It was a beautiful May day; the sun was shining, the leaves were green, and Anna Mitchell was absolutely exhausted. As she walked along one of the longer hiking trails around The Culbuter School for Young Women, she realized that this day had all kinds of things going for it, a deep blue sky covered with puffs of clouds, a slight breeze to take the edge off the late afternoon heat. The trail was nice as well with the tall trees giving plenty of shade and small flowers growing all around the path. She’d walked it many times before. It was one of her favorites because it let her get far enough away from the main campus that she could no longer hear everyone else. For a while she could pretend she was all alone with no one around for miles.
So really, she knew she ought to be enjoying herself. But she wasn’t. She was done with it all. She should be savoring this time. It was senior year for crying out loud. Her last year at this school, last year with all her friends, and on top of that she was the resident assistant of her dormitory floor, which meant all sorts of fun, little perks like a lax curfew and cutting to the front of the dinner line.
But nine months was such a long time to be away from home. Graduation was coming up soon, and she’d finally get to go home. She didn’t think she’d be able to make it another month. Exams were coming up, and the professors were starting to pile on the reviews. Between the books, internet distractions, and over-caffeinated roommates, she’d needed a break for a while.
Normally walking the trails helped clear her mind. Just getting away from it all for a bit was usually all it took to get her back in good spirits. But not today. Today she was feeling just as mopey and sick of it all as when she’d started. Nothing interesting was happening. Just review sheet upon project upon essay, into an abysmal infinity.
She’d all but convinced herself she was never going to go back, just walk the trails and forget about all her assignments, when a man stumbled out onto the path in front of her and fell to his knees.
Anna froze, not certain what she should do. Who was he? Was he dangerous? She’d been walking for nearly half an hour. There was no one around. These woods went on for miles outside of the Culbuter campus. If he tried something, she’d have to fend for herself. Her heart started beating and she tried to remember the self-defense attacks she’d learned years ago. She’d taken a few martial arts classes over the years, but she’d never actually used any of it. It had just been a way to keep in shape without running laps.
Then he turned his head and looked at her, eyes wide and she could tell immediately: he was terrified. She made a snap decision, hoping she wouldn’t regret it.
“Are you okay?” She asked, hurrying over. He pulled away, frightened, until he realized she was trying to help. “Where did you come from?”
“Please,” He said, his voice hoarse. He had a faint English accent, and something about his voice made her long to trust him. “Is there anyone around? You’ve got to help me out of this. There’s a madman on the loose. He put these on me. I only barely got away.” He held his arms out and she saw that his wrists were bound together with some kind of strange metal bracers linked with a long chain.
She hesitated for a moment, wondering if he might be some kind of escaped criminal. But there was no prison anywhere near here. His clothes looked normal – not like an inmate’s at least. Just long dark jeans, and a green t-shirt. Both were scratched and snagged from the underbrush. His arms and face bled from numerous small scratches as well. He looked desperate. Besides that, those handcuffs didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen in a prison either. Not with that strange long chain. No, this was no psycho wandering, escaped. This was a man who needed help.
“There’s a school not too far away. If we can get back there, we can call an ambulance.” She knelt down to look at the bracers. “Is there anything I can do to get these off?”
He took her hand, and pressed something metallic into it. Two small keys. “I managed to get these away from him, but I can’t work them myself. I need someone else to do it.” He turned his wrists over, exposing a long twisting groove on the underside of each cuff. “You’ve got to move both keys at the same time through the pattern. It’s impossible to do while wearing them.”
She’d never seen keyholes like these before, but the concept seemed simple enough. She quickly took the keys and fit them into the grooves. She slid them through the pattern in sync, feeling the small clicks as she rounded corners and the keys flipped the levers. Seven turns to make on each. When she finished there was a snap, and the bracers opened. She pulled them off his wrists quickly. The skin was red and chafed beneath.
She was about to ask what she should do next, when faster than she could see, his hands whipped forward, grabbing the cuffs and snapping them closed around her arms. She pulled back in surprise, dropping the keys. She grabbed at the bracers, but they were already locked tight.
The stranger met her eyes, and a small smile crept across his face. “Thank you, darling. Those were beginning to grow uncomfortable.” He said, rubbing his wrists gently. His accent was much more pronounced now, and his voice was low and husky, not the raspy, desperate breathlessness he’d had before. He sounded calm and confident, and there was laughter in his eyes, as if he’d told a joke that only he understood. He picked up the two keys from the dirt, giving them a quick shake clean them, and closed his hand around them.
“What….” Anna stumbled to her feet, backing away. The long chain clinked as she moved. “Who are you?”
He rose slowly, and as he did he seemed to shimmer like a mirage on a hot day. He transformed right before her eyes. The torn clothes evaporated, revealing a long, dark green cloak and covered with gold trim and a few pieces of armor. A dark strap hung from the golden epaulet resting on his right shoulder. His face changed slightly, becoming longer and thinner, the cheekbones more pronounced. He towered above her, standing over six feet tall now that he was on his feet.
He ran a hand through his now-shoulder-length black hair, smoothing it back. “I thank you,” he said, chuckling softly. “You have been most helpful.”
Anna caught herself against a tree, afraid her legs were about to give out. She nearly tripped over her handcuffs’ chain as she did. She recognized him. Heaven help her, she knew exactly who this was.
“Oh my God.” She whispered.
“Yes.” He smiled. “I am.”