in my mouth. Below me sprawled the gray prison, marring the spectacular wilderness. Outside the small ring of barren nothing around the prison, stretched the lush green forest, dotted with pure white snow. I felt filled with a sudden unbridled surge of elation. I guess it’s true that you haven’t tasted freedom until you’ve lost it. I turned to Marshall’s silent form. “Marshall! Get up! We’re free!” I said. As the last word escaped my lips, Marshall jolted awake, slamming his head against the low ceiling of the cave. I laughed, first hoarsely from lack of use and then freely. The joyful sound sounded unfamiliar. I realized that I had not heard laughter, other than that of spiteful jeering guards, since I had arrived at the prison. Marshall rubbed his forehead ruefully, but laughter is contagious. Marshall began to laugh, and it was the most beautiful and merry sound I had heard in what seemed an eternity, like the gurgling of a meandering stream. We sat there laughing for what seemed forever. Worries forgotten, we emerged from the snow and climbed with renewed energy, Marshall once again holding my wrist. But now the winds were calm and I could see Marshall clearly. A smile crossed his blushing face. I smiled and we climbed. But I should have known it was too good to be true.
Mount Reve was even taller than I thought. By sunset, Marshall and I retired to dig a sort of snow cave to sleep in. Marshall still was ill and I was forced to walk for both of us, but I did not begrudge him. I realized then we had no food. We would have to reach the summit and get some food there by tomorrow’s end. At least we were no longer pursued. I figured the guards decided we were dead. Their conclusion might not end up incorrect, but I shook away the depressed thoughts.
I woke up at dawn, sensing something was wrong. “Marshall, wake up!” I whispered. He didn’t respond with more than a groan but continued a peaceful slumber. I crawled up to the entrance. Snow blocked the entrance. As soon as I cleared enough snow to see through, I jumped. Inches from my face, was a snowshoe. The chase was back on. I gasped quietly and returned to Marshall. “Wake up!” I said in a low voice, giving him a shake. “What?” he complained too loudly. I clamped my hand over his mouth and gestured toward the entrance. I removed my hand. “Guards,” I mouthed. With a look of wished disbelief, he crept up the entrance. Upon looking through the hole, he stiffened and turned, his face red. “We’ll just have to wait,” I said. “Or,” he suggested, “we could fight.” “In case you haven’t noticed, you are in no state to fight. For starters, you were unconscious half the time when we escaped,” I said. Marshall looked ashamed of himself and I worried I had offended him. “How many soldiers?” I capitulated, realizing we had no time to wait. Marshall was right. “I only saw one, but there might be more,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to risk it. You stay here,” I said. “But,” he objected. “No, you don’t have a weapon and if you blacked out during the fight you could get badly hurt, or worse, recaptured,” I said firmly. Only then did I realize I had some messed up priorities. “Fine,” he consented, although he obviously wasn’t fine with sitting back and watching. I worried he’d follow into battle.
I pulled off my necklace and Marshall gazed at it reverently. I went to the entrance and looked out cautiously, nobody. I carefully crawled out. Almost instantly hot pain seared my back and I gave a yell of pain as I spun around to face my attacker. There crouched a guard wearing snowshoes, his drawn sword red with blood, my blood. I heard movement in the cave. I hoped desperately for Marshall to stay down. Purple eyes peered out. The guard and I circled, sizing each other up. But I knew the guard was buying time until his comrades found him or I blacked out, whichever happened first. Thankfully, he was so intent upon me, that he entirely overlooked Marshall. I feinted towards him, he defended, but in the wrong place to catch my blade. I scored his leg with my sword. He sank down as I had after receiving a similar blow, although this was more minor. I felt bad about it, the memory still vivid, but decided he deserved it and we couldn’t afford him following us. My back agreed. I wiped my blade in the snow, feeling sick. I put the necklace back on and stumbled over to where Marshall was emerging from the cave. He was silent, not in his usual way, if silences can be different. I sat down, half collapsing. “Are you okay?” Marshall asked tentatively. “No,” I answered all too honestly. I struggled to my feet. Now I was leaning on Marshall. We walked slowly, painfully so, up the mountain. As we trekked, a scarlet red trail marked my every step. By some miracle, nobody found it, even though it stood out like a neon sign in the blank white snow. Slowly, the tide of unconsciousness lapped over me. Black spots grew before my eyes blotting out the world. My useless legs failed beneath me and my last sensation was of cold ice.
I woke inside a snow cave. Had the endeavor been no more than a much too realistic dream? No, my back hurt as if I had scorched it, repeatedly. A tired looking Marshall sat next to me. When he noticed I’d joined the living, he smiled with relief. Even in his condition, he had managed to pull me up this mountain and construct a small snow cave. You had to give him credit. I sat up and realized my midsection was tightly bound. I then noticed Marshall’s shirt was noticeably smaller. Putting one and one together, I smiled, although it was more like a grimace. “How do you feel?” he asked. “Better,” I replied, not entirely lying. I tried to smile reassuringly, but it came out a drawn grimace. “Sleep,” he urged. I shook my head; I wasn’t about to rest while guards tracked us down. You would think Marshall would know that! “I tried,” he said shrugging, as if reading my thoughts. I crawled stiffly to the entrance and looked out, nothing stirred. But experience is the best teacher. I made a quick snowball and threw it out, seeing if it caused a reaction. Not a sound replied. The coast was clear, probably. As an added precaution, I drew my sword and crawled out, making sure to look in all directions. Still, no attackers and I relaxed. “Come on,” I called. Marshall promptly appeared and we resumed our ascent.
The trek was slow, but both of us retained consciousness. Thinking back, Marshall and I had spent a lot of time blacked out. Scarily though, that didn’t seem too abnormal anymore. I shivered at the thought. I was developing a lot of bad habits, like waking up in prison and escaping them for example. I shook my head. By now, our greatest foe seemed to be hunger. It had been three days since our last meal. Not a single plant or animal dwelled on the unforgiving slope. “Almost there, Marshall,” I encouraged. He glanced upward and walked forward at as fast a pace as his tired legs could manage.
The last few feet to the summit were the toughest, but the ever-present grasp on my wrist from Marshall spurred me onward. I somehow found the strength to continue. But we reached the top, and found nothing, or so it seemed at first glance. A patch of green, negligible in the blanket of snow, signaled the presence of a plant. It was the first friendly thing we had seen aside from each other in, I don’t even know how many days anymore. I rushed forward and brushed the ice of the plant. It sprang up as if a great burden was lifted from its back, revealing a small silver blossom like that of a primrose.
It was an odd and beautiful plant. Underneath its pretty exterior was a rough, untamed wildness. I felt half afraid to pick it. The leaves, a frosty shade of blue, were speckled with silver, like a dozen shining stars. The very outer petals of the blossom were streaked with a deep purple, reminding me of Marshall’s eyes.
“Marshall?” I called, turning to my left. But nobody was there. I could have sworn he was right next to me! Tearing my eyes from the flower, I circled the peak, looking for a trace of my companion. I had been convinced I had searched every inch of the rock face on the summit when I found the light print of snowshoes and a deep dent. Fear gripped my heart in its icy clutch. A scene played through my head as I tried to make sense of what happened. I turned hesitantly to the flower, sitting temptingly in the center of the peak. I could turn my back on Marshall and everything could go back to normal, I just had to walk five steps and pick the flower. But, I couldn’t. Marshall and I had made it this far. I wasn’t going to let him be dragged back while I escaped. Something inside me knew I would never return here again. Steeling my heart and trying desperately not to cry, I turned my back on the flower and began to follow the snowshoes. Just for a moment, the air around me shimmered, but I could have imagined it. I had the feeling I was being watched, but the presence didn’t feel threatening. I ignored it and charged down the slope, my energy renewed in my panic.
I spotted a figure down the slope. I began to gain on the figure and discovered it to be three people, two standing erect, dragging a limp form between them. I gave a quiet cry as I recognized it to be Marshall. Had they not seen me? But it didn’t matter; I had to help Marshall. Gaining speed, I raced down the hill in pursuit, yanking off my necklace. My solemn face reflected in the shining metal, my golden eyes blazing. I came to a halt silently, just feet behind the soldiers. I crouched, despite my protesting back. I had no plan. In an adrenaline spike, I threw all caution to the winds. I ran at the soldiers from behind raising my sword with a shout. They dropped Marshall and faced me, drawing their weapons in turn. We circled and they moved so that they were on opposite sides of me. It was a common tactic; it kept the defender from being able to fully face one attacker without turning their back to the other. Mandisa had trained me for almost every situation though. I pretended to attack the one on the left, and sensed the other approach to strike from the right at the same time as his partner. I waited in the crossfire until the last second, in which I sidestepped. I heard moans as the two soldiers failed to freeze their attacks. Did I mention I loathe fighting yet? I didn’t care to look back, not wanting to see the results of my maneuver. I retracted the sword and walked to Marshall. He lay unmoving in the snow where the soldiers had left him, unconscious. A single drop of blood trickled from his temple, down his cheek, like a bright crimson tear. I sat down next to him. “Marshall?” I called trying to be soothing, alas; my jangled nerves seemed to forbid it. He made not a sound. I gently placed two fingers on his neck, finding his pulse. A slow but persistent heartbeat met my fingers. His skin felt icy cold in comparison to his blazing fever. His fever had broken, but I did not know what ailment now replaced it. I silently swore at the soldiers for the umpteenth time. I thought I knew what pained him now, but tried to pretend I didn’t. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I pulled him to his feet. I would not return to the tantalizingly near summit. With a miracle and a good deal of luck, we would have to cross the prison and reach the concealment of the forest where, hopefully, the wolves still waited. All of that would have to be achieved within a day, if we were lucky. Marshall was inches from death and I was slowly starving; it was not an ideal situation. Worst of all, there was no time to plan. I breathed deeply and pulled Marshall up on my shoulders in a fireman’s carry. Every heavy step pained my all too recent wound on the back, but I persevered onward. I began to fear I wouldn’t make it even down the mountain.
As I managed to reach near the mountain’s base, Marshall awoke. I knew when he suddenly flailed out at the imaginary guards, hurling me forward. I tripped and fell underneath Marshall. He opened his eyes and took in his surroundings, which included me. “Thank you for joining the living,” I mumbled, brushing myself off. “But, the guards,” he started, confused. “Gone,” I said with a smirk. “Can you walk?” I asked. As if in reply, Marshall collapsed again. Apparently, his body wasn’t prepared to live yet. I groaned and placed Marshall on my shoulders. I couldn’t expect any help with my burden. I almost regretted my decision on the summit, almost. I shook the regrets from my head and plodded solemnly down the mountain’s side. I would forever be two people, Mandisa and Rain. I would just have to accept that fact. Mandisa stayed silent, lost in thought. I could tell something troubled her, but I didn’t ask as I had problems of my own to worry about.
I reached the mountain’s base somehow. I found a corner in the shadow against the prison. I forgot how eerily silent the place had been. I sat down to rest. I heard a noise from the other side of the wall. I froze in place. Nearby, a door opened and a soldier exited. Bingo! I had no plan, but decided to take the door. I didn’t know what waited behind it. I wrapped the necklace’s cord around my wrist so that the pendant dangled, ready for use. The tight wrap of the string felt like Marshall’s grip. I pushed Marshall up onto my shoulders and searched the wall for a door. Mandisa? I asked, remembering my first prison escape. She had an uncanny ability for finding doors, opportunities. About two feet to the left, she guided distractedly. I ran my fingers along the wall until I felt a crack. As always, Mandisa was dead right. Thanks, I said. She was silent. I pushed on the door, and it opened silently. I crept inside the passage. It was well lit and clean. I guessed this was connected to a secret door somewhere. I was behind enemy lines. I walked as quietly as I could, Marshall breathing softly on my neck. His weight pushed down on me. I continued walking, drawing strength from the flickering flame of hope that refused to extinguish inside of me. Not once did I run into anyone. I walked for what seemed an eternity, passing door after door. I figured the door closest to the exit would be the last. Every now and then I would hear footsteps echoing in another corridor. As I progressed further, the path looked less and less worn. The corridor gained a fine layer of dust, undisturbed by footprints. Cobwebs hung in the corners, empty and abandoned. The hall gained an even gloomier feel. My footsteps ricocheted down the corridor, but failed to reach enemy ears. I felt the distinct presence of someone, or something, else. Alas, every time I turned around, I neither saw nor heard anyone. At long last, the passage ended.
At the end stood a bronze door, rusting in isolation. I walked over to it and ran my fingers over the cold smooth metal, leaving traces in the dust. I was almost through. I clutched the handle and leaned on the door. It gave slightly, but the hinges were thoroughly rusted. I set down Marshall. I took the necklace off my wrist and began using it to chip at the blood red rust that kept me from freedom. It was slow work, but I managed to clean off the hinges sufficiently. I pulled Marshall onto my shoulders and tried to open the door again. With a creak that made me wince, it opened. I squinted as bright sunlight blinded my eyes. I shielded my eyes, and studied my surroundings. It took hardly any time to realize I had walked across the entire fortress and straight out their front door. Hot tears trailed down my cheeks and I felt like cheering. Now, all that stood between me and escape was the ring of desolate lands before the forest. Shifting Marshall to even out the weight, I began to sprint towards the forest’s welcoming embrace. Seconds later, an alarm sounded, cutting the air like a scythe.
With renewed energy, I raced to the woods with a whoop like a war cry. The gates issued forth a stream of soldiers, hastily mounted. They would not take me! No, I would be free! I ran and ran, like a hare pursued by hunting dogs. I felt like I had taken flight and was soaring like a falcon. The light breeze, scented with pine, caressed my face, cooling my sweat. I managed to cross the wasteland ahead of the soldiers. Even starved, exhausted, and carrying someone else, I had outrun soldiers mounted on horses. I loved adrenaline; it achieved the impossible. Albeit, it badly clouded one’s judgment, but everything has a downfall.
I heard movement to my left. A swift rapid footfall gave way to Nuvola. Her dark fur glistened. Her amber eyes shone like stars in the forest’s green shadows. I was found! She lowered herself ready for a getaway. She didn’t even seem to notice Marshall’s limp form in her excitement. She gave a howl that pierced the air, louder than any alarm. She began to sprint effortlessly, weaving between trees and leaping small streams. I slid Marshall off my shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief. Marshall was still alive and we were out! I placed him in front of me and held onto Nuvola’s fur, securing Marshall so that he would not fall. I heard a howl in the distance. I recognized it as Varen’s high, flute-like call. Closer, I heard the deep, bass like rumbling of Tuono. Within minutes, Tuono appeared, waiting for us. Nuvola stopped, panting deeply. I jumped off Nuvola and pulled Marshall down carefully. Now Nuvola noticed him.
“Who is he?” she asked in a concerned manner. “Marshall,” I answered, knowing that meant nothing to her. She asked no more questions, but eyed him with concern. “Where is Kii?” I asked. “On the other side of the fortress, he’ll probably meet us at the cave,” she answered nonchalantly. I redirected my attention to Tuono. “Tuono, can you carry him?” I asked, worried. “ Yes, but won’t he fall?” He had a point, although I knew something else bothered him, but this was an emergency. I thought, my problem being I had no rope. I slowly unbound the bandage around my back, exposing the deep red wound. I cringed as the cold wind hit the tender flesh. Using the stiff, blood stained cloth; I managed to secure Marshall to Tuono’s back where he lay unconscious and half-dead. Mandisa muttered something to herself so quietly I couldn’t make it out.
I found a stream and drank the clear water greedily. It was cold and crisp, with the forest’s earthy tone. I deeply breathed the heavy air of the forest, loving the smell of pine and morning dew. I sat on the moist soft earth, running the soft soil between my fingers fondly. I explored the open world that I had not experienced in so long. I rubbed my hands on the rough bark, feeling the tree’s hide. I smiled and cried freely in my overwhelming elation. Soon, Varen arrived, looking tired, as if she had run a great distance. I affectionately rubbed her behind the ears, her favorite spot. She licked my hand. In her motherly manner, she began to lick my arm tenderly. I winced every time she touched my multiple cuts, but didn’t push her away. Both she and Nuvola attempted repeatedly to lick the wound running across my back, but I refused. It felt too raw. I approached Marshall and took his pulse. His heart beat weakly, desperately.
Ellende, Mandisa said forlornly and softly, as if remembering something. Who is Ellende? I asked. Not is, was, Mandisa corrected. Will you tell me? I asked. Perhaps another time, she replied mournfully.
“We must make haste,” I said. Varen crouched before me and I climbed onto her honey brown fur. The wolves ran swiftly and effortlessly. I constantly looked at Tuono to see how Marshall was holding up. Tuono took extra pains to keep from disturbing Marshall. It was evening when we reached the welcome rowans that concealed Mandisa’s home, no, my home. I unstrapped Marshall and thanked Tuono. “I needed to help,” he replied. I hugged his furry head and slowly carried Marshall into the hidden room.
I made a fire and pulled out the herbs from their storage shelf. I pulled down my blankets and covered Marshall. I tenderly placed my hand on his chest, willing him to keep fighting. Hot tears stung my face. Mandisa was silent, but I could sense her distress, that made two of us. I mixed herbs together, my salty tears mixing with them. I pushed the medicine down Marshall’s throat. Using my finger, I helped him swallow it. A little color began to return to his deathly white face. I put more logs on the fire and even threw on some herbs, creating a pleasant aroma that covered the stench emanating from my open wound. I went to where I stored cloth strips. I bandaged my back tightly again and then proceeded to nurse Marshall. Slowly, more color returned to him and his breathing became stronger and less ragged. I hardly ate, even though I had not eaten in four days. I occasionally pushed pieces of meat or more medicine down Marshall’s throat. I did not sleep all night as I tended to Marshall.
As the fire’s embers died and the waking sun’s rays peeked into the room, Marshall stirred. His eyes slowly opened. Marshall started awake, looking around confused. As his curious gaze fell across the wolves, he almost jumped. I laughed at his foolishness. Varen came forward to lie beside me to inspect Marshall. “You did it. Now sleep,” she whispered.
Thank you, Mandisa said. Who was Ellende? I asked. I tried to rescue him from prison, but in the attempt, he died, if Marshall died, it would be too terrible. Ellende was so much like Marshall; Mandisa trailed off, her voice pained. Oh, I said, feeling guilty for asking.
Marshall looked perplexed and I realized he couldn’t understand Varen nor hear my conversation with Mandisa. I stroked Varen absent-mindedly. “I will, but not quite yet,” I told her. Only after seeing Marshall’s more puzzled expression did I realize I had spoken in wolf. “Don’t worry yourself, you’re not still dreaming,” I told him with a laugh. Varen licked my hand and put her head between her enormous brown paws. I explained to Marshall what had happened since his capture at the summit. Comprehension dawned on his face as he took it all in. He stopped looking at the wolves apprehensively, but with respect which pleased both the wolves and me. I finished with him waking up. I didn’t tell him what Varen said, feeling it to be unnecessary. “Sleep, I’ll be fine,” he said when I had finished. I did not protest this time. I curled against Varen’s soft, warm body. For the first time since prison, I slept soundly.
I had a strange dream. I was back on the summit. Before me, stood a figure that seemed to be made of the very fabric of the night sky. It was as tall as me, but its feet seemed to hover just above the ground. Its image flickered like a candle if I looked at it too hard. The outline of the shape was blurred, indefinite. It was like a living shadow. Another appeared, its body white and shifting like snow or even a blizzard. The first shape spoke in a female voice, rich and elegant. Between its fingers was a silver ajikku blossom. “Mandisa,” it began. “You have proven yourself worthy to consume the ajikku blossom. You were able to, but chose not to in order to save your friend. The ajikku blossom itself is worthless for more than its beauty. It is us, the wild spirits that give it power,” the midnight spirit said. “We would grant your wish, but we know that you no longer truly want it,” the snow spirit continued. “But, you are worthy of some boon. For your feat, we give you this. Whenever it rains, you will have yourself back, but you will still be here,” the midnight spirit explained. “Not even our magic can return you home,” the snow spirit admitted. To think, I would have myself back, if only for a little! “I thank you,” I said, bowing. “It is well earned, Rain,” the midnight spirit answered. With that the spirits disappeared, and I awoke. My name, Rain, still echoed in my head.
Varen bent around and licked my face with her large pink tongue. “You slept well?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, hiding a small smile. Even if the dream was really just a dream it was definitely a nice one. I had come to believe my dreams more ever since I had arrived in this other world. Now that Marshall had sufficiently recovered, I felt ravenous. I wolfed down strips of dried meat. It tasted like it had fallen from heaven rather than sat in a cave for at least a month or two. I still didn’t know how long I had been in prison. I needed to get more food, Marshall would probably stay with me for a while, or so I hoped. Speaking of Marshall, where was he? I crawled out of the room and into the cave. “He’s at the spring,” Nuvola said as I emerged. “Oh, thanks,” I said, relieved. Whenever Marshall disappeared, it tended to be bad. I entered the daylight and saw Marshall drinking from the spring with cupped hands. He turned when he heard me approach. “How are you feeling?” I asked him. He shrugged. “You look better,” I observed. “I am,” he said. He smiled at me. I could tell something was troubling him still though. “What’s wrong?” I asked, getting straight to the point. “Nothing,” he answered. Marshall was a terrible liar. “You’re a horrible liar,” I replied. Marshall looked down at his feet, like a child caught stealing candy. “Let me guess, you won’t tell me right now,” I said. He nodded. Why did he have to be so vague? I let it drop. Embarrassed, Marshall went back to the cave. “Thanks,” he whispered as he passed.
You like him don’t you? Mandisa said; it wasn’t a question. As a friend, I lied. You’re a terrible liar too, she said. So what! I answered. Maybe you should tell him, Mandisa prompted. I can’t, I replied. Think on it, she said. I’m going to need a new quarterstaff, I said, changing the topic. I got that one in the next town. I here the best ones are near Marlon though, Mandisa said, dropping the whole Marshall thing, for the moment.
“Nuvola, how far away is Marlon?” I asked. “Why?” she said suspiciously. “You don’t have another life threatening plan do you?” she asked. “Not unless you count getting a new staff,” I countered. She looked like she didn’t quite believe me, but consented to tell me. “But, I’m coming,” she added. I smiled. “Of course you are,” I said, rolling my eyes. Varen might be more motherly, but Nuvola was just as fiercely protective. It felt like having two mothers. “Are you taking Marshall?” Nuvola asked. She had started to approve of Marshall staying, if only for a little, since I had told her the story of my adventure in prison. Tuono was taking things surprisingly well, but he had stayed mainly out of sight when Marshall was around.
That night, I approached Marshall as he sat, lost in his own thoughts, by the fire. “Are you able to travel?” I asked. “How far?” he asked, perking up. He had been restless all day. “Two days each way if all goes well,” I answered. “What do you mean, ‘if all goes well’?” he asked with a sly smile. “Oh I don’t know, but you remember that prison we visited for a brief vacation? They might not have appreciated us leaving,” I answered sarcastically. He smiled. “Is it dangerous?” he asked. “Does being the first people to escape the prison at Mount Reve and traveling abroad count as dangerous?” I answered. “I would say so,” he answered. “Then yes, it will be dangerous,” I said. “Count me in,” he said cheerfully. He recovered fast. The next day, I put on a disguise and went to the village for supplies. Because Marshall was so battered looking, I made him stay behind, leaving Varen to keep an eye on him. In the market, I purchased fresh food and some clothes for Marshall. He was still wearing his tattered prison garb. I returned to the cave to find Marshall waiting patiently in the clearing in front. “Here,” I said, pulling out the clothes. I tossed the bundle to him. “Thanks,” he said and ran off to change. Varen emerged from the cave. “You got him clothes?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “Yes,” I answered, trying to make it sound as if it was unimportant. “I know you like him,” she said teasingly. Was it that obvious? Marshall returned soon, dressed in the new clothes, which fit him almost perfectly. The difference in his appearance was staggering. I almost didn’t recognize him as the battered prisoner I had barely escaped with. I looked him over. “You look good,” I said. Marshall blushed. “Yeah,” he muttered, running his fingers through his disheveled hair. The next day I filled my pack and began on my way to Marlon, accompanied by Nuvola, Varen, and Marshall.
We arrived in the town without any misfortune. Marshall looked better and I decided that he could come into town as long as he kept a low profile. We had arrived during a market day and the place bustled with people from all over. I soon found a weapon merchant displaying some decent goods. Soldiers lined the place, searching to replace weapons. I felt nervous surrounded by potential enemies. Thankfully no one seemed to recognize me. I approached a rack of quarterstaffs and found one that called to me. It was a solid, black wood, tipped with metal, very similar to my old one. The tips were carved with grooves that gave it a whimsical feel. “How much for this?” I asked, raising the staff. “Twenty silver pieces,” he replied offhandedly. My basic knowledge of this place’s currency told me this was a good enough deal. I pulled out the proper amount of cash and paid the vendor. “You don’t see girls with weapons often,” he remarked. “Oh, this is a gift for my father. He’s been in need of one,” I replied as nonchalantly as I could muster. Mandisa laughed to herself. I hadn’t planned on explaining my purchase. I was developing another bad habit, lying easily. Being a criminal was a bad habit to start with I figured. I walked over to Marshall who was loitering by a stand filled with fresh baked bread. I could see him deciding whether to “borrow” one or not. “What kind of weapon do you like?” I asked, catching him before he made any wrong moves; old habits are hard to break. “Swords on strings,” he said blithely. I laughed. Ever since Marshall had escaped he had warmed up and shed most of his solitary demeanor. He even smiled more than the occasional one of sadistic pleasure. You would think he was someone else. “A quarterstaff is good,” he answered. “Choose one,” I said, motioning to the vendor behind me. “But I have no money,” he pointed out. “Must you act so dense?” I complained. He smiled and began perusing the wares. I handed him a handful of coins. A few minutes later, he emerged, carrying a tall, reddish colored staff. “May I?” I asked, holding out an open palm. He nodded and gave me the staff. It was light but sturdy with grooves for grip carved into it. “Good pick,” I agreed giving him the staff back. I dug a sling out off my pack and threw it to him. He put it on and slung the staff across his back in a fluid, practiced movement. We slipped out of the large crowd and made our way to the forest. I felt almost disappointed by the lack of danger. Yet another bad habit I had formed. We returned to the trees and found Nuvola meticulously cleaning herself. She and Varen looked up alertly. “Can I see?” Nuvola asked. “Of course,” I replied, holding out the staff, which she took lightly in her massive mouth. She gave it back. “Good staff, although not as good tasting as the last,” she confirmed. I felt confused, but laughed anyway. Mandisa laughed as well; apparently she got the humor. “Glad you think so,” I said with a grin. By now, Marshall stopped acting like my conversations with the wolves were abnormal. Not that they were normal, but simply commonplace for me. “Should we leave?” Varen asked and I sensed her restlessness. “The sooner, the better,” I answered. We made good time heading back, keeping to the forest’s seclusion. That night we rested in a wood near a town. Marshall felt uneasy about being so near a village, but did not press the subject. I should have known better and listened.
The next morning started well enough. The wolves departed to hunt and Marshall and I sparred. It was more play then practice. Neither of us focused on more than each other. We constantly tripped over roots, launching a fit of mirth, like children. We would circle, jabbing lightly at each other, more often joking and teasing then fighting. It was in the middle of one of these bouts of taunts that a spine-chilling howl pierced the still forest air.
Even Marshall, who did not understand the howl’s message, stiffened apprehensively. I hesitated only to reply with a brief howl of my own before bolting in the howl’s direction. I sprinted nimbly through the forest with Marshall in hot pursuit. My light mood disappeared like a feather in the breeze, replaced by stone hard panic. Fortunately, the source of the distressed howl, Nuvola, was not far off. But even her warning had not prepared me for the sight that awaited me.
In a small clearing, lay Varen with three arrows sticking out of her flank like quills. Nuvola was circling her, snarling ferociously at a point to my right. Anger flared inside of me. I wanted to destroy whoever had hurt kind loving Varen! I turned to Marshall, but he wasn’t there. What was with this boy and disappearing? Honestly, why couldn’t he warn me before he ran off? I turned back and saw him already ahead of me, kneeling by Varen’s flank, studying the arrows and soothing her. I had not known how he felt about the wolves until now. My heart softened even more for him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the glint of a metal tipped arrow. My heart froze. It was aimed at Marshall’s turned back. I raced through the undergrowth and found the archer. I tackled him just as he released the arrow, sending the deadly bolt stray. “Marshall!” I called from where I wrestled with the stunned hunter. My rage built. Marshall arrived within seconds and studied the situation. I wrestled with the man, landing blows. Varen was my family and Marshall was, well, I don’t know! Marshall pulled me off the man. I’m glad he did for I wouldn’t have stopped until I had killed the man. My rage had overcome me and I felt ashamed, but not regretful. The man scampered away, but not without a well aimed kick from me. In Marshall’s restraining arms, I cooled down and stopped struggling. Sensing that I had come back to my senses, Marshall released me and I fell to the ground. I breathed deeply and stood up. “Thanks,” I said. He had saved me from myself. He nodded and turned back to Varen. Nuvola had stopped snarling and simply stood protectively over her friend, looking nervous.
“Are you okay?” I asked Nuvola. “Yes,” she replied distractedly. I knelt by Marshall at Varen’s flank. This was not good. Blood soaked fur stained Varen’s glossy brown fur. The shafts were not too deep, but right in the muscle. I pulled out the useful strips of cloth I had packed in case of emergencies. To think, I had wished for more danger. “Ready?” I asked Varen, gripping the shaft of the deepest arrow. “Yes,” she said, bracing herself. I yanked on the arrow, pulling it out cleanly. Varen gave a loud yelp and turned to try to lick the puncture. “Two more,” I said, pushing her back. She relaxed and I commenced to remove the remaining arrows, wincing with shared pain. When the last shaft was gone, Varen relaxed and I proceeded to binding the damaged muscle. It was an awkward bandage, as I had no experience with injuries other than Marshall’s or mine, but it would function well. Varen pulled herself to her feet. She heavily favored the leg, but would recover. “Did you find anything to eat?” I asked. “A hare each, before he showed up,” Varen replied with a growl. “Can you walk?” I asked. No doubt the hunter would report us and the soldiers would be on our trail by tomorrow. I might still get the danger I had foolishly hoped for. I think I could handle a monotonous journey after all. It was too late now though. Marshall stood next to me, reserved. I knew better than to interrupt his thoughts. The sun had climbed well into the sky by now. “Shall we?” I asked Varen. She replied by limping forward. Marshall and I walked behind her, ready to help in case she took a turn for the worse. As the sun began to cast its vibrant hues of its sunset paints, we were only halfway to home. Nuvola left to hunt, even though Marshall and I tried to dissuade her after the prior episode. She returned an hour or so after nightfall, a plump thrush between her jaws. She brought it to Varen who ate it rapidly and somewhat morbidly. I will spare you the details of her meal. After her meal, she and Nuvola laid down together like they did most nights, side by side.
I made a small fire. It crackled and leapt between Marshall and I. I tried to start a conversation, but Marshall remained taciturn, like he used to be. I could tell something was weighing on him heavily. I gave up conversation and began to move away from the fire to find a place to sleep next to Nuvola. “Mandisa,” Marshall whispered, hardly audibly, as I moved to leave. I turned, “Yes.” He looked unsure of what he wanted to say. I gave him an encouraging look. “You remember the night I left, in prison?” he asked. How could I forget, the image of him after returning still haunted me. “How can I forget?” I asked incredulously. “I must have asked you a thousand times!” I pointed out. He blushed in embarrassment before looking away, but I could still see his eyes. His purple eyes were glazed, as if he were remembering. Silently, no longer looking at me, but at the ghost of someone else, he winced once, then again and again. His hand brushed the cut above his eye over and over, sometimes other scars. I sensed Mandisa too remembering something. I couldn’t bear to watch him go through that night and walked over to him and sat down. I put my arm around his shoulders, trying to comfort him. Normally, I would have felt awkward, but Marshall didn’t protest. He seemed to emerge from his trance. “Questioning, they called it,” he whispered miserably, more to himself than me. He didn’t need to explain, I understood exactly now. They were truly heartless. Same here, Mandisa added to herself. Only now, did I realize I was hugging him. I hugged him tighter, trying to be comforting. It seemed to work. “About what?” I asked gently. He took a deep breath. “You,” he answered, seeming to choke on the word.
The word froze my blood. I didn’t dare ask him any more questions, not wishing to know their answers. Now I understood why he had refused to tell me before. I felt terrible for asking. Marshall, on the other hand, looked like he had shed a great burden. With my free hand, I fingered my necklace absent-mindedly. Marshall sat in silence. Somewhere in the vast forest, an owl hooted, a gloomy call to the night. It matched the mood perfectly. I sat next to Marshall, silent in the chilly night, motionless as a statue. Marshall, after a seeming eternity, started to fall asleep next to me. I put my head on his shoulder and joined him.
Marshall and I woke almost simultaneously. The rising sun peeked over the horizon with fingers of light pink and orange. Nuvola and Varen were already awake and conversing animatedly. When Nuvola saw that we were awake, she paused mid-sentence and approached me. She licked my cheek in greeting. “Good morning Nuvola,” I replied. As always, Nuvola didn’t beat around the bush. “Need I ask about your night?” she teased. I felt particularly glad Marshall didn’t understand wolf-speak. “It was fine,” I said. “How dense do you take me for?” she asked. She knew I wasn’t saying everything. “Not at all. Perhaps another time,” I answered. Nuvola nudged me in complaint before sulking back to Varen. I heard her repeat our conversation. I smiled; Nuvola just couldn’t help herself. Marshall stood and stretched with a yawn. “Morning, Marshall,” I said. Still half-asleep, he nodded and left to do business. He returned almost immediately. Boys! He looked more alert now though. After a hasty breakfast, we began our rushed hike. Now we could only go at half speed to keep from injuring Varen’s hurt muscle further. We reached a barren spot, deprived of forest or cover. I felt bare without trees over my head and failed to shake a feeling of dread. Overhead, the sun shone harshly, like a spotlight. The sun, which had seemed friendly in the morning, once again betrayed our presence.
We were halfway across when we saw the dust cloud from up the road. With no place to hide, we were forced to stay. Marshall and I drew our staffs, but did not assume a threatening stance in the case that the approaching travelers were friendly. If only they had been. By now, I’ve become all too familiar with search parties and this one was no exception. Most are comprised of about a dozen soldiers per escapee if they’re important enough, all armed and mounted. As the approaching riders drew near, I counted 25. This was not going to be pretty. If you counted Varen, it was four to 25, or about six to one. I didn’t like our odds too much. “Ready?” I asked Marshall, tightening my grip on my staff. “Not really,” he answered. I laughed in a sort of depressed way. The soldiers spotted us from twenty feet away. The leader called orders I couldn’t hear to his soldiers. I felt cocky as always. I really need to learn to quit doing stupid things like that. It’ll be the death of me!
As they warily approached, I boldly approached the leader with a genial, “How are you fine gentleman this afternoon?” “How stupid do you take us for?” the leader asked thunderstruck. “Very,” I answered with a laugh. The faces of many soldiers turned bright red with rage. Marshall failed to stifle a laugh besides me and Mandisa broke out in a fit of laughter. So true! She exclaimed. “I would not laugh so if I were you,” the leader warned, trying to calm his temper. “And why is that?” I asked innocently. He did not reply but leaped off his horse, drawing a sword. “I am quite frightened, sir!” I mocked. He took a wild swing at me and I dodged, retaliating to his chest. I danced around him, taunting. The rest of the soldiers dismounted. Marshall and Nuvola who had been laughing off to the side took this as their cue. Marshall assumed an offensive stance while Nuvola bared her teeth behind me. Varen simply stood back, but even injured she looked intimidating. For us, intimidation was key. The soldiers divided into groups of six, save the exception of the group of seven heading toward Nuvola looking ready to flee if she as much as twitched a paw. They began to encircle each of us, but not attacking. I spun my staff, trying to provoke an attack. I started numbering off soldiers, guessing how they might attack. It turns out my work was cut out for me; they came at me in pairs. They would attack from either side before rejoining their comrades in a circle. Cowards! I evaded the first few attacks without managing to make contact. They grew impatient and closed in their circle. I spun my staff rapidly making room, but I had to watch my back. Marshall was employing a similar maneuver. We made brief eye contact and seemed to read each other’s mind. I nodded and we attacked the soldiers that stood between us. They might take us divided, but not together! I took down one soldier and so did Marshall. We raced together and stood back to back. The ten soldiers circled trying to get between us. They couldn’t and attacked. All ten surged forward.
I made a swipe, redirecting the soldiers and jabbed at one’s chest. He withdrew. The other soldiers attacked from all directions. “Down,” I told Marshall. He didn’t turn but nodded. As the soldiers swept in, we ducked, leaning on each other for balance. As the soldiers lost their balance we used our staffs to sweep them off their feet, causing a domino effect. It was perfectly timed. As they struggled to get up, Marshall and I managed to knock out many of them. You would have thought we had been fighting together for years. Four got to their feet, the rest laid stunned on the road. Fear flickered in the remaining soldiers eyes. Marshall and I moved away from each other, we could handle two each. They moved to either side of each of us. Apparently that tactic never got old. The one on my left attacked to the head and the other to my knees. I stabbed to my right, knocking the soldier back and ducked under the other’s blade narrowly. I quickly attacked the one on the right, knocking him out with a quick strike to the head. I turned just in time to see the other’s blade on its way to my arm. I jumped back and tripped on the man I had just knocked out. Worse, my staff was knocked from my hand. The soldier wasted no time in getting me at sword point. “Between you and I, I think prisoners are too dangerous,” he said. I caught his meaning and tried to scramble out of the way, but couldn’t. He raised his sword menacingly and my mind raced. And then he froze mid strike, collapsing. Behind him stood Marshall, looking triumphant. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. That was much too close. He extended a hand to me and I stood up. I had twisted my ankle in the fall, but I would be fine. I put weight on it and found I could stand on it without too much pain. But, that had prevented me from standing and nearly killed me. I would have to avoid falling in the future. Now I remembered Varen. I looked around and saw Nuvola and Varen together. But unlike Marshall and I, they were having little success. Ten soldiers were still standing, although nearly all of them had fang marks in some part of them. I smiled at the sight, finding some morbid humor in it. Marshall gave me a strange look, but said nothing.
He put a finger to his lips and we crept silently behind the soldiers encircling the wolves. I nodded and we launched our attack. The soldiers who had been so intent on the wolves had not noticed our silent approach. By the time they did though, four had fallen. Now the soldiers were in danger. There were six of them and four of us and they didn’t know whom to fight. “Run,” I said, making a shooing gesture. They all scattered, grabbing their horses and fleeing back the way they came. I was wrong; they were disloyal cowards. Marshall and I had only one or two cuts each, but Nuvola and Varen were another story altogether.
Varen was bleeding in a few places, but Nuvola was covered in cuts and scratches. I figured that having a close range weapon, teeth, exposed her to more attacks. I approached Nuvola and pulled out some herbs from my pouch. “No thanks,” she replied and commenced to licking herself. I rolled my eyes. I had my ways and she had hers. I had to respect that. Ten minutes or so later, she and Varen were satisfied with their grooming. “My way is faster,” Nuvola said when she finished. “Oh, hush!” I told her with a playful nudge. The high noon sun still shone high over my head. “Let’s go,” I said. The sense of dread had now left me, its absence noticeable over me.
We arrived at the cave in the evening. I made a fire in the room and examined Varen’s leg wound in greater detail. It was healing nicely. Finally giving in, I removed the bandages and let it heal exposed. “That’s better,” Varen said. “I’m insulted!” I said pretending to sulk. She simply licked my arm playfully.
The next morning, I sparred with Marshall. This time we were practicing, not playing. We danced around the clearing, ducking, weaving, and dodging. Our staffs thudded against each other’s as we used maneuver after maneuver. We were perfectly matched. I would guess we sparred for about an hour. Sweat soaked our clothes and rolled down our faces. Our breath came heavily, but still we hadn’t managed to make contact. At long last, we stopped. We looked at each other and laughed, even though nothing was particularly funny.
That night, we talked by the fire about everything but our past. It was a mutual agreement not to discuss it. After Marshall fell asleep, I stayed up just to watch him. Varen approached me silently, startling me. “Why don’t you just tell him?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I replied truthfully. “Then tell him!” she argued. “Maybe,” I said. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t! I left the cave and walked, alone, through the forest. The full moon shone down, lighting my path. Everything seemed so tranquil. I thought about everything until my head spun. Then, I let it go. I walked for a long time, simply walking for the sake of it. Eventually, I became tired. I simply curled up in the bracken and slept, letting my mind go blank.
I woke at dawn to find Nuvola practically on top of me. I gave a start and rubbed my eyes. “Well. Good morning to you too,” I grumbled. “Marshall’s in a frenzy looking for you!” she scolded. I had forgotten about him. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Where is he now?” I asked, standing up and brushing off dirt. “He was in the sparring glade last I checked,” she said. I ran off in the glade’s direction. I was almost there when I practically ran into Marshall. “Where have you been?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I answered. Serves him right with him disappearing all the time! Marshall couldn’t stay angry. He rolled his eyes but I could tell he wasn’t really upset. We returned to the cave and ate quickly, joking.
That night, I decided to finally tell Marshall how I felt, even if he had already guessed it. Marshall beat me to it. That night, we walked in the forest together. He stopped by a small stream and climbed a fir. “Come up!” he called to me. “Okay!” I answered and scrambled up the tree. As I neared the top of the tree I discovered that it towered above the rest of the forest. It was an easy climb as the multiple branches formed a sort of staircase. Soon I reached the top and seemed to come face to face with the bright full moon. The dark green treetops were bathed in silver light. A cool breeze rustled the branches, sending the dark figures of birds flying up into the night. Above me, Marshall was perched on a large limb, feet dangling off the edge. I pulled myself up next to Marshall.
He smiled at me in a relaxed manner. We sat silently, struggling to find the right words. Something warm and gentle touched my hand. Without looking, I knew it was Marshall’s hand. He was holding my hand! My heart leapt and began racing faster than a hummingbird’s wings. I gently gripped his hand back. He moved closer to me until we were shoulder to shoulder. “Mandisa,” he whispered in my ear, as if trying out the name. I felt his hot breath caress my face. He was so close I could almost feel his heart beating. I put my head on his shoulder, feeling the happiest I had since I had come to this world. His purple eyes glittered with starlight as he wrapped his arm around me. I breathed slowly, trying to savor every moment. He bent his head next to mine. A thought raced through my mind. Was he going to kiss me? My heart fluttered hopefully. I had my answer seconds later. Tentatively, he planted a small, but meaningful kiss on my cheek. I swelled with excitement and affection to the point where I thought I might explode. My face flushed red in the darkness. Should I kiss him? I simply looked up and met his gaze. An expression I had seen before but never recognized was etched upon his face. I sat there, mesmerized by his bright violet eyes. I leaned against him, lost in thought.
Despite my excitement, I found myself growing sleepy in the warmth of Marshall’s body. “Um, good night,” I said, awkward after the mutual silence. I gave Marshall a quick hug to make up for it. “Okay,” he said, and I could tell he was sleepy too, but happy. I swung off the branch and made my way gracefully from branch to branch. Marshall landed on the ground softly beside me. We walked to the cave silently, holding hands. I felt the distinct presence of wolf eyes. I was certain they belonged to Nuvola. I could scold her later though. As soon as my head hit my pillow I fell deep asleep, a smile clear on my lips.
For the next few weeks, Marshall and I would stay up late to talk in the great fir tree. During the day we sparred and hunted, but spent little time talking. Ever since Nuvola caught us leaving the night Marshall first kissed me, Nuvola had adopted a knowing look and teased me often.
One night almost a month later, Marshall and I retired to the cave as dark clouds blotted the moon. In the middle of the night, I woke with a start for no apparent reason. Marshall was crouched next to me, a dagger sitting readily in hand. “What’s wrong, Marshall?” I asked, confused and still half asleep. “How do you know my name?” he asked, perplexed, slightly lowering his knife. Then I heard the patter of rain outside. A smile broke onto my face. “Oh,” I said as everything clicked. Perhaps not all dreams are dreams! I should know that best of all people! “Mandisa! It’s raining!” I said crawling over to her. Marshall made a move as if to protect Mandisa but sat still in confusion. Mandisa woke with a groan. She looked at me, momentarily confused. Then she too heard the steady tapping of the rain. A smile crossed her face and she started laughing. I laughed too from pure elation at my freedom. “Would someone please explain?” Marshall asked sounding annoyed. Mandisa quickly launched into a summary of our plight. When she finished, Marshall looked utterly overwhelmed. We left him to digest the information and walked outside.
“You look different than I imagined,” Mandisa said, looking me over. I looked down at myself. I was almost as tall as Mandisa. I stretched my memory in an effort to recall what I looked like, but failed. In fact, all I remembered of my past was my name and the fact I was not from wherever here is. I don’t even remember how old I am. I walked over to a large puddle accumulating at the cave’s entrance and crouched next to it and looked into it, trying to use the rippling surface as a mirror. Unlike Mandisa’s bronzed skin, mine was pale as snow in comparison. My long red hair draped across my shoulders, fiery against my pallid skin. Dark green eyes stared curiously back at me. I stood up and faced Mandisa. “What now?” I asked. “We enjoy the shower while it lasts,” she replied with a smile. I walked just out of the cave’s protection and felt the cool splash of rain on my skin. “Want to climb?” I suggested. Mandisa didn’t reply but simply ran in the fir tree’s direction her feet hardly seeming to touch the earth. I followed suit swiftly. I climbed up after her, albeit not near as nimbly as her. “It’s strange not being you,” I said once I had caught up with her. “It’s strange moving,” she replied wiggling her fingers with fascination. Of the two of us, she had the short end of the stick, if you know what I mean. Even though it was dark, Mandisa’s eyes seemed to gleam like those of a cat. “How do you think Marshall is going to handle the whole transformation business?” I asked. Mandisa laughed and replied, “I don’t know.” “I’ll say waking up to him holding a dagger over you is quite a shock,” I said, trying to make conversation. “He did that, did he?” she said with a laugh. “Yes,” I answered. A howl floated up from the tree’s base. “Nuvola!” we said at the same time. Only then did I realize that I still understood wolf-speak. Interesting. I climbed down the tree, landing right behind Nuvola. At the sound of my landing, Nuvola turned, hackles raised defensively. “Calm down Nuvola!” I said, forgetting she was clueless about the arrangement. Nuvola turned to Mandisa, confused. Mandisa explained quickly, as Nuvola already knew most of the story. Nuvola approached me cautiously and sniffed my hand. “You smell like Mandisa,” she approved and relaxed. “Glad you approve,” I said.
Mandisa and I talked for as long as the shower lasted, as if we had just met. Mostly, we talked about Marshall. Sure, we had spoken to each other about him thousands of times, but it was different face to face. Marshall seemed most important to both of us. Mandisa constantly brought up the fact that she couldn’t shake the fact she had met Marshall somewhere before. But rack her memory as she might, she failed to recall where. All she remembered was something about fire. We guessed and guessed, but drew a blank. Eventually, we gave up and sparred. Mandisa was amazing with a quarterstaff, yet the multiple times she hit me; her touch was gentle and controlled. I couldn’t imagine having to face her in combat; she was twice the warrior I was. Soon after we finished, exhausted, the rain began to slacken to a light drizzle. “Until next time it rains,” Mandisa said ruefully. “You’ll still be here,” I pointed out, tapping the side of my head. She smiled in a sad way. We were both officially mental. The sun broke through the clouds suddenly. Then with that, I blacked out.
I woke up soon after, lying on the ground where I had been standing a few minutes ago. I rubbed my head where it had fallen on a root. I was Mandisa, again. But I was happy; I had experienced a short taste of my old freedom. I walked the short distance from the sparring glade to the cave. As I entered, I saw Marshall still hunched over, lost in thought trying to comprehend everything. By now the first rays of dawn were rising above the horizon. “It stopped raining,” I said. Marshall snapped out of his trance and looked up at me. “Oh, um,” he said, fumbling for words. I handed one to him, “Mandisa.” “Not Rain?” he asked. “Yes and no,” I answered and realizing how cryptic that was said, “Just call me Mandisa. That’s who I am and always will be, until next time it rains that is.” He looked more perplexed if that was possible, but gave up trying to figure it out.
For the next few days, Marshall was reserved and kept almost exclusively to the privacy of the forest. I gave him space and resorted to playing and hunting with Varen. You can guess which I irresponsibly spent more time doing. Eventually though, Marshall relaxed and we resumed our talking in the tree. And there we sat, together, looking out over the moonlit forest.