Miranda didn’t want to stay here, she didn’t trust it.
She didn’t care if this Sally person deemed her worthy or not. She got down on her hands and knees and begun to explore the room. The dry, cool dirt that made up the floor crumbled under her fingertips as she investigated the edges of the building, particularly near the wall that separated her from the crying child on the other side.The building was nothing more than a rough shack; several of the gaps between the ground and the wood were large enough for her fingers to poke through.
“Fern.” She put her face as close to the ground as she could, whispering through the thin fissure between them. “Can you hear me?” The sniffling continued unabated, but the sobbing stopped. “Fern?” She heard movement on the other side of the wall.
“Miss Miranda? Are you ok? Is my sister with you?” The tip of one tiny finger reached under the wall and touched her cheek where it lay against the ground. Miranda shut her eyes to hold back the tears threatening to overflow into the dirt.
“I’m ok. My head hurts, but I’ll be ok,” Miranda answered quietly. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where Lu is right now. Are you okay, Fern? Did anyone hurt you?” She didn’t know what these people had in mind, but she wasn’t inclined to trust people who introduced themselves with a blow to the head.
“No.” Fern’s voice sounded more slighted than scared. “I’ve just been stuck in this stupid room forever with nothing to do. They won’t even talk to me.”
“How long have we been here?”
“It’s already past noon I think. They brought me breakfast.” If she’d been out that long she probably had a concussion. “I heard you throwing up.”
She definitely had a concussion. How she missed the comfort of a manned emergency hotline and well-stocked emergency room. She would just have to try not to aggravate it.
The door bolt slid back. Miranda quickly stood up and immediately regretted it. Her stomach lurched as the room moved in a lazy loop around her. She propped herself up against the wall, taking a deep breath to steady herself, then pulled herself up straight. The sun warmed her face as the door swung open, quickly replaced by the cold shadow of a person standing in front of her. Was this Sally? The velveteen-voiced woman? A stranger? Maybe even Lu?
This was one of the few times Miranda missed her sight.
The person who had opened the door stood there, not moving or saying a word. Miranda persisted in silent defiance—staring sightlessly toward the open door. These people didn’t need any more power over her than they already had.
“Sally is out hunting.” Ah, the velveteen voice was back. “You’ll have to wait until she gets back.”
Miranda had no intention of being pushed around by bullies, no matter how outnumbered she was. “Why?” she asked, unflinchingly. “Why do you need to keep us here? You said I was useless, why waste your time? Just let me take the girl and go.”
“Go where, exactly?” The smirk in the woman’s voice was intolerable. “We’ve taken all of your supplies. You have no food, no canteen, no weapons. How, exactly, are you planning on protecting that helpless little girl all alone in the forest?”
Velveteen or not, that voice was starting to grate on Miranda’s last nerve, “Why do you care?”
“You’re right. I don’t care.” All traces of humor had disappeared from her voice.
“You can’t go because Sally hasn’t decided what to do with you yet. Sally calls the shots. The girl is currency, but killing you might still be an option.”
“How long am I expected to wait for the almighty Sally to return from her hunting trip?”
“I don’t know, a couple of hours, a day, two days. She keeps her own schedule.” The door swung shut, and the bolt slid back into place. “I’ll be back with your dinner. Entertain yourself.”
Entertain herself? What a ridiculous thing to say. Miranda shook her head, got down on the ground, and began to explore the floor again. She investigated every inch of her confines. Spread throughout the room was a small cot bed with a single hard pillow, a large vase by the bed to serve as a chamber pot, a small table, and two rickety chairs.
The shack wasn’t firmly attached to the ground and it was put together in a slipshod manner. Miranda hated lazy craftmanship. She detected a line of tiny fractures in the wood along the front of the building, just about three inches from the ground. It was a weakness she might be able to exploit.
“Miss Miranda?” Fern’s voice shook a little as it drifted through the wall.
“Are we going to be alright?” `
Miranda answered with more confidence than she felt. “Yes, Fern-frond. We’re going to be just fine.” Somehow. “We’ll figure it out together. Just give me a little time to think, ok?”
“Mhm.” Miranda smiled at the girl’s voice. “I can be patient.” She really was an agreeable kid—unless you happened to be her big sister. Fern clearly held Lu to a different standard, wherever Lu was. Miranda hoped she was somewhere safe, or at least alive and in one piece. Lu had both a brain and a backbone, even if she was a bit unrefined.
She tried sitting on the chair, but it was poorly built and just slightly less comfortable than sitting on a thorny bush. The cot bed was no better for sitting, so she gave up and just sat cross-legged on the floor.
Miranda’s mind whirled, worrying at each failure. Trapped, helpless, unable to reach Fern, unable to find ‘Pilli. Panic intertwined with righteous anger and she could feel her sanity slowly unraveling. How had she controlled her anxiety in the time before?
Right. Breathe in for three, out for five. One, two, three. One, two, three, four, five. Again. Yes, that was a bit better, she should be able to organize her thoughts now.
If they were going to escape, their best bet was to leave after dark, assuming that Sally didn’t return before then. The shack was made of thin pine planks and poorly put together. The cracking on the front might help to destabilize the structure. Could it be as simple as pushing it over and running away from the camp?
The girl stirred on the other side of the wall. “Yes? I’m here.”
“Did you get a look at the building when we got here?”
“Yeah, it’s a horse place with extra doors, but if I had a horse, I wouldn’t keep it here.”
A stable? Why weren’t they using it for horses? A village this large had to have horses, didn’t they? Strange, but not important right now. “Was there anyone standing guard?”
“There was at first. They left when you were throwing up and they haven’t come back.”
“How do you know all that?”
“I’ve been watching them through the holes in the wall.” Clever girl, or incredibly bored. Either way, it was useful information.
“Thank you. That was very helpful.” Miranda replied. “Now I need to listen to what’s going on around us for a few minutes.”
Miranda sat cross-legged in the middle of the room and closed her eyes to listen to the shape and rhythm of the little town. Her head throbbed. Ideally, she would be giving her concussed brain a break. Cognitive rest was important for a healing brain. She didn’t have the luxury.
The blacksmith hammer in the background rang out most clearly, interspersed with the low murmur of villagers going about their business, the soft baa-ing of a small herd of sheep, and the barking of distant dogs.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Ignore the pain. Focus on the sounds. Focus on the direction.
The smithy was to her right. Was that south? It was hard to tell, locked in this shack. It sounded close, just a yard or two from the makeshift prison they were held in. The sheep were a little further south. Just beyond their doors, birds called noisily from the trees, and squirrels chittered. Their makeshift prison seemed to be on the outskirts of town, facing the forest. That made her task a little easier.
The voices came mostly from what Miranda presumed to be a market behind the building; they were more contentious than cooperative in their dealings. The sound of children crying and the loud crack of a whip penetrated the hubbub, followed by a human yelp of pain. This wasn’t a community of shared strength, it was a community of competition and corruption. Miranda wanted no part of this place. How could Lu have thought this was safe?
Miranda drew close to the wall. “Fern, I have a plan.” Assuming Sally didn’t get back before nightfall. “I need you alert tonight. Do you think you can sleep until they bring dinner?”
“Mhm.” Fern replied. “There’s nothing to do over here anyways.”
“Good girl.”It wasn’t long before she heard the little girl’s soft snores and mutterings.
Miranda lay down on her own cot. She needed to be alert tonight too. Just before she drifted off to sleep, she though she heard the sound of Xipilli’s cry reach out across her subconscious. “I’ll find you, soon. Oh, how I miss you, my feathered prince.”
Miranda startled awake with the door bolt slid open. The quality of light didn’t change when the door opened. The sun had already set. She stood to face the intruder. They thrust a bowl of lukewarm stew into her hands without a single word. Her benefactor exited, slamming the door behind themselves. The door to Fern’s room opened. The guard’s heavy footsteps advanced. Miranda held her breath, releasing it only when she heard the guard leave and the bolt slide roughly back into place.
“You!” The velveteen voice had a bit more steel to it this evening.
“Captain!” The snappy young voice that responded brought old military movies to mind, the ones with the hapless private who gets “toughened up” by the end of the movie. She always hated those movies, mainly because she usually liked the protagonist.
“Keep an eye on our prisoners here until morning. It shouldn’t be too difficult.” There was that sneer in her voice again. Miranda wondered what had the captain so riled up.
“Yes, Captain.” Shit. Just what they needed. A guard to get past.
Miranda sat down on the ground to think and eat. Lure him away? Not feasible. Scare him away? Miranda allowed herself a chuckle. A blind woman and a small child scare a soldier away from his post? Not likely.
On the other side of the wall, Fern whispered. “He’s asleep.”
“He laid down on a bench and fell asleep.”
“Ok. Good.” That was convenient. Hopefully, he was a sound sleeper. “Shove anything you can between the ground and the building on the backside only. Flat rocks, pieces of wood, …
“Yes, your blanket will help.” Miranda was struggling to control her emotions. We’re going to try to get this building at as much of a slant as we can—then push it over.”
“Got it.” They set to work destabilizing the building as much as possible before trying to push it over. They managed to get the gap between the building and the ground to almost an inch and a half in spots.
“Ok, I think it’s time. Can you see the way to the woods, Fern?” Miranda tried to keep the fear out of her voice. “Is it clear?”
“Mhm. It’s clear.” This was risky. The building could easily come crashing down on them. Miranda didn’t see another option.
“Do you have a chair sturdy enough to stand on in there?”
“Stand on the chair when pushing and push up high. Stay near the wall. The building may collapse on us. We still need to get up and run, even if it hurts, ok.” Miranda shut her eyes to steady herself. “Can you do that?”
“Mhm. I think so.”
Miranda braced her hands against the rough wood, “Ok. Push. As hard as you can!” The two of them strained with all their weight against the top half of the building for almost a minute before the building started to budge. It sounded like popcorn wrapped in cotton as the wood near the cracks began to disintegrate. After another eternal minute before the wood gave out with a loud pop and flimsy building toppled over as Miranda covered her head, protecting it from another blow.
“What the Hell!?” The soldier was awake.
Miranda felt a small hand grab hers. “C’mon, we’ve got to go. This way.” She ran as she followed the girl, trusting that Fern wouldn’t let her slam into a tree or accidentally leap off a cliff.
It felt like they ran for hours with soldiers and dogs at their heels, though it was more likely just a few minutes. The pair just barely managed to evade pursuit—only because Fern was small and agile, and there was a swiftly flowing river to wash away their scent. They kept running until they couldn’t hear any barking or yelling behind them anymore.
They stayed hunkered down in the woods a while, to make sure nobody was still following them. The captain’s voice carried shrilly over the forest as she berated the poor private for letting them escape. Miranda almost felt bad. Fern found a small, rocky cave for them to sleep in. They had no food, no supplies, no weapons, but at least they had a dry place to sleep, and each other.
Miranda felt every bruise and bump when she woke on the cold stone floor in the morning, but she was alive and free. She climbed out of the cave at dawn, leaving Fern to sleep a little longer. She risked sounding her whistle to call Xipilli to her—once, twice, three times. She was sure she heard his call somewhere nearby, but when she blew the whistle a fourth time, there was no response. She looked to the sky, hoping for a shadow to cross her vision, but there was none.
She sighed deeply and sat down on a nearby boulder. Without supplies and a map, they wouldn’t make it far. It seemed likely that the people she had heard in such distress were friends and family of Lu and Fern, probably even Lu herself. She certainly couldn’t just leave them there.
Florida was too far on for the two of them to get there on their own, even if they had a map, but Miranda thought she might be able to locate her beloved cabin. Her cabin had plenty of supplies, and Xipilli may have returned there. The only thing was, she had no way to know how long the captives would be safe, or if she could find her way back here. Striking out for home could leave the prisoners, and probably Lu, stranded if she got lost or strayed for too long. As she saw it, their other option was to stay here in the caves, collect pilfered supplies from the camp to sustain them, and wait until the right moment to strike revealed itself, but that once again risked their freedom.
Readers voted to head back to the cabin, rather than wait at the camp.