Her world had been reduced to blackness, harsh sounds and pain. A thick, dirty blindfold covered her eyes and slipped down over her nose, almost suffocating her. It had a musty dead smell that made her gag and gave her headaches.
Her hands were shackled with weighty cold metal chains, attached to the other captives and horses. It tugged on her arms, urging her forwards, to an unknown and invisible destination. Her feet fell over each other on the rough uneven grass, but there was no relenting of the fast pace.
The pain came in different forms. Her muscles burned and her limbs ached from the endless walking. The chains chafed at her wrists, creating gross red blisters and tearing into her thin dry skin. Her feet were raw from the walking, littered with cuts from jagged rocks that lined the road’s floor.
But Aeryn could deal with pain. It was the not knowing that was killing her.
When she was taken, she had been told she had to comply unless she wanted to be slain where she stood. Although not one for obedience, Aeryn was not suicidal. There was no resisting these men. After the blindfold had been placed over her eyes she had been given one instruction – walk; and don’t stop walking until the horses stopped. She didn’t know how long she had been walking, but it felt like days. There had been no sleep and no breaks.
Her stomach was doing flips, both from nervousness and hunger. Her throat was dry and her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. But none of these things haunted her as much as the question of what would happen when she reached the end of this journey –ifshe reached the end.
This was not selection, she was sure of it. Selection was undignified, but not to this extreme. People were told what was happening, they were not blindfolded, and they were not usually forced to walk countless miles bound in shackles.
But if not selection, then what?
Aeryn, like any other low man, had a very restricted insight into the world of the high men. But she knew that it wasn’t as simple as “us” and “them”. The high men were divided – they all had a hunger for power and that drove a rift between them. Lords frequently battled for land or material gain, and there was almost always a war raging in a nearby kingdom. But the men that had taken her were not lords and they were not warriors.
She did know they were dangerous. But she wasn’t entirely sure whether they were a danger to her or someone else. Perhaps they would be reasonable men, if she could prove her loyalty.
Though that thought didn’t give her much hope, seeing as these men were currently dragging her through an atramentous torture.
Suddenly, one of the men called a halt and the horses stopped. She stumbled forwards and almost fell face first onto the ground.
“Take off the blindfolds,” said one of the men.
A man gruffly grabbed her by the hair and yanked off the blindfold with one fierce tug, jarring her neck in the process. Her eyes squinted in the sudden light, despite the fact it was now night-time. Their party numbered about 50, with an even mix of the captors and the captives. She gained a little comfort in the fact that they were evenly matched, and that the other captives looked equally as ill at ease as her. One, a young man with a hollow face and blotchy skin, was shaking uncontrollably.
They were in a large cavern. There was no sign of the outside world – they had travelled deep into the cave’s interior. The walls were lined with broad flaming torches that crackled, illuminating the shiny wet grey walls. The horses were led away by a few of the captives, but the rest stayed.
“Get these people some water,” said the same man that had spoken before. He was young, not much older than her, but he was heavily scarred and his face was severely lined. Aeryn took a little comfort in his eyes, however, that were a radiant emerald green, sparkling in the torchlight. She realised with surprise that she did not fear this man.
Water was brought to them in small metal cups crudely forged, but Aeryn did not complain. The water was cool and purer than she had drunk for a long time. She tried to savour it, but her thirst was strong so she drank quickly and greedily.
“We are sorry for the hardship you experienced on your journey. It is a tough road,” said the man, “There was good reason for it though, which you will come to understand. But you should know you have nothing to fear here, so long as you agree to our customs.”
No one responded. It seemed like an obvious statement – of course, you never had to fear someone if you were their friend. The problem was that not many people were that agreeable.
“I will not provide answers now. There are more important matters at hand. There is food, there is more water and there are blankets enough for all. Please take what you need, but don’t be greedy. Every one of you is equal here.”
The man left, and food arrived. Aeryn was handed a bundle of cold meat and poorly cooked vegetables. To a high man it would have been an insult of a meal, but for Aeryn it was close to a banquet. At the same time a blanket was thrown to her. She draped it round her shoulders and tucked into the food.
Her mind was ridden with questions and suspicion, but survival took over. So what if the food and water was poison? If she refused it she would die anyway. Sometimes one had to take chances, even in situations where nothing made sense.
She drifted into slumber not long afterwards; her stomach satisfied and her body comfortable and warm. But she could not suppress the nagging feeling that rang in her mind.Why are they doing this? Who are these men?
And she could not forget the fact that they had not removed the chains.