Here it is! The moment you’ve all been waiting for!!! …At least, I assume so…I can’t remember what happens in this chapter. O_O
The Cage Released
The smoke in the cabin seemed to bore into my lungs. I could not stop coughing. Netya lay beside Thalon, eyes closed and face white. I envied their unconsciousness. As the flames crept closer under the burning table, I opened the cask of water with shaking hands, pouring it all on the floor around us, putting out the sparks that had fallen in our haven and soaking the boards. Outside, the sounds of a desperate fight filtered in the darkness of the night. Through the small gaps in the walls, I saw the black-cloaked men, like demons from the furthest reaches of hell in the wavering orange light from the inferno where we lay. They shouted, swords draw and bowstrings singing. They slipped arrow after arrow from their quivers, nocking them with lightning speed and sending them humming in a wickedly sharp cloud. I could not see who they fought, and could only hope against hope that it was someone who could save us.
The noises of the battle went on for what seemed like hours, although it must only have been barely a minute. I saw Pethnor’s men fall back, and at a loud cry from one who seemed to be the leader, they turned and melted into the woods, leaving their dead and wounded where they had fallen. The sounds outside the cabin ceased, drowned by the hissing flames. Suddenly, amid the burning heat that blistered my skin, an icy chill ran down my back. Whoever it was outside did not know we were here, and would not think or care to look.
From the outside, I knew what our situation must look like. A gathering of Pethnor’s men, clustering around a flaming building that was already nearly burned to the ground. Who knows what these strange new-come men would do after routing Pethnor’s people. They would not know the reason that the cabin had been torched, but even if they wondered, it would appear too late to do anything about it. And each second that passed, the table that sheltered us grew weaker under the burning strain of the hot coals that rested upon it from the roof. I could see the dark stain of charred wood spreading across the tabletop from underneath. If no one came to help us, it would be too late in moments.
Gathering my last vestiges of strength, I pushed myself carefully into a more upright position. I opened my mouth to call out, but the smoke and floating ash in the air burned my throat, and I could not speak for coughing. I heard a raised voice outside, shouting for order, and I knew if I did not call out now, if I could not make them hear, they would be gone. I pressed my face into the fabric of my dress, taking a deep breath through its screen. Then, raising my head, I called out.
My voice sounded weak and strained in my ears. It could not have been loud enough to be heard above the crackling, dancing flames. Exhausted, I sank back to the ground, my lungs too tired to cough any more. I let my head fall back beside Netya and Thalon, and looked up. The burning table was beginning to crack, and hot ashes fell onto my face and hair. I closed my eyes.
Suddenly, a sound caused me to open my eyes again and sit up slowly. As if in a dream, I saw the door of the cabin collapse, falling inward in a shower of blowing ash and sparks. Framed in the flame of the doorway stood a man. An unsheathed sword was in his hand, the edges glowing red. He turned his face towards me slowly. My sight was hazy, and the thick ash and smoke in the air made it impossible for me to make out his features. I watched him as he stepped over the pile of burning rubble from the door. He seemed to move in slow motion, coming towards me through the flames. The edges of my dress were burning, and the cloak that was still fastened around Netya’s shoulders was smoldering. I kept my eyes fastened to his face, as though grasping a lifeline through the haze.
He lashed out with his sword, knocking the charred thatch from the collapsed roof away from one side of the table. Reaching down, he grabbed Netya’s arm with a grip like steel, firm and unbreakable, yet gentle. Pulling her unconscious body from under the table, he carried her to the open doorway, laying her quickly on the scorched grass away from the flames and turning back to the cabin. The flames crept closer beneath the table as he next pulled Thalon from the wreckage, sparing him barely a glance as he laid him down beside Netya outside. Then he came back for me.
As he reached under the table to pull me out, the top split completely down the middle, sending a rain of burning coals falling towards my face. I ducked involuntarily, but rather than the blistering heat I expected, I felt the man’s grip on my shoulders as he pulled me roughly out. The coals fell on my dress, hissing. Pulling me up, the man took me in his arms, carrying me as he had Netya and Thalon. He laid me quickly on the ground outside, beating the flames from my skirt. Looking around slowly, my eyes still hazy with shock, I could see more men standing nearby, running in slow motion to help our rescuer. One of them reached down and took Netya in his arms, looking into her face in concern. Another bent to take up Thalon, but stood up again when he realized the extent of Thalon’s unconsciousness. Turning to the one who had pulled us from the burning house, he spoke. I could not hear what he said. Everything around me seemed to be filled with the roaring of the flames, and I could hear nothing, even when the man beside me turned and spoke to me. I stared back at him, trying to make out his features, but I could not.
The man who had spoken to me seemed to realize I did not understand, and turned away, motioning to the man who had addressed him. The second man nodded, and bent to pick Thalon up. All of the men around us were mounted, and the man with Thalon handed him up to another who sat on a large warhorse. I watched as Netya was handed up to another, and settled before the man in his saddle. As someone else reached down to pick me up, I shrank back against the one who had pulled us from the cabin. He spoke a word to the other man, who nodded and turned away, and pulling me up, he set me in the saddle of a horse that stood as yet without a rider. Mounting behind me, he wrapped his arms around me to keep me steady, and taking the reins in one hand, pulled a horn from a strap on the saddle and blew a blast, loud and clear and long. The men spurred their horses forward, and thundered as a solid mass out of the small clearing, with my rescuer at the head. The underbrush whipped past our feet, and the man behind me shielded me from the braches that rushed past my face. A cavalcade of rushing, glittering wind in the darkness, we passed through the woods. The moon, thin and dull, gave off no light. Some of the men had lit torches in the flaming remains of the cabin, and these provided the only light as we rode. Their flickering light, blown back in the wind, frightened me. I cowered rigidly against the man behind me.
It seemed we rode for miles, far through the woods. When we finally came to a halt, I had nearly succumbed to my exhaustion and was too stiff to move. I was handed down from the horse to another man. We were in another glade of the forest, much larger than the one where the cabin had stood. In the center, a large bonfire glowed comfortingly, the flames kind and welcoming, not at all like the cruel torrent that had devoured the cottage. Too tired to resist, I let myself be carried to the fireside and set down on a blanket. Netya and Thalon were soon laid beside me. The men spoke hurriedly with one another, and one of them ran off. He returned in a moment with a tall green-clad man who I had not seen before. This man knelt beside Thalon and Netya, examining them carefully. When he looked up and spoke to our rescuer, I found my shock was dissipating and I could hear his voice. He spoke quietly, and I strained to make out the cadences of his words. I did not hear all that was said, but caught enough to realize that the green-clad stranger knew something of healing, and that Thalon was indeed as sick as Netya and I had thought.
The green-clad man stood up, and another man helped him lift Thalon gently. They carried him away from the fire and I lost sight of them through the crowd of men. I tried to stand and follow, but fell back to the blanket, unable to get up. Our rescuer quickly knelt by my side, pushing me back until I stopped struggling to rise. Then he spoke quietly. “Alright, miss. Alright. It’s alright. They’ve taken your friend away to help him. He’s very sick.” The man’s voice was warm and kind, full of concern like his face. His eyes, blue as the autumn sky, searched my face questioningly.
I spoke falteringly, my voice hoarse and torn. “Y-yes. Thalon. The…arrow. So afraid–” I broke off, falling back into a fit of coughing, the smoke from the fiery cabin still burning in my chest.
“Hey…don’t try to talk. It’s alright, miss. We’ll look after him. His name…you said Thalon?” he asked, his eyes registering surprise.
I nodded. He got up swiftly and spoke quietly to a man nearby, who gave a sharp intake of breath and turned, walking hurriedly in the direction the others had carried Thalon. Then, kneeling back by my side, our rescuer looked to Netya. He raised her gently up, calling for water. Someone brought a leather water skin, and he bathed her face with it, washing away the grime of ash and smoke. She moaned, and her eyes flickered open. She gasped and screamed when she saw the man bending over her, and struggled to run. I reached out, grabbing her wrist. When she felt my touch, Netya turned frightened eyes towards me. I tried to smile, squeezing her wrist gently. Reassured, she sank back in the man’s arms, her eyes closing again. He set her gently back down, satisfied that she was alright, and turned back to me, offering the water skin. I tried to take it from him, but my arms would not move. He smiled, laughing sympathetically at my attempts, and held the water skin for me, tilting it back. I drank, the cool water easing the burning in my throat. Sinking back against the blanket, I laid my head beside Netya’s and smiled weakly at the man who had saved our lives.
He smiled back, and pulled a second blanket up over us. “Don’t worry, miss. Your friends will be alright. You’ll be alright.”
I nodded slowly as my eyes closed and everything disappeared into the dream world of sleep.