Silence. Relentless, tyrannical silence. It followed them; hung over them like the moon. Really, Kaelyth was fond of both, but being dragged across rivers and rolling grassy hills made her desperate for something else. Part of her believed they might be wandering in circles for the endless walking. The horizon stretched out ahead revealing only more ground for her to cross. But they followed the faint glow that signaled each dawn. East and east and east.
She bore holes into the back of her captor’s head with her eyes. He merely bounced along on his disinterested horse with some unambitious satisfaction. Like hauling prisoners across the countryside was all he cared to ever know. Kaelyth couldn’t decide how much was just an air he wore, which only deepened her disgust.
They followed no road, except to ford some river or another before meandering off into the grasses again. Little knots of trees slid slowly past them. Kaelyth began to forget her feet, compelled forward only at the insistent tug of the rope at her wrists. There was no moon tonight to show her the way.
On some passing whim, the Kolrav turned his beast toward a small grove and pulled to a stop. She slumped to the ground on her knees, as far from the horse as her rope allowed. They’d spend no more than a few hours here, continuing just as capriciously. Each time they stopped, she’d topple to the dirt and he’d return to haul her back to her feet. Inwardly, she pleaded and screamed and fought, but to the Kolrav, she showed nothing. This was no fight she could win. Her eyes swept the maze of grass blades around her.
A loud crunch echoed off the trees and Kaelyth flinched. The Kolrav’s face twisted in disgust at the piece of fruit in his hand. He held the apple out to her.
Kaelyth regarded the empty expression on his face and furrowed her brow at the fruit for a long moment. He shook it until she reached for it like it was the only possible outcome of his offer that she take it. He bit into another apple, this time with satisfaction.
She turned the little red fruit over and over in her hands before taking a cautious bite. It was bitter, but her mouth watered and begged for more. Very little of it remained in a matter of minutes. She listened to the buzzing insect chorus around her but it dipped in and out of memory as she drifted.
Kaelyth slipped through the shadowed hall toward the back of the little house. Cinders began to float in through the windows sending her to the other end. Her own home was just next door. She slid out the window and leapt across in the branches. Familiarity begged her to savor the creaking floorboards and the old wooden smell, but she darted through the hall to her little room.
Bootsteps clunked on the wood after her sweeping methodically inward. Kaelyth swiped at the flood in her eyes trying to see clearly. Somewhere she had hidden her little box whose contents she desperately hoped would catch the Kolrav’s attention.
She hadn’t really known what it was when she came across it so long ago. Just some amulet with strange markings and inlaid stone that had washed up in the river. It should have been nothing.
Kaelyth weaved her way toward the front room, keeping against the walls. The air was hot and thick as the fire burned nearer. A towering Kolrav stepped in front of her and they both froze, wide-eyed for fear of losing what they wanted. She held the amulet out to him.
“Roszmirrh,” a voice announced the presence of another Kolrav. “They know nothing. We’ll not find--”
“Srenn!” Roszmirrh turned to silence him and Kaelyth bolted from the room. She slipped under her bedframe with nothing else on her mind but to hide. Whatever courage she’d meant to have drained and left only panic behind. Kolrav shouts echoed up to her from the ground below.
Slow jagged breaths kept her silent though her lungs screamed for air. She tried to convince herself the pounding in her ears was merely her heart and not approaching bootsteps.
But the doorway filled with Kolrav feet nonetheless. Kaelyth scarcely blinked. And then more boots appeared behind them. She snapped her eyes shut as they began to shuffle. She could hear the crackle of the encroaching flames as they overtook the house.
A loud thud shook the floor and Kaelyth found herself face to face with Roszmirrh who reached out and dragged her from the floor. the tree branches shifted as they were eaten by the blaze and it threw the house off kilter. The amulet slipped from Kaelyth’s hands and flew beyond reach into the spreading fire. Roszmirrh went for it, but received a knife blade up the length of his arm. The other Kolrav had disappeared altogether. In a moment the tree began to man and the floor shifted again as the house toppled to the ground.
Kaelyth fled the splintered wood as soon as she felt the jolt of the ground. There was no sign of Roszmirrh or her savior. Only the gleam of the amulet in the dirt caught her. She ignored the blood on her hand, not remembering when she’d been cut and snatched it from the ground. She immediately lost it again; the metal searing her palm. The amulet tumbled downward into the ash and shattered.
Chilled air flooded her lungs in a gasp as the trees whipped around her. The Kolrav shoved her forward to escape her swinging elbow. She could still feel the warmth on her arm when he had pulled her to her feet. On his horse again, they continued on.
Her eyelids were heavy and she couldn’t quite lift her feet high enough to keep from shuffling the dirt. She’d stopped watching the patches of trees pass by; her eyes wouldn’t lift from the ground in front of her.
Silhouettes began to appear on the horizon as the sky broke into dawn. The ragged edges of the forest spanned into the darkness behind them. But there in the light, great stone walls loomed upward; a tower in the trees.
Kaelyth couldn’t take her eyes from it all morning. They approached steadily until the Kolrav stopped just inside the treeline surrounding the wall and dismounted. Kaelyth’s face grew hot with creeping dread. She shrank as he stalked toward her.
She pulled at the rope but it only sent the horse shuffling in annoyance. The Kolrav took hold yanking her to the ground and stepped on the rope. Kaelyth pulled again to throw him off balance but he’d anticipated her desperation. The exhaustion clouded her head.
In the end, she couldn’t fight off the blindfold. Leaves crunched under approaching footsteps and Kaelyth held her breath. The Kolrav stepped away leading the footsteps from her. She heard the deep rumblings of his voice, though no words, and the light airy voice of a child. The underbrush of the forest suddenly rustled and faded away as the child pattered away.
Her heart pounded ticking by the time until the drumming became footsteps again. Not the springy steps of the child this time, but slow, deliberate ones.
“Srenn, old friend,” another Kolrav voice spouted. “I trust you found what you were looking for.”
“Indeed. I have no doubt.”
A hot breath brushed her neck and she launched her shoulder backward. With a chuckle the breath gave her distance.
“Watch yourself. The mouse has fight.” Srenn warned.
“I see that.” She could hear the awful grin in his voice. It was clearly visible where Kaelyth had raked Srenn’s cheek.
“I had not known you were one for messenger boys. Untrustworthy lot.”
“Oh, but Srenn, they are so trusting. Makes for much less mess in the end.” Kaelyth listened hard as the voices faded to a broken murmur. The rope had no give when she began to worry at it. She bent to slip off the blindfold but the faint whisper of an unsheathed blade played at her ears. In an instant, she heard a choked gasp for air, a weight crumple to the ground, and that same faint whisper. Rhythmic footsteps fell closer toward her.
Kaelyth was suddenly seized by the arm, unbound from her anchor, and dragged through the underbrush of the woods. The red glow of the sunlight filtered through her blindfold faded in the cool shadow of the wall and then disappeared altogether as she was led through thick doors and downward tunnels. The air turned stale and oppressive. Another door pushed open ahead of them and Kaelyth was flood with panic as the floor gave way into a stairwell. She gained a semblance of bearings as they descended but the panic would not entirely subside.
The squeal of metal made her cringe when she was suddenly impelled forward, stumbling to her knees. She ripped the blindfold from her eyes but the door of the cell was already locked and her captor had disappeared into the shadows. All the remained of him was his metronomic footsteps echoing up the stairwell.