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Escape

Chapter Text

It was . . . Oh, I can no longer remember the exact day, after all these years. At any rate, it was just past winter when I finally escaped captivity. And that, I immediately realized, would be the easy portion of my journey.

"Naive" is not a word anyone would have applied to me in those days, but a certain lack of experience did cling to me, young as I was. I had spent days poring over my plans for how to trick my way out of captivity. So much time had I spent on my machinations, in fact, that not until I had succeeded did it occur to me that I had no directions to my refuge, nor any means by which to reach that destination.

I found myself upon a night-dark street outside the high, black-stoned walls that surrounded my former prison. I stood under a street-lamp, which blinded me at first to the rest of my surroundings. I tried looking up, to see whether the moon or stars would tell me the direction; I did at least know that I had to head south. But the moon was down, and any stars were too faint under the flickering lamp.

I heard a step and whirled, my hand automatically moving to my blade, before I recalled that I had brought no weapon with me. No belongings at all, other than my clothes, stolen from a newly arrived prisoner.

And one other belonging, which I'd shoved into the inner pocket of my thin jacket.

What was approaching me was not one of the guards, nor even my master. It was an elderly gentleman, out for a midnight stroll, his cane tucked under his arm in a sprightly fashion.

His eye fell upon me. In a not unkindly manner, he asked, "Lost?"

I hesitated, worrying that the guards who would inevitably hunt me would learn of a boy who had been asking directions in this place. But at that moment, my vision cleared enough for me to see my surroundings. I heard myself exclaim, "What happened here?"

He raised his eyebrows, apparently surprised to be asked such a question by a boy in the middle of the night. But he answered readily enough, "Raiding expedition. They burned the town."

I vaguely remembered hearing shouts and screams outside, a week before, but I had paid no mind to it, being absorbed in my plans. I looked again at what lay around me: the blackened remains of houses, all roofless, some with barely a foundation left. Only the prison I had left behind remained untouched.

A shiver journeyed through me. In an attempt to cover that, I said, "We're mighty far from their nation, master."

"Not so far as that." The gentleman took on a prim tone. "Twenty miles to the no-man's-land both they and we claim. From there, forty miles to their border proper."

I might have thought him sent by the gods to deliver this information to me, if I had not known that my recent treachery had doubtless caused my god to turn against me. Uncomfortable thoughts, best left aside. I said, "Is their palace close to the border? We could burn it, as revenge for this." I gestured toward the ruins around me.

It was the wrong remark; the gentleman's lips thinned. "Revenge is best left to the gods. Now, if you will excuse me . . ."

I stepped into his path, desperate. "I just need directions, master. That's all, and I'll let you go. I came to visit my family – my uncle's family. He said he lived near the train station, but I've gotten myself all lost."

"Hmm." The gentleman looked me up and down. "I could take you there myself, I suppose."

Something about the way he was looking me up and down made me decide this was the time to part. The last thing I wanted was to be dragged behind a bush, my naked corpse to be found when the guards discovered I was missing. I said quickly, "Never you mind, master. I see my uncle up ahead. —Hoi!" Waving wildly at my non-existent uncle, I darted past the gentleman. When I glanced over my shoulder after I'd run a bit, I found that the gentleman had lost interest in me and was continuing his walk.

I slowed down. I'd chosen my route as the best means to escape the gentleman; the road was taking me further away from the prison, but in what direction I did not know. I could see no stars in the sky; the night must be overcast. Since I did not know where to go, I continued in the direction I was going. Eventually, I reached light and sound and people.

A saloon. I didn't need to see the sign over the doorway to know what the building was; three men were staggering out of its doorway as I arrived. One of them, clutching at the arms of the others, said, "Let's see theatuh— Theatuh— Play. Let's watch the actors. Good and bawdy, they are."

"Fool." The man next to him, though no steadier upon his feet, appeared to have retained more sense. "They're holding the rites tonight. Prayers for the dead. It had to be done in the theater; none of the temples are big enough for all the townsfolk to attend."

"Actors will be there." The first man seemed in the mood to argue. "Always are. They speak the words of Mercy and Hell."

The third man hissed, as well he might, hearing the name of the High Master of hell spoken aloud. "Watch your tongue. I'm not going to spend an eternity being tortured by the High Master, just because you can't hold your drink. Anyway, you don't want to go to the theater now. You'd vomit all over the ancient floor tiles depicting Mercy and Hell coupling. We're lucky enough to still have a theater, after the raid."

I yawned from where I stood, peering round the corner of the saloon at them. I'd heard all about those tiles from my master, and about the marvellous acoustics of the theater, and the beautiful backstage . . . My master had gone on about it for an hour or more. I liked a good play as much as any other boy of my nation, but I'd been bursting with impatience to leave my master's presence, so that I could put my plans for escape into motion.

"Not enough bawdiness, anyway," concluded the second man. "We'll go to the theater on a day when there's a comedy about the gods. Tonight, let's go visit the whores."

This was my cue, or ought to have been, but caution made me shrink further back into the shadows till the men were past. I bit my lip, wondering whether I should go into the saloon itself. But even I had enough experience not to go into a place where dozens of drunken men might lay their hands on me. By the time they gave me over to the guards, I'd likely be grateful to be returned to captivity.

Instead, I followed an old trick of mine: I grew very still as I listened to what lay around me.

It wasn't easy, when what lay right next to me was a noisy saloon. But gradually, I began to hear what else dwelt in the grey night: A hooting owl. The swish of wind in nearby trees. Wheels.

My heart pounded. Slipping my way round the saloon, in such a fashion that I remained untouched by the light spilling from its door and windows, I followed the sound of wheels over tracks.

The clacking brought me, before long, to a bewildering maze of railroad tracks going in different directions. There was a freight house nearby, where a train was being loaded. I looked at the train carefully. I'd never ridden the rails, myself, but I'd heard about it often enough from others who had done it. If the train was going where I needed to go . . . But how could I be sure?

One of the men loading a box car slid the door shut with a slam. The door sprang open a bit, the latch not quite catching. Dimly across the side of the car, I could see a single word: "POTOMAC."

The train had not quite begun to make speed before I swung myself into the car.

o—o—o

If I had to do the journey again, I wouldn't be such a fool as I was back then. A map was what I needed, and a map would have told me that the only way to get from where I was to where I wanted, without interruption, was by water. It would have been a long journey, not without its own hazards. But a boat would have provided me with a place to sleep, and the water would have provided me with fish to eat.

By the time the rocking car reached the Potomac River, I was thoroughly famished. I set aside all thoughts of my growing hunger, though, in favor of sliding open the door to look at the night-darkened water that the train was passing.

That it was the Potomac River, I did not doubt. It was too wide to be anything else. The track had turned, and the train was now moving parallel to the water, which meant we were going— I poked my head out of the gap to check the newly risen moon. We were headed west, racing at full speed.

Feeling uneasy now, I ran to the other side of the car and looked through a crack there, wondering whether we would stop at a station. All I saw, against the newly visible stars, was a mountain, towering high above me. I raced back to the open door, nearly losing my footing in the process, which would have caused me to tumble from the train and fall down the cliff to drown in the Potomac's dark waters. I couldn't swim.

But at the last moment, I managed to save myself. Clinging to the door, I bent the top half of my body out the opening, feeling smoky air buffet me; the locomotive poured out more steam as it began to climb higher. A bridge was approaching, one that would take me over the water. I was coughing from the engine's soot, yet I felt my spirits soar as high as a bird circling the water for prey. I was that close. Once over the water, I'd be free from the guards' pursuit. No doubt I'd have to go a little further to reach my destination, but I'd have escaped from the nation of my captivity. I would not be returned to my master.

Amidst my exultation, I felt a queer uncertainty clutch my throat.

The locomotive tromboned a long toot as it approached the bridge, as though it were greeting my new homeland. A sign, dimly lit by moonlight arched over the far end of the bridge – perhaps a greeting to visitors. I strained my eyes to see the words of welcome.

Then I saw the words, and it was as though I'd been kicked in my baubles.

"Harpers Ferry." The train wasn't taking me from the no-man's-land to the Queendom of Yclau. It was taking me back into the Kingdom of Vovim, where renewed captivity awaited me.