“A week,” he thought. “Only a week to get to port before the ship leaves.” Hurrying to throw some supplies together, Alex Landon looked around the room he’d rented for the past year. He wanted to make sure he didn’t leave behind something he’d need later. Satisfied that he’d grabbed everything that he could, Alex sat on the end of the bed to catch his breath.
Worried, he jumped up again and started pacing the room. He was just waiting for the stable hand to saddle his horse and bring it around from the stables, which were separated from the guesthouse by about 100 meters. When that was done, he would load up his gear and attempt to ride 400 miles in 7 days to catch the ship would take him home to his family after all these years away.
At 32, Alex was in the best shape of his life, but he was sure that the ride would take a lot out of him. Fortunately, if he caught the ship before it sailed, he’d have a couple of months on board to recuperate before needing to set foot to land again. If he didn’t get to port on time, well… he didn’t want to think about that, and turned his thoughts away.
Just as he heard the stable hand come around the corner of the guesthouse, there was a knock on the door of his small room. He moved to the door and opened it, unsurprised to see Laurie standing there. For the past year, she’d been his landlady and boss, but also his friend.
“I hear you’re leaving us,” she said, as her brown eyes looked over his hastily-packed bags resting on the floor.
“Yeah, I got word that the boat home is in port for a week before setting out, and the next one heading where I need to go will be another 3 years.”
“Well,” Laurie said slowly, “we’ll certainly miss you around here, but I understand. Eight years is a long time to be away from the ones you love.” She glanced at him after saying this, and Alex knew that his suspicions about her feelings for him were correct.
“Indeed,” he replied, looking away casually. “Well,” he continued, “four hundred miles is a long way to travel in a week on horseback. I really should get going as soon as possible.”
“Sure,” she answered. “Let me help you with those bags.”
“No problem, I can handle them.”
“Allow me,” she said, picking up one of his leather satchels. “Oof, this is heavy,” she exclaimed in surprise. “What do you have in here, lead shot?”
“Close,” Alex replied with a smile. “That one has my alchemy supplies.”
“Alchemy? Really? I never took you for an alchemist,” Laurie responded.
“Oh, I just dabble in alchemy,” Alex smiled. “As you know, my main area of concentration is natural sciences, but that obviously leads into alchemy, because the two disciplines overlap somewhat.”
“That makes sense,” Laurie said, pulling the bag once more towards herself as she and Alex headed for the door.
As they reached the hallway outside Alex’s room, he looked back once wistfully. The last year had been one of the most peaceful and profitable in his self-imposed exile. It was this last year that had allowed for him to now be on his way home, and he was certain that it was the last stretch of tranquility he would have for some time. In fact, the portents predicted a time of excitement the likes of which he’d never before had the misfortune to experience. While he knew there was an element of ambiguity where the future was involved, generally the broad sense was bang-on. He’d have to keep his head up.
And that would have to start immediately, he thought to himself, as he bumped into Laurie’s backside when she halted at the top of the stairs leading down to the foyer and the front door. Apologizing, he headed down the stairs laden with all the supplies he had gathered for his cross-country dash to make port before the Thunder Child sailed. As he packed the saddle bags and secured his bedroll and rifle, he thought back to the last time he’d seen his family. While the parting had been on good terms, he’d assumed he would have returned long before now, but it had taken eight long years for him to find what he’d sought out here in the wastelands on the edge of civilization. “Well,” he thought to himself, “If I don’t get a move on, it’ll be even longer before I see them again.”
Finding all his belongings secured, he took one last look around the ranch where he’d spent the last twelve months. Finally, he turned to bid farewell to his host. Surprising him, she rushed over and planted a kiss square on his lips, then seeming embarrassed, backed off and gave him the tiniest salute with her fingertips. He nodded in return, not trusting himself to speak. When Laurie bustled off, he mounted Aidan, his trusty horse and headed out through the wrought iron gates. Glancing back as Aidan broke into a trot, he thought he saw Laurie watching him leave from the window of the room he’d just vacated, but he couldn’t be sure.
He got his bearings, then pointed Aidan in the direction they’d need to travel for the next couple of days. If he pushed it a little, there was a little spring he could make by nightfall, where there was a little pastureland for Aidan and some rocks enclosing the spring to protect him from the chill of the night.
He spent the rest of the morning in a sort of daydream, postulating different possibilities for his reunion with his family. He was certain his mother would be ecstatic to see him, as would his little sister (who would be all grown up now, he had to remind himself). He would receive a friendly but distant welcome from his father, if he still lived, but he could expect no different when he’d left over his father’s wishes. While his father had understood Alex’s reasons for leaving when he did, he hadn’t thought that it was a good use of Alex’s talents. “You could do amazing things right here, my boy,” his father had tried to persuade him, but Alex was not to be turned from what he saw as his destiny. “Go, then, and may you find what it is you’re looking for.” “Not to worry, dad – I found it,” Alex said half aloud as he rode. “I found it.”
Near to noon, he dismounted to rest Aidan and found a bit of shade in which to sit and eat the food he’d packed. Another day and a half, and he’d be on his own for food, but for now, he didn’t need to forage or hunt. He ate without thought and remounted when he’d finished, hoping to make the spring by nightfall.
As it turned out, he wasn’t to make the spring at all. About an hour after lunch, he heard a thin, high cry coming from one of the copses just off the path. The unearthly wail was choked off to muffled sobs which sounded all too human to Alex’s ears. Reining in Aidan, he hopped off to find the source of the cry.
Upon reaching the thicket, he saw a small child tied to one of the bush’s thicker branches. The filthy youth took one look at Alex and began wailing all the harder. Alex reached out his hand to soothe the young one, but the child – he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl under all the grit – shrank away from him, covering its face with hands so dirty Alex couldn’t see the skin.
“There, there,” he cooed. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to untie you, and, if you like, I can take you to your home.”
The young one peeked out from between dirt-caked fingers and sniffled loudly. “T-t-t-take me home?” the little one inquired.
“Yes,” Alex smiled, as reassuringly as possible. The child took another long, measuring look at Alex, then held out the bound ankle towards him. Alex reached down to undo the knot. As he knelt there with arms stretched down towards the sourceof the child’s affliction, he heard a rustle in the leaves behind him. A sharp crack filled his head with pain and as his counsciousness fled from him, his last thought was, “Pretty good trap.”
* * *
Alex awoke with a splittling headache. He moved to sit up, but his stomach turned, and he rolled instead and vomited. He returned to his original position – flat on his back – and tried to recall what had happened. The recollection returned to him so suddenly, he sat bolt upright. Or rather, tried to. He discovered in an instant that he could move no farther than about six inches in any direction, which had allowed him to roll, but not sit up.
He inspected the bonds on his wrists, unable to see the ones on his ankles. Stout rope tied in a strong knot meant that escape was not to come from sloppiness on the part of his captors. Captors… he shook his head ruefully. Obviously, the child in the bush had been the lure and the partner had been the one to signal when to start crying when Alex was spotted riding along the path. And he, trusting fool that he was, had walked neatly into the trap without so much as a glance around to see if the way was clear. It wasn’t the first time he’d jumped into a situation before considering all the angles, one of the reasons he’d been away from home longer than he’d originally planned. And it wasn’t the first time his altruism had gotten him in trouble, either, though he was damned if he was going to stop trusting people just so he could feel safe. He’d also been in worse scrapes than this in the last eight years, and had always managed to find a way clear. It worried him a little that he was tied up. In his experienced, tied up meant there was something else to come, where being left on the side of the path with all his possessions gone would have meant that the worst was over. If he could work out what it was his captors wanted from him, maybe he could bargain with them. If not, there were other ways of winning free from situations like these, Alex knew.
And so, he waited patiently. In time, he knew, his captors would come to gloat, or to see to his needs, or to bargain, or another of a dozen scenarios he was already considering. His next move would depend a lot on what it was they wanted. In the meantime, Alex would learn as much as he could about his captors from looking around him and observing. The first thing he noticed was that his cell, if it could be called that, was made of cloth. Some kind of treated fabric, no doubt, impervious to the elements. No escape by cutting out, then. The cloth disappeared below the edge of the cot to which he was attached, but he could not see where it joined the ground. He looked to the other side, but the edge of the cloth was hidden behind a number of large steamer trunks that blocked his view of much of the rest of his cell. He was heartened to see his rucksack and saddlebags among the pile, but since he was tied to the cot, there would be no using his equipment to free himself. He was more worried now that his captors seemed to have no interest in his belongings whatsoever – that would seem to indicate it was him they wanted.
As he pondered exactly what it could be that he had to offer that would be valuable enough to exchange for his life, when there was a rustling noise from the end of the tent past his head. He recognized the sound of footsteps as someone approached the bed from the one direction he couldn’t see. He craned his head around to try and get a glimpse of his captor, but whoever it was stopped just short of his field of view. Frustrated, he turned his neck this way and that in an attempt to make out who it was who was holding him here. As if in answer, a figure moved into sight. With a start, Alex realized it was a young woman. Dressed the manner of someone who was used to a comfortable life, she wore a tailored jacket over a blouse and jodhpurs. Her riding boots were short, but looked well-made. Her long brown hair was in a simple braid down her back, but looked clean and neat. This was obviously someone raised in privilege. What was she doing here? She stood looking at him for a moment, then turned her attention to the other items in the tent. Her indifferent dismissal of his predicament told him that this was his captor, or one of them.
“Could I get some water?” Alex asked. “My mouth tastes horrible.”
The woman glanced over at him, taking in the puddle of vomit that he’d left off the side of the bed, then moved to the foot of the cot. She picked up a canteen that had been hidden from Alex’s view and unstoppered it. She moved towards Alex’s head, then abruptly stopped and tilted the container over her own head, emptying the water over her own face and neck. She put the stopper back onto the canteen and went back to searching the steamer trunks. Alex frowned behind her back.
“That was uncalled for,” he said. “All I want is a bit of a drink to rinse out my mouth and throat.”
“Get it for yourself,” the woman mocked him. Alex realized with a start that this jailer could be no older than he himself was, and was probably a couple of years his junior. What would cause someone to become so cruel in such a short life?
*** Author’s Note: This was intended to be a classic “quest” type of story, except that the quest was to return to the port which would allow Alex to return home. Along the way, he would meet certain obstacles that would try to prevent him from arriving on time to catch the ship home. This was also to be my first attempt at fantasy (though it could be argued that the Speakers of the 2007 – B story are magical in a way). Too bad it never really got off the ground.