Weak light streamed through the thin openings between the boards that sealed the cellar. Salia searched through the broken table legs, a sagging three-legged chair, the crushed remains of her reed flute, old crates and a scratched, warped chest with a broken hinge for a weapon or a tool, anything to help her escape. Talin was going to beat her. And later, when customers arrived, she would still have to work, regardless of how much he hurt her.
She had to get away. Not just out of this cellar. Out of this inn. Out of this town.
It’s wrong to steal, hissed a voice in her head. But it sounded like Talin, and Salia only laughed.
Of course, that’s what the rich would say, she thought back. Unless it’s them that’s doing the stealing. Then it’s all right.
Three days of eating nothing but gruel for spilling wine on a drunken nobleman who’d bumped into her hadn’t left her much choice. But last night, after the inn had closed, Talin had caught her stealing leftover food and thrown her down here.
A shaft of light made the dust motes dance around her, drawing a faint glimmer from a broken knife blade on the dirt floor. Crouching down, Salia pried it from the hard-packed earth and scurried to the window. Though broken, it might well help her loosen the rusted nails that held the boards closed over the small opening—if it didn’t cut her too badly in the process.
Salia pulled up the hem of her apron and wrapped it around her hand, allowing her to handle the knife reasonably safely. She then set to work on the boards and pried out one nail after another until the last one fell away and light poured in.
Pulling a broken table beneath the window, and then propping it up with a broken chair, Salia climbed carefully, put her hands on the windowsill and hoisted herself up and through. This was the most dangerous part. Not the drop to the ground—that was only a few inches—but the risk of being seen. Crouching in the shadow of the shallow flight of steps that led to the inn’s massive front door, Salia took stock of her situation.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but the cold wind and grey skies meant only those who had good reason were out and about this late spring day. Still, there were enough of those, and the inn stood in the center of the village. Salia would have to flee to the woods in broad daylight.
Fortunately for her, although the thought made her ill, most everyone who might see her were busy watching a young man being put into the stocks that stood just down the road, outside the town hall. Liam was often in trouble, and had never shown Salia any kindness, but she hated that such cruel punishment was applied to anyone. Not long ago, a boy younger than Liam had taken ill and died after a night in the stocks.
Ducking her head, Salia walked quickly in the opposite direction. She had no cloak and Talin had, of course, taken the food she’d tried to steal, but she had no time to worry about that now. If she could just get to the oak tree. If she could unlock its power, Salia would never have to return to this place. She scuttled down dirty streets, past the few homes of the rich—even those had chipped paint and patched roofs--and then past the squalid cottages of the poor. When she reached the coarse little fields that produced fewer crops every year, she hiked up her torn and dirty skirt that had once been blue and began to run.
Salia cursed the clear trail she was leaving in the mud left by the rain but pressed onward. Soon the village and its surrounding farmland were behind her and she entered the dense woods. Salia slowed to a walk, feeling safe for the first time since her escape. Since her father had left her at the inn five years ago, this forest was the only place she had ever felt safe.
She had nearly reached the oak tree when distant barking of dogs sent a shock of fear down her spine, and she began to run again. Was she their quarry? Already?
No point in finding out! Salia nimbly hopped over moss-covered rocks and fallen branches, her heart hammering. A nearly invisible trail brought her to a hill crowned by a giant oak tree. The small stream that dropped from a spring near the tree tumbled downhill over the rocky ground.
Pausing by the water, Salia yanked off her worn leather shoes and pitched them into the bushes behind her. Enjoy them, dogs! I never liked shoes, anyway! She waded through the freezing water to the far bank and climbed the hill to the mighty oak. Her calloused feet barely registered first the rocks and then rough bark as she pushed her skinny frame through a narrow opening and into the hollow space inside.
Distantly, she heard the dogs snuffling and snarling at the bushes where she had tossed away her shoes. Salia allowed herself the small hope that maybe she was finally safe. The space within the tree seemed smaller than the last time she was here. Could she have really grown so much?
“Why can’t he just let me go? Isn’t five years enough? Please,” she whispered to the tree as she sank to her knees in the cramped space, both hands and her forehead against the rough bark. “Please take me away. You have magic. I know you do. Take me anywhere! Anywhere but here.”
About two years ago, when Talin had begun sending Salia out on errands, she had seen, from a distance, this tree shrouded in an eerie blue mist, like a magic portal from the stories she could just barely remember her mother telling her. Since then, she had boldly, giddily explored the forest whenever she could sneak away. And found the nearest thing she’d ever had to a real home.
The bays of the hounds faded away. Salia sighed and turned her attention to food. The forest held berries that might be ripe enough, and she knew of some types of moss that were edible. And there was water, at least. She listened hard but heard nothing else from her pursuers. Still, Salia hesitated. She was loath to leave her sanctuary, but hunger and thirst were powerful motivators.
The only sound she could hear was the stream, burbling and tantalizingly close. Moving as silently as she could, she unwedged herself out of the tree and crept up to the stream and knelt to drink.
Just as her lips touched the water, Salia heard a loud crash from the bush. A man shot forward and caught her arm in a vise-like grip. She screamed and fought, but that only seemed to amuse the man.
“I knew you were around here somewhere!”
“Let me go, Talin!” Salia shouted. “You can’t make me work at your inn forever!”
“Oh, can’t I?” Talin indulged in a hearty laugh. “You haven’t earned back near what your father owed me. But in a year to two, you’ll be ready to ply your mother’s trade. Then, you’ll finally be worth something to me!”
Salia twisted around and sank her teeth into Talin’s freckled arm.
He roared with surprise and pain, and she slithered out of his grip, but he leapt after her and caught her before she could run more than a few paces. The sudden movement threw him off balance and he fell heavily on top of his prey, pinning her small body beneath his heavy one. The pressure that nearly squeezed the breath from her lungs was followed quickly by a rain of blows.
Talin dragged Salia to her feet. “Where do you think you’re going, you little shrew? Do you really think there’s something better for you out there? For you--the daughter of a drunk and a whore? You think you’re too good to work for your keep?”
Salia began to laugh. Loud, wild laughter shook her body so hard that Talin nearly lost his grip on her. “What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, shaking her and slapping her hard across the face.
She recoiled from the blow, her face stinging, but she couldn’t stop herself from screaming, “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you? How did a world like this come to be in the first place?” Salia looked over her captor’s head and beseeched the oak tree. “If I can answer those three riddles will you take me away?”
Talin laughed harshly. “Who are you talking to? Do you believe there’s magic in a world like this? Well, princess, I will enjoy throwing you into the pen tonight and watching you fight the dogs for your supper.” He began to pull her across the stream.
“I’ve always preferred the dogs to you,” she whispered, blinking away the pain in her face. She was looking down, trying to look defeated, but only waited until Talin’s foot found just the right slippery stone--and then gave him a hard shove. He gasped and flailed and fought to regain his balance but when Salia leapt from his grasp, he fell into the stream with a satisfying splash.
“Bitch!” he screamed, thrashing in the swift current.
Salia knew this was her last chance. He was angry enough that he might just kill her this time. She leapt up the bank and fled back to the tree.
“You have to help me now,” she cried. “You have to!” She flung herself once more through the narrow crack of the mighty oak.
Talin’s string of incoherent curses erupted into a startled laugh as he saw where she went. His voice reached her from a great distance. “Thank you for trapping yourself for me!” Then his laughter fell away as Salia found herself hanging in an endless black void, and then falling into a strange darkness blinking with colored lights.