The Escape: Part 2
I stumbled and almost fell. I don’t know what time of the day it was. I could have been down an hour, or for five hours. A hand grabbed me and pulled me out of the main shaft into a dark, shallow side passage.
“There you are.” A grim voice said quietly.
“I haven’t done anything.” I protested weakly.
“They’ve really messed you up, haven’t they?” The voice muttered. “Drink this.”
I tried to bat aside the stranger’s hand, but he gripped my face and poured a bitter liquid into my mouth. He squeezed my nose and clamped his other hand over my mouth.
I didn’t have much choice. I swallowed and almost instantly felt a warmth spreading through me. I felt the fog of exhaustion that had fallen once again over my mind start to lift.
“Who are you?”
“Someone paid to get you out of here.”
I felt, for the first time in what seemed an age, hope, but it was quickly dashed against the rocks of reality.
“Nobody gets out of here.” I replied.
“Nobody’s ever paid me to get someone out of here. Tonight, after you eat what passes for food around here, find a spot close to the back of the compound. Where you slept last night should do fine.”
I stared into the darkness. “You know where I slept?”
“Yes, yes.” The man replied, but it sounded like he was talking to someone.
“Get back to work.” He ordered. “Now. And remember, same place as last night, or as close to it as you can.”
“No!” I replied forcefully.
“Fallan’s Balls!” The man swore. “What do you mean no?”
“I can’t leave. Not without Uksem.”
“Who in the void is Uksem?”
“He’s one of my men. We were captured together.”
“I wasn’t paid to get him out.”
“I won’t leave without him. They’ll kill him if I disappear.”
“Fine!” The man hissed. “I’ll get him out too, but if we get caught, I’ll kill you both myself. Now get back to work and stay alive.”
I stumbled out of the side passage, my mind awhirl. I felt stronger than I had in what seemed like an eternity. Whatever I’d been forced to drink was clearly the cause. I could still taste the bitter liquid on my tongue and wondered where I could get more. I paused for as long as I dared, hoping to catch sight of the stranger but saw no one. I returned to my assigned task, but now with hope brimming inside me.
The rest of the day passed slowly, and my surge of energy had almost entirely worn off by the time I climbed out of the mine. I trudged back to the slave compound and took my place in the food line, pushing several other slaves aside out of habit. As always, the stew was thin with little evidence of meat in it, and the bread was, as usual, stale, requiring it be soaked to soften it. I took my food to my chosen spot and sat down against the wall to eat. Once the bowl was empty and the bread, such as it was, eaten, I lay down to sleep. I was taking a risk sleeping so early, leaving myself vulnerable to attack from some of the other slaves. Some slaves who rose to the top brought other, lesser, slaves with them. They got to eat better food than their fellow slaves, being closest to the top of the line, and as payment for the better food, they watched over their boss, ensuring his safety. I’d avoided that mess and stayed far enough down the line so as not to bother those at the top, but far enough up that I still got reasonably good food, compared to those below me. The price for this, of course, was that I had to sleep lightly. So, it came as a complete surprise to me when a hand slid over my mouth while another shook me awake.
I woke suddenly, my eyes snapping open, looking for the threat. Kneeling over me was one of the guards. I couldn’t quite make out his face in the darkness, but I could see enough to see he had a finger over his lips, indicating that I should be quiet. The guard nodded his head, indicating the wall behind him and slowly removed his hand from my mouth. He moved back to the wall and disappeared through a new, small opening, into the darkness beyond. I rose to my feet and followed him as quietly as I could.
Once outside, I paused and breathed deep. The air was crisp and refreshing. I hadn’t seen the night sky since I arrived at the mine. We were always locked up before darkness fell and sent down the mine after the dawn. The guard motioned in annoyance, his face still hidden in the darkness, and I followed him to the wooden wall that formed the perimeter around our compound. I could just about see a new opening cut in the wall, hidden in the darkness.
“What about Uksem?” I hissed.
The guard glared at me and pulled me through the opening. Once through, he put his mouth close to my ear.
“You first, then him. If I have to knock you out and carry you out of here, I will, and as Equola is my witness, I’ll make sure to bump you off every rock and tree I pass.”
“Did you find him? Where is he?” I whispered.
“On a chain gang.” The guard replied. “Now follow.”
The guard led me through some undergrowth, to a dark hollow. The time I had spent in the mines had toughened my feet. That was now paying off, but the ground was freezing, and I was starting to feel chilled. It wouldn’t take long for me to succumb to the cold. I told the guard as much. He grunted but said nothing more. He left me in that dark hollow to wait.
I paced back and forth in that dark hollow, for an unknown period of time, trying to keep my blood warm. My hands were tucked into my armpits, my arms held close, but I was feeling the cold more and more. I didn’t know how long the guard was gone, but there was still no sign of him returning. Doubts began to assail my mind. Was this all a setup? An elaborate game played by the overseer so she could have fun with me then kill me? I shook my head. If she wanted me dead, she’d just do it. There was nothing to stop her, and as far as I knew, the only person who knew I was here was the guard who’d just gotten me outside the compound. I should have asked him who was paying him to get me out and if that person knew where I was.
It suddenly occurred to me that I should maybe move to a position where I could watch the hollow but not be seen. That way, if this really was some sort of elaborate setup, then at least I’d stand a fighting chance of escaping. I nodded to myself, pleased to finally be able to decide something for myself at last. I picked a tree at one end of the hollow that looked like I could climb it easily enough and picked my way over to it, feeling very satisfied with myself. It took longer than it should have, for me to climb up a little way, but I made it and then settled in to wait.
It didn’t take me too long to discover that not moving was even worse than pacing back and forth. I was feeling the cold even more keenly now, but I stubbornly stuck to my plan. I was not going back down the mine, that was for certain.
The sudden sound of ringing bells roused me. I’d started nodding off and had almost slipped off the branch. I shook my head to clear it, but my mind was sluggish. I wasn’t feeling the cold so much now, which was nice, and the branch was more comfortable that it seemed. I suddenly realised that there was a lot of shouting from the direction of the mine. I felt a vague sense of unease, as though I should be very concerned about all the noise. I heard a someone shuffling through the hollow below and I glanced down. Two figures had just entered the hollow, the guard and someone else.
Uksem! I thought. It had to be Uksem.
“I thought you said he was here.” I heard Uksem whisper in the dark as something flew by my ear, a bat maybe.
I saw the guard cock his head to one side a moment later, as though listening to something, then he looked straight at me.
“Get down here you fool before you die from the cold.” The guard whispered, harshly.
I stared down dully at him. How had he known? I slowly climbed down from my perch, almost falling twice.
Once on the ground the guard marched over to me the put his hand on my neck.
“Equola grant me patience.” He muttered.
The guard took a small stoppered bottle from a pouch and handed it to me.
“Drink that, and don’t waste it. It’s my last one.” He ordered, firmly.
I pulled the stopper and drank it down, tasting the same bitterness I had in the mine. The cold receded somewhat and once again my mind felt clearer. I then realised how close I’d just come to dying and shuddered. Being this close to my rescuer, I was finally able to see his face. He was a rough looking, bearded man of about average height and build. A nasty scar crossed his left eye, leaving the orb milky white. His hair was thin, dark, and short. If I’d seen his face earlier, I doubt that I’d have placed any trust in him.
“Come on.” The guard whispered, roughly. “Time’s wasting and we’ve a ways to go.”
As he turned to lead us out of the hollow, a snow flake drifted down by his face. I saw him hesitate.
“Loufan, you’re an unreliable bastard.” The guard cursed.
Uksem looked at me and I shrugged in reply. He held out a hand and I grabbed his wrist, drawing him close.
“Glad to see you’re alive.” He whispered. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed though, you look a right state.”
“Glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour.” I replied, quietly.
“Oh, by all means.” The guard growled. “Take your time.”
We slipped out of the hollow behind the guard, but instead of making our way downhill towards the town of Caan, he guided us deeper into the mountains.
Sometime later, the guard brought us to a small forest clearing. More and more snowflakes were falling now, and the air was growing colder and colder. Both Uksem and I were suffering. We needed shelter, soon. At one side of the clearing, was a rockface, and in the rockface was a shallow cave, barely deep enough to qualify as such. We were led inside and discovered two bundles.
“Clothes.” The guard grunted. “Get changed. Someone else will guide you from here. I’ve gotta go back and make sure we weren’t followed.”
While he hadn’t been the best company and was unpleasant to behold, I was grateful for his getting us out, and told him so.
“Just doing what I was paid to. Now get changed, stay quiet, and for the love of Equola, no bloody fire.”
I nodded and the guard left.
We examined the bundles and found a set of clothes each and sturdy boots, all wrapped up in warm cloaks. I almost cried at the sight of the clothes. All I’d worn for months was thin, mud encrusted rags. I ripped them off and tossed them aside, eager to be rid of them. I pulled on the provided clothes and almost instantly felt measurably better. I pulled the cloak around me to preserve some body heat as I leaned against the wall, my head bowed due to the cave’s low ceiling.
“Do you know how long we were held?” I asked Uksem.
The warrior shook his head. “I lost count somewhere after the sixth or seventh week. Where did they keep you? I never saw you, not once. I feared that they’d killed you, but I couldn’t risk doing anything in case they were telling me the truth.”
“I was carrying rock down in the mine. Where did they keep you?”
“Above ground, in one of the buildings, on a chain gang. We spent every day swinging hammers, smashing rocks from the mine to make smaller rocks. We heard about the cave in. We had to dig a new pit for the bodies they dragged out of there.”
“I almost died down there. I was one of the lucky ones.”
“Seems like we were both lucky.”
“I’m going to have a word with father when we get back. Aradus must pay what he did to us. Father won’t stand for it.”
“Maybe he won’t, but it’s not like we’ll go to war over it.”
I sighed and looked out of the cave. Snow was starting to fall heavier and heavier, worse, it was starting to stay on the ground. As I looked out, something flitted past, a bat of some kind I judged, the second one tonight despite it seeming far too cold for them to be active.
“No.” I replied. “But I’m certain that he has something on Aradus. He let something slip when last I spoke to him, but I was too busy at the time to note it.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
I jumped suddenly, as a hunter suddenly appeared outside the cave.
“Come on.” The hunter called, softly. “Guards from the mine are drawing close.”
Uksem looked to me and I nodded. I wasn’t sure of this hunter, but we didn’t have much choice. The hunter was dressed in forest colours, he had a bow over his shoulder, a quiver of arrows at his waist and several large knives scattered about him. He wasn’t a big man, a little shorter than me, but there was something about him that made me cautious.
“Where’s the guard?” Uksem asked as we left the cave.
“What guard?” The hunter asked.
“The man who led us here.”
The hunter shrugged. “I was told to meet you here, didn’t hear anything about a guard.”
“Where are you going to take us?” I asked.
“Deeper into the mountains for a bit, maybe not as long as I’d planned, seeing as there’s two of you, but long enough to build your strength back up and throw off the guards. Now if you’re done with the questions, maybe we can get out of here?”
I nodded. As I did, I heard a dog barking in the distance.
The hunter cursed as he ushered us away from the cave. “Dogs. Why do they have to have dogs?”
“Surely we’ll be able to shake them.” I scoffed. “I thought you were a hunter of some sort.”
The hunter glared at me. “Of course we will. I just hate killing dogs.”
The hunter led us through the thick forest, always moving uphill. Uksem kept to the rear, always looking over his shoulder. Behind us, we could hear the dogs getting closer. Every now and then I noticed the hunter cocking his head to one side and muttering softly, as though he were talking to someone. I was beginning to thing that he might not be entirely sane.
Eventually, as the dogs were drawing closer and closer, he gestured to me and pointed at a distant crag.
“Keep moving towards that peak, stay in the trees. I’ll have to take care of the guards following us.”
“On your own?” I asked. “What do we do if you don’t come back?”
The hunter stared at me, then pointed at the peak again.
“That way.” He repeated. “I won’t be gone long.”
I ground my teeth in annoyance as the hunter jogged back towards the dogs. Keep heading towards the peak, but stay in the trees. No mention of how long we were to keep going that direction, or what to do if he didn’t come back.
“He seems confident.” Uksem muttered.
“A bit too confident if you ask me.” I replied in annoyance. “If he doesn’t come back, no one will find us up here.”
Uksem grunted and we kept walking. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was tired, so damn tired. All I wanted to do was lie down somewhere and sleep. About the only thing keeping me going was the cold. It was too bitter to stop and rest, even with the new clothes, warm as they were, I was feeling the cold.
Behind us the dogs suddenly stopped barking. I prayed it meant that we were finally free of the guards. Uksem bumped my shoulder.
“Keep moving.” He muttered. “Gotta keep moving.”
I shook myself and walked faster.
We walked for what seemed like an hour but was probably only half that. A wind was picking up, chilling me to the bone and I was having trouble concentrating. A few times I caught myself slowing, almost standing still. I glanced back at Uksem and found him leaning against a tree a few metres back. I turned back to him and grabbed his arm.
“Can’t stop here. We’ve got to keep moving.”
“Damn. Right.” Uksem replied, slowly.
As I turned around, I realised that I couldn’t remember where the peak was. We’d stayed in the trees, as the hunter had told us, but now I couldn’t see the peak.
“No, just resting.” I reassured my friend.
“We need to find a clearing so I can see which direction to go.”
We were quiet for a moment then Uksem spoke again.
“I’m not sure if I can go much further.”
I sighed and leaned against the tree. “Me either.”
“At least we’re not stuck in the mine.”
We were quiet again for a while, just staring at the snow as it silently fell, watching it slowly gather on the ground.
I almost bit my tongue off as the hunter appeared beside us.
“Come on.” He urged us, not unkindly. “We’re almost there.”
I pushed myself away from the tree and grabbed Uksem’s arm again.
“Come on, move your ass.” I ordered.
Uksem groaned as he started walking. He was limping heavily, but still mobile, at least for now. The hunter set a slower pace than before, guiding us up a short slope and before long he was guiding us into a cave. Once inside, he lit a torch and led us down a long passage that wound back and forth. Deep inside, out of sight of the entrance, we found a small chamber. High enough to stand in and large enough for us to pace back and forth in. I was sure that it had once been some animal’s den. A pot, filled with what looked like a thick stew, was bubbling merrily over a well-made fire. The smoke drifted up through a crack in the ceiling, keeping the air in the cave more or less clean. Several pallets had been made up, but only one looked to have been used.
The hunter picked up two small bowls from beside the fire, filled them and handed them to us.
“Eat slow.” He advised. “You’re both half-starved, if you eat too much too fast you’ll just sick up, and I’m not cleaning up after you.”
I tried to do as he said, but the stew was thick and rich, with plenty of meat. The flavour was almost too much, but even if I did eat it faster than I was supposed to, I at least didn’t just gulp it down. I could see Uksem going through the same struggle. I cleared my bowl and moved towards the pot for a second helping.
The hunter held up his hand. “Not yet. If you can hold that down for an hour, you can have more then.”
I wanted to argue with him, but Uksem leaned forward and touched my arm.
“He’s right Taril. It’s better to wait. At least we know there’ll be food when we wake.”
I sighed and nodded. I lay back on the pallet to wait, but between the warmth from the fire and the warm food in my stomach, I was asleep moments after I lay down.
I woke some hours later. The fire had burned down to the embers and the chamber was mostly dark. My first instinct was to panic. I was trapped in the mine again. I struggled to get free, but something was wrapped around me, not rock, but something soft.
“Taril!” I heard Uksem call. “It’s okay.”
I continued to struggle, but a moment later he was beside me, his hand on my shoulder.
“Calm down Taril. We’re free, it’s okay.”
I stopped struggling as his words penetrated my panicked mind. I wasn’t in the mine. More importantly, we were free.
The hunter suddenly appeared in the dim chamber and dumped an armful of kindling beside the fire.
“Would you two mind keeping your gods damned voices down!” He growled. “Do you have any idea how far sound travels in the mountains?”
I sat up on my pallet, feeling more rested than I had in an age.
“Do you think they’re still looking for us?”
“Of course they bloody are.” The Hunter snarled. “The son of an advisor to the Great Khan? You can be damned sure that the overseer won’t rest until she’s either got you back in the mines or your cold, dead bodies are in front of her.”
“You know who I am?” I asked, cautiously.
“Obviously. Seeing as it was your father who hired me.”
“And the overseer knew who I was.”
“That bitch knows exactly who you are. She is now going to be furious that you’ve escaped, and very, very worried. She works for powerful people, who don’t hesitate to punish incompetence.”
“You sound like you know her.” Uksem said, carefully.
“Me and Estrith go way back.” The hunter replied darkly. “I’ve tried to kill her every time we’ve crossed paths, but that bitch has Ackus’s own luck. If I hadn’t been here to get you out, I might have taken the opportunity to finally kill her.”
“If she’s as keen to see us dead as you say, you might still get the chance.”
The hunter grunted. “Maybe. I’d rather a clean escape though. No complications.”
“You know who I am, and you’ve met Uksem.” I pointed out. “Do we get your name?”
The hunter shook his head. “Just call me Hunter. That’s all you need to know.”
“Hunter it is then.” I replied.
It seemed a little dramatic to me, but if Hunter wanted to hide his name, I wasn’t going to make an issue of it. If father hired him, then he was judged to be reliable.
“So, Hunter, what’s the plan?” I asked.
“Feed you up, and get you out of Cheute. In that order.” He replied, shortly, as he carefully worked to bring the fire back to life.
“Any more detail than that?”
“Yeah, plenty. When you’re strong enough we’ll go over it.” Hunter stood up as he finished nursing the fire. “In the meantime, I have a letter from your father for you to read. I’m going to make sure that no one is nearby, and maybe see if I can snag a rabbit or two. Don’t let the stew boil over.”
Hunter handed over a sealed letter and left us alone in the cave.
“I’ll watch the stew.” Uksem offered.
“Thanks.” I replied, as I tore open the letter.
I scanned down through the letter in the dim light. It didn’t take long, it was a short letter. I tossed aside the letter when I finished, cursing.
“Bad news?” Uksem asked, from beside the fire.
“I can’t go home.” I replied, bitterly.