The Price of Freedom, Chapter 9: Liberation

Cassandra looked around her small, dismal prison. There were no ways of escape. Her legs were aching, and her wrists were raw. There was a square of pastel blue above her, a window in the ceiling with no bars. What need was there of bars, when she was chained securely to the wall?

It was the tantalising promise of unreachable freedom. She sighed, miserably. The sky was fringed with dark boughs; she knew those belonged to the pine trees of Darkroth Forest. At least she knew where she was, though she might as well be locked in a dungeon a thousand miles away.

Her gaze fixed on the floor and her eyes slid closed.

The dull life of a princess may be filled with tedium, but it was better than being stuck in a cell with little hope of rescue. She’d much rather pretend to enjoy the small talk of the nobles and ladies at the numerous balls and gatherings. She’d prefer that, even if it meant making up stories about how excited she had been in the week leading up to the event, even though she had to wear a ridiculous, frilly gown that nearly tripped her up every time she moved, even with the eating elegantly with silver cutlery and drinking out of a teacup that looked like it was about to break every time she picked it up.

And would she rather fend off the attentions of overly muscled nobles who were totally unaware of their own unattractiveness? Yes, she would, regretfully. At least in the ballroom there was no chance of being raped or beaten. The most they could do was try and force her to dance with them, which was so humiliating.

She hated the court life, the gatherings, and the aristocracy. They were so all so boring. Sure, the peasantry didn’t live the hard, oppressed life they once had under the realm’s previous king, but the nobles were still a bunch of jerks. Instead of socialising with them she’d rather be out in the countryside, exploring, adventuring. Now she had paid the price for her freedom, and she regretted it.

She was sure her father was doing something…but she had waited three days already. She could only hope this Aefion character was truthful. Please let him take me away, she begged mentally. Was this her fate, to spend her days as a source of entertainment for Tenegrin and his cronies, long after the noble had taken over the kingdom?

Thoughts of her situation rampaged through her mind, painting a picture of her home desecrated and ruled over by the cruel and heartless tyrant, Jasper Tenegrin. She saw Black Satyrs marching through the streets, looting and killing. Rooves were burning, children crying and women kneeling by their dead brothers and husbands as soldiers looked on, their faces like porcelain masks. The recent memories of being beaten and raped reared unbidden, and she felt hot tears carving channels down her face. Why did she deserve this? Why was this happening to her?

She hated this feeling of helplessness.

Her misery turned to anger. That bastard Tenegrin, he was responsible, he should be the one to suffer, not her. He deserved to suffer. His sneering visage materialized in her mind’s eye. He had spat in her face while she was being chained, telling her his life story. He had told her about how he had grown up with her mother, becoming a close and trusted friend, about the many things they had done together, roaming the hills, riding and hunting – their adventures in the borders of Lightwood Forest! In another time and place his tale would have been fascinating, entrancing, suffused in a golden light of past memories and distant yearnings. But now, it had disgusted her, made her loathe him even more.

And then he had told her of how her mother died.

A decade ago, she had passed away. Although Cassandra had been told it was a chill, brought on by the bitter and clutching claws of Isryn, Tenegrin had enlightened her. As her confidant and friend, he had often brought the queen her meals.

He had poisoned her.

A fresh burst of tears spilled from Cassandra’s eyes as she recalled how the noble had related his story, of how he had pretended to care for her mother, when all the while he was simply ensuring that she didn’t wake up. She gritted her teeth in contempt, pulling at the chains, willing them to break so she could get free. But she was helpless.

Her train of thought was broken abruptly by a sudden impact, like a giant’s footstep. With the rhythmic hammering of a blacksmith at work, a beating began upon the door. Occasionally there came a muffled curse, in a language she couldn’t understand. It sounded like Laurewyn, the melodic language of the elves.

Perhaps there was hope after all.

Finally, there was the clattering explosion of wooden shards falling to the floor like so many skittles. Allowing herself to open her eyes, she huddled back against the wall.

The man stepping through the curtain of dust was no thuggish human.

Cassandra stared, like a child goggling at a new toy. Aefion was an elf. Her gaze lingered on his lean torso before flicking up to meet his slanted eyes. They were peridot green, and twinkled with friendliness. An impending smile was fixed upon his lips. Keeping a respectful distance, he bowed his head.

‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Cassandra.’ He took a tentative step forward.

She narrowed her eyes, shrinking back further, the chains clinking slightly. He wasn’t wearing a shirt or any clothing on his torso except for a strange jerkin, and his breeches were low on his hips. His body was very accessible. She was suspicious, and rightly so. Had she not been treated as a plaything for the last two days? As much as she wanted to believe Aefion was here to free her, she couldn’t simply be so blind. Anger flared brightly inside her but it quickly subsided when she remembered Aefion’s words. She closed her eyes, baffled. How could he be here simply to take advantage of her? But she knew Tenegrin, and he was a cruel bastard.

‘Stay away from me,’ she stammered uneasily. ’Don’t…don’t touch me…’ Her voice trailed away. She waited for the hands clutching at her dress, the shuddering warmth of a sweaty male body forced against her. But she felt nothing. Slowly, secretly relieved, she opened her eyes again. Aefion had raised an eyebrow.

‘You…you want to stay here?’ His eyes were brimming with concern. ‘After what they did to you?’ His tone was soft, soothing. It was hard not to believe he was genuine.

‘Please don’t do anything to me,’ Cassandra murmured softly.

Aefion blinked once. He swept in close and reached up to her right wrist, ignoring Cassandra’s panicked movements. Placing his hands over the manacle, he closed his eyes and began to concentrate. For a moment Cassandra tried to pull away from him, regardless of her bonds. Her heartbeat calmed then, for Aefion was still.

What was he doing, she thought. Sullenly, she stared, unimpressed. Was this some sort of joke? It was then that her senses picked up a tiny trace of power. The air in the cell was getting hotter, if only a little. Nothing else was happening. She frowned, scrunching up her face like a child and glaring at the elf, willing him to tell her what he was doing.

No answers were forthcoming.

Studying the elf’s features, she found that he was quite attractive. His hair flowed down to his shoulders, tucked behind his ears except for two shorter forelocks.

Suddenly, there was a loud crack, like a sword blade breaking and the iron cuff snapped open. Cassandra’s arm flopped down and her eyes widened in disbelief.

‘You really are freeing me,’ she breathed. Then her tone changed to venomous. ‘And then what? You hustle me away to some other dungeon?’

Aefion opened his eyes to see Cassandra’s sneering face. He smiled.

‘I said I was going to get you out,’ he said slowly, lowering his arms and moving to her left side.

Cassandra breathed deeply. Inwardly she cried out in silent victory. Finally, she was going to be free, at least for a time.

Her other arm burst free and fell down by her side. Her legs were about to collapse but a firm grip encircled her waist, supporting her. Before she could protest Aefion’s eyes opened a moment later and he smiled at her.

‘You need to sit down,’ he replied, letting her sit down gradually before withdrawing, arms wide in a supplicating gesture. ‘Take some time. Your body needs rest. I’ll be over here.’ He crouched with a creak of leather, near the door.

Cassandra pushed herself backwards into the corner against a rough straw pallet. She wrapped her wasted arms around herself. ‘Thank you.’ Her words were barely audible. Her eyes closed.

As the light gradually faded, and the sky changed from blue to a dusty, slate grey, dim stars shone down and the shadows lengthened to climb up the walls like slithering, black spiders. Cassandra sagged against the pallet, breathing peacefully. Within minutes she was asleep. Aefion crept forwards and, unpacking his cloak, he flung it over her before scurrying back to the other side of the cell.

He watched over her.

‘So, let me get this straight,’ Aefion said. It was a new day. ‘Jasper Tenegrin covets the kingdom. So he hires Black Satyrs to kidnap you. Why does he need you out of the way?’

There was a long pause. Cassandra remained huddled in the corner, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped around them. Her eyes were closed but Aefion could tell she was awake.

‘Take your time,’ he said gently. ’It’s only the kingdom of Vigilance at stake.’

Cassandra’s eyes snapped open and she glared at him irritably.

‘That arrogant heap of horse dung wants my mother’s staff,’ she spat. ‘With this symbol of political power, as well as its magical properties he can easily wrest control from my father.’

‘Does Tenegrin have an army to back him up?’

‘Black Satyrs, hidden in the hills outside Vigilance. That’s why I ventured out without my bodyguard.’ Her thoughts turned to the man charged with protecting her. ‘That bumbling oaf is about as stealthy as an Andoren rhino.’

‘Are you…are you ready to move then?’

‘Should be.’ She thrust out her wrists. They were healed fully, and Aefion stared as Cassandra struggled to her feet. ’I’m Galladorian,’ she sighed, ‘I heal quickly. I don’t suppose you have any food on you?’

Aefion smiled.

The Price of Freedom, Chapter 9: Liberation

Andy Bain

Hobart, Australia

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