* * *
The guard rushed to the barred wall, and examined the scene within.
Ceridwen writhed on the dusty floor, her hands clawing at her throat. Her gasps for breath and help were not lost on the guard, but he had been warned that the old crone was not to be trifled with.
Her bulging eyes, and lips of blue convinced the guard that she was not faking her injury. He withdrew a brass key, and placed it slowly into the receptacle. When the door was opened, Ceridwen gasped her last, and lie still at his feet. He withdrew his cutlass, and prodded her limp form. When he received no reaction, he lifted her frail body gently with his arms and supported her head with his shoulder.
Her woozy eyes opened slowly, and she spoke. “Save me,” she coughed.
The guard’s eyes widened with the realization that when the crone spoke, her lips made no movement. He laid her on the bed, and his fingers probed her withered jaw. His fingertips found purchase, but his eyes couldn’t reconcile the difference his fingers felt.
“Magick…” he whispered, and took a step back, thoughtless to the potential danger.
He watched her chest rise and fall in ragged breaths. He only considered his actions for a moment, before procuring a talisman hidden in the folds of his tunic. He held it aloft, and passed the chained crystal over the sleeping Ceridwen. The magick aura waned as the crystal showed the guard her true form.
Arms transformed from liver-spotted to milky white. Wrinkled skin subsumed into supple youthful flesh. Hair a tangle of grey hid luscious black curls.
The crystal hovered, and seemed to be repulsed by her sagging lips. He stepped forward, and forced the crystal to her lips. The crystal cracked, and the magick aura broke with it. He was left to stare down at a beautiful young woman. Her skin was as white as snow, her hair as black as ebony. Her lips…
The guard frowned at the brass mask covering her from chin to forehead. He wondered what beauty or horror the mask covered. Surely, he thought, surely the beauty contained within matches the fine example of femininity.
Her breathing problem was evident: the brass formed nose was pinched, and the jaw was askew. It appeared as if the woman had fallen, and the impact had crushed part of the mask. The ragged breath he heard from her was from air rushing between malformed brass.
He gently lifted her head to search for what machinations hid her true beauty. A brass clasp secured the mask to her head, and a single brass link closed the clasp. The guard didn’t need his cracked crystal to discern the magic emanating from the lowly link. He slid his cutlass betwixt the clasps and pried with all his strength.
The moon had moved out of view from the solitary window, and the apple orchard below returned to shadow by the time he had worked the brass back and forth, and finally it separated from the mask. He lifted the mask from her head, and he couldn’t help but stare at her lips. Lips as red as blood.
* * *
A gong sounded from the castle. Torches along the grounds multiplied as more guards were shaken awake, and joined in the search. Tobias clutched the unconscious form to his chest and looked back at the earth works that separated the castle from the expansive apple orchard. He breathed deep to catch his breath. Although the young woman was petite, she was heavy for a man who spent his nights prowling the prison, and his days attempting peaceful slumber. No matter the attempt, something always awoke him, and he often performed his rounds in a slight daze of exhaustion. He would never complain, for the position and trust as a night guard was coveted by his contemporaries. A position he knew he could never return to.
He determined he had rested long enough, and stole a furtive glance back to the castle. He hefted the young woman who he refused to continue calling Ceridwen to his shoulder and jogged through the orchard, his destination the black mountains of Rooskye, across the Allooashinn River his obvious goal. He did not fear leaving Oossah soil, as his tale of treachery by the king and the incarcerated woman was all the proof he needed to prove his worth.
* * *
Tobias leaned against an outcropping of rock. The apple orchard was over the horizon, and the sound of the Allooashinn River was detectable amongst the sounds of the forest.
A sharp noise sounded from the dense thicket. A sneeze, he determined, and drew his cutlass. He had barely the strength to wield it, but he reasoned that no one would be the wiser.
“Zesnye may as well be a member of the Sneeze Guard.”
Tobias watched as seven dwarves materialized from the thicket. One of them ran his arm under his nose, and scowled at the dwarf that had spoken.
“I am King Odc, and I present to you the Dwarven Guard.”
Tobias looked from dwarf to dwarf, not lowering his cutlass. “I seek safe passage for me and my companion to the black mountains of Rookskye.”
Odc nodded and looked to the still form at Tobias’s feet. He turned to a dwarf dressed all in blue. “Is it her, Pelyse?”
Pelyse nodded slowly, leaned against a tree, closed is eyes, and snored softly, his blue coif covering his eyes.
Odc regarded Tobias. “We will grant her safe passage, but what about you, castle guard?”
Tobias lowered his cutlass.
An uptight dwarf clad in all red stepped forward. His one-eyed stare seemed to sap the strength from Tobias. “We should dispatch this meddlesome interloper.” He emphasized his suggestion by swinging a large rock on the end of a brass handle over his head.
Odc replied. “No, no, Prymgu. We must follow the prophecy to the letter.”
“A shame,” Prymgu replied, looking at Tobias over his long, bulbous nose.
Odc turned toward the thicket. The Dwarven Guard moved to follow him. As the seven of them disappeared, Odc returned and glared at Tobias. “Well? Are you coming?”
Tobias glanced briefly at the rocks above that formed the black mountain. He sheathed his cutlass, hefted the sleeping woman, and followed the dwarves into the thicket, and the rocks below.
Next: Frozen in Time