“Chains and Snow”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Nathanius wrestled with his restraints, hands tied and shackled to the wall by the ankle, but it was no use.
He did his best not to get frustrated. Anger wouldn’t do him any good. He’d seen plenty of angry people roll away in Poole’s wagons. He needed a plan. He needed to think.
He yanked the ropes again.
He needed to get his hands free!
He twisted his wrists back and forth. He’d never been a particularly strong man. There was no way he was going to break the rope, but maybe if he could loosen the knots he coul—
He heard a chuckle across the room.
Nathanius gritted his teeth. It didn’t help that what’s-his-name they’d picked up on the beach was sitting across from him, a smug little grin on his oh-so-pretty face. He hadn’t said a word. He just sat there in his corner, laughing quietly as he watched him struggle, enjoying every minute.
The ropes held. He only succeeded in scratching up his wrists.
The man chuckled again.
Nathanius glared at him.
The man nodded.
Nathanius yanked again at the ropes.
“I suppose you think this is poetic justice.”
The man shrugged.
Nathanius slammed his hands against the wall. The wood rattled. He yanked again. The man smiled.
“That won’t help.”
“You’ve got a better idea?”
He leaned back against the wall and looked away, nonchalant.
This was nonsense.
“If you know a way to escape how come you haven’t used it?”
“If I tell you, will you untie me?”
Nathanius thought about it. He didn’t trust him. He didn’t trust anybody, but this man especially he didn’t trust. After all, he was still wearing the same cords he’d been tied with when he’d first arrived on the beach. Nathanius regarded him quietly, thinking.
“Why did they leave you tied up when they cut you loose?”
The man raised an eyebrow.
“When they put you in the longboat and cut you loose, why did they leave you tied up? They only do that for the most dangerous people they exile here. I’d to know what you did before I agree to set you free.”
The man leaned back and laughed.
“I led a rebellion.”
Nathanius furrowed his brow.
“You’re a revolutionary?”
“Other things too.”
“That doesn’t explain why they left you tied up. How many people did you kill?”
The man sighed.
“How? In battle?”
“Also in battle.”
“So you’re a soldier?”
“Other things too.”
Nathanius eyed him warily. The man smiled.
“You think I’m frightening?”
The man nodded.
Nathanius couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. He paused.
Who was he kidding? There was no other way.
“Alright, fine. Deal. How do we get out of here?”
The man nodded and shifted his foot, pointing with his toe.
Nathanius turned. There was a loose stone on the ground, half-buried in the dirt. It was too smooth to cut the ropes.
“Kick it, hard.”
“It’ll break clean. You can use the edge to cut.”
Nathanius turned in place and started kicking.
“I suppose you’re also a geologist.”
The man shrugged.
“Other things too. Yes, I heard you the first time.”
He gave the rock final firm kick with the heel of his boot and the rock broke away, leaving a sharp edge.
He rocked back onto his rear and stared at it.
“I’ll be damned.”
The man smiled and leaned back against the wall.
Nathanius leaned forward and began sawing the ropes back and forth across the rock. He looked over at the man now resting in the corner.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
The man shut his eyes.
Nathanius kept sawing.
“And where are you from?”
There was a long pause. Finally the man chuckled out an answer.
“Never heard of it.”
Ellyn lay awake, unmolested.
She was glad the whiskey had worked. Kurdak was asleep beside her, snoring like a water buffalo.
She leaned up. He’d chained her to a ring on the wall. Its presence was disconcerting, and made her wonder just how many other women had come this way and gone. She had to get away from here. They would come after her for sure, but maybe she could find some supplies and hide out until they assumed that she was dead.
She thought about it quietly in the dark.
And then what?
She didn’t know how to make a fire, or navigate by the stars, or any other thing that people who live in the forest and the mountains knew how to do. Still, anything would be better than going with that man, Poole, and having to endure daily what she had almost had to suffer tonight. Death would be better.
Kurdak had passed out in his clothes. Thank goodness. She crawled quietly across the bed, creeping over his sleeping form to kneel on the floor and rifle through his coat. The key was old and rusted. She took it to the ring in the wall and undid the shackle.
The chain rattled to the floor.
Ellyn whispered a curse and froze, staring at Kurdak.
She drew the curtain aside and looked out into the room. The guards were all asleep. There was a pile of coats in the corner. Ellyn took a breath.
She’d never been a burglar, but there’d been occasions when she’d had to creep from her master’s bed back to her chambers in secret. It wouldn’t have been proper to have been discovered by the lady of the house or her staff. She knew, of course, and so did they, but she’d always cared far more about propriety than fidelity. At least as long as her husband’s affairs remained private. That had, in the end, been where it all went wrong.
It sickened Ellyn that she’d passed so quickly and so precipitously from one tawdry life into another. She couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the dreams of the young girl who had learned to play the sitar on her parents’ porch. It had been she who drew the attention of the vice-counsellor after all. What had become of her?
The coats were wrapped up with leather cords around pairs of fur-lined trousers and shoes—standard fare for newly-arrived slaves. She grimaced and grabbed a bundle
She would need help, as much as she hated to admit it. There wasn’t any choice. She wasn’t a survivalist, but who could she trust? If Kurdak and Poole were any indication, women on the subcontinent were commodities. Even if they made it to some other place, they would turn on her in an instant.
The half-elf. Presumably he knew the area, and there was that other man on the boat. She couldn’t fully trust either of them, but they were basically the only people about whom she knew anything at all.
She frowned. What a pitiful way to choose.
She waited to get into her gear until she was outside, ducking around the crude house to get out of the wind while she slipped into her freshly-stolen clothes. It was freezing. In the dead of night even the last wisps of day warmth had long since faded, blown away by the wind coming in from the sea. Snow was beginning to fall, and when she looked up at the overcast sky she couldn’t see the stars.
The light of a single torch caught her attention. There was a man on top of the rock shielding the cove, keeping watch by a sputtering, windswept fire.
Ellyn kept to the shadows. Her elven eyes did not require a torch. She scanned the huts in silence, searching for anything that looked like a holding area. She spotted it on the other side of the compound. She made her way quietly around. There was plenty of darkness to cling to. She chuckled inwardly. That was her life now. That was her plan.
Clinging to shadows.
She gripped the iron key in her hands tight and prayed.
The ropes pulled apart.
Nathanius suppressed a whoop and stood up. He stepped across the hut and…fell flat on his face.
The chain had gone taught.
“Ow,” he mumbled.
Asterious leaned forward.
“Come on, get my hands.”
Nathanius righted himself and untied his new ally’s bonds.
“Now what do we do?”
Asterious hunkered back down.
“Wait? What the hell are you talking about? You said you knew how to get out of here.”
“I do. We can’t get out of the shackles though. They’re iron. That’d be silly.”
Nathanius’ face fell flat.
“So what’s your plan?”
“I told you, we wait. They don’t know our hands are untied. When they come for us we’ll have the element of surprise. We can fight.”
Nathanius was dumbfounded.
“That’s your plan?!”
Asterious tilted his head.
“You don’t think it’ll work?”
Nathanius took a deep, forced breath, a well of frustration boiling in his chest. He made himself respond in a whisper.
“Of course I don’t think it will work! They’ll have axes! What will we have?”
“Half a rock.”
Nathanius’ knuckles cracked.
“And you think that’s enough?”
“Well, I don’t.”
“You must not be very good at fighting.”
Nathanius stalked back across the hut.
“You think you can overpower half-a-dozen slavers by yourself with half a rock?”
“I’ll only have the rock at the start. After that I’ll have whatever the first guy was holding.”
Nathanius sat down, crestfallen.
This was unbelievable. They were dead. Actually, no. Asterious was dead. When the action started he would stand back and watch. He didn’t fancy being a slave, but it was better than getting butchered in the snow.
He looked up. There was someone at the door. He could see their silhouette through the cracks. He motioned to Asterious, who turned and flipped up onto his toes in a spring-like crouch.
The door opened.
Asterious started to move.
“Wait!” Nathanius whispered.
Nathanius looked up. It was the woman. She looked down at him and held up a rusty iron key. His eyes went wide. She threw a pair of bundles onto the floor. Coats.
“Come on,” she whispered. “I need your help.”
He and Asterious looked at each other and nodded, neither one daring to question. The woman moved across the room, unlocked their chains, and pulled the empty shackles through the rings to the ground.
Asterious picked one up. He wrapped a few links around his wrist and whipped the other end around in a circle. The muscles of his arm were like rock. The shackle on the end of the chain practically whistled through the air.
Nathanius got into his clothes.
“You can fight with that?”
Asterious rolled his shoulders and neck. They cracked.
“Better than half a rock. Grab the other one.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“I can’t fight with a chain.”
“They don’t know that. Just wave it around. It’ll be scary.”
Was this guy for real? Nathanius rolled his eyes and picked up the chain.
“This is ridiculous.”
Asterious got into his clothes with a smile.
They went outside.
“Let’s go,” the woman said.
She pointed at the wagon train and the trailhead beyond and started to move. Nathanius stopped her.
“Not yet. We’ll need supplies and a sled to carry them.”
She turned to him.
“Can’t you forage or something?”
“Do I look like a pioneer to you?”
She regarded him in his fur-lined clothes.
“Don’t answer that.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“They keep the supplies in a locked shed behind the longhouse. We can get in with the key you took from Kurdak.”
She looked across the camp.
They started moving.
They made it halfway to the shed before the sound. It was deep and loud and echoed around the high walls of the cove, filling the air with the hollow howl of the sea wind.
Nathanius’ heart stopped. He turned to face the beach.
“Did they see us?”
Nathanius shook his head. He knew the sound of the horns. He’d heard them before, far from the settlement.
The time had finally come.
Alarms began to sound: shouts rose up, and pots and bells clattered to rouse Misery’s ramshackle militia. There was no time left to worry about being seen. Nathanius turned to the others and shouted.
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