Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Chelsea's Escape

She was nine years old when they killed her family.

Lady Chelsea was the youngest daughter of Duke Randolph of the House of Verdensch, ruler of the Southmarsh. She was a quiet girl, red-haired, freckled, who liked to play chess and the flute and pranks on her older brothers. Also, she liked to explore the marshes and pick medicinal plants.

This saved her life.

-

It was a summer morning, the sky a blue shell overhead - uncracked, flawless, growing bright. Chelsea felt the sun on her hair and back, but she was up to her knees in cold mud as she searched for the red blooms of the piuror. Granna Terine said that the piuror was good for fevers, or as salamander repellent.

Though she was expected to marry the younger son of the Lord of Cral Forest, Chelsea secretly had fantasies of becoming one of the wise women who sat in their reed houseboats and dispensed advice to adventurers. To be so she’d need a thorough knowledge of the plants of the marsh. She’d already paid off her tutor for the past week to let her go off searching for healing plants instead of learning the history of the Sarend.

The mud squelched pleasantly between her bare toes as she scrambled onto a hillock rising out of the marsh. A flash of red caught her eye. She moved toward it, digging her feet into the webby grasses to keep from falling.

Then she saw what it was and stumbled anyway. It was a strip of embroidered cloth, and it was soaked in blood.

Further, she recognized it. The embroidery was from the Jester’s City, part of the Duchess’ dowry - the collar of her mother’s favorite dress. So what was it doing here, bloody and bedraggled and twisting in the current, wrapping limply around the reeds?

Chelsea carefully made her way down to the other end of the hillock. It wasn’t real, she thought, it couldn’t be real. Maybe she’d made a mistake. But when she wrapped her fingers around the scrap of cloth, she knew she’d made no mistake. She’d run her hands over the cloth numerous times, knew the twistings of the fine thread and the constellation of tiny beads.

Her stomach heaved and she dropped the cloth, sat down heavily on the grasses. There was blood on her hands: her mother’s blood.

For a moment she sat there, trying to understand and trying not to understand. Then, an acrid smell punctured through the familiar heavy scent of the marsh. She looked up, looked across the landscape of grassy islands through the silted water, looked toward the house, and saw a tendril of smoke, almost invisible against the dome of the sky.

Something knocked into her leg. Chelsea found it easy, so smooth and simple, to turn her face from the tattered gray ribbon waving from the house to the silk slipper kicking at her. This was her sister’s.

As if in a dream, Chelsea looked up the river to see more things floating down to her: her second brother’s dagger scabbard, a wide piece of white cloth that could have come from a dress, a flat shiny piece of metal on a string - her oldest brother’s amulet.

Why, she did not know, but without her prompting her hand shot out and grabbed the string. She brought the metal disk to her face, stared at the effigy of the Poison Man, then put the amulet around her neck. The wet cord was cold against her sunburnt neck.

And then, shouts. Angry shouts. Chelsea slid off the hillock into the water and waded to the other side, keeping her ear at attention. What were they saying? The voices got louder, harsher, and - oh. Now she could hear what they were saying. “Find her. Kill her.”

For a moment her legs threatened to give way, but then Chelsea gripped the amulet. The cold edges biting into her palm sharpened her mind. She couldn’t afford to be careless, to get caught. She had to plan, like a move of chess. Her pride wasn’t at stake here, but her life.

Quickly she scanned the landscape around her. Who was it that had killed them all? It couldn’t be an uprising: she’d been spying, and the people were eating well. Yes, they complained about the taxes, but her father had explained clearly that it was for the maintenance of the waterways and roads. The people of the Southmarsh had not done this deed. Then who?

But that was beside the point. If it was not her father’s subjects, then it was someone who did not come from the Southmarsh. Here, then, was her advantage. She knew the land, and they did not. No one knew the Southmarsh better than one of its children, from the beggars to her, daughter of the duke.

The voices were perilously close now. Chelsea knew she could not outrun the pursuers, so she must hide. She stuffed the amulet into her shirt and began making her way to the larger hillock to the west, away from the house and the voices shouting to kill.

There were secret ways through the marsh, and she knew them all. To fight the panic, she planned her route. Through the hillock, to the stilt-house of Granna Terine. She couldn’t ask the old woman to shelter her, but she could hide beneath her house while they passed by. Then, then…she had to get out of the Southmarsh, get someplace safe.

Chelsea thought of her intended, in the Cral Forest. Could she reach there? But her mind quailed at the thought. It took trading parties weeks to get there and back. The Jester’s City, her mother’s home? That was almost just as far. The Eastmarsh? But east was toward danger.

Who did she know outside of the Southmarsh? The answer crashed around her: no one. There was no one who could help her. Mud sucked at her legs as she reached the large hillock and found the secret way through. There was no one to help her. She fought back terror with the need to keep going, to get away. The shouting, now, was louder. It was poised to crash on her.

“Where is the brat?”

“I hear the Duke is giving whoever brings him her head a fleet of canoes.”

“You there!”

Chelsea flinched; her hand contracted on the hill’s muddy inside. Her heart beat fast, pulse throbbing in her throat. They’d seen her, they’d seen her…

But a voice answered, “Who, me?” It was a boy’s voice. Same pitch as her youngest brother, with an accent she’d never heard before.

“Yes, you! What are you doing out here? You’re not from around here, are you, boy?”

Chelsea pinpointed where the voices were coming from, but didn’t dare poke her head out to see if she was right. She crouched against the hill’s inside, among the reeds, mud soaking the hem of her dress, toes digging into the muck. If they can’t find me, they can’t kill me. She wished she could sink into the side of the hill, like a fae. But she came from mortal stock; hadn’t the bloody embroidery proven that?

The boy’s voice came again. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m not from here. I’m a traveler.”

A cruel laugh. “A deserter, more like. You sound like a northerner, boy, and I hear there’s been some trouble lately up there. Say, have you seen a girl? A little girl, about ten, with red hair. Her father’s getting worried about her.”

Chelsea withdrew even further into the hillock. If she hadn’t seen the boy, then was it possible that he hadn’t seen her? But she didn’t think, based on his voice, that he’d been far.

“No. No, I haven’t seen any kids around. Sorry I couldn’t help you out.”

From where she thought the pursuers must be, there was a muttering. Then, a different voice said, “If you see the girl, bring her back to the big house over there. I’m sure her father will be very glad, and maybe give you a place in his household. You look like you could use it.”

“All right,” said the boy. Footsteps. Chelsea held very still as heavy boots marched on past the hillock. Then the pursuers were gone; she had broken through their chain. Relief stood ready to welcome her into its house.

But something bothered her; her foot paused on the doorway. Who was the boy? She hadn’t heard him move. Where was he? If he found her, then would he bring her back?

“Don’t yell. I’m not going to capture you.”

She froze. Then she looked up.

A face was peering down at her - a boy’s face. He looked to be about fourteen, the same age as her youngest brother. He had dark hair and dark eyes, just like her second brother.

“I heard what they said about killing you,” he said. His accent made his words shift, slide; it sounded like murky water. He paused and blinked. “I can help you escape,” he said.

Chelsea stared up at him. It was a trick. It had to be. Help couldn’t come just like that. She had plans: she had to get to Granna Terine’s, to stow away…but she was nine years old, and her family had been murdered, and all of a sudden she felt unbearably tired. It was too much for her. She couldn’t get away on her own. All she wanted was to be safe. Escape…her nails dug into her palms and she stared up at him mutely.

“My name is Vin,” he said. “I’m a…I can use these thresholds, they’re called, these doors that can take you to other places. I’m not a sorcerer yet, but that’s the goal.” He reached out a callused hand. “Come on. I know someplace you can go.”

She did not know yet that Vin Linden had, four years previously, lost a sister when his mother miscarried, and that he still felt cheated out of someone to play the older brother toward. She did not know that he could sense the protection of the Poison Man around her and that he, too, bore marks of that god of illusions.

She did, however, know that her instincts were usually right, and at the moment her instincts were telling her that this boy was trustworthy.

“Okay,” she said. He smiled at her encouragingly. She took hold of his hand and he pulled her up, up, up out of the muddy hidden paths into the brilliance of the summer sky, broken open into full day.

-

A week later, the healer Phaedra (who happened to be live next door to the Linden family) brought the Blue Butterfly Inn a new kitchen maid. She was quiet, and hardworking, and beat everyone at chess. She called herself Chelsea Mullane.

--

Written March 9 2012 for English class. What do you think?

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