The tower stabbed out of the ground like a giant's bony finger: a smooth, single-windowed construction that shifted in the inconstant light like a slender mirror twirling in the sun. It stood at least twenty men high, so that it nearly equalled the two jagged slopes rising up on either side of it; the tower was cradled within a narrow valley through which a brook cut a sparkling path. At its base, the shiny wall was marred with dozens of small hand-prints, parting gifts of the children who had flocked around the miraculous silver construction in earlier days, searching for the hidden door. Sometimes, being children and of keener eye than most adults, they found it; but pull as they might on the handle, without a key they could not free the prisoner within.
This is not the tale of Rapunzel. There was no flaxen-haired damsel in distress trapped in the topmost room, mournfully brushing out her cascading tresses and waiting upon her well-built lover to gallop forth on his mighty steed. There was a damsel, aye, but she was an angry peasant girl whose name was Saran: a black-eyed lass with rough-cut hair the colour of cacao beans, long-limbed and sprightly, and dressed in trews and a patched tunic girt up around her waist. As of that very moment, Saran was lying prostrate on her hard bed within the tower, slowly and deliberately dying of thirst.
Saran knew that her room was indeed at the top of the tower, for if she looked out of the only window she could almost see over the peak of the rocky slope not three furlongs away, and if she turned her gaze downwards the sight was enough to make her head swim. This single square window, about five spans across, was frequented daily by a dwarf wyvern that brought her a leather flask of water and a round doughy loaf of bread. On occasion, the scaly, waist-high creature brought an extra treat: a strip of cured meat, or a pouch of dried plums, or salty cheese. On stormy days, it didn't come at all. It was an irritable beast that never lingered long, never stepped past the window sill, merely hovered there, flicking its barbed tail arrogantly while it emptied the flask into Saran's wooden bowl. Clearly it thought itself far too important for such a mean, repetitive task.
Saran had tried to catch it several times, hoping to attach to its leg a piece of white cloth or some sort of symbolic cry for help, but had been left with superficial—yet painful—burns to her hands and forearms. A dwarf of its species it may have been, but it was a wyvern all the same, and it could breathe fire. While her injuries healed, and she rested, frustrated and supine and stretched out across her mattress, she conjured up a second, cleverer plan of escape.
She had forgotten how long she'd been a prisoner in this place; too many times had she walked in nauseating circles around her shiny prison, running her hands across the silver walls until her palms stained grey and stank of metal. Unlike the heroines of wondrous and fantastical tales, her dreams were not filled with portents of divine meaning. She did not even have silly dreams, though she wished for them: it would offer some relief from this endless monotony. Instead her nights were cruelly restless and she experienced splitting headaches that lasted into the early afternoons. At the peak of these headaches, usually close upon the point of waking up, Saran could sense that there were other people—Good Lord, other people!—not far away, and she would run to her window and thrust her head out in desperation and scream and scream until her voice crumbled into a hoarse whisper. But then the clarity of her mind would fade along with the pain, and she would slide to the ground in an exhausted heap, and the other people that she thought she had sensed would merge into a single, faint, distant presence that needed just as much rescuing as she did.
Knowing that this routine would soon drive her crazy, Saran set about with her plan of escape at once. The floor of her room was reinforced silver overlaid with a carpet of straw, with one area of exception: a sturdy oak trapdoor that had been fastened with a bolted lock. The small planks of wood were battened so closely together that Saran could not even slip a piece of straw between them. She knew that she had been brought into this room by her captors through that very trapdoor. She knew also that wood rotted, and when wet it rotted quickly.
And so when the dwarf wyvern brought her water each day, she began to forgo drinking it. She took only measured sips, and at nightfall poured the rest onto a folded woollen blanket which she pressed over the trapdoor, pushing the damp material against the oak and into the nooks and crannies of the wood. The first day, infused with determination, passed quickly enough despite her growing thirst. On the second day the mucous linings of her throat and mouth began to scrape against one another and beg noisily for nourishment. The third day started off horribly and merely worsened: her throat burned, as though she had swallowed a lake of arsenic, and when the wyvern came it was all she could do not to gulp the entire contents of the bowl in ecstatic relief. But Saran set her jaw and took the water straight over to the trapdoor and poured it all into the blanket, and as she did so she felt tears of fear and despair wet her eyes, and she wiped those off her face also and used them to soak the blanket.
Dizziness and painful weakness overcame her and on the fourth day she drank a little water and lay down. Every part of her insides, from her mouth to her stomach, felt numb and dry as scrunched paper in the sun. Her thoughts made little sense. She couldn't eat because her throat was too dry to swallow the bread—it was like chewing on knives.
She wondered if she were crazy, lying there on her bed, barely able to lift her chest to inspire and expire. She was trading her strength and her life for the possibility—or rather, the impossibility—of escape. She had delusions; feelings of paranoia; out-of-body sensations; waking dreams; piercing headaches. Her extremities were cold; her chest searing hot. Her fingers trembled. She couldn't tell whether she was sitting or standing. She could barely remember why she was submitting herself to this torture.
And then, a small blessing. On the fifth day the wyvern came with a little pouch of prunes. They were moist enough to chew without pain, and relieved her somewhat. She ate them slowly throughout the day, delighting in this small fortune, refusing to think about her powerful thirst.
On day six Saran lifted a corner of the soggy blanket and examined the wood. It was very damp, and much softer, and she stamped on it many times but it refused to give way. Panicking, unsure of how much longer she could hold up under sheer strength of will against intense physical odds, she took on more urgent measures. She forwent the waste-hole in the corner of her room, and instead relieved herself on the trapdoor. The tower filled with a rancid stench and Saran lay face-down on her bed, buried in her pillow, unsure whether to laugh or cry at the horror of the situation. She knew she had gone insane. But she knew more that she had to get out.
And so on the seventh day, Saran dipped a large chunk of bread into her water and ate it thankfully, and mustered all her strength to bring the weight of her foot down on the trapdoor, and as she stamped and stamped she heard the wood creaking and bending and finally, finally splintering. The shards of the trapdoor fell through into the great space below. Saran swayed to her knees in relief and exhaustion, but not before she crammed a fold of the blanket into her mouth and sucked it greedily, nourishing herself on the filthy, wet goodness.
Somewhat revived, she put her head through the hole. The floor of her tower-top room appeared to be supported by a sparse system of oak struts and beams. A simple ladder extended from the lip of the trapdoor, vertically descending all the way down the silvery-grey column of the tower and vanishing in the distant darkness below. There was only one gap: about twenty rungs down, the ladder had been crudely and purposely broken, leaving a significant section missing.
Saran laughed softly. This new obstacle was nothing. She stood up, careful not to lose her balance, and groped for her bed-sheet, pulling it roughly off her mattress. Tucking it messily under one arm, she lowered herself through the trapdoor and began to climb down the ladder, a rush of exhilaration giving her newfound energy. Even so, it was tiring and terrifying work and she had to pause once to gasp for air and stop her head spinning.
At the broken section of the ladder, she twined her legs around the lowest rung for security, twisted herself at the waist and tied one corner of the bed-sheet securely to the second-lowest rung. She yanked on it to test that it was safe, then wound her fingers around the linen material and started to lower herself into midair—inch by painful inch. Her movements sent the bed-sheet swinging and she careened wildly about, which only worsened the dizziness, but suddenly, mid-swing, her foot caught onto the lower part of the ladder. She held on by the toes, muscles cramping with the exertion, steadied herself, teetered on the very top of the broken ladder.
Much to her private embarrassment, she was stuck in this position for a good five minutes, too terrified to let go of the bed-sheet, clinging to the top rung of the lower section of the broken ladder with the tips of her toes. Finally she swore to herself that if she hadn't let herself be trapped in her tower-top prison, she wasn't about to let herself be trapped here in this ridiculous position. She crept hand-over-hand down the bed-sheet, foot-over-foot down the rungs, and suddenly she had released the bed-sheet and was speedily clambering down the ladder. Her heart was pounding like a war-drum. She could taste freedom—oh, mercy, sweet, sweet, glorious—
She hit the bottom, the stone and mortar floor, ran to the solid silver wall, searched for the door and dragged on the handle with all her might.
It didn't budge.