Envoy: A Short Story (Part II)
Beyond an extensive forestland in the bordering region, several meters underneath an escarpment lay the murky confines of an underground passage.
A week prior, two figures made their way hurriedly southwards along this passage, surrounded by pitch darkness. They moved as quietly as they could so as not to arouse the attention of the guards posted on duty that night.
Hatching such an escapade had been elaborate and daring, but neither needed convincing that the plan was worth all the risks involved. Naturally, under such conditions, there had been no way of predicting any outcomes. But in view of the tremendous odds stacked against them, they knew much speculation would only serve to complicate the plan's execution. They needed all the focus they could muster to bear on the present. Now was all they had, and all they had to do now, was hope.
Attempting to slip away undetected through the ancient vault had been hazardous enough. Trying to find their way through the foreboding passage toward the mouth of the cavern was an entirely different matter. Add that to the uncertainties that intensified with each step they took and it obvious this was going to be a long night.
Both were by now scraped and bruised from all the stumbling in the darkness, but they endured it patiently. They had already come too far to back up now. In any case, there could be no greater ordeal now for them than to land back in the hands of their captors.
Not that the shuddering thought had failed to pass through their minds even as they put into motion what they had been planning together for fortnights. Though they did not want their emotions to go there, the possibility still loomed somewhere at the back of their consciousness, like an ominous shadow following their every move.
What if something went wrong? What if they were discovered?
In the pitch darkness, even the sound of their own footsteps startled them. The younger carried with her a small bag containing whatever meager supplies they had managed to scrape together from the guards' kitchen area. They knew this would not last them both two days, but it was the much they could bring along.
Only after they had covered a distance she judged to be sufficiently safe, did the older one take out the single torch they carried with them and proceed to light it. As the flame on the torch grew to more than a mere flicker, the darkness was gradually dispelled. It was to no small relief. Their very hopes seemed to rekindle with the brightness and warmth it provided.
Despite the dank conditions, the younger one felt herself begin to breathe slowly again. For how long had she been torturing her lungs? As she wiped the perspiration from her forehead and eyes, her clammy palms betrayed the strain on her emotions. Finally, she cleared her throat and hoarsely whispered to her companion, “Gnolia, you are sure we are on the right track?”
“I am sure," came the answer. "This is the correct route.”.
“I hope nobody saw me slip through the bars of that hellish prison, or you coming to my aid.”
“Fortunately the hunting dogs had been taken back to their cages before the guards changed shifts.”
“How much farther is it to the cavern?”
“Judging from the distance we've covered so far, we'll be there within the hour. Hoping our absence is not discovered---”
“Don't even say that!” the younger one could not begin to contemplate the horrors that could befall them if they were to be recaptured.
“We also need to be certain we can overcome the challenges beyond these dungeons on our way to freedom.”
The younger sighed. “Anything is preferable to life inside this place.”
They moved on. Gniola was in the lead, pointing out the way before them while her colleague followed closely, throwing nervous glances over her shoulder constantly, fighting to contain the dreadful feeling of being followed. This was how she failed to notice the former had abruptly stopped in her tracks and almost vented a frightful cry when she bumped into her.
The younger quickly recovered her composure and stared ahead. The tunnel they were on had led them to a solid wall of granite.
“Oh no...” She lamented.
“Not exactly. Here, hold this,” whispered Gniola, handing over the torch to her colleague. She reached into her worn drawstring bag and withdrew a hatchet. With this, she proceeded to pound at one upper section of the wall. They could see that this was relatively damp and not as solid and the rest. She continued working on this part until they began to see what appeared to be the outline of a wooden frame.
Gniola laid the hatchet down and begun tugging at one end of the wooden frame with her hands. Her colleague assisted her by the use of her free hand. Soon the thing gave way to their combined efforts and they were enveloped in a cloud of dust as rock particles, pieces of wood, decaying matter and other debris fell from that section. When it all settled, they could make out a narrow opening between two rocks, just large enough for an average person to squeeze through.
Gniola retrieved her torch from other's hand, turned and lifted it into the air. From the glow of the flickering flame, the narrow shaft above them was more clearly defined. Beyond, the outline of the moon was visible.
“So how do we make it up from here?” Asked the younger, a little pensive.
Elmar was busy tending to his horses while his wife harvested at the field they had planted their crops in the last season. The sun beamed over the countryside from a cloudless sky and the summer air was warm and invigorating. It was a typical day like any other in the farm, and the only noises that could be heard were the playful barking of their dogs as they chased each other across the field, the occasional neighing of the horses, the chirping of birds and other insects as they went about their business.
Lilia dug up ripened potatoes from the ground, extracting them from shoots and placing them in her basket and repeating the task. She was mostly lost in her own thoughts. She usually was when performing her chores seeing it afforded her opportunity to process her experiences and reflect on the continuous themes of the life they shared together with her husband. Today, however, she could not seem to shake off the odd feeling of something being amiss. Her instincts were more sensitive and alert than usual, reasons for which she could not really define.
Presently, she straightened up. Reaching for a piece of cloth, she slowly wiped the perspiration forming on her brow and looked about her. The fertile field they owned and had cultivated for years stretched out before her for acres. They had managed to construct hedges around the crops to keep away the wild animals especially the wild boars and foxes. Groundhogs and moles were another matter.
The eastern and southern end of the field was bordered by clumps of tall bushes and trees which swayed to and fro in the direction of the summer wind and marked the beginning of the forestland beyond. She turned her attention to her husband who was presently preoccupied with the horses near the shelter of their wooden house. They did not have much, but they were sincerely grateful for the life they lived together and the simplicity of what they had in common.
Assuring herself that normality prevailed, she tried to shrug off the odd feeling that had insisted on clinging to her and resumed her work. She couldn't remember having doubted her feelings before and had earlier probed the core of her instincts for the source of her uneasiness, it had felt as though they were not alone. Like they were being watched.
Having completed what she was doing, she was about to proceed to the next row when her basket tipped accidentally, dropping some of the contents onto the ground. She laid it down and began to retrieve them, while inwardly scolding herself for being edgy without a reasonable cause. As soon as she finished and adjusted her position to pick up the basket, the row of trees several yards away came into her line of vision.
She stopped. Straightening up immediately, she stared at the direction of the trees.
Whatever she had glimpsed there was now gone.
Elmar had just finished tending to the last horse and was wiping his hands with a damp cloth when a loud exclamation arrested his attention. His wife was calling out his name. He turned to see her running up from the field toward him, her hand waving as she ran. Elmar deduced from her gait that something had alarmed her.
Concerned, the hunter immediately dropped the cloth and went out to meet her. As she came panting into his arms and he could see something had clearly unsettled her.
“What is it Lilia, what happened?” He probed holding her close, hoping she had not been bitten by some unsavory creature.
“There…” Lilia said pointing at the trees at the edge of the field. “A face…”
Elmar’s sharp eyes scanned the area she was pointing to. He could not see anything apart from the swaying clumps of vegetation.
“Who was it? Did they talk to you?”
“I don’t know…” Lilia responded in between pants. “By the time I looked again... it was gone... it gave me such a fright.”
“Alright. Wait in the house. It's time you took a break all the same. I’ll fetch the dogs and go check it out.”
Lilia nodded as her husband began making his way toward into the field.
“Be careful.” She called out.
Within a short time, Elmar was at the scene. He saw the basket his wife had dropped in her haste and once again scanned the surroundings for any signs of an intruder. He walked across to the trees and made his search more focused. There were hardly any signs of anyone being here. Was his wife imagining things? Had she actually seen a real person or was the summer heat taking its toll?
He was about to head back and give his opinion of her bad daydream, when his sharp eyes picked up something on the ground. He had made out what appeared to be a set of footprints. Instinctively, he dropped to one knee and examined them closely.
Yes indeed, she was right. These prints were fresh. They were impressions made by a light-footed creature. A human. Most likely female.
He hurriedly went back, picked up Lilia's basket and carried it into his shed. Once inside, he collected his hunting knife, bow and a quiver of arrows. He closed the shed and whistled for the dogs which obediently left their activities and joined their master as he set out to track in the direction of the footprints. Along the way, his conditioned senses continued to pick up more signs. The fresh trail led him westwards toward the cliffs. The person he was trailing may not have wished to be discovered, they evidently were uneducated in the art of concealing their tracks.
After a while, he paused for a moment as a new realization dawned on him. He commanded his dogs to follow closely in silence and promptly accelerated his pace.
The massive ape was gaining ground quickly and was now almost upon her. As she ran frightened and screaming, she tripped and fell, effectively closing the gap between her and the wild creature. While on the ground, she turned onto her back and was horrified at the sight of the massive beast descending upon her with its sinister eyes and bared teeth. She screamed, stretching out her arms before her, closing her eyes and turning her head aside. Inwardly she braced herself, resigned to the inevitable, hoping it would be short and quick.
The end did not come. Instead, there were new movements in the undergrowth. Noises.
The woman reopened her eyes. A new scene was unfolding. Was she dreaming? She could see two creatures which her mind later identified as well-bred hunting dogs circling around her. These were now barking ferociously at the ape, challenging it to a confrontation. The beast gave an irritated growl and turned at the diversion.
It lunged at one dog but the latter eluded the clutches just in time, while the other dog seized the opportunity to sink its fangs deep into the calf of the primate. The ape let out a mad roar and struck out viciously, but his canine assailants had already retreated from its deadly arms.
The primate's attention reverted back to the woman who was trying to pull herself away from the scene. The beast would have finished what it began had it not been for something else. Three hunting arrows sailed through the air in rapid succession and embedded deeply in its upper torso. The animal growled ferociously and though it attempted to put up a fight, was no match now for the fangs that had returned, digging into its limbs and claws that were ripping through its hide. Two more arrows brought the battle to a decisive end. The beast tottered sideways and eventually collapsed in a lifeless heap.
The woman sat up. She could make out the features of a tall hunter approaching the scene from the other side of the patch, his bow strapped across his chest and a quiver of arrows on his back.
Taking in the scene at close range, the hunter walked up to the fallen primate, placed a foot on its side and turned it over. It was clear the beast had expired. He then bent over and patted his dogs speaking to them quietly in the expressions he had trained them to understand. None of them had been harmed.
He then turned and approached the woman who was still on the grass clutching her leg with one hand. She was staring up at him. He dropped to one knee and studied her features closely. The hunter could see beyond her obvious trepidation that she was not from anywhere near here. He could also see from the condition of her clothing, now soiled and torn, that she had journeyed for some time to reach their vicinity.
"My name is Elmar. Who are you?” he asked. “Why did you run away?”
The woman did not respond but instead made an effort to get herself back onto her feet. The pressure on her ankle did not allow her to do so and she let out a cry of pain. Elmar could see the swelling in her foot and knew it was sprained.
A distant sound came to their ears and they both turned their attention skyward. A few scavenger birds, carrion-eaters, were already circling above the treetops.
He turned toward the lifeless primate. "We must leave this place. Others of its kind will be here soon."
Some time later, Lilia heard a familiar barking in the distance. She looked up from where she was busy preparing a meal to see a figure in the distance walking up toward the house. As she rose and went out from the shelter, she could see her husband carrying what appeared to be a bundle over his shoulder.
She hurried out toward him.
He saw her coming and called to her. “She’s hurt her ankle. It will need some attention.”
“Sure," she responded. "I’ll prepare the room at once.”