The Masters proclaim that darkness inside the mind frightens more than darkness outside the mind – T.L.D.K.
“Kill that thievin’ varmint!” Her stepmother’s shrill voice pierced her ears. “Kill it or I’ll flog ye and put ye in your hole again!”
Terrified, Selina shivered. She couldn’t kill the kitten but neither did she want to go back into her dark and scary hole.
“What ye waiting for?”
Selina breathed hard, and her knees trembled.
Not knowing what to do, she clutched at the amulet around her neck. The kitten had done nothing bad. It had eaten the food because it was hungry. She didn’t mind. She gladly shared her food. She didn’t like her meat anyway and taking some food was no reason to kill it.
Selina looked up with sorrow. “The kitten was hungry, Milady. It did nothing wrong.”
Angry eyes burned down upon her. “Ye disrespectful child! Don’t ye tell me what is right and what is wrong!” Her hand swung, burning a slap across Selina’s face.
Selina bit back her tears from the sting. Huetta hated her crying. She always got madder. Sometimes Huetta would keep slapping her until she stopped.
“Now, what’s it to be?” She thrust the hammer toward Selina. “I won’t wait any longer, child. Kill it!” her voice roared.
Selina stared at the small kitten, sitting on the floor, meowing, wanting to be picked up and held.
What was she to do?
The idea of going into her hole, a foul smelling area not much bigger than herself with no light, and no food terrified her, yet she couldn’t kill an innocent kitten.
Selina shook. She’d have to go into the hole. For the kitten’s sake, she’d have to do it. She’d need to be brave. It would only be for a few sunspans, so the kitten could live.
Frightened for both their lives, she dared a look up at her stepmother.
“I . . . I can’t, Mi . . . Milady,” she stuttered.
“To your hole then!” Her stepmother grabbed her by the collar, hoisted her off the floor, then pinned her to the wall. Selina coughed, choking from the tightness around her neck.
“But first, I’ll show ye what we do with young ones that don’t behave!”
Her stepmother raised her other arm with the hammer in her hand and to Selina’s horror drove it down toward the kitten, toward its head.
“No!” Selina screamed. She squeezed her eyes closed. She couldn’t watch.
The kitten’s painful cries burned in her ears. With each thump, thump, thump of the hammer came a meow that made her feel sick and more helpless.
The meowing finally stopped, but she dared not look. The kitten had been her only friend. It had done nothing wrong.
“Now, ye be next!” her stepmother yelled.
Selina’s eyes snapped open. She was thrust harder against the wall; the air whooshed from her lungs.
She froze, seeing the bloody hammer point in her direction. She lifted her arm to shield her face when the hammerhead swung right at her.
Selina felt a shake at her shoulders. She jerked away. “No!” she screamed.
“Shh! Quiet! It’s all right! It’s me! You’re safe,” the female voice told her.
Selina gazed around, blinking, trying to orientate herself.
Where was she? And who was talking to her?
When her eyes focused, she found herself huddled against a wall, sitting on damp stones in what looked like a narrow alleyway, with a red-haired woman kneeling beside her, shushing her to be quiet with a thin finger pressed at her lips.
In the distance, a clock bell rang, the wind pushing the dull humming sound over the roofs of the city.
The flashback from her childhood was over, but her body still trembled.
“Who are you?” Selina snuggled closer to the moist wall, staring at the woman through cautious eyes. Her chest rose and fell with each heavy breath.
“Milady, don’t you remember?” she asked, whispering. “We collided near the tavern, down by the port. The soldiers, they were chasing you. I helped you to escape. We fled down a few side streets when you started having an attack. I pulled you into this alley for cover. I’ve been sitting with you since, trying to keep you quiet, and waiting for you to awaken.”
Selina rubbed her temple, unable to remember. A heavy fog from her flashback still lingered in her mind, clogging her thoughts, preventing her from remembering. The flashbacks appeared swiftly and brutally. Afterwards, they left her confused, disoriented, and weakened.
Selina raised her forearm to wipe the cold sweat collecting on her brow. Her shaking would not stop nor had her fear attenuated.
She peered nervously down the dank and unfamiliar alley, cluttered with loitering debris. With a swift shake of her head, she tried to clear the fog swirling in her mind, in hope of remembering where she was and how she got here, and whether this woman, so concerned and crouching beside her, could be trusted. She leaned her head back against the stone wall and squeezed her eyes closed in concentration.
Slowly the fog dispersed, leaving her with fragments of returning thoughts. She remembered passing the busy tavern down by the port as she headed home from the orphanage where she volunteered. She remembered noticing the group of red-jacketed soldiers exiting and ogling her. Loud whistles and inappropriate gestures rang out. Her eyes snapped open, recalling the shouted orders to capture her. Dozens of red uniforms had flooded in her direction. Her instincts had commanded her to run.
Visiting soldiers spelt trouble, and with hoards of them chasing her, she had been forced down the narrow dirt streets of the poor district, to hide among the crowded dwellings. A woman, strolling the walk, had grabbed her by the arm, tugged her aside, wedging them between blackened walls, and spoke words of help and escape.
Selina’s head jerked over and gazed at the woman crouched beside her who had tugged her through one endless street after another, tirelessly working to lose the soldiers hunting her. Selina’s lungs had burned from running. The last thing she remembered was the heavy fog clouding her mind, the one that materialized each time a flashback began.
“Do you remember now?” the woman asked again, with a tone of urgency in her voice. Her pale blue eyes narrowly watched her.
Selina mutely nodded. With all the help she had provided, she doubted the woman meant her any harm.
“Then you know that we must get moving, Milady. We managed to evade them for a time, but there are so many of them that search this area, I fear they will soon be upon us. A group of them is moving in our direction as we speak.” Her travelling eyes reflected her growing fear.
Selina tensed. How would they escape so many? Dozens had poured out from the tavern. A thick lump formed in her throat, and she tried to swallow down her growing terror.
“Can you run?” The women rose to her feet, extending her a calloused hand to help her up from the floor.
“I can, but I don’t know how fast. It usually takes time for me to regain my full strength.” The situation imitated a bad dream, as if one of her flashbacks had come to life.
“You must try. Come!” the woman coaxed her.
After pushing her long blonde braid over her shoulder, Selina allowed the woman to hook under her arm. Bracing the flat of her hand firmly against the cold wall for extra support, she straightened up. Her legs wobbled, but she felt relieved at being able to stand.
A cool breeze funneled through, brushing against her cheeks and ruffling the skirt of her dress.
“I’m sorry about your attack.” Sympathy ran in the woman’s soft voice. “With the way you moaned and struggled, it must have been awful.”
The attacks were more than awful; they terrified her to the point of insanity. “I’m always glad when they’re over,” she managed to say.
Selina released from the woman’s hold and tried to stand on her own. She still needed the support of the wall to maintain her balance.
“Do you get them often?” the woman asked, appearing genuinely concerned.
Selina felt her cheeks warm with humiliation. “Yes, too often.”
A look of pity formed on the woman’s face before she looked away.
In the last moon, the attacks had dramatically increased and struck with more severity. Selina wished she knew how to stop them. She hated having them and hated remembering them. Having lived through the experiences should have been punishment enough.
Why was life so cruel, forcing her to relive her torturous past? Had she not paid her dues?
“I’m sorry you had to . . . watch.” Selina looked down and self-consciously adjusted the folds in the skirt of her long dress. The convulsive-like-states that overpowered her when the attacks struck were unsightly and pathetic looking.
“Don’t worry about propriety, Milady. I just wish I could’ve done more to ease your fear.”
Selina had long ago accepted the fact that her flashbacks were unconquerable. Once they started, her thoughts remained locked inside the prison of her mind until the flashback finished.
For the first time, Selina scrutinized the woman standing beside her. Long hair shimmered red and was tied back in a tail by a simple green ribbon. Gray-blue eyes that molded into a beautifully sculpted face matched the ivory skin and resembled that of a porcelain doll. The only markings that hinted at imperfection were a few freckles splashed across the bridge of her nose. Her tattered brown robe in no way matched the attractive woman inside of it. She shared Selina’s exceptional height of well over six feet. Selina thought the woman looked misplaced, here, in the slums that overflowed with ugliness and criminality.
The woman’s arm wrapped gently around Selina’s shoulders and urged her on. Selina edged away from the wall and hobbled along beside her.
“What is your name?” Selina asked, as she concentrated on dragging one heavy foot in front of the other.
They continued to shuffle their way down the long narrow passage. Weeds sprouted between the cobblestones, and rats scurried through the festering garbage strewn about.
The high stone barrier prevented the lower caste from invading the wealthy district of the higher castes and the wealthy from seeing the poverty and ugliness from their side. Ignorance was easier to live with than reality.
“I’m Miranda but most call me Mira.”
“Mira, I owe you my life. I could not have escaped the soldiers on my own. With my flashbacks and the unfamiliarity of this district, I had little chance of a successful escape.”
Mira chuckled. “Milady, how nicely you refer to our slums.”
Selina stopped and looked at her respectfully. “I meant no offense. And if you must know, I am not of a high caste as you think me to be.”
The declaration put a frown on Mira’s face. “No offense taken, Milady, but your clothes clearly attest that you are not poor and at least, near nobility. That dress of yours is worth more aurums than most huts on this side of the wall.”
After Selina had stolen away from her stepmother’s place in the mountain village of Iola, she sought refuge in Alzura, a city south of Tanlia, to gain distance and hide amongst the populace. Eventually, she’d been found and taken in by Emily, a wealthy widow. Despite being well beneath the woman’s noble caste, an immediate and inexplicable connection had taken place between the two of them. Emily had accepted Selina like the daughter she never had, and Selina regarded Emily like a true mother. Emily’s noble caste had falsely elevated Selina’s status.
Hobbling farther down the dank alley, Selina dared not tell Mira that this was a working dress and that her usual dresses outshone this simple one, because she had herself been in a dire situation before and knew what it felt like to be judged by ones station. Character and actions molded the person, and Mira had revealed to her a courageous and caring individual.
Selina glanced at her. “Please do not judge me by my clothes, and I promise you that I shall not judge you by yours.”
Mira nodded with a smile. “We have a pact, Milady.”
Having reached the end of the alleyway, Selina stopped to catch her breath. “Please, call me Selina.” She puffed in and out with exertion.
Mira’s eyes widened. The lower caste always addressed middle and upper castes formally.
“I insist,” Selina told her, fighting to gain her breath.
Mira eyed her with a look of skepticism but finally relented. “All right then, Selina. Do you think you can manage on your own? I don’t recommend we leave the cover of the alley before you can run off on your own two feet.”
Mira was right. If the soldiers spotted them, she would need to run fast without help.
Selina stepped away from her, to test her strength. “It’s better, but I’ll need more time.”
Mira nodded, but Selina sensed in her the urgency to move on, hesitant to give her that time. Terrified of the soldiers, she wanted to accommodate Mira, but her body needed more rest.
“We may not have time to wait!” Mira cried out as shouting voices drifted closer.
“But what shall I do? I can’t run in this condition!” Selina felt helpless.
The voices escalated. The soldiers were coming closer. Mira snapped her head back and forth as if in panic. Her body stiffened. Her expression told Selina that she was considering running.
“Please, I beg you, don’t leave me here!” Selina pleaded.
Help from strangers, especially in the slums was seldom awarded, unless aurums were paid. After escaping from her stepmother’s hut seasons ago and arriving in the city, no one had concerned themselves with her. People kept to themselves, did not want to get involved, did not want to help others without profit. At the time, she liked it that way. The last thing she wanted was to attract attention while passing through. Selina distrusted everyone. She had to with Huetta hunting her down. With Mira, she needed that trust desperately. She was totally at the woman’s mercy. Dare she hope that a stranger like Mira would stay and help her?
Mira gazed toward the entrance with fear creasing her brow. When she stared back at Selina, her demeanor relaxed. “All right, if you can’t run, then follow me.”
Selina gasped with utter relief.
“Come, we must hurry!” Mira grabbed Selina by her shirtsleeve and dragged her back the way they came. “They’re getting closer. We don’t have much time.”
Just then, the shouts amplified, informing them of the soldiers around the corner, closer to the alley than they realized.
“Thank you,” Selina told her, trying to keep up. A lump formed in her throat, touched by Mira’s sacrifice. At the same time, she felt terrible that her expression of gratitude was entirely inadequate for what the woman risked. If caught, the soldiers would be merciless. This woman was risking her life for her.
“No. I thank you!” Mira called back, surprising Selina. “For reminding me not to be selfish. We females must stick together and help each other, no matter the cost. Those red uniformed men are beasts! What they do to females like us is appalling. We need to help each other or we don’t stand a chance.” Mira rushed onward.
Selina wondered what Mira meant by females like us. Usually the soldiers weren’t selective of the females they captured. Stories had circulated of grandmothers being attacked and used for their pleasures. Selina felt goose bumps run up her arms at the thought.
Having reached the other end of the alley, Mira shoved aside some broken crates, revealing a huge wooden door with rusted hinges. The dark walls camouflaged the grimy entrance, making it almost impossible to see.
The shouts from the soldiers indicated they were almost upon them.
“Hurry! In here!” Mira waved her along.
Selina followed her inside to what looked like a one-time theatre hall that had seated hundreds of guests. Most of the seats lay broken or had been removed. Wooden planks from a raised platform had, all but a few, been stripped away from the floor. A single remaining tattered curtain, hanging on one of the dozens of broken windows, was long faded. The trim work broken beyond repair, and the unreachable sculptures and moldings atop the high ceiling gave the impression it had once been a stately room. What stole her attention were the golden colored walls. Although coated with gray dust, the gold shimmer shone through.
A loud thud sounded as Mira barred the door behind them.
Selina jumped from the pounding on the other side. Her head whipped around, staring at Mira. The woman had paled. Selina drew in a quick breath, shuddering. Dear Masters, the soldiers had found them.