Muffled shouts drifted through the cracks around the edges of the window, and awakened a tired smile. Familiar shouts, they were. But they were late this afternoon, it must be market day again.
Her hands found the edges of the window pane and forced the old latch aside. Bracing the muscles of her arms and back against her old nemesis, gravity, she managed to heave the rusted pane upward until the latch shifted back into place, and the window was open.
The rush of warmth and wind brought the voices to her ear.
“I get to be Alandra!”
“No, you were Alandra yesterday, you promised me I could have the bow and arrow this time! It’s your turn to be Soren today.”
“Fine, then I get the cape and the sword.”
The corner of her smile lifted slightly at the image of Soren in a cape. And what of Valgedra? No true master enchantress would stand to be de-caped in such rude fashion…
The echoed strains of her mental argument were now drifting through the window, and she listened with half an ear, tweaking the settings on the panel to adjust for the unusually high levels of background noise. The rain had come yesterday, and the insects were alive again, determined to add their confusion to the recording.
“But Soren needs the cape to fight the dragon. He found it before, like, in the forest near the old house, and Valgedra took it from him when she caught him and put him in the dungeon.”
“Where’s the dungeon?”
Where, indeed? It would have to be someplace dark, with no light and no air, unless it was cold air coming in through the cracks. It would have to be lonely, and mostly empty, with dry food barely scraped together, barely enough to sustain a human. It would have to be a place so depressing that one would forget the taste of real food, the light of the midday sun, the touch of a human hand.
But it would have to have a weakness. Because no true hero can be trapped forever by a dungeon. Not if the hero has friends. And all the forces of good on their side. And the will to live until life itself is used up, drained out of old bones.
It would have to have a window.
“I know! My memaw has a room upstairs, it’s full of boxes and it’s dirty, but I know where they put the ladder, and we can get up there!”
“Okay, we’ll go to your memaw’s room. Where is everybody? We’re going to set up the dungeon. Okay, you can carry Alandra’s stuff and be Alandra. Hurry up, though!”
She waited, listening, long after the voices had faded and the heroes had run off to doom the kingdom and save the day. She was always listening.
And so was the panel. A quiet chirp turned her head from the window, it was ready to record.
With a quiet sigh, she released the latch and helped gravity ease the window pane back into its lowered position, muffling the sharp hiss of the insects beyond. Were it not for the insects, she might leave it open for the recording today, the air and the sun transformed this small, dark space.
Her fingers shuffled along the panel until they found the well-worn controls. Her smile curved again at the memory of Dryan’s fingers on hers, guiding her clumsy efforts through the very first of her recordings. The smile froze and melted at the thought of those first dark days… She shook herself free of the memories and back to the freedom of the present.
Where to begin…? The afternoon’s drama had thrown the last two days’ worth of subplots in the blender, and the results weren’t quite up to the usual standards. But that part at the end, about Soren in the dungeon…
“It was gone. Paragraph. Soren felt its absence even before he felt the cold damp of the floor, the hard smoothness of the stones, the raw pain of the shackles around his wrists. Paragraph. The cape was gone…”
The sun was shining at last. It was the first day in a week that the rain had given them some reprieve. And even this morning the sogginess lingered, dripping from the metal scaffolding outside the apartment windows, the leftovers of a project the landlord had forgotten to finish.
His work didn’t stop, even if the rain did. After a moment’s breath of rain-washed air and a sigh from the depth of his soul, he grabbed the umbrella and closed the door behind him.
A small package sat on the top stair, just beyond his doorstep. It had no label, no name or address of any kind. It couldn’t be for #501, that one was empty. But it couldn’t be for #503 either, that one was practically empty; he’d been here four months already and had only once or twice caught a glimpse of the old blind woman who lived there.
He picked it up, and pulled a bit of the protective cover away. It was a book, of sorts. A stack of newly printed paper, tied together with a bit of old string. The cover page was just as frugal: “Soren’s Escape” by “Dryan Albright.”
There was a note on top, slipped under the string. The words were jumbled and the letters were shaky, and the message was simple.
“For the children.”