Step beyond your well swept front doors
Shout against the rearing and stamping of night
Help your neighbor put out the fires of war
And cry bitterly at the blight
It was the beginnings of winter, a time of supposed peace and settlement. However, this was not to say in war. The weather of the lower midlinds was silent, frigid and miserable. It was a deserted mountainous wasteland, filled with rocky plains destitute of plant life that stretched for miles on end. And beyond the northern horizon, where the sky touched earth, was the land of Cicaria*.
Cicaria, a place of foreboding wariness and hardship, of isolation and ever frothing evil. It was were the bandits came from, where the clans of barbarians made their war plans, where creatures of nightmares were born. If one traveled far enough, far from the warm fertile midlinds, they would see the dark ominous Black Iron Mountains standing as sentinels along the misty coast…
Rebekka placed one foot before the other, as she had been doing for the last few weeks. She shivered as she stepped and sloshed through cold mud, accumulating more of it along the tattered bottom of her dress. The meager supply of clothes she had been granted by the Superiors were hardly adequate. But they kept frostbite away, which was a blessing in itself. She hadn’t made it to Cicaria yet, as that atrocious High Officer had sworn, but from the look of the mountains on the far horizons across the sea, it wouldn’t be long before his promise was complete.
She was headed for another war camp, the Axon One. From rumors, she knew there were four Axons in all, and each were reputed of producing the most brutal, bloodthirsty, and abysmal soldiers ever to raise a weapon in battle. They were the Keystones of the Invasion.
Before the Axon camps were created, news of the Invasion was nothing but distant thunder. After their creation, word of fearless, mindless platoons seeped into circulating rumors, but eventually all came to know the truth. Criers shouted in the streets. ‘Hundreds are falling by the day!’ ‘Axon camps are swinging the tide of the war in the Invasion’s favor!’ The soldiers manufactured by the Axon war camps became known as the Maledicted, unfortunate souls forever curse to bloodshed. Then came the Draft, the final toll that once again death and destruction had arisen against the peace.
Seemingly, fate would have Rebekka to be reconstructed at one of those Keystone camps and reborn as a Maledicted. However, Rebekka had yet to get to Axon One and planned to make a flawless escape. Her plan had been developed within her dismal weeks of endless steps, but it stopped short at the Superiors.
Superiors were a sort of jack-of-all-trades in the Invasion’s military. They were assassins, ground troops, the calvary, and even soldiers of the air. Any position of the military a Superior could do, and they did so immaculately. However there numbers were small, and they were deployed sporadically through the ranks.
The High Officer had ensured to have Rebekka escorted with the maximum number of Superiors he could possibly be allotted, which was twelve. Twelve highly trained experienced soldiers on horseback was more than enough to overrun her in less than quarter mile if she could make it that far. If she did make it that far, they would track her, catch her, and she would never have another chance of escape until they reached Axon One, her doom….
<~ *** ~>
“How long do you think it’ll be?” Wert asked. The thin young man was shivering near the small campfire, peering fearfully into the dark.
“Until what?” Mason asked. She sat near her brother, Jude, who practically never said anything unless it was worth saying.
“’til something from the dark comes and snatches us up and drags us screaming into the dark with them.”
“Wert there’s nothing of the dark that will come so close to the light.” Rebekka muttered. Right after she said this a terrible screech shrieked into the night. The entire camp went silent, even the Superiors.
“But there’s so little light to begin with,” Wert whispered trembling even more.
“You should really be feared of that monster in that cage over there,” Mason said motioning her head. “It can get out whenever it wants and tear us all to bits.”
Rebekka looked back at the tall lone cage of steel behind where the horses were stationed. Something large was in there. She heard it rustle around at times and bump against its cage walling. No one went by the cage, not even the Superiors.
“That’s not true,” Jude said. His voice was as light as early winter’s chill, but when he spoke all listened. “It is not the one who has us against our will.”
“But you heard what it could do,” Wert wavered. “Tore a man in two. Ripped flesh right from bone. ‘ell, I wouldn’t be surprised if those of the dark fear it more than the light.”
Jude shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It is a creature, but a living one nonetheless. We should pity it as we do ourselves.” He poked at the small campfire with a stick causing the burning pile of wood to collapse. “We need more wood.”
“I’ll go get it,” Rebekka sighed and stood.
There were two Superiors stationed to guard the prisoners. They were also there if the prisoners had a request for a need, such as getting water or more firewood. Rebekka walked to the closest of the two, Superior Tallow she believed, and cleared her throat to get his attention.
“Eh?” he said and looked back at her. “What do you want?”
“We need more wood,” she answered with her gaze to the ground. She curtsied some and added, “Your Graciousness.” Though she hated giving them such a title, she had to. Superior Tallow expected nothing less. Rebekka heard him sigh with as much annoyance that he could. The man was as arrogant as they got but he had to follow orders.
“Alright! Get goin’,” the man said and yanked the torch beside him from the ground. “Move it! Don’t have all night.”
With her head still low, Rebekka picked up her skirts and moved forward towards the nocturnal darkness.
Gathering wood was always a chore Rebekka didn’t mind, but when being accompanied by an impatient, tenacious soldier, it became unbearable. He refused to lend the light when needed and hurried her every chance he got. Sometimes he would move the torch to cast light in an area he may have heard a noise in, but he mostly stood in one spot. This forced Rebekka to feel along the ground and risk whatever lay waiting in the sparse underlying brush and craggy rock.
Eventually, enough wood was gathered, and they made way back to camp. On their way, Rebekka became lost in thought. What if she could use an opportunity like this to escape? The Superior behind her was just one man. If she could find a way to slip away from him and hide… but hide where? For miles they were surrounded by rocky flat land dotted with small bushes and straggly plants.
Once again she was faced with the same problem. She wouldn’t be able to hide. An alarm would be raised, and they would search until she was found. If she tried to run, they would surely catch her and again there would be no escape.
‘You could try to take his sword and kill him…’ a voice hissed in her mind. ‘The alarm would never be raised, and you could run as far as your legs could take you…’
The thought made her shudder. She would never! Though the Superiors were her enemy, she couldn’t stand to think of killing in cold blood.
‘But this is war!’ the thought spat. ‘You will have to kill sooner or later! Either it will be now or after the Axon makes you into a bloodthirsty Maledicted!’
Rebekka wanted to scream for silence, but a growl froze her very thoughts. She paused in mid-step. In her troubled thinking, she hadn’t realized where her feet were taking her and stood right before the steel cage holding the creature within. She swallowed and slowly brought her gaze up. In the dim torchlight, she saw the rough figure of a man, an impossible seven feet tall.
Rows and rows of blue steel chains stretched across sinewy muscle… Clawed hands… Arms two times the thickness of a man’s head… It was a monster indeed.
She couldn’t entirely see a head– since it was too dark– but thick slime dripped, and a low growl rumbled. She moved to step back and that’s when the creature rushed forward, slamming against its cage. She stumbled on her skirt and fell, spilling her collected wood everywhere. She stared at the cage stricken with terror. What in all the good world was this monstrosity?
Superior Tallow stepped forward from behind her and thrusted his torch through the cage, burning the creature along its meaty thigh. The creature recoiled whimpering. Despite the lingering terror within her mind, Rebekka felt pity. In its whimper she understood that it was as much of a prisoner as the rest of them were.
At the commotion, the Head Superior’s tent flap flew open.
“What’s going on out here!” the Head Superior snapped.
“Ah, just letting the little nurse girl meet Acidine*,” his underling said with a nervous chuckle. “Having a little fun that’s all.”
“That is not your charge soldier. The High Officer made his orders very clear. We are to escort these prisoners to the Axon One and under no circumstances is any harm to come to them, especially that one.” He pointed to Rebekka. “Now you are to fulfil your duty wholesomely or by the death of my father I will have you flogged until you beg for mercy. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir!” Superior Tallow gave him a sharp salute.
“Get her up and back to the others.” With that, the Head Superior disappeared back into his tent.
Superior Tallow rounded to Rebekka, glowering down at her.
“You heard him,” he hissed. “Get up!”
Rebekka quickly gathered her wood and stood. The Superior roughly grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the direction of the camp. Rebekka heard a soft long moan of pain from the cage and couldn’t help to look back at the confined lonely creature.
<~ *** ~>
Before dawn of the next morning had become aglow in the mountains, camp was broken and once again Rebekka was rhythmically stepping through the cold thick mud of the endless road. But today she didn’t mind the miserable conditions. She was preoccupied with thoughts of the creature in the steel cage, or Acidine, as Superior Tallow had called it.
She should have feared it, but she couldn’t. After witnessing what she had last night, it was impossible for her to do so. She heard pain in its whimper and sorrow in its moan. If it could feel those things, it was surely an intelligent being.
Suddenly a thought, a dangerous, daring, dreadful thought crept into Rebekka’s mind. What if she could befriend the creature and get it to help her escape? It was a risky plan that involved getting close to the thing, but it somehow seemed worth it. The very first part of her plan involved treating the wound Superior Tallow had given it. There were plenty medical plants scattered along the plains they travelled upon, but she needed the right one. She didn’t have any time to search through them all…
Slowly Rebekka’s plan formed itself in her mind. It would take a week or longer to complete, and there was a very slim chance that she and anyone else would survive, but she had to try. Hopefully, the Axon One wasn’t less than a week of travel away. She could only imagine what await her there.
Rebekka released a breath, pushing away her troubled thoughts and tilting her face to the sky. The weather was warmer than yesterday, perhaps promising sun, but Rebekka doubted the heavens would give such a blessing to a forsaken land. The stillness was nice though, nonetheless. Maybe there would be snow. She had never saw such a thing. Ice flakes falling from the sky…
Rebekka opened her eyes to bright storm grey clouds and nearly shut them tight again. Bright storm grey, the color of Togian’s hair…
For three weeks she tried to keep from thinking about him. She didn’t want to think about him. Her emotions were a place of confusion when it came to him. She didn’t know how to feel or what to think. Hope, despair, anxiety, fear… anger. Should she have been angry at him? Wasn’t she angry at him for leading the High Officer and his platoon right to her small hospital? She was a simple nurse, healing and helping any she could. Why did she have to do so much for him? Couldn’t she have let him be and saved herself the trouble?
She shut her eyes and felt tears slide down her cheeks. No, she wouldn’t have stopped herself from helping him and no, she wasn’t angry at him. There was only worry and fear she felt for him. What if all she had done accomplished nothing? What if he was captured and the High Officer tortured him until he breathed is last?
It frightened her to think of the likelihood of his death. Togian had become a close friend of hers, closer than any she had. That was the pure, undeniable, beautiful truth. And to think of him cold and lifeless, made her heart ache to the point of boundless despair.
So she chose not to think of him. Instead she kept herself focused on staying brave and hoping to find a way to escape. However, she had yet to understand that Togian was the very reason she had the strength to resist despair and struggle to find hope even when the road ahead was uncertain and full of hardship.
“Why do you cry?” Mason asked.
Rebekka looked up at the girl. She clung unto Jude’s back–he carried her through the long weeks–and was looking at Rebekka with the roundest, most innocent eyes.
Rebekka wiped away her tears and replied, “Sad thoughts.”
“What kind of sad thoughts?”
(to be continued)
Click here for Rebekka Prologue (cont.)
Click Here for Rebekka: Legerdemain (cont.)
© 2020 Alison Bankroft