A young girl undertakes a fantastic and perilous journey in a Medieval like world.
|The Lone Traveler
As the prison wagon pounded through the streets, Analia spotted a large group of boys standing on one street corner, most were welding quarterstaffs. She recognized the Grays as they drew nearer and shook her head to tell them not to interfere. There was no possible way a group of children could take on a full squadron of heavy cavalry, and the iron cage she was in was chained with a heavy metal lock that even a stout quarterstaff would be incapable of breaking.
After half an hour of traveling over the bumpy cobblestone streets, they arrived at the main gate of the great castle. All along the battlements facing the gate were stout iron hooks, the majority of them decorated with human heads, some fresh, many decaying and still others mere grinning skeletons. The heads were not limited to men, there were several women and children’s heads hanging hear and there. Flocks of black birds and ravens were fighting over the choicest pieces especially from the more fresh additions to the hooks.
They were halted at the gates by serious looking guards. She could imagine that a few guard’s heads may also have decorated the wall, some for political reasons, others for major or even minor infractions of duty. Emperor John was not known to be a merciful ruler. They carefully inspected the commander of the squadron, even though they undoubtedly knew him by sight, and walked up and down the file of troopers looking for anything out of the ordinary. They gave her a mere cursory glance for she was the only one in the exposed prison cage. They finally waved them through and returned to their duty stations.
Once inside the mighty walls, they made a sharp right turn and followed a worn street around to an entrance in the far back of the massive keep. The commander dismissed the troopers and ordered the wagon driver to assist him. The chain to the metal cage was unlocked, the door squeaked open on rusty hinges, and she was grabbed by the men and hoisted to the dirty cobblestones. They forced her up a short flight of worn marble steps and the commander banged on the dark oak door with the pommel of his saber.
A guard in chainmail armor opened the heavy door and stood to attention while another soldier inspected the commander, driver and prisoner. He finally allowed them entry and ordered the guard to secure the door behind them.
Tight security, Analia thought. Wouldn’t be easy to break into this place, probably won’t be easy to break out either.
They escorted her down a long hall, made several quick turns, and then began their descent into the bowels of the keep. They went down at least a dozen flights of worn stairs lit only by burning wall sconces which were replaced at intervals by the jailers. The commander finally halted at a desk where an enormous jailer sat wearing nothing but breeches and a leather harness covering his bulging naked chest and he was big enough to make any ogre jealous. The Commander presented a document for the man to make his mark, and then she was taken down a dark hall containing a series of stout metal doors on both sides. She heard no noise emanating from any of the dark rooms so she assumed they were empty of prisoners.
Somewhere around the seventh or eighth door, she was shoved into a small six by eight brick room and the metal door slammed shut behind her. “She will remain here until called by the Kings Chancellor,” the commander told the huge guard. “No one is to visit her or talk to her by order of the King himself.” The Commander and jailer left carrying the torch with them. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom, she noticed a pile of straw in one corner and an empty bucket in the other, clearly her bed and privy. The straw was soiled and likely full of fleas and body lice and the bucket smelled of stale urine and feces. The floor was made of cobblestone sized bricks with small gaps appearing between them. “Luxury accommodations,” Analia muttered. That’s a girl; keep the old spirit up, she thought.
For three long days and nights, according to her internal clock and the disgusting meals brought to her by the ogre jailer, no one visited her cell. She had avoided the straw and leaned against the brick wall to sleep but she could tell that her strength was slowly failing. The meals of water and stale bread for breakfast and supper were not near enough to maintain her energy. Early on the morning of the fourth day, a bright torch appeared at her cell door and she heard a key grate in the lock.
The cell door was swung open to reveal a regally dressed woman. She was short with blond hair slowly turning to grey and piled high on her head, she had blue eyes and ruby lips surrounding a very small mouth. Her nose was long and distracting and she possessed a small chin with a bit of a double chin beneath it. She wore a three piece dress ensemble consisting of a chemise, bodice and skirt. The chemise was made from a light golden green baroque damask fabric and the bodice was made of black high quality velvet fabric inlaid with gold and silver thread. She wore a small tiara on her head. Analia guessed her age somewhere around thirty years. She did not radiate hostility, but simple curiosity and a hint of a smile.
“Do not be afraid, child,” she stated. “I have brought an Apothicarius to check on your health.” She nodded at a tall stately man standing behind her. For ten minutes or more, the medical man checked her teeth and eyes, the movement of her joints and then asked her to show him her bare back. Analia hesitated but he smiled and told her he simply wanted to check for bites or bruises. When she pulled her tunic top down and turned her back to him, she heard the regal woman take a sharp intake of breath. They quickly left the room without another word.
Four days later, little had changed except her food began to improve. Instead of water she received watered wine, her bread was fresh and for the supper meal she was given a thin but tasty stew. She still longed for fresh vegetables and fruit. Analia was slowly going stir crazy in the dark damp cell. The next morning when the jailer brought her the daily ration of watered wine and bread to break her morning fast, she angrily threw the jug into the straw. The straw slowly sank down.
She crawled over and pulled the mildewed straw aside. Beneath it four large bricks had sunk into the dirt about ten inches down. She reached in and removed the bricks and stacked them on the floor by the wall. There was a small hole leading down into darkness. Someone’s been trying to dig their way out, she thought. She picked up a piece of the shattered water jug and dropped it into the dark hole. It sounded as if it fell about ten feet or less.
The hole was just large enough to allow her to slither through, but barely. Should I go down and see where it leads to?” she asked herself. “What if there is no way out? How will I see where I’m going and can I get back up?
She had always been one to take unnecessary chances; here was another opportunity to do just that. She turned around and slowly slid her legs and buttocks into the small hole. She felt around with her feet but could find no purchase. Daring as ever, she let go and slid down. After an eight foot drop she hit a pile of soft soil which helped to cushion her fall. The place was in stygian darkness and smelled like a dank crypt.
Analia rose to her feet and released a deep cough from the dust. The sound reverberated back as if she was in a tunnel or large cavern of sorts. She bent over and searched around her, feeling for something she could use to poke the soft ground ahead of her with. She had no desire to step into a pit that may plunge hundreds of feet deep. Her hand touched something that felt long and solid so she hefted it and felt it with her hands. It was a pole or pipe of some kind without knots or joints and smooth in her hands.
She slowly made her way down the dark tunnel probing ahead as she took small advancing steps. An hour later, she noticed the darkness was lessening to some degree and within minutes she came to an area where she could actually discern objects around her. Where she had been walking there were two strips of brown powdery metal laid down in an equal distance from each other and an elevated platform of dirt rose to her right. There were broken pieces of white tile and cement chunks buried in the soft dirt.
Analia could see that the light was emanating from a hole in the ceiling where the dirt mound hit a stone or cement wall. She scrambled up the short mound and looked upward. Far above her, at least sixty or seventy feet, she could see what appeared to be the bright blue sky, but the light shaft was far too small for her to climb up through. As she slid back down the dirt incline, her foot uncovered an odd object sticking out of the loose dirt. She reached over and pulled on it until it gave way and came free of the soil.
It was a sign made of some kind of strange material and there was writing on it. She used her hand to remove the clinging soil and stared at the letters. They were in the common script but what was written held absolutely no meaning for her. The sign read, ‘Long Island Rail Road.’ She had never heard of such a thing as a rail road. She threw the sign down and picked up her stick. She noticed that the stick was an off white color and it resembled the same smooth material as the sign.
Analia had no choice but to continue on. She walked for what seemed like hours and finally encountered another source of light. As she rounded a curve, she saw bright daylight ahead of her. When she reached the end, the tunnel stopped. Before here was an ocean with white caps of waves rolling off into the distance. She spotted sea gulls and small fishing boats and the smell of the salty wind was refreshing. Unfortunately, from her perch in the tunnel it was at least a hundred foot drop down to the rocky shoreline, a fall she could never survive.
My kingdom for a rope, Analia thought. You don’t have a kingdom to trade for a rope, idiot.
She could advance no further to the edge because the ground was soft and slippery and felt as if it would easily give way and plunge her to her death. Perhaps she could find another way out if there were other tunnels branching off from this one. She reluctantly turned to retrace her steps. After another hour of walking she noticed light again in the tunnel ahead of her. She was certain it was not the small opening she had previously seen, and the lights appeared to be bobbing and moving in her direction. Within minutes, the huge jailer and a dozen palace guards stood before her holding bright flickering torches.
Analia smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “A girl had to try,” she muttered, walking around the group and heading back into the darkness of the tunnel. She was followed as far as the spot where she had entered the tunnel where a ladder now rested against the wall. She followed two guards up the latter and stood while the rest joined them. She was immediately taken by the elbow and lead from the cell and back up the stairs and out of the dungeon.
She was escorted, half carried, to a large chamber containing immaculate tapestries, plush rugs, and huge windows which displayed the crystal blue sky and soft billowing clouds. They were clearly in a section of the keep where the royal dignitaries and nobles sat and enjoyed nature without going outside the building. There were dozens of nobles standing around wearing exquisite and luxurious clothing and several military officers in their imposing and beautiful red uniforms. Servants walked among the elite offering drinks and hors d’oeuvre and small pieces of cake. Two stately dressed people sat on massive thrones made of rich mahogany wood and inlaid with small jewels, gold and silver.
Obviously the Emperor and Empress,” Analia thought. She recognized the woman as the same person who had visited her in her prison cell. Perhaps she had at least one sympathetic person she could count on.
A tall man standing by the Emperor pointed in her direction with his white gloved hand and whispered in the Emperor’s ear. Emperor John was not a large man; he was perhaps no more than three or four inches taller than her. He had dark hair slightly greying at the temples and a thin aristocratic face. His nose was aquiline and his lips thin but his mouth was wide and generous. He had no beard but wore a well-trimmed goatee. The only thing malevolent about his appearance was his eyes; they were small and slightly hooded like a bird of prey.
“Bring her forward,” the Emperor ordered, waving his hand at the guards.
As she got to within ten feet, the guards halted and forced her to her knees on the marble floor. She painfully struck the hard marble but held back a cry of pain. She glanced up at the Emperor with defiance and calm.
“My Chancellor tells me you tried to escape from my dungeons,” the Emperor chuckled, “Would have gotten away if it wasn’t for the long jump from the high tunnel to the ocean.”
Analia smiled in return. “I spent a week or more as your guest in a place I would not highly recommend, Your Grace, you must forgive my unkempt appearance.”
“Insolent wench,” one of the nobles muttered.
Emperor John gazed at the noble who tried to hide behind his wife. “This insolent little wench, as you call her, is one of the formidable Dragon Riders. She is undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of many of our brave soldiers. What do you say to these charges, young lady?”
“I have no memory before the battle at the village in Alataria, Your Grace,” Analia honestly replied. I do not know who I am and if I had any role in that battle, it evades me. I was captured by one of your less than honorable soldiers and sold to Lord Clynton. I escaped during a raid by the brigands on our wagon train and entered the city on my own. The only name I know is one given to me by my captor, and that is Audrey.”
The crowd let out a chorus of muttering and shuffling at the mention of that name. They glanced at the Empress who barely held her calm expression in check.
“What mischief have you undertaken in my city since your arrival?” the Emperor asked. “Have you tried to organize resistance against me, or attempted to contact your compatriots from Camalund?”
Analia smiled. “I have become part leader of a small gang who have been mistreated and cast out by their Emperor.”
“You admit to sedition!” the Chancellor yelled, cutting her off. “You have been carousing with an organized gang who would defy their Emperor and sabotage the realm?”
“The gang I was referring to consists of sixty or more street urchins who fight from day to day to ward off starvation and death,” Analia replied. “They have no homes or family and band together for protection. The eldest among them is two and ten.”
“Little snits and miscreants grow up to become murderers and thieves, “The Chancellor spat, “best to exterminate them while they’re young to save the realm from future hardship.”
Emperor John stared at her for a long spell. “Lord Clynton is my second in command at the battle front. I trust his judgement implicitly. In his dispatch it was clearly noted that you were one suspected to be a member of the enemy Dragon Riders. From whence he garnered this information, and by what means it was presented to him, I am not at liberty to detail. In view of this fact, I sentence you to be beheaded immediately and your head mounted on the castle walls.”
Analia was shocked. Can it all end this way? She thought.