My life is a hard one. I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. It is the second of May 2590. I am hiding. Hiding from the spies that stalk the night like wolves stalking their prey. Kicker, Huckleberry and Fly are behind me, Flora and Vladrin are on either side. In the past year I've been through more than most people have in a lifetime. This is the story of how I came to be in this place. This place of misery.
One year previously
I am training at the Hickstead Academy for Combat Training when I first get signs that there is something wrong. Kicker, my Hanoverian stallion, and I are in the middle of cross country endurance course when coach Stalica - a man with an incredibly muscular build and a fondness for the art of unseen movement - comes up to us on his roan charger Maximus, and says "Commander Jackson wants to see you immediately Astrid. And you had better be quick about it. She doesn't like to be kept waiting. Just give Kicker to the stable hand."
I look at him for a minute, then he says with a sharp tone, "Go on then!", and so off I go.
Hickstead was the best training camp in the country. The army take the best students and train them to be special agents in charge of tracking and hunting down the criminal spies that are sent in from the rebels to gather Intel.
I gallop back to the yard as fast as I can and let the stable hand take care of Kicker. Then I run to the office. As I close in on the office, I think back to last night. I had stayed on campus a bit longer to give Kicker a bit of extra training and was just going to the office when I heard that the Premiere was visiting Commander Jackson. I went to the office to learn what I could through eves dropping (we are taught to do this if we might hear something suspicious in case it is a rebel spy). As I neared the office I caught the end of the sentence, "- and the subjects in the lab are going to be sent to the morgue soon. None of them have survived the tests. Send me the other children who have not passed the Examination and we'll see if we can work them."
I had to cover my mouth in surprise when I heard that. The Examination was a test to see if a child was fit and clever enough to become an agent of the Republic. No one knows what happens to you after the Examination if you get lower than 10% but you are never seen again. They say that they are sent to special training but that was never really believed. I was the only one in the history of the Republic to have ever got 100% in the Examination. A nice, round, juicy 5000. I think I stepped on something outside the door but what ever happened, they both rushed outside to see what it was. I walked casually to the end of the corridor as if I hadn't heard anything. They gave me a strange look and went back into the office. After that I could only make out a faint whisper. I'm sure that that's what Jackson wants to talk to me about.
I enter the office.
"Hello, Astrid." comes a voice from behind the door. I start, whip my head round, getting into my position, ready for combat.
"Very good Astrid. Your training has come along quite nicely,"
She looked at her nails. Perfectly manicured as always.
"It's just a shame that your skills can't be used tomorrow."
"Why not?" I ask.
"Because, you are going to go down to the archives with Stalica tomorrow and there you will study the history of the Republic. This is a vital part of your training."
I'm sure of her reasoning. There is something suspicious about the way she said it. My training tells me that something in her voice betrayed that something was not what it seemed.
I follow the commander's orders but before trekking down, I go to the armoury. I grabbed a belt of throwing knives, a steel plated vest, and a backpack, nylon fingerless gloves and lots of other things. I might as well take precautions if I am forced to do something drastic. I put the pack on and head to the stable yard.
When I got to Kicker's stall I pulled off the backpack and hid it in his stall. Then I sprinted to the tack room and got Kicker's endurance tack and an extra soft saddle cloth. I got his snaffle bridle and went to tack him up.
Once that's done I get a saddle bag and fill it with various canned food and other things I'd need to survive in the wilderness.
I have only half an hour to get to the archives. So I pack the rest of my supplies and head off to the Archive Building. On the way I fasten the belt of throwing knives around my waist and pull my jacket down over them. I mustn't let people see them. They might think I'm one of the rebel spies.
I arrive there fifteen minutes later. I'm wearing a white t-shirt, black leggings, brown boots and a grey puffer jacket with a hood, and concealed underneath all of that is my cured leather steel plated vest. Stalica is waiting for me outside the door. He appears to be on edge. He is making a great effort to hide it, but nothing gets past the girl that has the perfect percentage. We enter the building and go down the stairs to the vaults. Stalica takes out his pass card and feeds it through the slot. I listen to the machine beep, then the door click. He pushes open the door and with a creek, reveals the vast expanse of shelves containing the entire history of the Republic.
Stalica enters first, and I follow. He's walking stiffly as if he's concealing something within the dark depths of his army jacket. He looks back as if he knows I'm looking for something in his behaviour.
Details about the room start flooding into my head. Possible exits, numbers of shelves, how many steps we take from the door.
We spend most of the day combing through old manuscripts and articles - what for I have no idea - but I soon come across something that makes my heart jump. An old letter to the Premiere. It's old and worn but I can still make out what it says.
This is the decree from the Office of Scientific Research about the order you wanted for the destruction and experimentation of the children who have failed the Examination. We have approved this action, so you are now free to send us the children.
This is so shocking that I can't think of anything to say. Stalica notices my hesitation even though I'm quick to cover it up. I know by his body language that he is listening to someone in his ear mike. He brings his hand up to his ear, as if to scratch it, but then I see the quick motion of his finger in his ear. He couldn't hear the person in the mike. The person is trying to keep what they are saying hidden. He regards me suspiciously.
I don't know quite what happens next. Stalica stands and reaches for the gun at his belt. But before he can do anything, I kick back my chair and fall on the lights. Stalica is only momentarily disorientated. But it's just enough time for me to get a whack at his face. I punch him as hard as I can. He falls backwards into a shelf, knocking it over.
The paper still clutched in my hand, I make a break for the exit. I can make it out.
Then I'm out. Running for the stable. If I can get there I can get Kicker, we can run away as fast as the wind.
I'm nearly there when I hear army trucks behind me. I double my pace. Intent on getting there. Then I'm there. I zoom into the stall. Tighten the girth straps and get ready to ride. Then I leap up onto him and we charge out of the stable just as soldiers start to pour into the building.
I use complex manoeuvres to avoid them. It's hard but we get through the mass of men and before they realise what's happened, we're off, tearing down the lane onto the high street.
We keep on galloping until we reach woodland (we are close to the countryside. This forest is vast and used to be called the New Forest but now we don't have a name for it). Once I'm sure I'm not being followed anymore and we've lost our pursuers, I pull Kicker back to a slow canter. Then to a walk. He puts his head down low - the run took a lot out of him - and we start towards the town of Brigstone - I want to find somewhere to let Kicker drink and where we can rest for the night.
Brigstone is the place where the Republic's most renowned criminal supposedly resides. Vladrin. The Republic has no idea why he stays there, but in the many searches conducted of its many buildings, not once have they found any trace of his existence.
Take this brief rest to check what items I flung into my saddle bags and rucksack. There's some canned foods; dried foods; a metal dish and cup; a piece of rag cloth; a scoring sponge (I don't know why); some snare wire; a wire to connect computers to phones; a four metre long length of thick climbing rope; a rolled up sheet of thick canvas for Kicker; a steel and flint; some carrots; a small jar of seasoning; a loaf of bread; a big bottle of water; a bottle of iodine; a water proof sleeping bag; some water proof trousers and a light water proof jacket and some extra throwing knives ( I specialise in throwing knives so why not play to my strengths?).
Some of the bags contain things that I may have no need for but you never know when you might need something. This isn't the first time I've camped out in the wilderness - we did lots of wilderness survival classes back at Hickstead - but it is the first time I've done it without someone to call on if anything went wrong. But if I did I had to have that someone all the time then I wouldn't be much good at it if and when I had to do it alone. Now that time has come and it's time for me to start to fend for myself entirely.
I mount Kicker and coax him into a trot. This is the pace that he can keep up for a long time, even when he is this tired. We trot until 21:00. Then I walk him around until we find I small stream. I choose to camp her tonight. I know we shouldn't stop but Kicker needs a rest and so do I. I look at my watch. 21:30. We shouldn't stay here too long anyway. I set the alarm on my watch to wake me up at 5:00. I set it to vibrate just in case the noise attracts any unwanted attention.
I don't dare light a fire, so I eat some strips of dried beef and a hunk of bread cold. I then wash it down with some water and go over to Kicker.
He's next to the stream cropping the thick grass that coats its banks. I pull his head up to take out his bit - he has a special bridle that turns into a halter if you take out the bit - and then loosen his girth. I don't take off his saddle altogether because we might need to make a swift getaway. Besides, it will keep him relatively warm throughout the night. I tether him to a strong tree branch where he can reach the water and the grass then give him a carrot.
Then I go to the saddle bags and get the big bottle of water and the small bottle of iodine and go to refill and purify the water bottle. Then I unroll my sleeping bag and settle down for the night. I don't think I'll get to sleep; my senses are sharpened to even the slightest of sounds and smells; but eventually I slip into a trance like state where I am still aware of my surroundings but where I can still rest `
The buzzing of my watch wakes me up. 5:00. Just in time. I pack up all of the supplies and covers then go over to Kicker. He's cropping the remains of the grass that are within his reach. I replace the bit to the bridle; put the saddle bags over his back; buckle them on; do up the girth and start to lead him away from the stream. I lead him to the edge of the small clearing where I camped and mount up - don't want to bother with breakfast and Kicker has had lots of grass.
We canter through the woodland until midday. We stop for a brief respite and to let Kicker have a drink from a small pond, but then we're back on the road - not really a road or even a trail because I'm trying to keep off the main tracks and keep as discrete as possible. I look at my watch. 19:00. We can go for a few more hours.
Tonight we trot until 22:00. I'm weaving Kicker through the thick undergrowth and shrubbery of the forest when we come across a clearing. It's quite small but big enough to hold a small hut. The hut doesn't look like it's been used for decades. I dismount. Tethering Kicker to a tree, I approach it carefully. It's incredibly old but it doesn't look like it's going to come down any time soon. I do a quick sweep of the interior. No one home. I don't think anybody lives her but there could be someone hiding in wait for me. When I decide that it's clear, I go to get Kicker. This would make an ideal place to spend the night.
I lead Kicker into the hut. It's not very big inside but it's big enough to hold both me and Kicker.
It's no too cold but I light a small fire in the corner of the room. This time I take everything but the head collar off and tether him to a low beam from the ceiling. I try to make it out of dry wood so it doesn't make any smoke. It works. I take out the role of yarn and make and dip it into a puddle of sticky liquid that's dripping off the roof outside the door. It smells like tar. When it dries, I put a can of soup into it. A makeshift cauldron stand is set in the middle of the room. I take it over to the fire I've made and hook the can holder and the soup onto the stand.
It takes five minutes for the soup to cook. I eat the soup and then go to the side of the hut.
I look around the outside of the hut again just to be safe. Nothing out of the ordinary except for a pit round the back that emits a foul smell. Gold star for whoever guesses what it is.
I retrieve my snaring wire from the saddlebags and set a snare. It'll be nice to have some fresh meat with a proper meal.
When I've finished my scouting, I collect some grass and roots for Kicker and then look for a water source. I find a small brook running down the west side of the hut. I go and get the water bottle and fill it up. I purify it when I get back to the hut and give kicker the whole bottle. I go back to the stream and refill it. Just as I'm getting up, I smell something disgusting. I look around to see what it might be. It takes me two minutes to realise that it's me that smells so bad. I must look awful too. I decide to have a quick dip in the stream.
I take off all but my underclothes and soak myself in the water. It's cold. But not unbearable. I stay there for ten minutes trying to scrub the worst of the dirt of my body. When I'm finished, I get redressed and go back to the hut. I give Kicker his grass and roots and rub him down with a handful of dried grass from the front of the house. Then a carrot and some water to wash it down. Then I unroll my sleeping bag and put then light horse sheet over Kicker's bare back. Once the buckles have been secured, I climb into my sleeping bag at 23:00 and soon fall into a light sleep.
My watch is set to a 5:00 buzzing alarm. I wake up and stretch groggily. I realise that I haven't had much sleep these past few days. Shaking away a wave of sleepiness, I go over to the dying embers of the meagre fire. I retrieve the can of soup - I didn't finish it last night - and eat the rest of the contents. When I'm finished, I go get some more roots and grass for Kicker. He munches on them contently while I go out and collect some wild greens and edible roots to have next time we stop to eat. Then I check the snare. It turns out my snaring skills aren't as bad as I thought. I've managed to catch a squirrel. Not much but hey. I'm still learning. Once again I pack up all of my supplies and put them in the saddlebags. Then I put on Kicker's saddle and bridle and fix the saddlebags to the back.
I lead him out to the front of the hut and give him one last drink. Then I mount up and take him into a steady canter.
We're walking by midday. Not even hurrying. Just strolling through the woodland area. I expect that we'll be on this same routine for about a week. This forest is said to be the biggest in the Republic - and we're known for the size of our forests.
Soon we come upon a large clearing. In fact it's not large, it's huge. In the middle is a small herd of wild ponies grazing on the sparse grass. We stop. Kicker gives a me a small nicker. We move forward. When we get close enough, Kicker gives them a greeting whiny. Their heads all perk at up together when they hear it and they come trotting over. Now I get a closer look at them, I confirm that they're definitely wild. They have shaggy, unbrushed manes and tails with leaves and small branches dotted around their bodies. There are two foals in the herd. Their mothers giving me threatening looks, pinning their ears back.
'Don't worry, we're not going to hurt you,' I say in a soothing voice.
We don't spend too long looking at the herd. When they've lost interest and have gone back to munching on the grass, we move on through the clearing. Over the course of the afternoon, we come across a herd of deer. We don't stop and gawp at them, but instead just move on. We also come across lots of other woodland animals such as hedgehogs, weasels, rabbits and all manner of wild fowl and birds.
Nothing interesting happens after the animals. When the sun is just starting to dip down below the horizon, we come across a lake. I recognise it from my geography classes at Hickstead. It's Lake Falcon. So named because birds congregate here before migration and so it's an ideal hunting ground for the birds of prey that nest along its shores. If I concentrate, I think I can make out some of them going back to their nests to feed their young.
I had expected to come across this lake sooner or later so I'm not too surprised. I just didn't imagine it could be this beautiful. There's a small waterfall at the other side of it. It's not very big, but that doesn't make it any less magnificent.
On the banks of the lake are many large clusters of trees. Perfect for camping undercover. I take Kicker over to one such cluster that we can put up a shelter and still be next to lake - Kicker could drink from the lake and still be under the shelter.
I tether him to a tree and set about making a shelter out of fallen logs, sticks and leaves. When that's done, I put the small piece of plastic into the parts of the shelter that are most likely to leak if it rains. Then I gather some smaller logs, dried grass and sticks and pile then in the centre of the shelter. I get out my steel and flint and set a fire. Then I go over to Kicker.
I see him cropping the grass peacefully. He looks at me and snuffles my hand, which is held behind my back - he knows I've got something for him. I give him his carrot. I take all of his tack off except his head collar but don't tether him. Then I rub him down with a handful of dried grass.
I get the squirrel out that I caught with my last snare. I clean it and cut it up. I find a good stick and make a spit. Then I put the chunks of meat on my metal dish and get out my jar of herbs. I season it with salt and add some of the other herbs. I find a couple dandelions next to where I'm sitting. I pick the leaves of the small plant and them to some of the roots and greens that I've got out of the bag to have with the squirrel. I put stick the pieces of seasoned meat on the spit and cook them on the fire.
The squirrel cooks for about fifteen minutes before I'm satisfied that it's cooked through properly. I put it on my metal dish and pile the plate with roots and greens. I take a bite of squirrel. It tastes a lot better than I thought it would be. I dig into the rest of the food. It's gone within minutes. I lick my fingers. That was the best meal I've had since we fled into the forest. As I'm going down to the bank of the lake under the cover of my shelter, it starts to rains. I'm not too worried because this homemade shelter is sturdy and won't let much water through, it's big enough for me and Kicker to sleep comfortably and it opens out onto the lake so we can get water and still be covered.
I still don't want Kicker to get cold so I drape him in his light rug to keep warm. I want to set another couple of snares so I put on my light raincoat on and go out with the snaring wire clasped tightly in my hand.
I don't go that far. But far enough so that we don't scare the prey off when we sleep and so I can find it again. I make the knots and sprinkle a handful of bait in the middle of the noose. Then I'm back off to the hut where I set my alarm to one hour later than usual. 6:00. Then I go to sleep with Kicker snoring quietly a couple feet away.
6:00 alarm wakes me up as per usual. I go out to check the snares first. I now know that I'm not completely rubbish at snaring. A rabbit and some sort of wild grouse. These will make for a nice couple of meals in the days to come. I eat the rest of the squirrel from last night with some wild greens and then pack up my supplies. Then I re-tack Kicker and put his rug - its waterproof as well - over the saddle to keep him dry. I give him a carrot to keep his energy and morale. Then I fill the water bottles. After that start to dismantle the shelter. Riding away through the rain.
We stop at midday. I light a small fire and cook the rabbit. I eat half of it with some herbs, greens and roots. The rain stopped about half an hour ago. Then we're off again.
After a week of the same routine. Skirting the edges of the lake to get to Brigstone. In that week nothing eventful happens. Pretty much the same as the past few days. By the end of the week we have reached the edge of the forest. There are still trees but not nearly as many. I can see the town through them. It's not a very large and looks deserted. Though I can tell that people are living there. It's run down. Military trucks and soldiers everywhere. They're either there hoping to catch Vladrin or have worked out where I'm headed.
I eat the rest of a rabbit I caught yesterday. It's already cooked. There's no need for a shelter. The sky is clear tonight. So I make sure that Kicker has food and water, and then I climb into my sleeping bag and go to sleep.
I wake up before my alarm goes off. Don't know why. I do a quick disguising. I make myself look like an old trader and Kicker I make look like her trusty pack horse. That should through off anyone who's looking for me but maybe not the locals. They don't really matter anyway. All I want to do is find Vladrin and ask him a couple of questions. It's quite a lot to have been through just to do this one simple task but it is probably the most vital thing and needs to be done first. Well it's now or never.
'Come on boy. Not far now.'
And off we go.
I don't enter the town directly from the forest but go to the road about a mile from the town and enter the town through those means. Not wanting arouse any suspicion. It's not hard blending in with the travellers coming into the town from far off places. In fact, there are people that look just as battered as me with pack horses walking beside them. We fit right in.
Once in the town I look for lodgings for travellers with barns or stables. I find a cheap one and pay at the desk with a handful of coins. When my things are in my room and Kicker is comfortable in his stall - the first time in a nice stall for a long time he loves it - I go out to try and find out what I can about this so called criminal.
I'm on the streets of the town, going into pubs. I hear people muttering the news of the far off big cities. It unnerves me when I hear a group of purvey men talking about the perfect Republic girl who betrayed them and ran into the woods. I know that they're talking about me. It must've been all over the news. I get a couple of large gashes in a nasty, quite violent, bar fight. I managed to get out just before the street police came in to break it up. even though they didn't hurt that much, they were bleeding quite seriously. But they don't know that that girl is in the room with them. I'm probably classed as one of the most dangerous threats to the Republic now, second only to the great Vladrin.
I ask inconspicuous questions as to the whereabouts of the criminal, seeing if anybody knows anything that they might accidently let slip to give me a hint where to look.
The first day I have no luck. None the next day either. But I do spot a couple of people giving me looks. Maybe they are starting to recognise me. Are there posters of my face up around the town that I haven't seen? Has someone told the criminal I'm looking for him? Or maybe the military? So many questions. I'm beginning to wonder if he really is here.
I'm in my room at the end of the first day and I'm just about to go to bed. I wash in my en suit bathroom and dress into some dry clothes. It rained all day today. Then I climb under the sheets of the bed and fall asleep.
Next day I'm out with Kicker, riding through the streets of the town. We take the back alley back to the lodging. We're going down the alley when I catch a small movement out of the corner of my eye. At first I think I imagined it but then I see another one. Then suddenly something flies out of the shadows and hits me in the head. I black out as I fall to the ground. The last thing I see is two people rushing towards me.
I wake up in a small room. I'm sitting on a chair. My head hurts where I was hit. I reach up to rub it. Then I realise that my hands are tied behind my back. My feet are tied too. One to each front leg of the chair so that my legs are spread apart. Damn my bloody insecurity. A bit of an awkward position if you're in my current situation. My mouth is tied with a strip of cloth. I feel a rag inside my mouth. When I try to make a noise, all that comes out is a soft muffled grunt. My slight movements and sounds must've alerted someone in the room that I was awake because I see someone out of the corner of my eye. Then something hits me across the side of me face. It stings. I look at the floor and see a rubber band. I look around the room for the source of it. Then my eyes fix on three large figures in the corner of the room. They're horses. I'm relieved Kicker I safe and not injured, but I don't think I've ever seen the other two before. It's a large mare and a small gelding. The mare is pure black, a blaze on her head and one white sock on the near-fore leg. I think she's a Lusitano. The gelding is a smaller horse. A pony. A long shaggy mane and tail that are coloured like a chestnut horse. A goldeny-orangy colour. But the mane and tail are a light cream (flaxen). I'm guessing he's a Haflinger from Sweden. He reminds me of the herd of small wild ponies we met in the forest. Then another band hits me across the other cheek. In the split second that I'm momentarily blinded, the person that's been hiding in the shadow and rush behind me and grabs my hair. They yank my head back to reveal my exposed throat. I feel something cold press against the warm flesh of my neck. A knife. Then a voice.
'Well, well, well. Look what we have here.' comes a mocking voice from behind me. Young. Male.
'A rogue agent of the Republic. No, no, that would not do would it. And if you want to know, the mare is called Fly and the other one's Flash.' Softer this time. The pressure lifts from my neck and a figure steps out into the open. It's a boy. No more than nineteen. Well I'm only seventeen so I can't really judge. He wears a hard leather vest with a loose white shirt underneath, a black leather armband with silver spikes, buckled to his arm. But the most amazing thing was his eyes. Deep yellow with a hint off red. Almost a dazzling as my dark brown-hinted-with-gold-and-blue pair. I find myself lost in the fire within for a moment. Then I start to notice all the different details of his features. Longish bleached blond hair, muscular build - an all-round good looking guy. No. Not just good looking. The most beautiful man I've ever seen in my life.
He sees me studying him. I want to say something. I think he can sense it.
'I'll take out your gag so you can speak. State your business as I ask the questions. If not, it goes back in and your horse gets sent to the butcher. Got it.'
I nod. He goes round the back of my chair and undoes the knot holding the rag and strip of cloth to my mouth. I take in a gulp of fresh air. I'm about to start blurting out insults and demand to know who he is a why he kidnapped me and Kicker. I'm about to yell the first word when the dagger comes up to my throat again and I'm stopped in my tracks. I stop as suddenly as I started.
'I ask the questions, not you. And if I'm right, you're not in any place to make demands. I could go out there and tell the military that you're here. But that wouldn't be very fair now would it.'
I can see that he won't make good on that threat. He looks at me fondly and there is no evil in his eyes. Just curiosity, confusion and maybe even a little bit of anger. Then he starts asking the questions.
'First things first, why are you looking for me?' his dagger pointed at my neck I gulp, and then say, 'What about my name?'
'I think you know why I'm not asking you that. I already know your name. so does just about everybody in the lower part of the town.' He repeats the question, 'Why were you looking for me?' He's getting angry now.
'It's a bit of a long story.'
'I've got time.'
I tell him the basics of why I was looking for him, not revealing too much until I know I can trust him - he did knock me out and tie me to a chair after all - but that's seeming like it's going to be more and more likely the more I talk. I still don't let much go. He asks me other questions.
'Who do you work for?'
'You know I was a Republic agent. But now no one. Not since I fled.'
'Okay. How did you get here and how long did it take you?
'I came through the woods, riding Kicker. I took about a week and a half.'
'How old are you?'
'Seventeen,' Figure there's no reason he shouldn't know.
'A bit young to be traveling in the wilderness all alone, isn't it?'
'You don't seem to be having any trouble,' I retort.
'Fair enough. Now here's the clincher.' He leans in closer. 'Give me one good reason why I should let you live.'
I had expected a question like this but the way he words it comes across as a bit of a shock. Anyway, I still have an answer.
'Are you interested in exposing the Republic's lies?'
'I have information as to what the Republic are doing to the children that fail the examination. And I know the military customs and layouts of all their bases inside out.'
'Interesting. You've convinced me. Flora! Get some bread and ham from the cupboard and a cup of water for the girl.'
A girl emerges from the shadows at the back of the room. She's younger than me and the boy. She has dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes. She was probably a street urchin before he found her. She wears tattered jeans and an old T-shirt that is torn in many places. She seems nervous, but then she sees that I'm immobilised by ropes and straightens up a bit. She goes over to the boy with a plate of food in one tiny little hand. It has a hunk of wholemeal bread and a slice of ham on it. In the other hand she holds a small clay cup of water. The boy takes them then turns his attention back to me.
'This is Flora. She helps me out when I need help and does all the first aid stuff when I've hurt myself. She's the one that patched up those gashes from that pub fight you were in. She's also pretty good with horses. She managed to calm down your stallion after we knocked you out. Quite a gift. He was very angry. You have special bond with him.'
'I've had him since he was a foal. I looked after him when his mother died.' I reply in a threatening tone.
'Well that explains it then.'
He offers me the plate and cup.
'Here. You'll probably need this to keep your strength up.'
'I thought you would've noticed as I presume it was you who did it, that my hands are tied behind my back and I can't get them out.'
Without saying anything, he gets another rope from the corner of the room and ties me by the waist, to the chair. Then he unties my hands and ties them again in front of me.
'There you go, now you can eat.'
And with that he and Flora leave and shut the door. I hear of a key being turned in the lock. I'm locked in.
I eat the food and drink the water. I haven't had bread for a long time. I finished the last of the loaf about halfway from the lake to the town. It's been five days since I got to the town and another three since then. I'm actually very hungry.
When I've finished, I try and get the ropes off. The knots are expertly tied and I'm very tired. I realise that it's a futile attempt to try and tie them undone. When I know that won't work, I try reaching for the knives at my belt. They aren't there. I should've known. Vladrin - I'm guessing it's him, I mean, it must be, he said I'd been looking for him - must've taken them off me when I was knocked out. Clever little bastard. Oh well. I'll just have to wait and see what the morning brings. I don't think it'll be anything too bad. I hope.
I wake up in the due course of the day. No alarm to wake me up. I'm sitting there for about ten minutes trying to figure out another way to get out when Vladrin and Flora come in with some more bread and water.
'Morning,' he says. 'Sleep well?'
'Yeah,' I reply sarcastically, 'I love sleeping in a small room, tied to a chair.'
'Well sorry. I had to make sure you didn't escape and do something that would put us both in prison. And probably Flora too. She's done nothing wrong.'
'How did everyone know it was me?' I ask. I'm very curious about what he said yesterday.
'You really don't know do you?'
I shake my head. He laughs.
'Go on Flora. I need to talk privately with Miss Flicker'
She exits the room quietly. Then…
'You Republic people that live in the big cities in comfort and luxury have no idea what we people are doing in the little villages and towns do you. Ha! Most of them are rebel towns. The rebels have been recruiting towns all over the country. This is one of them. They have been secretly training the people with the best Examination scores to work against the Republic. I bet they'd want to get their hands on you. Lots of hidden skills that can be used for the good of the rebels. They can take you to their training camps and find out lots of inside information.'
He's been getting closer and closer. His lips are practically touching mine. All I have to I lean forward and we'll be there. In each other's embrace. I can imagine his soft lips on mine.
I feel something wet on my lips. I open my eyes. Wait. I wasn't imagining it. We actually are kissing. He's all over me. And to my surprise, I'm kissing him back just as fondly.
When the embrace finally breaks, I'm shivering. He looks a little flustered but otherwise unfazed. He recovers quickly though. He takes my hands and unties them then ties them behind my back again.
'I'll be back after I've been the market. Then, if you behave, I'll untie you and give you free roam of the house. Then maybe let you go out and ride for a bit.'
'I'm sorry, but the gag has to go in again. I can't have you shouting for help or anything of the sort.'
'That's alright. I understand.'
He puts the rag back in my mouth and ties it with the cloth. Just as he's leaving, he turns back and says, 'I'll be about three hours. Bye.'
He waves then turns and closes the door, locking it behind him.
I'm so bored for the next few hours. Well there's not much you can do when you're immobilized, is there?
He comes back when he said he would. He comes in to the room and sets down a basket.
'I'll keep my word and let you around the cabin.'
He goes round behind me to the back of the chair. I want to leap out of the chair and tackle him to the ground, give him a long series of whacks with my fists. The ropes fall loosely to the ground. I don't move. I try to find the urge to beat the crap out of him but it's gone. I want to but I can't. Here I am, Astrid Flicker, the only person in the country to have ever beaten the Examination, the one who took three years' worth of defence and strategy courses in a matter of a few months, four years ahead of schedule, not able to even take a punch at a guy I hate. What's happened?
'You okay?' His voice startles me.
'Yeah, I'm fine'
He starts to walk away. This is my chance; I can take a punch at him now when he's most vulnerable and make a break for freedom. I lift a hand to send him to the floor; the power wells up behind the punch; I even take a step back, to give it that extra bit of oomph, but then my arm goes limp. The power leaves it and I'm left standing there as he leaves the room. I've never felt that before. A fluttery sensation in my stomach. Wait. It's new, but not entirely alien. I felt it once before at the Academy when I was going out with a boy named Rex. A loved him. He was the one I felt was going to be there my whole life. He was the only boy I have ever felt anything towards - his parents were Republic spies. Until now. The feeling is not as prominent as it was when I was with Rex but it is still there.
Anyway. Whatever my feelings of the past, I have decided I'm going to trust him. I know that he could be luring me into a trap, but there's something about him that, not only makes me comfortable around him, but also makes me positive that I will be safe, as long as I stay with him.
I've been living with him for a week. The routine has got to be pretty normal. He wakes me up in the morning for me to do the chores he has set me. I don't like them but I do them anyway. First I feed the horses, then I make the breakfast - Flora helps with that bit - when everyone's done and the dishes are clean, I go to the market place to sell little trinkets made buy Vladrin and buy things like bread in exchange. When I'm back, I make lunch. When Vladrin has finished his business with the rebels (he eavesdrops on the gossip from the soldiers and relays it to the spies within the town. They then send the intel to the rebel's secret base. I don't know where that is.) and takes me out for a ride around the meagre fields and scrublands.
I look at the slabs of fresh meat laid out on the butcher's table. Too expensive. I move on to the baker. The smell coming off the table is heavenly. I spy out a cottage loaf with herbs and seeds mixed into the dough. That one. I hand two silver coins over the counter and the man gives me the loaf. Oh, wait. I buy some small roles then head back to the house.
I'm walking down the back alley to the house when something catches my eye. It's a 'wanted' poster. It's a 'wanted' poster for me! 5000dCsN (that's our money)!
Oh my god, I think. How many people have seen this? Has anybody already reported my location?
Just as I'm thinking that thought, a soldier appears at the end of the alley and shouts, 'hey, there she is!'
I hear a rushing of footsteps. I turn and run.
I run back down the alley. Turning onto the main street, I nearly knock over an old woman. Holding the bread, I run down the street as fast as I can. If they know who I am then they'll know that they can't catch me but they'd still try. But they know who I am and they know that they need to catch me if they want to get paid.
I turn down our street. I'm at the door. I force the stiff hinges open and barge into the kitchen. Vladrin is sitting at the table with Flora - who can't read or write - doing some word exercises. He looks up, startled by my sudden appearance and red face. I'm out of breath. I finally mange to spit out, 'soldiers coming…saw my picture on notice board…coming to arrest me.'
Vladrin gets up and storms over to me. 'get the supplies packed up and saddle the horses. We'll talk about this later.'
Well, I have to say I didn't expect that response. But I scurry to obey the order. Flora comes to help. We pack up all the durable food into rucksacks and saddlebags. I take Flora into the horses' barn round back and we pack the things up. When we're back inside the house I turn into my bedroom. I grab some extra clothes and stuff them into my bag. I turn to leave the room but find my exit blocked by Vladrin. 'I thought you might like these back.' He holds up my chest and waist belts of throwing knives in one hand and in the other, my leather, steel plated vest and my gloves. They have the spikes still attached. I take them from him and put them on, a beaming smile seeps onto my face. He smiles too.
'Figured you might need them.' I turn to leave, 'Astrid' I turn back to him.
'You might need these as well.' He tosses me another two belts. One sports two guns, one small pistol gun and the other, a heavy duty pistol. Both are full. The other belt is a back strap and contains two small, close combat knives and a short broad bladed, steel hilt sword. I can only guess that he go them from the rebels.
We all run to the horse room. I grab Kicker's reins and hoist myself up. Flora does the same but Vladrin goes to the back and opens the doors and the gate so that we can get out. I grab Fly's reins and we gallop out to the gate, pausing only briefly for Vladrin to take the mare's reins and vault on whilst she's still moving.