I didn't sleep well that night. The earth was unsettled, the murmur of a distant mountain stirring made the ground tremble, the wind whispered to me through the spaces between my wooden roof. The hounds were beckoning the morning, howling at the stars, their calls silenced by the guttural cries of the beasts beyond the glade. This night was not unlike another, one might call it peaceful considering the absence of human cries that once echoed through the land as the savage tribes were feasted upon by beasts, or when the sick in the infirmary began to drown in their own blood as the plague struck them dead. The unrest lay within my mind, perhaps even my soul, as thoughts of freedom and plans for escape circled my mind, forcing me to resist sleep as they began to form the ghost of a successful escape. The dawn broke free of the mauve mist we call night just as the fowl in the yard began to squawk and bicker for their morning feed.
My lack of guardians and subsequent lack of regard from respectable working folk had given me very few places to stay when the orphanage threw me into the dirt and ordered me to join the ranks of the other builders. Maybe if I'd listened to my elders, a trait I'm yet to assimilate, I might be living in a stone walled home with my allocated spouse, nursing a child as I break my back heaving bags of grain to the ovens. Hardly the life I desired and yet it was the most comfort a person like me could have in this world. A scrap. That's what they call people like me. Spare parts with no value to anyone.
Alas, here I am. Pulling on the worn black tunic I stole from the elders store, tying the laces on the boots I scavenged from a dead woman in the borders glades, smiling as I fasten the belt I requested Phoenix fetch me in return for me taking his place on a hunt. Devious as I may be, this collection of stolen goods kept me alive out there on a hunt or on guard. The council refused to give scraps like me the beast skin vests or tough leather boots, instead bestowing them to their sons or their peers. Without the grip of my boots, I'd have been too slow outrunning the hound that tore my last hunting party apart. Without this belt, I'd be forced to abandon my knife and carry scavenged supplies in my hands, becoming a greater target than I ought to be. The tunic kept me warm, as did the faded grey trousers I'd bartered for three years ago. They were painfully tight, torn at the knees, and a whole hand span above my ankles, but there was no other option.
"Anya! Feed the fowl before they gibbock!"
The voice startled me, forcing me to step outside, a handful of wildflower seeds cupped in my hands. Sure enough, there she was, Lila Trap, the woman who had given me the hut in exchange for my dedicated input into the care of her damned fowl.
"Hustle, girl, you want them to gibbock! Do ya!"
I rolled my eyes and bit my lip, forcing myself to resist retorting to her orders. She was a short fat woman, with good clothes and a good amount of influence due to her supply of fowl meat to the citadel. Her husband was killed on a hunt, her debt to me stemming from my joining the expedition to return his body.
"See there! Stop Henry before he gibbock the rest!"
Hurrying over to the small rickety fenced pen, I swung my leg over the gate and glared at the fat fowl she had named 'Henry,' his beak striking the back of a smaller female fowl, drawing blood as he began to gibbock. I should mention that awful word explains the tendency of wild fowl to peck another fowl to death if it can't find the vegetation it needs. Glancing over to Lila, who was busy devouring a plump peach while watching the neighboring family slaughter a boar, I decided to minimize my personal injury risk and kicked the fat fowl, forcing him to pull its beak out of the bloodied incision.
It began to squawk at me, ruining off as I hissed at it. I wasn't a farmer but I did have a way of scaring these spoilt monsters into submission. The rest watched, feeding when I threw the seeds at the ground, the smallest of the female rubbing affectionately against my leg as she passed.
"Girl! Get out of there! Don't get your scrap filth on them!"
I bit my lip so hard I drew blood, ignoring her bloated face as I jumped over her fence and jogged down to the military barracks, weaving through the piles of dung and timber that made up the agricultural corner of our compound. There was a gate, just past the third pen, a cluster of black billed ducks quaking at me as I passed their coop and climbed the gate. I hated ducks, at least, the ducks they kept here for meat. To stop them flying away, their keepers break the bones in their wings when their young, usualy amputating the wings of those ducks old enough to have bones mature enough to heal. The thought of a creature, so free and untamed, having its body crippled so as to be forced into servitude without any means of altering the fate awaiting them in the ovens. I could relate.
Following the crudely made stone path to the citadel, I pulled my hood up, entering into the crowded pathway through the crowds of workers and elders, my hands retrieving a rather bruised yet adequately ripe apple from the hand of a stern looking council inspector. Gruel supplied by the council was provided by the ration hall, but I avoided that place. The gruel was meager and the brawls amongst those fighting for food often left most people in the infirmary or in the graveyard. I glanced up, the sky was turning blood red already, my shift would start in seconds, a sharp pain bringing my eyes back to the ground as my knee struck the edge of a crudely made cart being pulled by a man whose face bore the wounds of a penalty beating. The cart was loaded with timber and stone, the heavy goods usually carried by three men, and a guard walking by his side, my heart murmuring with a wave of sympathy as I saw the pain in man’s clouded grey eyes. I’d have slipped him my apple, but the guard was present and I didn’t need to be in any more trouble with the guards. My route through the town was a daily punishment I loathed. The looks I received, the whispers passed about “that uncouth stealing scrap” left me unaffected. I've carried the scorn of others since I was a child; my mind no longer regarded anyone else but myself.
That said, I couldn’t help but walk a little slower past the seamstresses stall. To summarize a lifetime of rivalry, i will merely say the current seamstress was once the girl who would spit in my gruel and pull my hair out in the street. When I joined the guard and escaped a life of wifely duties, she attempted to pour acid stolen from the council into my eyes as I guarded the wall. In the end, she missed, the acid burning my forearm, though I still found the strength to remove her tongue with my knife. My first and only act of violence towards a fellow citadel dweller. Now, when I pass her, I hope she might have learnt to keep away from me, but here she is, still glaring, still full of hatred.
“Anya!” My name was called out by a feeble yet sweet voice, my eyes following the juvenile call until I saw her, Solana, a child of the orphanage who id caught twice trying to climb the wall, the last attempt costing her her legs. There she sat, on a rocking chair just underneath the shelter of the sloping roof of the orphan house. I waved, her childish glee of having her call return giving me reason to laugh as I took a sharp turn right, slipping into the alleyway between a hut house and the infirmary, trying to block out the muffled cries of the sick and injured. The recollections of too many deaths and grievously gory wounds out on those hunts making me shiver. I heard someone scream, the distinct grinding of metal upon bone making me run as I pictured the rusted saws of our surgeons shuddering as they attempt to sever through the bone… No, run, don’t imagine what you’ve seen in the glade.
Swallowing most of my bitter apple, I darted over the spare bed and tables that obscured my path, cutting the corner where the alley joined the street, almost slipping in the soft ground beneath me as I noticed a tall, looming figure emerging from the Barracks. The Warden. Stumbling back, I hid in the shadow of the alley, staring out in alarm. The Warden, a man whose head towered above all, whose left eye was clawed out by a beast, replaced by an empty piece of red glass. His heart was nonexistent, replaced by a dull void that served his dark soul. He was the commander of the guard, a council member, a demon. It was on his command that my father was sent out alone to hunt a beast, his way of issuing a death penalty. He beat the former orphan minder, the sweet natured Renee, till her head concaved and the floor of our playroom was stained red with blood. Since I joined the guard, his visits were few and far between. This time, something was wrong. His crooked smile warned of a dark new development. As if by some unseen force from above, he moved away from the barracks, making his way back toward the citadel, my body unfreezing only when he was out of sight.
Sprinting across the road, bursting in, about to head toward my locker when I saw a figure standing in the center of the room. There was Phoenix, unaware of my presence for the first time in forever, holding a wooden tablet upon which I recognized council orders. Curiosity overcame my reluctance to communicate with him, my eyes resting on his fear etched face.
“What’s got you so pale? Found out your father actually is half hog?"
It was cruel, but he seemed to awaken from his horrified stupor, staring down at me in a way that unsettled me. I half wished for his former cocky attempts to impress me, but there was a nervous edge to him that seemed to make the world grow silent. His mouth moved to talk but no words emerged, till he finally managed to find his voice, “The… The warden wants… my first hunt. Today. He wants me out there.”
“Finally. About time you get out there. Do feel completely welcome to never come back.”
“He wants you aswell. It's not to scavenge...we… to find… he wants us to kill the beast in the bog.”
Fear. It’s a strange sensation with multifarious effects on each individual it casts itself upon. At that moment, I was no longer there, in the barracks, independent and strong. My heart and soul were transported into some netherealm of childish weakness, my fear forging a fathomless darkness that engulfed my vision and left me stripped of everything. I could hear him, my father, screaming as the beast tore the flesh from his bones. The darkness became the bog, thick waves of tar filing my lungs, a clawed paw pulling me down, down, down…
My chance to escape was here, and I was unprepared and afraid.
"Get ready, won't be long before we... Were out there," he gave me a sad smile and moved away, my mind racing with poorly made plans and quick assessments of the land we would cover. The bog was not far yet the path was hazardous. Too much foliage to trip on, the undergrowth was thick, I'd have to....
I was pushed aside by Darrox, who was heading toward the doorway, already dressed, cracking walnuts in his palm. Usually I might have struck him and evaded his retaliatory lunges but my eyes focused on the individuals in the room. I had to analyse my group.
Darrox was the only other council child appointed for the hunt party. His body was unnaturally enlarged, with muscles tearing through his clothing, his arms alone the size of my waist. The warden had him aid in the construction of the citadel pillars, the weight of the great timber columns aiding in his evolution as a beast among men. I despised him. He thought himself above us all, brawling with workers for fun, venturing so far as to forcing himself upon a young scrap girl who he had punished for indeceny. She was left outside the wall by night and vanished into the Forrest. A hunting party found her bloodied clothes by a scavenger campfire, her body providing sustenance for the cannibals.... Stop. I had to clear my mind. So far, Darrox was a threat to my escape.
The other two boys who joined us were scrap boys. Twell, the sickly pale boy who bruised easier than an overripe peach, was barely past his eighteenth birthday, and had trouble walking long distances, let alone running. He was timid, too timid to chase me down, let alone make it out the wall without vomiting what little food resided in his stomach. His grave should be prepared before we leave, I thought, observing his struggle to lift the wooden club he was handed. The other boy, Ven, was a stronger guard, an old friend of mine who was as much a stranger to me as my own father. His tongue had been severed, his soul seemingly lost to an emptiness that scared me, but he was still strong enough to fight off a wolf or two.
This party would not be the easiest to escape from, but this might be my only chance. My window of escape was being barricaded as we spoke and the wardens visit deterred me from returning to this damn place. Twell and Ven would be easy enough to outsmart and outrun. Ven might even let me go, if he was still in any way the boy he was long ago. Dax would enjoy any reason to constrict the life from me, he's threatened to do it many times before, but he is slow, muscle is a burden to carry, and his left foot still hasn't recovered from the wolf bite he incurred seven moons ago.
Phoenix. He was as fast as he was strong. As conniving as I might be, his eyes would not stray far and he would not let me run away. I needed an advantage. I felt a resentful hatred toward him, knowing too well who he would hinder my efforts to flee. I'd fight him if I had to, stab his leg and hope he stays down long enough. I couldn't kill him, in case I was ever found. Kill a council boy and it's shoot on sight, but if I was caught running away they'd have to take me back for trial. I had a better chance escaping the prison than I did dodging bullets from eight guards sent to kill the girl who murdered the future Warden. It was risky, an escape now was dangerous, especially considering I'd barely slept or eaten, up against boys who had been given better weapons, armour, food, rest...
"We move out at high down!"
Darrox's energised yell made me look up suddenly, catching sight of his bulky figure pushing Twell into the locker, making him cry out in pain. I hope I might have Dax chase me. I'd give anything for a chance to cut him down to size. literally.
Twell came over to me, rubbing his shoulder as he scowled over at Dax, glancing at me nervously "High down. That's a little too soon."
I shrugged, opening my locker. It was so empty. They didn't bother giving me weapons. When your disposable, the guard tend to overlook your safety. All I had left was a blunt dagger still stained with wolf blood, a bag of leather clothes we are given for training exercises only, and a hidden stash of seeds in a small pouch. I'd been stealing some of the fowl feed each morning. The seeds were gritty and husks were tough,but they were a good source of energy to keep me going till I found some type of animal to eat.
We were leaving at high down. The only time of day in which the sun was weakest. Darkness would come the moment we reached the bog. I wouldn't make it to the bog. My freedom awaited me, but, like all things in this world, the darkness crept into my heart and warned of my how close I was to the end.The darkness was coming, and I was running to meet it with a group of weaklings and a knife barely strong enough to penetrate a human body.
Darkness. Darkness overcoming the hope.