“Faster! Move it, Ellara,” the quiet hiss of Troman’s voice pierced the girl’s mental fog. The harsh snapping of his fingers beside her face forced her to return completely to reality. The bent-backed elder pushed forward, bodily moving the slim young woman further down the dark tunnel.
“Troman,” Ellara whispered, “is there really help at the end of the tunnel? Or are we going to wind up in some other, worse district?”
Troman, aged but not broken, smiled behind her. He put his gnarled, wrinkled hand on her shoulder, both guiding her and lending her comfort.
“There’s help, child, I promise,” he said. “The insurrection is small but growing. We add to their strength, you and I, more than most. You, with your knowledge of the upper world, and me, because I’ve toiled in nearly all the under-districts.”
The dark-haired girl nodded but saved her breath for the trek to escape. She tried to ignore the squeaks and chirps of the night animals that scurried away from the small pools of light cast by the pair’s torches. She knew, intimately, the types of things that lurked in the darkness. Rats and insects were the least of the beasts here that fed on blood and flesh, living or dead. Ellara shuddered and forced her mind to turn to other things.
Her mind slipped into fantasies of fresh air and fresh food, fun, and relaxation. She felt a memory float by and she grasped at it. Buildings, towering and gleaming in silvery metals and smooth white stone, sent her mind reeling, deeper into suppressed memories. She remembered open expanses of manicured grass and trees, flowers and shrubs lining stone walkways. The flash of a woman’s face stole her breath.
“My name is Eve,” she whispered.
“Hmmm? What was that, Ellara,” Troman asked from behind her.
The girl slowed her steps, her head reeling from the sudden departure of the memory. She shook her head at the older man but said nothing. The pressure of his hand on her shoulder pressed her forward.
“How much longer, do you think?”
Troman shrugged, then answered with a raspy laugh, “I’ve no idea, but I hope it’s not too much longer. I’m looking forward to some rest and some food.”
To emphasize his point, his stomach let loose a loud gurgling growl. The pair laughed, making sure to keep the sound low and short to ensure their security. They continued shuffling forward in the ankle-deep water.
Ellara and Troman waded for more than an hour before the tunnel ended. The iron grate that covered the opening was rusted and brittle. But even with the years of damage, the pair had to exert themselves to push the three-meter grate aside. Troman huffed and puffed as he leaned against the flaking metal. Ellara put all her weight and strength into helping the bent and gnarled old man, who had started turning red in the face. They were rewarded with the horrific screech of metal bending and a shower of powdered stone when the grate finally gave way.
“Silence is golden,” Troman said with a grin, “but screaming metal is freedom.”
The young woman grinned back at him, her gray eyes sparkling, then grabbed his weathered hand and helped him over the high lip of the tunnel opening. She continued holding his hand as the pair worked their way down the spill of boulders that lined the hillside outside. Ellara paused often to search out the easiest path through the large stones. The half-moon light made the task difficult, but she was thankful there was at least a little light to assist their meager torchlight.
A sound in the darkness made Ellara stop dead. She cocked her head to the side, listening intently for the sound to come again. Her eyes widened and she whipped her ebon-shrouded head around to stare incredulously at Troman.
“Is that…,” she trailed off. The call sounded again, making the young woman laugh. “It is! An owl. I’ve missed hearing owls and didn’t even know it.”
Troman chuckled, “Yes, dear, it’s an owl. They’re thick in the forests around the city, from what I’ve heard. You think it’s a good omen? Us hearing the bird, just as we’ve come out of the tunnels?”
Ellara nodded, excitement stilling her tongue. With new confidence, she chose a fresh path and dragged Troman along, plunging recklessly down the hillside toward the dark forest. The soft night air caressed her soot-smudged ivory face as she scurried down the hill. She could hear poor Troman panting behind her in his efforts to keep up with her tugging.
At the bottom of the hill, Ellara let go of her friend’s hand. Troman collapsed onto an oversized rock nearby, his breath rasping in and out of his lungs in ragged gulps. The giddy girl swirled around in front of him, excitement keeping her from being still.
“Ellara, calm down,” Troman managed to gasp, “we’ve still got a long way to go before we’re truly safe. Conserve your energy.”
Ellara laughed but slowed her twirl to a halt. She moved to sit on the ground beside Troman’s boulder, but another owl call stopped her. She looked longingly toward the sound, but it was up the hill, in the forest to the west of the Elven city. Her eyes darted to Troman, but the man’s quick shake of his head kept her from going to the sound.
“I know. We go south, not west,” she grumbled. She smiled to keep her words from sounding too whiney. As they rested, she considered her friend.
Troman was bent, his back crooked from years of hard labor in the under-districts of the city of Eso. His skin was pale, with spider webs of black soot stains covering his exposed flesh. His arms, sinewy and strong, were splotched with multi-colored bruises from the harsh treatment the underside workers were subjected to. His brilliant blue eyes, framed with graying black eyebrows, were large in his gaunt, triangular face. Troman kept his salt-and-pepper hair cut short to keep the biting bugs at bay. His strong teeth gleamed a dazzling white in the darkness. Ellara remembered how proud the man was of the care he took with his chompers.
“Committing my face to memory, girl,” the man teased Ellara. “I ain’t going anywhere, except to freedom, you know. You’ll have plenty of time to get tired of me.”
The girl blushed. She shook her head and said, “No. I know you’re going with me and we’re going to be safe. I just worry, you know, because you’re so old. Ancient, even.” Ellara laughed as the good-natured barb flew.
Troman shook his finger at her and said, in a crackling imitation of an overly aged man, “Why, you young runt! I oughta…!”
The mockery of himself made Troman laugh, sending Ellara into gales of laughter, as well. The pair chuckled together for several long minutes, until the hilarity of the moment passed. Ellara wiped tears from her eyes and saw Troman doing the same.
“Well, best we continue on our way, girl. Don’t want to get caught out by the guards before we even get good and started,” the man cautioned.
The girl held her hands out for her friend and helped him up from the boulder. His knees cracked and popped as he stood, causing Ellara to raise her eyebrow at him. Troman shook his head, stopping her snarky comments before they started. He grinned when the girl blushed again.
Owl calls and other assorted night sounds followed the pair as they entered the fringes of the darkened forest. Under the canopy of trees, the noises quieted to a soft, musical accompaniment to their solid footfalls. The girl let her mind lose focus and go wandering as she instinctively followed the graying man’s back. She conjured up images of birds of prey; owls, eagles, and hawks floated through her mind.
A flash of gray eyes in a friendly, round face interrupted her mind’s contemplation of raptors. Another flash, blue eyes instead of gray, under blonde brows, nestled among a spidery-web of fine lines. The girl whipped her eyes toward Troman, but the man continued walking, unaware of her troubling visions.
“My name is Eve. My mother is Ellen, my father is Thomas,” she whispered to herself, keeping her voice low enough to escape Troman’s ears.
After she spoke the words, she had another fleeting vision. This time, the couple together, smiling and beckoning to her. The man’s eyes were gray and sparkling. His shaggy hair was midnight-black, with just enough curl to be irritating. He held one hand out to Ellara, while his other held tight to the blonde woman at his side.
The woman, her mother, Ellara supposed, was slim, with baby blue eyes, a heart-shaped face, and shoulder-length golden locks. She smiled, only a gentle upturning of her lips, but it made her eyes light up like the sky after a sudden spring shower.
Ellara stumbled; her memory-clouded eyes missed the roots of an ancient tulip tree. The girl came to her senses with the clenching of Troman’s gnarled hand around her forearm. The man’s eyes were full of concern as he helped Ellara steady herself.
“Are you alright, Ellara? You almost slammed your face into that tree, there.”
The young woman nodded wordlessly. She didn’t trust herself to speak, not knowing what might come out. She straightened her stained tunic and smiled at Troman, reassuring him that she was fine.
The man shrugged, though his eyes still showed worry. “If you’re alright, then you’re alright. I know you’re tired. So am I. Not much further, I think, then we can rest for a while.”
Troman turned and continued walking through the crush of trees and shrubs. He pointed out a few more large tangles of roots, making sure the following girl was aware of the dangerous points. Ellara dutifully stepped over or around each one, thanking Troman every time. To help pass the time, and to keep herself from drifting away into mesmerizing visions, Ellara asked her friend questions about their destination.
“Have you been to where we’re going, Troman? Do you know what we’ll find there? What are the people like?”
The grizzled man chuckled, “You’re full of curiosity, Ellara. No, I’ve not been to Haven. I’ve not been outside of the under-districts in many a year. As for what, and who, we’ll find, I’m not entirely sure. I know there are many humans, with nearly as many of the so-called lesser races intermingled. I’ve heard there are even a few of the elven kind in residence. But that one’s less likely, in my opinion.”
The young woman asked him a question that had been burning in her mind for ages, “Why do the elves call orcs, goblins, minotaurs, and others the ‘lesser’ races?”
Troman slowed to a stop. He turned to face the girl and sighed. He replied, “Elves see anyone who lives without an abundance of magic as ‘lesser’ than they. That includes we humans, you know. Of course, the presence and use of magic doesn’t necessarily equate to intelligence, courage, kindness or a host of other positive qualities. But elves still view themselves as superior.”
“That makes no sense. There are human wizards. I know, because I’ve seen them through some of the crystal portals. Are even they still inferior, in the elves’ eyes?”
Another sigh from Troman, then, “Yes, they are. In fact, most elves see human mages as the worst of the worst. Because those ‘lesser’ mages have to work harder for their magics, continually learning and refining their craft. Elves don’t have to. Of course, elves also tend to use their magic for frivolous pursuits instead of the more practical uses that humans prefer.”
“Elves are just stuck-up,” Ellara muttered under her breath. “Well, I can’t wait to get to Haven. It’s got to be better than Eso. At least the parts of the city I’ve seen!”
Troman’s chuckle made Ellara shrug. She grinned at the man and started walking again. The tired girl tugged her friend behind her, carefully winding through the dark trees. She knew Haven was ahead, even if she didn’t exactly know what to expect. She knew the way forward had to be easier than the drudgery and hardships of Eso’s slave workers, but she hoped it would lead her to a life of happiness and freedom.
(This is a bit longer than usual because it’s the first chapter of a novel. I hope to be finished writing Esotera by the end of March, with intentions to publish in April.)