A fantasy tale based loosely on the Red Riding Hood mythos.
After the death of the King, his son rises to power and turns his personal guard, the Red Capes, into a force of terror in the kingdom.
Cassandra, the King's daughter, strives to bring the Prince down and repair the damage her brother has done.
But, there are wolves in the woods.
The Rider pushed her horse hard through the misty gloom of Miller’s Wood. The light of the pregnant moon and the mad, howling wind were her only company at this hour. Her horse, Starlight, breathed violently with each stride; her powerful flanks glistening with sweat. She is exhausted, but she holds fast to the reins. The letter she bears is damning evidence against the Prince. She warrants a quick glance back over her shoulder. Her only hope is to make it to the resistance camp just beyond the border. That is, before the Capes find her.
She can remember a time when the Red Capes served the King. Before the King’s wasting mind-sickness, before the unnatural evil unleashed by the Prince, the Red Capes were heroes. They were the elite warrior caste. Passionately loyal, blooded by war, but more than that, they were his most loyal friends. The few who had not been imprisoned or murdered by the Prince served him as his personal guard. There was a time when all she ever wanted was stand with them, shoulder to shoulder against whatever may come. But that time has passed. That naïve little girl is gone and now they are after her.
Bursting through the tree line, the Rider made for the river. Starlight stumbled slightly over the smooth rocks that littered the bank. Up ahead, past the long, languorous bend of river, marked the edge of the Kingdom, and the limits of even the Prince’s reach. Through the trees, she can see the fires of the Resistance camp burning in the depths of the trees and, momentarily, she allows herself to feel hope. The Rider runs her hand over her horse’s strong neck, whispering into his ear.
“Come on, Starlight. One more push and we’re clear.”
But as she leans back into the saddle, a sharp pain explodes through her shoulder. She hears an arrow whip through her hair and past her ear. Her heart pounds as torches begin to emerge from the edges of the wood. And in their light, she can see the face of the Thornn, the Princes Grand Inquisitor.
“Hya.” she clicks her tongue and spurs Starlight towards the dying fires of hope. The soldiers of Newgard are there, just on the other side of the border, but to no avail. They are under strict orders not to cross, or intervene. Doing so, she knows, would be an act of war and the Prince is far too powerful. She must cross over the river on her own. Exhausting her last morsel of strength, she spurs Starlight on. With moonblack blood dripping down her back, she rides.
But life, as she has learned, is not a just thing. As she closes on the camp, and the archers of the Resistance notching their arrows, she is cut off. The Red Capes have made it to the border before her. She has nowhere to go. She spins Starlight and wheels around, looking desperately for an opening, her sweat drenched hair plastered to her face. The rider pulls her sword, shoulder exploding in wet fire. And as the Prince’s men close in, she can feel the Prince’s icy fingers around her throat. And there at the center, is Thornn.
“Cassandra.” Thornn’s voice is deep; his tone, reproachful yet calm. She sets her jaw, face flushing in outrage.
“You speak to me sir, as if I were a child.” Starlight, circling and snorting nervously, senses the danger in the men’s eyes. It takes all of Cassandra’s will to keep Starlight from bolting.
“T’was not long now since you were. Disarm her.”
“How can you do this? How can you, of all people, betray your King in favor of his mewling whelp of a son?” Thornn removed his helmet, and ran a gloved hand through his thick silvered locks. Seeing him now, looking so very tired, she almost felt ashamed. But her just heart could not bend for her old mentor.
As the soldiers remove her sword and dagger, Thornn dismounts and wearily goes to meet her.
“Shh, shh…” He brings his hand up to Starlight’s bridle, resting it there as he did when he first taught Cassandra to ride. Tears well in the corners of her eyes; half rage, half longing. Cassandra eyes him despondently as he removes the letter from her saddlebag. On it, the seal of a blood red rose, the mark of the King himself. Borrowing a torch from one of his men, he places the letter into the fire. Its pages quickly blacken and curl, flaring with the melting wax.
Cassandra is struck from behind and fell to the ground, unconscious.
It has been four months since she was captured, by the marks on the wall. The shackles she wore have cut her countless times; the scars and scabs there formed a lace of angry red. Rising to her feet, she can see the bright toothy sliver of the moon, staring down at her like the smile of a madman. Down the hall, one of the prisoners is being hauled away again. His screams echo for a moment before ending abruptly. She makes no effort to imagine why. With an effortful will, she steels herself against her environs. She listens closely to every sound, especially those that move past her door. Footfalls have become as telling, to her, as voices or even faces. She may not know their names, but she knows whose footfalls to fear.
She is surprised, then, when her door swung open suddenly. A Red Cape. He steps forward on cat's feet, face shadowed by his deep hood. Slowly, she moves back towards the darkest corner of her cell. While she appears to cower, in truth she frantically searches for the rock she has dislodged from the wall. The selfsame rock she used to crush the skull of the last guard that gave her trouble.
“You’ll have no need of that with me, young miss.” The voice seems hauntingly familiar, but still she remains prepared to strike out. Her body taut, ready to obey.
“Of that, we shall soon see, my Lord.” She says, squeezing as much venom as she can muster into the last two words. At last, her fingers seize the rock, but before she is able to strike, the man removes his hood. She is struck dumb, and her only weapon slips out of her hand.
“Is that any way to greet an old friend," he asks.
“Nathaniel?” Tears stream out of her eyes as she throws herself into his arms.
“Shh… the guard will only be gone for a few minutes. I came as soon as I heard.”
“Oh, Nathaniel… I thought you were dead!” She clung to him with all her might, wrapping her starvation-thinned arms around his chest and grabbing his shirt, tightly. Even after all these years apart, her heart had beaten only for him. Despite the months in prison, and the years of abuse, the smell of him was the one thing that made her weak.
“I’ve been hiding out with the Resistance since the spring. I’m sorry I couldn’t get word out to you sooner. I…”
“I don’t care, as long as you’re alive.”
They stood there, in eachother’s arms, drinking one another in, for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Cassandra broke their embrace.
“But how did you get in here? How did you get past the guards? How…”
He placed a gentle finger to her lips. There he stood before her, radiating the same invisible strength and easy confidence she had seen when they were babes together, chasing each other through her father’s orchard.
“I am still a Red Cape,” he said, “they were too afraid to look me in the eye.”
She could tell how difficult it was for him, wearing that Cape, after all that it had come to mean. Just speaking the words had bruised his tongue. Her heart wept for him, then. But she had a greater purpose.
“Nathaniel,” she spoke with renewed clarity, “I must get word to the Resistance. Our King is being poisoned by that… that… BEAST!”
“They know, but they must have proof. King Lionel of Newgard has given me his solemn oath to aid the Resistance however he can, but that falls short of waging an outright war. You of all people know how threadbare the peace between our great Kingdoms is nowadays.”
“Lionel was always a friend to our King.” He took her face in his gentle hands.
“Yes… your Father was always fond of King Lionel.” And, as if vast floodgates had opened, she began to weep into Nathaniel’s chest. Her body crumpled and, if she hadn’t those strong, battle-hardened arms to hold her, she would have fallen to the floor.
It wasn’t until that moment, with Cassandra’s grief-wracked body thrust upon him, that he took notice of how she had grown. Even with the months of near-starvation, her body had retained the ampleness of young womanhood. Her mother had been a buxom woman herself and, in her youth, many rumors had circulated as to the question of her virtue. Nathaniel had known better for Cassandra, like her mother, was a deeply sensual woman, but her heart had always lain with the King.
So it was with this growing awareness, that Nathaniel’s body, quite against his wishes, responded. For a few seconds he hoped beyond hope that this awkward flaring of his desire would go unnoticed as she hung bonelessly against him. But it was at that moment that a guard walked by her door with a screaming prisoner in tow, and she had clung to him out of fright. His body tensed as her belly brushed against his growing need. Slowly, painfully, her gaze rose to meet his, and, in that moment, they both felt what it was to be a child again. For it wasn’t so long ago that, in that same orchard, they had come to know each other, fully and truly.
Cassandra looked into Nathaniel’s eyes and saw, not the soldier that he had become, but the boy she had come to love so many years ago. The boy who had made her laugh through green fields, and cry under the autumned eaves of her Father’s fruit trees. And all those years, from then till now, came crashing back to her like a storm-swollen wave. She found herself, in the most unlikely of places, falling in love with him all over again.
Just then a noise came from outside, and before she knew what was happening, Nathaniel struck her. She fell to the floor in a heap, clutching at the burning patch of skin on her face. The guard swung open the door and was astounded to see Nathaniel standing there.
“Yes?” Nathaniel said, cruelly; donning the manner of the Red Capes as he did their attire.
“Nothing, my Lord, I…” the guard stiffened as he remembered his orders, “she’s been summoned by the Prince.”
“Well then do your duty, knave, or you shall taste the back of my hand as well today.”
As the guard carried Cassandra away, Nathaniel momentarily dropped his guise long enough to slip her a knowing glance. Hold fast, it said, don’t let him break you.
And with that, Nathaniel pulled on his hood and vanished into the mad darkness of the prison catacombs.
Cassandra climbed the worn, serpentine steps through the narrow causeway towards judgment, occasionally nudged in the small of the back by the gaoler's cudgel. She looked up into the smoky darkness and her heart grew cold. The Prince’s quarters were in the South Tower, the highest point in the entire kingdom. Centuries ago, it had been a prison. An unforgiving place for heretics and traitors. The only view out the window was the small South quad. There, they would wait and watch while the gallows, their gallows, were built.
In all her adventuring around the castle when she was a girl, betwixt cavernous sculleries and rain-worn crenels, never had Cassandra set foot there. It was taken as haunted by all who knew of it. Haunted in some deep and speechless way, beyond ghosts. This place chilled the darkest depths of soul, and left marks on all it touched. Haunted then, she thought, haunted now. Before her, the ashen oak door loomed out of the dim torchlight. The grim, iron hinges and the worn rosette handle radiated an acute malice. Fear shot through her back and under her heart like ice. Outside, cloaked half in shadow, two dour looking Red Capes stood watch.
One of them was a particularly chilling character that Cassandra had come to know by rumor as Grieves. Said to be part giant, Grieves stood a full head-and-a-half taller than the rest of the Red Capes. It was whispered that he could crush a stone, or a man’s skull for that matter, in either one of his hands. Cassandra sensed her jailor's fear. His breathing and gait became short, unsure. The light of the torch fell, just slightly. She was knocked hard in the back, almost falling to the stairs if it weren't for one of the guards. In her, fear bloomed like a corpse-flower, but still she held strong. Grieves lifted his monstrous gloved hand and knocked hard on the thick oaken doors and awaited a reply. Cassandra could see dimples left in the wood when he dropped his hand.
“Enter," a calm, cold voice responded. The voice of the Prince. The voice of her brother, Voltaire.
He was working at their father's ancient ironwood desk when the guard threw Cassandra down onto the rug at his feet, biting her lip. She could see by the dancing candlelight that her brother had aged well. His face, unmarred by grief or uncertainty was as flawless and beautiful as one of her dolls. But what he lacked in lines of age, he made up for with his pallor. His skin, she could see, had taken on a sick bluish-green tinge. And whether it was the heat of the candles at his desk, or some natural malady, his skin was cast with sweat.
“Leave us.” He said with stolen authority. He looked up from his writing to see that Cassandra's gaoler had remained, unsure. He placed the worn quill back in the onyx inkwell of his desk, stood up, and walked casually towards the guard.
“Was I…" the Prince, furrowed his brow, "unclear… in what I said to you just a moment ago?"
The gaoler tensed, visibly. His feet, not sure what was happening, almost hopped beneath him. His eyes were locked on Cassandra.
"Was my elocution inexact?" the Prince said. "Why do you persist?”
The guard looked on the verge of wetting himself.
“S…s…” The guard’s lips quivered uncontrollably. This sight gave Cassandra considerable glee.
“Go on…” The Prince stood, comically hunched, eying the man.
“S…she’s… d…dangerous, sir. S...she’s already k… killed two guards.”
“DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT?!” The Prince’s voice echoed unnaturally in this cramped keep, like a caged animal looking for a way out.
The blood flew from the guard’s face as collapsed at the Prince's feet, whining. The Prince kicked him as he would a misbehaving dog and the gaoler ran out of the room. Cassandra saw her brother nod quietly to Grieves who soon followed him.
Gods be with him, she thought.
With Grieves gone, her heart leapt. The room would be left with only one guard. This was her chance, she thought. But her brother was an able foe. She would have to outwit him.
To his credit, Voltaire had been a political prodigy. While she and the other court children were off on their grand adventures across the kingdom, he would hide under the tablecloths in their father’s council chamber and listen, absorbing every word. Every intonation and implication was, to him, as fine as mulled cider. By thirteen, Voltaire held more wealth in secrets than their father had in gold.
So it came as no surprise when, at sixteen, Voltaire was named High Chancellor. For most it seemed inevitable, the result of years of hard work and accomplishment, but Cassandra knew better.
While men like Thornn and Nathaniel left real, tangible bodies in the wake of their victories, Voltaire could kill a man with a rumor. With a single, well-placed word in a trusting ear he could do more than murder. He could slit the throat of a man’s business, cast him out of his house, even turn his wife and daughters into harlots; a punishment in which he took a particular joy.
Cassandra sensed in him his dark potential. She could feel something unnatural about Voltaire, but she could never lay her finger on what exactly. It wasn’t until she woke one night and found him in her bedchamber, his vivid green eyes doing what his hands dared not, that she knew him for what he truly was.
Ever since then she had taken great pains to lock her bedchamber at night, and never, ever to be alone with him. That is… until now.
The door closed heavily, its weight seemed to strain the hinges, but they made not a sound. After they were closed completely, her brother made to pour himself a drink. Its thick, amber liquid caught the flame of the candlelight and almost held it there in the glass for him to drink. Imagining the taste and warmth of it, after so many cold and starving months, made her mouth water. Absentmindedly she ran her tongue over her lips.
This caught the Prince’s attention.
Pouring himself another, he walked slowly, cautiously towards his sister. Cassandra got to her knees as best she could, wrapping her hands around the chain behind her back.
“Ah, ah, ah… I won’t make it that easy for you to dispatch me, my sister.” He placed the expertly cut glass onto the floor between them, and then moved away to sit in a large wing-back chair near the bottle.
She knew this game. But her pride has waged a losing battle against her hunger and her need for oblivion, and soon she found herself crawling, on her knees, to the glass. She doesn’t look at the Prince, she doesn’t need to. She can sense, by the hairs on the back of her neck, that he’s smiling.
She empties the glass in one gulp, and then sighs. It is her father’s favorite brand.
Cassandra breaths deeply of its heady bouquet and, in seconds, the room is waltzing gently around her head. She feels the familiar rush of warmth suffuse her skin. The drink makes its long, ambling journey through her body until finally the last warm, golden embers settle into her loins. This last destination, combined with her long period of starvation, provoke a dark, queasy, but not entirely unpleasant, sensation in her.
She hears her brother rocking the bottle back and forth in front of him, calling to her as he would a faithful hound. His eyebrow cocked enticingly.
Cassandra is repulsed, but the prospect of having more is irresistible. But more what? More oblivion, or more memories, she did not know Every drop, while banishing her present tortures from her mind, brought forth a thousand more; memories of her and her father, sitting in his study, going over decrees; the taste of Nathaniel in the orchard after they snuck a bottle out of the kitchen; the day her mother died. Her mind, strung so tightly these last few years, was desperate for just a taste of the way things used to be.
So Cassandra crawled. Not towards her brother, but towards the bottle. And when she arrived, Voltaire dutifully filled up her glass.
“Good girl,” he said, “that’s it. Drink it all up.” And Cassandra did… every last drop.
And, when she was done, and she had savored those last few moments with her family reunited again, she palmed the thick base of the glass, broke the rim on the floor, and thrust its razor edge towards her brother’s neck.
While her mind had been dulled by the brandy, her body had been trained to its limits as years of conditioning snap back to her instantly.
With preternatural speed, Voltaire seizes her wrist. His fingers dig into the bones of Cassandra’s wrist. The edge of the glass, just a hair’s breadth from his neck. While his face may not have changed over the years, her brother has somehow tapped into strength beyond imagining.
Cassandra’s features shift violently between desolation and rage. With his other hand, Voltaire seizes her by the neck, forcing Cassandra to his lips. Her mind rebels, but her body reacts of its own treacherous accord. She begins to feel waves of moist heat pulse through her, making her nipples harden and tender valley of her womanhood quicken with excitement. Suddenly a thought pierces her mind more painful than any arrow.
She has been drugged.
What a fool she’s been! To be outplayed so easily! She closes her eyes in shame as her brother’s potion takes effect.
Within moments he is lying on top of her, pinning down her wrists. Her mouth is filled with his hateful, probing tongue. The weight of his body presses into her, parting her legs. She wept to know that, beneath all the revulsion and his many transgressions, some tiny part of her wanted him inside her. Even if that part was under no control of hers.
Her brother’s hand roamed down her body, leaving trails of silky fire on her skin. In one powerful motion he ripped open the rough prisoner’s jerkin, exposing the well tanned flesh of her breasts. She can feel the cool air of the tower on her skin. Cassandra’s nipples tighten as she breaks out in gooseflesh.
Her brother seizes one of her ample breasts, squeezes it roughly in his hand and her mind explodes in tainted ecstasy. Cassandra begins writhing uncontrollably as her brother explores the forbidden territory of her skin. Her body watered for want of him.
Dear gods, she realized as if suddenly outside her body, she was kissing him back.
But just then, Voltaire shifted his weight. Moving as quickly as a serpent, Cassandra wrapped the chain around his neck and squeezed with all her might. Even in her drugged state, her body retained its purpose.
Within seconds her brother’s face turned scarlet. His bloodshot eyes burned into hers.
However, before she could savor this little victory, the full weight of his body dropped onto her and she could feel the throbbing, angry length of her brother’s penis against her mound. Her brain was suddenly flooded by a million conflicting voices. Her brain, as addled as it was, screamed in righteous outrage, while her body hummed and purred with sweet, intoxicating lust.
She wanted him. She wanted to kill him.
In the ecstasy of her madness, Cassandra wrapped her legs around the Prince’s waist, pressing his stiff cock into her aching clit, while her hands gripped the chain with renewed vigor and murderous intensity. Grinding her hips into her brother, she throws her head back as wave after wave of pleasure crash into her. With eyes rolled back in her head, Cassandra shivers. Every nerve in her body seems to be going off like Fair-day firecrackers. Her brother’s eyes begin to drift shut as his face slips slowly towards a violent violet.
She leans close to his ear and whispers to him.
“Is this how you imagined it?”
Just then, there is a knock at the door. They looked at each other, each sensing the possibilities that lay beyond that door. Cassandra redoubled her efforts to strangle her brother, while Voltaire searched in vain for something to attract the guard’s attention. Then, he found it: the broken glass.
With his remaining strength, he hurled the glass at the door.
Hearing the sound, Grieves burst through the door so hard he knocked one of the hinges out of the stone wall. Within moments, Cassandra felt her hands encased in Grieves’ and her brother’s color came back. Voltaire scampered away and threw himself on his bed, gulping down air.
Picking her up by the chain that bound her wrists, Grieves set Cassandra on her knees in front of the Prince’s bed.
When he finally spoke, something in his voice had changed. It was high, airy and strange. It would have been funny if not for the fact that his voice, now like the rest of him, chilled the very air around him with its alien quality.
“Lock that bitch in her hole!”
Without bothering to pick her up, Grieves dragged Cassandra back to her dungeon cell by her chain.
It was another month before she heard word from the Resistance. Nathaniel had begun turning some of the other Red Capes to their cause. She found notes slipped under her door which she hid in the cracks of her cell walls. The first was short and to the point: “don’t give up hope. Nathaniel.” But as he nurtured his fellow Red Cape’s enmity towards the Prince, the notes grew longer, and were soon followed by visits from Nathaniel himself.
Finally, just before winter, he came to her with news.
When her door opened, she clutched the rock as always, until she saw his face. As she ran to him, she saw he was grinning ear to ear. He looked deep into her eyes, so deep she felt they could betray her feelings.
“It’s tonight.” His words nearly knocked her to the ground.
“Tonight?” She asked, not willing to believe the words.
“Everything’s in place. We’ll have a horse waiting for you outside the gate to the city.”
Even though Cassandra’s belly remained empty, her heart was full in that moment. She held Nathaniel as close as she physically could and did not let go. And he didn’t stop her. The two of them were once again in a world all their own. It wasn’t until a second Red Cape entered her cell, that their moment broke.
“We must hurry. The Prince’s men are coming.” Cassandra smiled, she recognized his voice. Tristan. He and Nathaniel had been inducted into the Capes together. She remembered when her father anointed them. During the ceremony his head was bowed, as it should be, but she caught him looking at her. When their eyes met, he winked.
“Now, Nathaniel, or you will join her in prison!” Without another word, Nathaniel replaced his hood and was gone, leaving her with an inchoate sliver of faith.
That night, he prince’s men had been cruel to her, as always. After peeling the rock out of her murderous hands, they held her down and had their way with her in turns; each slobbering oaf of a man, grunting and thrusting away at her until they spewed their demented seed into her belly or her ass. They knew enough to stay away from her mouth, though. They would almost always gag before starting the night’s festivities. She would bite deep into the leather with each painful thrust, imagining what it would be like to taste their flesh, then their blood.
As they went about their business this particular night, however, Cassandra had retreated to that isolated corner of her mind. That untouchable fortress of peace and tranquility that no army could conquer, no barbarian could siege. She retreated to the orchard, and to Nathaniel. Ever since she had seen him again, after thinking for so long that he was dead, he had monopolized her mind. If she wasn’t fending off the guards, or trying to escape, she had been thinking about Nathaniel. His thick, manly body, so different from the skinny boy she knew in the orchard grass. No longer bony and unsure. The way his hands gripped her, the way his arms held her told her all she needed to know. His quiet balance of strength and sureness. Her body ached, begged, hungered to be taken by him.
The secret she would never tell the prince, nor let on an iota of to the guards, was that these visits, far from being traumatizing… were one of her only means of relief. Her body had a deep, pervasive itch whose only means of scratching was to rut. So she fought these men, even killed a few, but their fury only made them work harder for her. Their hands were Nathaniel’s. Their lips and limp cocks were his. Her body was on fire with her love for him. Tonight, she thought. Tonight my love will take me. Tonight he will fill my belly with his seed, and I will sleep easy.
Thornn walked the grounds of the palace, as he did almost every night. The men could never feel completely safe from his gaze. Even in the most remote posting, they must feel his strong hand on their shoulder. He did not do this to be cruel. In the fields of war, there was no quarter for the unprepared. But even more deadly than war, was peace. In peace, men lay down their arms and expect no more knives in the darkness. But as Thornn has learned, there are always knives in the darkness.
In these walks, Thornn's mind was always troubled. The silence of the night had a habit of opening doors he would best prefer closed. He inspected the green boys on the wall, with their perpetually open mouths and closed ears, mere boys with violent streaks. These were not soldiers. These were innboys; gullets full of ale and stew, with a quicker hand to a whore's breast than to their swords. They made him sick. They would have made Jeroll sick. To think of the men Thornn served with over the years, as he rose from a lackwit stable boy to the Commander of the King’s Eastern Fist; Micah, who could drink with the best of them, and still beat everyone to first formations the next morning; River's fork, who could disappear from full view and move silently over the thickest cover of fall leaves; and Nathaniel, young-headstrong Nathaniel. Thornn was dead sure it would be Nathaniel who would wear his mantle-cloak of command in time. Those men were all gone or buried now.
As if Jeroll was taunting him from the lands of ash, He came upon a cadre of Capes harrowing a baker-woman on way through the square. They had surrounded her, spears in hand, and were laughing spitefully. In her hurry to be on her way, she tripped. The woman's bundle of steaming bread, clutched tightly to her busom, fell across the muddy ground. They all laughed.
"Hoy, Love. Watch your feetsies, now. Don't want to get your dress all dirty."
"Oh, now. Who's baking did you drop? Luelle's? Shawndra's? Let's have a taste of that steaming loaf."
"No," she cried quietly, knowing her voice would be unheard.
"Come now, dearie. No need to be harsh. We're only here to help you." The Red Cape laughed, but Thornn watched his hand move to his belt. He knew what would come next.
"Soldiers," he spoke in an even tone. He need not raise his voice to them.
"Sir," they replied, "we were just..."
"Helping this young woman get where she needs to be, I see. You've helped enough. I can see she's more than capable of walking the rest of the way on her own, aren't you miss?"
"Y... yes, sire." The woman frantically gathered the fallen loaves from the ground and hurried away.
"Where should you be right now?"
"I'm sorry, sir. We're on patrol."
"Yes, but you were delayed by that woman."
"I don't care what you were or were not doing, what you were going to do or not do, just that you do your duty first and foremost. You know the resistance has agents here. So I ask again, where should you be?"
"Uh..." The smallest of the Red Capes gaped, "I think we should have made it to the... "
Cassandra snapped up onto the balls of her feet. It was time. She could hear the thump of fist on flesh, and the wet, halted gurgle of the quiet kill. The door of her cell swung open, smashing against the wall so hard it rattled the hinge. Two men in dark cloaks with black scarves wrapped around their faces stood in the hall. They remained silent.
"Where's Nathaniel," she asked.
The taller one put his finger to his lips and motioned for her to follow him. The eyes of the small one flitted back and forth down the corridor, ever-watchful of trouble. Cassandra knew they wouldn’t have much time. She bolted out of her cell and followed between the two men in black as they made their way, not up into the light of the square, but into one of the cells. The stones of the wall had been pushed out onto the floor and a tunnel had been dug deep into the earth. The small one pulled out a Fae light and blew into it, filling the room with its bright green glow. Halfway down the tunnel, the tall man who had been following behind them stopped, pulled out one of the supports for the tunnel and Cassandra coughed as the collapsing earth filled the tunnel with choking dust.
She did not remember how many times they turned, or how far they had come through the tunnels, but in the final turn, she began to smell the smoke. Suddenly, the small one stopped. From behind her, the tall one squeezed past her and with one strong push, they threw open the door to the tunnel. Through the hole, hay started to rain down on them. Into the gap, they pushed her. She clawed her way through the dry straw, holding her breath until she fell out onto the cold stone
floor of the Blacksmith's Shoppe. The small one followed, then after a second the tall one, coated with dirt. Cassandra felt a hand on her shoulder, as she spun, she felt Nathaniel's arms wrap around her.
"It's ok, it’s ok. It's me."
"Oh, Nathaniel!" She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed it. Nathaniel smiled his rake's smile.
"There's no time for that now, we must go."
"In a few moments, we'll hear an explosion from the square. After that, we have a twenty count. Then we move through the market district, behind the Apothecary's Shoppe, and through the sewer grate under the wall. On the other side, we've got horses coming."
Cassandra looked into his eyes, so calm and sure of themselves, and she knew that she would follow him to the ends of the earth. Nathaniel motioned towards the corner, and the other two fetched the parcel that was hidden there. Wrapped in a dark, hooded cloak was a battle worn sword, and a hunting knife. Tying them all together was a belt, with a hunter's pouch on it. Enough supplies for the savvy outlaw to survive in the wilds for five days. She threw the cloak over her shoulders, and fastened the belt tightly around her waist. To move faster, she held the sword and knife, both sheathed, in her off hand. Then the air buckled, shaking the ground.
"Now the twenty count."
They stood there, poised in the darkness, as chaos erupted outside. There were women screaming, and men yelling over each other. The sounds of running. Ten count. Then they heard the sound of men in armor pass the door and run down the street towards the explosion. Cassandra's entire body was as tight as a bow string.
"Five," Nathaniel's voice was low and even, "four... three... two... Go."
They burst through the door, turning on the balls of their feet and sprinted through the tumult. They were barely past the steaming pots of the stew shop when she ventured a look behind them. Her heart stopped. Thornn stood at the entrance to the street, face bathed in firelight.
"Raise the alarm," he roared. "The prisoner is escaping!"
"Hannar, Goth... cover our exit. We'll meet you on the other side in sixty seconds. Any longer than that and..."
"We're on our own." The two dark clad men broke off. From their belts, they pulled small pouches which they tossed down the alley. Upon striking the ground they exploded in a hail of embers and thick, black smoke. Within seconds the street was filled with choking, cloying smoke.
"But what about..." Cassandra gripped Nathaniel's cloak, pulling him to an awkward stop.
"We don't have time for that now, we must get you through that grate and to the other side of the wall. If you are recaptured, I..."
"I know." Impetuously, she kissed him. Then they ran towards the swampy earth of the sewers.