The Clearing, by Kathryn Simons

The chill air whipped across his face as they rode through the darkened forest. Finally they stopped. He wanted to be done quickly. He hated the forest at night, it filled him with apprehension. Being the stronger of the two Camden made him hold the unconscious man up while they tied the man to the tree. A lone wolf howled, making him shiver and want to flee. ‘Done.’ Camden said, gruffly. He sighed with relief as they rode away…
…Esme woke with a start, jolting upright. ‘A dream?’ she wondered, lying back down.
The morning brought sunshine after weeks of rain. The village was in a good mood; the festival would be able to go ahead. But Esme couldn’t stop thinking about her dream; it hadn’t felt like a dream, more like a memory. ‘Rosen?’
‘Yes, dear?’ she was folding washing while keeping an eye on her four young children, who were renowned for getting into mischief.
‘I had a strange dream last night, only it didn’t feel like a dream.’ Esme ventured cautiously. Anything that sounded even the least bit like magic was hushed. ‘I think I might have been seeing something that really happened.’ Her aunt looked at her, her gaze sharp.
‘Don’t be silly, dreams are dreams.’
Esme looked down at the apple she was peeling. ‘Yes, ma’am’
Pain. His wrists bled and hunger clawed at his stomach. He scanned the clearing; it was the same as when he had awoken in it three days ago.
The sounds of horses in the distance would be the two soldiers, coming to check on him and give him water enough to keep him alive. He needed to keep on struggling otherwise the others would never get the information. He’d been so stupid and it had cost him. In a burst of frustration he pulled against the ropes but they were too strong. His outburst caused a surge of fresh pain to run through him…

…Esme woke, gasping. She checked her wrists in the moonlight, they were fine. He’s in trouble, she thought, and he’s innocent… Confusion twisted her insides. She couldn’t trust a dream. Turning her face to the moon, she closed her eyes for a moment. There’s no harm in seeing if he’s really there. She got up and quickly dressed.
Esme crept through the house, careful not to wake anyone. In the kitchen she packed a small bag of food and bandages then with her cloak wrapped around her, slipped out into the moonlight. Clouds clung to the distant hills but she headed out anyway, hoping the wind would carry them south.
The breeze rustled the trees and fallen autumn leaves and somewhere an owl hooted. She remembered how the soldier in her dream felt about being in the forest at night but she didn’t feel that fear. Esme wandered until she came upon the clearing awash with moonlight. On the other side, tied to the biggest tree, was a man. Her skin prickled; she hadn’t really expected to find him.
The man stirred as she hurried across to him but didn’t wake. He wasn’t too high above the ground, so she took out a small knife she’d packed and cut his ropes. He sagged onto her with all his weight, her knees faltered but she managed to gently lay him down.
His wrists were raw and bleeding. As she wrapped bandages around them, his eyes slowly opened.
“Here,” Esme offered him a meat pie. He struggled into a sitting position and regarded the pie with suspicion. She gave him an encouraging smile. He returned a glimmer of a smile as he accepted the pie. He ate the three pies and two apples she’d packed and drank all the water with gusto.
‘Are you a rebel friend?’ he spoke for the first time and sighed deeply when his question was met with confusion ‘I didn’t think so. I’m afraid you may have just made a terrible mistake.’
‘What do you mean? Why are you here and who are you that you’re imprisoned without committing a crime?’ Esme blurted out. A frown crossed his face. He began to answer but the sound of horses stopped him. He jumped up and grabbed a long stick just as two soldiers on horses rode into the clearing. Esme stumbled up. One of the soldiers grimaced when he saw her, the other was angry.
‘Stupid girl’ he spat. ‘And you, your highness, should know you’re just wasting our time.’ They drew their swords. Esme shot a frightened glance at the soldiers’ prisoner, if he was scared he didn’t show it. As the men charged forward, the prisoner readied himself. Esme cast her eye for a weapon. Something hit her neck and her vision blurred then blackened until she lost consciousness.

…She woke to a blur of dark colours flashing by and hair underneath her hand. She was on a horse. It jumped, and she almost slid off but was saved by a hand around her waist. The animal stopped as she was pulled back up. A person got off and gently pushed her hair back from her face. Before her vision blurred again there was a flash of lightening and she saw the face of the prisoner…

Esme woke again, this time in a sun filled room. Her head ached where she must have hit it as she fell. Where am I? The room was bare except for the bed, a stool and basin. She went to the door, it opened easily and there were no guards outside. She bit her lip, her aunt and uncle would be sick with worry. The corridor itself was quiet but she could hear a sound like noisy birds coming from some place. Whistling filled the hall. She turned to see a young man coming towards her, lost in his own thoughts.
‘Oh, hello’ he said when he noticed her.
‘Where am I?’ Esme asked. He laughed but on seeing she was serious became confused.
‘You don’t know?’ she shook her head. ‘Oh, you’re the girl Jakob brought in last night!’ It was a statement, not a question. Esme frowned deeply to emphasize she was still lost. ‘That’s right; he said you were hit by a sleeping dart. I’ll let him explain the rest; here I’ll take you to him.’ He grabbed her arm but she didn’t let him lead her off.
‘Where am I and who are you?’ she demanded.
‘Excuse my manners, Miss. I’m Finn Dunham and you are in the base of the Uwolnienie.’ Her eyes widened, the rebels! She should have realised that’s why soldiers were keeping an innocent man prisoner.
There were always rumours and whispers going around about the rebels; rumours about how they were going to overthrow the King and cut taxes, rumours they used magic.
Finn led her through busier hallways, stopping every now and again to talk to someone. They were all interested in who she was but Finn said ‘top secret’ and they all just laughed, not asking another question.
Esme bit her lip, surely they’d want to know how she knew where to find this Jakob and if she told them she’d probably be hung for being a witch, although if the rumours of magic in the group were true, there may be hope. Finn brought her to a quiet, dim room. The light from the arched windows revealed a lone figure. “Sire” Finn said to announce his presence. The man at the window turned and Esme saw he was the man from the forest, looking more handsome now that he was clean.
‘Finn, I wish you wouldn’t call me that.’ The man sighed then he saw Esme. ‘You’ve woken, marvellous.’ He smiled.
‘Sire, the cook needs carrots and I said-’
‘You may go, thank you for looking after our guest.’ Finn bowed and hurried off. His actions implied Jakob was someone of high rank. Esme gave a clumsy curtsy, making him grimace. ‘Please, don’t feel the need for such acts, I try to get people to stop but some insist.’
‘What’s going on, who are you, why did you take me and what did you mean by ‘you may have just made a terrible mistake’?’ Esme blushed then took a deep breath. He looked at her with an odd expression, half way between guilt and pity.
‘My name is Jakob Odważny and when you freed me you turned against your King. I took you with me because you would have been hung for letting me go. I am one of the two rebel leaders and the rightful heir to the throne.’
‘Will I be able to go home?’ Esme asked, the meaning of his words setting in. His eyes left her face and dropped to the floor. Tears started gathering in her eyes; his answer was obvious. She held her emotions at bay and waited for him to speak.
‘I’m curious, miss-?’
‘Esme’
‘Miss Esme, how did you know where I was?’ She was interrupted before she could begin by a new voice, a voice of authority.
‘That is something I’d also like to know.’ They both turned, in the doorway was a woman. Esme took a sharp breath; she was incredibly beautiful, hair of midnight with the finest jade cloth covering her pale skin. She didn’t look impressed and Esme felt herself wither under the stern gaze but she tried not to let it show. ‘Well, girl, what is your story?’
‘Rue,’ Jakob said, sternly. ‘Esme is a guest who has done us a great favour; don’t treat her like she’s the enemy.’ Rue reddened slightly and her frown deepened. ‘Esme, this is Rue, my equal in command.’ Esme dropped a shallow curtsy. ‘Now, could you please tell us your story?’
Esme searched her mind for a passable story but none presented themselves. She had no choice, so she nodded and told them everything, all the while not looking at either of them. In the silence that followed she couldn’t bear to look up.
‘Amazing. It is like fortune telling but instead of the future, you can see memories.’ Jakob said. Esme looked up. Rue didn’t say anything; she just looked deep in thought.
‘You believe me?’ Esme asked, stunned.
‘Of course!’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘And you don’t want to hang me?’
‘Esme, unlike the King, we support magical talents.’
‘It could be dangerous in the King’s hands.’ Rue said, then paused, placing extra weight to her words. ‘Esme, because of your actions you must decide who you are going to support. We will not harm you if you decide to leave. But be careful because the King might not be so kind.’ Rue looked at Jakob, something passed between them. She nodded before she turned and left. Esme stood, feeling lost, one seemingly simple action had thrust her into a strange new world. She felt tears come anew and turned away from Jakob. She couldn’t help blaming him for her situation.
‘You will need time to think, I’ll leave. You may wander freely but all I ask is that you return here at sunset.’ Jakob said gently, like he knew what she was thinking. Esme only nodded, she hardly heard him leave. From out the window she watched people down below in the courtyard going about their chores. Children played in the puddles from the night’s rain. Esme leaned out; the building stretched out, but shadowed by the surrounding forest it would be hidden from travellers, safe from outsiders.

Later she wandered around aimlessly until she bumped into Finn, who showed her around the base, from the library to the dining hall then to the kitchen and its gardens.
Finn explained how the King killed Jacob’s father and almost killed Jakob. He also warned her that if she went back her whole village would probably be burnt down and she’d be hung.
‘A similar thing happened to me.’ He said, a shadow passing over his eyes. She accepted then that she had only one choice. Finn guided Esme back to the room as the sun was beginning to set and left her there. Jakob arrived shortly after.
‘I’ll join the rebels.’ Esme told him. He looked surprised, started to say something then sighed.
‘I’m sorry; I forced you into this when I took you away.’
She shook her head. ‘No, I chose my path when I rescued you. Finn has shown me what I can be part of and I know it is the way I must go. But I keep thinking about my family, they’ll be worried sick and scared when they’re being questioned by the King’s men.’ She looked out the window, the sun’s golden glow shone through the forest, resting on the tops of the pines. Jakob came up beside her.
‘I cannot change your situation but I can take you to say goodbye.’ He softly said. She turned to look him in the eyes.
‘Really?’
‘It’s the least I can do.’
‘Thank you.’ She replied, relieved.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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One Response to The Clearing, by Kathryn Simons

  1. Pingback: April Short Story Comp – Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

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