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The Great Escape
Wolves howled. The lady shivered with cold and fear as she climbed the hill. Her hair was plastered to her head with rain, her brown robes clinging to her skin. The unrelenting rain fell in torrents, washing small streams of mud down the hillside.
She clenched her teeth and held on to a thick root for a moment, catching her breath. The path had long since washed away, and the slope was steep. The lady readjusted her grip and looked upward.
The ruined castle at the top of the hill could barely be seen through the fog. No king had ruled over this manor for over seventy years. Someone else had taken up residence now, and there was not a soldier in the world who would risk the ousting of the current inhabitant. Very few even dared visit. Only one orange glowing light in the distance even suggested that the castle was still used as an abode.
The lady attempted to climb again, trying to pull herself up over a muddy ledge that was nearly as high as her collarbone. She groped around in the mud, trying to secure a hold but finding none. After scrabbling for a moment in panic, she remembered the dagger at her belt. It gleamed silver for a moment, reflecting some far-off bolt of lightning, and then she drove it deep into the earth. Feeling the dagger stick, she gripped it with both hands and pulled herself up over the ledge. She crouched above the ledge and pulled the knife out, turned, and tripped over another exposed root, the tree to which it belonged leaning precariously over her. The knife slipped from her grasp and tumbled down the hillside.
Groaning in frustration, the lady turned and continued on up the hill. Her progress was slow, and by the time she reached the top and stood among the broken stones of the castle, she was covered in mud and grass, and her fingers were bloody, the nails torn and broken from scrabbling against rock and wood.
She hardly noticed her condition, however. She barely paused for breath before heading toward the stone castle, the heavy wind flapping her muddy robes against her calves with sharp stings. The light in a far tower held her complete focus. It gleamed like a glowing eye, the rest of the decaying castle the skeleton that supported its crumbling skull.
The lady stumbled on a rock, a stone that had fallen from the castle walls, and her already swollen ankle caused her to cry out. Still she pressed forward, limping a little more now. The archway over the castle door offered no relief from the rain, which was carried in sideways by the howling wind.
She knocked on the door, but it barely made a noise. The lady realized that the wood was too thick for the door to resound, so she grasped the heavy, iron handle with both hands and pulled hard. With a rasping noise, the handle came off, sliding suddenly from the rotten wood, sending her spilling backward onto the stones of the courtyard. She lay there for a moment, stunned. The lady stared at the handle in her hands, then slowly got to her feet and wedged the handle under the door, levering it open. She thrust her fingers between the gap and pulled the door with all her strength, fighting the wind for the right to open it. A gust of musty, rank wind met her in the face, and she slipped through the narrow, black crack that appeared. The wind slammed the door shut again behind her.
The inside of the castle was small relief from the rainstorm. It was filled with horrible sounds, a million drips from uncountable leaks dripping from ceilings, old stone furnishings, window ledges and falling into the enormous cold puddle that was the floor. The endless dripping was accompanied by an ethereal choir of ghosts--the wind howling through all the tiny cracks of the castle and the spattering of rain through slitted windows.
Scarcely anything could be seen at all. The castle was dark with night and clouds and walls. The lady fumbled for her tinderbox, which was carefully locked up tight and sealed with sap to make it waterproof. She carefully pried it open, wincing at the scrape of tin on tin which echoed through the stone corridors, and lit the candle inside it with her flint.
The scant light the candle provided revealed little about the castle. The images it lit were distorted to the point unrecognizable by shadows. The lady held her hand above the flame to prevent its being extinguished by a leak and wandered cautiously toward the main hall.
The sounds of birds and rodents could barely be heard over the storm's cries, but they filled the lady with dread all the same. A prediction of a fate to come, no doubt. Thunder rumbled far away.
The hallway was filled with torn and rotten tapestries, glimpses of red the only suggestions of their former nature. The paintings that lined the walls were ripped and tattered. Some had run down across the wall and floor, bleeding paint, weeping for their lost home. Some had grown mold. The carpet was like sod, and indeed, weeds were growing from it.
The lady continued through the hallway until she reached its end, and the circular stairway for the far tower. The lit tower. She climbed its steps with growing trepidation, keeping to the right, against the wall, as there was no railing, and she did not wish to fall. The wind laughed at her and played with her hair through cracks, and it trickled water on the steps to make them slippery. A fat drip from the roof put out her candle and sent the tinderbox tumbling from her numb fingers and bouncing off the stairs. It was a long time before the lady heard its clatter on the floor far below. Determinedly, she dropped to her hands and knees and climbed the stairs that way, feeling the wall with her side.
A glow of orange light became apparent, and it guided her path, growing brighter as she climbed. As the light intensified, the lady got back to her feet, walking the few final steps to the entrance of the tower. She stepped through the doorway, her shadow flickering on the far wall.
There in the room stood a haggard old woman, staring pensively into a blazing fire that filled the room with warmth. The room itself was strung with garlic and herbs, decorated with carpets and wildflowers. Pots and pans were hung from one wall, and against another was a crude wooden table, an even cruder chair, and a luxurious wooden bed with a down-stuffed quilt, evidently pilfered from one of the other rooms of the castle.
"HAVE to live up here," the woman said, not looking up from the fire. "It's the only room that's dry. Well, now that you're already here, you may as well come in." She turned toward the doorway, revealing her slightly plump frame and sagging, aged skin, shadowed in the firelight.
The lady stepped into the room, her face a conflict between boldness and uncertainty.
The old woman put her hands on her hips and said aloud, "Dear Old Annie, I'll never understand why the folks keep coming around." She turned about and walked cautiously over to the table and hefted a big pot.
"Oh!" she shouted in a falsetto. "Lord, but that's heavy. Give me a hand, there, would you dear?" Speechless, the lady walked over and put one hand under the pot, helping the old woman to carry it to the fire. She looked in. It was full of cold stew.
"I make it up before I put it on the fire," the old woman said by way of explanation. "It's easier on my back, don't you know." She dried off her hands with a towel. "So, what's your name, and what brings you here?"
"My name..." the lady began, and suddenly sneezed.
"The Lord bless you," the old woman said.
The lady sniffed. "Thank you. My name is Julia, and I... I've come for a favor."
"Hmph." The old woman folded her arms. "Favors don't come easily, but then again, neither did your journey here, I'll warrant. Well, in case you haven't guessed, I'm Old Annie." She laughed to herself. "I used to be Young Annie, but a lot changes in eighty years."
Old Annie went back to the table for a spoon, and returned to stir the cold stew which was now sitting on an iron frame over the fire. "Come on, child, you look cold enough as it is."
"I'm not a child," the lady said sharply, and there was a flash of regal blue in her eyes.
"Well, of course you're not," Old Annie said matter-of-factly. "The royal life makes you grow up fast, no? Especially when your husband, the King, is imprisoned and you're fleeing for your life."
The lady said nothing. A dripping started next to the bed.
Old Annie sighed, and carried a pot over to put it under the drip. "Fancy that," she chuckled. "The most powerful woman in all of Angleland and I still can't keep the rain out of my room." She turned her head and eyed Julia. "So why would an ex-queen come to see Old Annie, eh? Surely there are other... talented women that would be easier to contact?" She stared out of the far window, through which no wind came, mysteriously. "Lord knows I made it difficult enough. You know, no matter how far I get away, I'm still mobbed by people who want something from me. And now I'm reduced to abiding in this living monument to Swiss cheese, just to get some peace and quiet!" She paused. "Not that it's your fault, of course, my dear. Just a bit irritating at times is all."
The queen said nothing for a moment. Then slowly, she looked up, the firelight shining across her regal jawline, set determinedly, hued golden in the glow of the flames. "I've come for one of your... special favors," she said.
Old Annie nodded, stirring the stew. Her voice sounded tired. "Yes, I suspected as much. It's always about escape from something. This is about escape, right?"
Queen Julia looked back down. "Yes," she said. "You might say that."
"Oh, I might, mightn't I?" Old Annie cackled to herself. "Well, I think I will." She went for some cloves of garlic and some rosemary. "It's always about escape."
The cloves plunked into the stew. Splash. Splash. Leaves of rosemary were crushed between Old Annie's strong hands and fluttered down into the soup like dying butterflies. Old Annie looked up from her cooking. "Adds a bit of flavor, don't you know. There's nothing on God's green earth what don't taste better with a little garlic. Even defeat."
The queen stared at the old woman.
Old Annie seemed unperturbed. "If they really want it, I always give it to them, you know. Lord knows I try to talk them out of it, but nobody ever realizes that most of the time, it's better to face life as it is than try to run away from it."
She shook her head. "I had one boy in here last week. Swore he was a wolf, wanted to be a wolf with all his heart. What do you think he was escaping?"
"I don't know," the queen said quietly, moving a little closer to the fire.
Old Annie winked at the queen. "Between you and me? Neither do I." She grinned. Her mouth had very few teeth in it. "But I do know that he wanted to escape life as he knew it... that he was running from something, not to something. And that's what escape is. It's running away."
Old Annie stared at the fire for a long time, and the queen said nothing, respecting her thoughts. When the old woman looked up again, there was a wet streak on her cheek. "Old Annie knows a lot about escape. It gets to be a way of life. The first time I ran was from my home, from my father when he hated me for being a witch. I ran away, out into the woods, until I found another family that took me in, that cared for me. Soon I had problems there, too, so I thought, 'I've run away before when things were bad. Why not do it again?'"
She stirred the soup again.
"And then it was another time, and another time, and then I was spending my whole life running away from people. And now I'm here, in this castle, away from everyone. I'm lonely and I'm tired, but when people come around, I feel like moving again. And you know why?"
Julia shook her head.
"Because it's all I know how to do. Because every time I ran away, I was running blind. I wasn't looking where I was going, only looking where I was coming from. And the farther I run, the farther I get from anything."
Old Annie sighed, and looked over at the queen. "Why do you think I'm telling you all this, all this personal, unimportant information about me?"
Queen Julia raised her head and stared into the fire, then back at the old woman. She finally replied, "Because you want me to consider that escape will only leave me wanting to escape again. You want me to consider whether or not I have something to run to. You want me to realize that eventually running will leave me empty and sooner or later I will have to turn and fight and face life whatever it's doing to me, however ugly it may be."
"Beautifully spoken, but wrong," Old Annie said, then she cackled to herself. She stood up and went over to the table again and came back with some fresh vegetables. She began cutting up carrots into the stew.
"I told you all these things to explain why I will agree to do your favor." The carrot top went into the stew and she started on another. "I will do your favor because I believe it is good for people who are trying to escape." She gave the queen a sharp look. "Once I work my magic on you, you're stuck. Life as you see it is how it will be. There will be no changing your social class, making things work out for the better. There will be no more escape."
The old woman sipped the stew out of her spoon. "Needs more garlic." She tossed in another clove.
The queen nodded. "I understand. I'm prepared to face that."
Old Annie sighed. "Very well then. What form is it that you wish to take? A hawk? A cat? A horse?"
Annie's eyebrows raised slightly. "A mouse? Are you certain? How old are you?"
The queen flushed. "Forty-seven."
"Well, you'll be lucky if you live even five months as a mouse. They don't live very long in the first place, and the magic takes a lot out of you."
"I know," Julia whispered.
Old Annie looked disappointed. "Very well. Do you want some stew first?"
The queen started to say no, then smiled. "Yes, thank you. That would be nice. In fact, if you just wanted to talk through the night, and do it in the morning, I wouldn't mind a bit."
The old woman beamed.
Phillip sat in his cell, amidst the stench and damp straw, and was content. A bowl of water and soggy bread sat to one side, and a mouse nibbled on a few of the crumbs that had fallen below the bowl. Suddenly a door opened, and two men walked in, their hands and feet in chains. Three armed guards followed close behind them, and as they chained the new prisoners to the wall, one of them called over to Phillip.
"Got another two of the nobles here, yer lordship." He laughed. "Our new king says we're not to execute you until they've all been captured and have confessed. Best guess is about five months, and then it's SLICE!"
The guard drew his flattened hand horizontally across his neck with this last word, then guffawed at his own cleverness. "I tell ye, if it were me, I'd do all of ye today. But maybe it's best you have time to sit and think about it." The men were suitably chained, and the guard stood with his fellows and headed for the door. "It's just too bad the old queenie can't be here to see you like this, eh, Phillip? Your poor sweet little bride."
He grinned through his brown beard, pausing before he went out. "I make you a promise, yer lordship. If I find the queen, I won't bring her back here to rot in this dungeon with you, only to have her head taken off at the chopping block. I promise I won't do that. I'll take care of her right then and there, in me own special way. See you around, yer lordship."
The door closed. Phillip just smiled after it and held his hand out to the mouse next to his water dish. The small brown mouse did not run or flinch, but quite willingly jumped up into his hand. Phillip kissed her on her nose, and then put her on his chest, where she curled up peacefully. And if you looked into her eyes, you could see that she had been running. She had run from everything, from all the rest of the world, yes, but it was the final run. It was the end of the journey--the great escape, to a place from which no escape was necessary.
The Great Escape copyright 1998 by Jason The Skunk.
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