Shrisaelte and Dani
by Christopher Edmund Nelson
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Shrisaelte runs away from home to escape a marriage arranged by her well-meaning father. Dani escapes from service in the army of a tyrannical king. Shrisaelte and Dani overcome hardship together and strive to resolve the conflicts between their origins and their destinies.
Shrisaelte gasped when she reached the top of the hill. A city stretched before her. Gleaming white buildings and streets of stone covered the land from the coast to the hills and followed the coast for two miles at least.
More buildings dotted the hills, and ships crowded the harbor. Could Dani be there? She dared not hope. For now her goal was to make it to the city before her legs gave out. This she accomplished. She reached the city, where the streets were paved and the people thick. Then her knees buckled, and she sat in the street.
No one paid her heed. She marveled at the city and how a woman collapsed on the street drew no attention. Who were the people here? They looked different only in clothing, and that was much the same. Yet no one looked at her. She rested against the side of a building. As she sat, she tried both to plan how to find Dani and to devise a way to find food.
The second problem would be easier if she were willing to lower her standards for food. In a city, there was sure to be a place people could go to buy a meal, and such a place would have plentiful leftovers lying around in the streets, supposing they hadn’t been eaten by the nonhuman residents of the city. She couldn’t even fetch such nasty food at the moment, though, for her arms and legs felt like rubbery lead.
As soon as some of her strength was back, she rose. By asking around she discovered where food could be bought. The place she came upon was bigger than she had expected. It was closed on all four sides, and when she entered, she found a room in which several could dine. The proprietor was inside and saw her enter.
“How can I help you?”
She was sure he would not give her anything, but she had to ask.
“I... I just came from far away. I have no money. I only ask for scraps...whatever trash you have, that you haven’t thrown out yet...” As she spoke, tears began to flow of their own accord. “Please. Whatever you have. Or tell me where I can find some food. Help me, please.”
His eyes traveled to the pendant. He studied it. “How did a poor woman such as yourself get that?” he asked.
She was confused at first and then followed his gaze to her pendant. “It... was my husband’s,” she replied, nearly believing it herself.
He looked at her in disbelief. “The wife of the man who owns that pendant is asking for trash? Is that how poor they’ve become now? I don’t believe it. You must have some money, or else you stole that pendant.”
“We are that poor, and I’ve made a long journey to get here...” She trailed off.
He appeared even more curious. “Go on,” he said.
“Never mind,” she said, her face wet from crying. She turned to go.
He halted her with his voice. “Food for your story.”
She looked at him skeptically.
He told her to wait there while he went into the cabinet, and when he came out, he had a wooden plate with meat and bread.
She doubted the quality of the food, but it was better than nothing.
He set the food down on a table and gestured for her to sit. She did so and immediately fell to devouring her food.
The proprietor watched with amusement. When she finished, he set a cup of water before her, which she drank rather quickly. He looked at her expectantly.
She did not wish to share her story with a stranger, much less admit she had lied in the process, but his show of good faith made her think she rather ought to. She told him everything, including her desire to break Dani out of prison.
When she was done, he sat back with a pensive smile. At last he laughed. “I don’t know,” he said, “if all that’s true or just a tale you made up, or if you’re crazy and made it up but believe it anyway, but that is one fascinating story, and you tell it well.”
A horrible thought occurred to her. “You won’t tell anyone else, will you?”
He laughed. “What do you care? I make no promises. No one will believe it anyway, so I wouldn’t worry if I were you. I do believe that you’re either foreign or crazy. If you’re hoping to meet up with an officer arrested for treason, you need to be about thirty miles farther along the coast, at the Great City.”
“Which way?” she asked anxiously.
“North. You’d need a boat to go that far that quickly.”
“And where can I get one?”
His expression then showed what he thought of that question. “The docks, of course. You can try to get a ride, but with no money you have a slim chance.”
She left immediately and went to the docks. She was growing bolder. A merchant turned her down, and then another, and so did a fisherman.
The fourth man she asked was a trader of some sort; what sort, Shrisa wasn’t sure. He soon discovered that she had no money and lost interest. In desperation she showed him the pendant.
“My family can pay you back.”
He stopped and was suddenly thoughtful. After a minute of concentration, a twitch of a smile moved the side of his mouth and was gone.
“That pendant... where did you get that?”
He thought for another minute; she wished she could see the thoughts behind his forehead. “I’ll take you,” he said. “Your family can pay your way. I have your word that they will?”
She hesitated. “Yes,” she answered.
“Come. Get aboard, then.”
She hesitated again, uncertain. She might not find a boat anywhere else, but this man made her quite uneasy. He had not even named a price. She accepted his offer anyway. She had to get to Dani somehow.
The matter decided, the man began to prepare to sail. It didn’t take long. Soon they were traveling north along the coast. Again she thought that perhaps she should simply have gone back to the rowboat and used it to travel, but this was madness; even if she could get it upright and out past the waves, she hadn’t the strength left within her to row it up the coast, and she worried not even the sailboat would get her to Dani quickly enough.
The boat went out a little farther than she expected, but the man kept within sight of the coast and began to head north. He watched her when he wasn’t busy; his eyes made her nervous. Before she was sure they were getting close, the man took the sails down.
“Are we nearly there?” she asked.
“Close,” the man replied. When he finished with the sails, he turned to face her. She tried to appear calm. “Before we pull into port,” he said, “I’ll need you to help me to tie your hands and feet.”
“That’s not necessary. My family will pay.”
He was holding a knife, then, that had apparently come from nowhere. “They surely will. I’ll bet you’re worth a lot to them. Now,” he said, tossing her a length of rope, “tie your legs first. I won’t hurt you if you do as I say.”
She stared at the rope, her heart beating hard in her ears. This would be the end of her journey. She tried to think.
“Do as I say,” the man repeated, moving a bit closer with the knife. Shrisaelte’s breathing came quick. She was close to losing all reason. She closed her eyes. For a moment, her mind cleared; she heard a voice as from her own mind.
She dashed away from the man toward the bow. She didn’t have far to go. It was a small boat. As she turned back toward the stern, the man caught up to her. He grabbed her arm to pull her the rest of the way around.
“Now you listen—”
Clarity came back to her again. She lunged forward, slamming into him. He let go of her arm and lost his balance for a moment, and his legs hit the low railing of the bow. As he began to fall, he clutched at her, but he grabbed only the rope that she was still holding; with it, he fell over and landed in the water.
She was too stunned to move at first, but when he surfaced, thrashing, she began to make sail again. She knew well what she was doing, having lived among boats her whole life. He shouted terrible curses and threats at her, but she said nothing.
* * *
By herself, then, she made it to the Great City and tied up in the harbor. She did not want to think about the man she may have left to drown. She focused on the fact that not only was she close to Dani, but she now had a boat for them to escape on.
She quickly learned where prisoners were kept. Dani was being kept separate from the others, for he was a prisoner of rank. His accommodations were in a solitary wooden building sitting above most of the town.
The royal palace, in the nearby hills, was one of the few buildings occupying a higher spot. He had, moreover, three guards dedicated solely to him, two at the entrance and one by the back wall. For all intents, however, it seemed that the focus was on keeping Dani in, and the guards seemed quite confident in this. They seemed not to have planned for an attempt to break in, though neither had she, for the moment.
The soldiers in front looked her over with curiosity as she approached. She had no plan, so she made no pretense.
“I’m here to see Dani,” she said.
The guards obviously thought this the funniest thing they had heard all day. “And who are you?” asked one.
“I am his wife,” she said, and as she held it from her chest, the guards at last noticed the pendant. One looked at the other as though waiting for a sign that the other knew what to do; the other did not disappoint.
“You may go inside,” he said. She moved forward. He stopped her. “After we search you.”
She submitted. The search was brief and designed to humiliate. She didn’t care. She was close to Dani. At last she was let inside. It took her a minute to adjust to the gloom.
A voice called to her. “You’re not real.”
She recognized the voice. She rushed toward the man who possessed it, and she and Dani embraced. The embrace lasted a long time. Only when her hunger to be near Dani was outweighed by her paranoia did Shrisa let go.
“How have I been allowed to come here?”
“They’re not afraid of my escape. Not aided by an unarmed woman.” His voice sounded weary. He didn’t envision escape, either.
She looked at him for several seconds. Her eyes shone with tears, her mouth was set in defiance, and something more poured from it all.
“You will escape,” she said. “We will get out of here. We will go home.”
He just stared at her. It seemed cruel to share with her how hopeless this was. Her look was something different, though. Potent. Unnerving. Strong.
Maybe she was right, and he had merely been a coward. He waited for her to act. She stood and began to pace. She asked him questions. He told her what he knew about the building he was in, as though it didn’t speak for itself, and about the soldiers in the area, and about the day and time of the carrying out of his sentence.
Her pacing grew frantic until she collapsed by his side again. The strength in her expression had finally burned away. He stroked her hair as she cried.
Copyright © 2014 by Christopher Edmund Nelson