Two Months Later
"Owowowowowowow!" I screeched. Behind me, Shadow clapped a gentle hand over my mouth and continued pushing me forward. I considered biting his hand, but I knew that he was just trying to help me. Besides, if Zephyr found out that I was being released from the cast three months earlier than he had predicted I would be ready, he would halt the entire operation and place me under strict guard.
We were still on the fiftieth floor of the mountain. It was nearly two months after I had broken my hip and arm (more accurately, Karsm had, but no one was willing to say his name around me) and Austral had said that my hip had healed at a phenomenal rate and I was now ready to learn how to walk again.
The first task was to get my plaster cast off, which couldn't be done until I was standing up. Apparently there was some sort of catch in the back that would allow the whole thing to crumble- Austral was afraid that if someone used a saw they would hack me in half without realizing it.
So Shadow was pushing me off the table, trying to stand me upright. It hurt like the dickens, but there was nothing that I could do to stop him. I was still in a plaster prison.
Curse Karsm! I would never forgive him for what he had done to me, even if he was dead and in the Trench of Terror. Curse him for all eternity! And dang this blasted cast!
"Calm down, hon, we're almost through," Shadow murmured in my ear. "And then no more pain."
"Thank goodness," I muttered through his relaxed fingers. "I thought the time would never come."
Shadow laughed, but it was light and long, not depressed and short like it had been just minutes ago. "You're still adorable." And then I was fully straight, standing on one and a half legs. Shadow was halfway supporting my left side. "Are you ready for this?" I took a slow, deep breath and nodded. "Here goes." Shadow tugged on a small hook at the back of my cast and dragged the heavy material from that end while Austral yanked the front off my chest.
And then I fell.
Shadow caught me before I crumpled completely, but it still hurt. He set me back on the bed, and I gazed at him with something close to murder in my watchful eyes.
"Don't you dare put that thing back on me," I snarled, glaring at the empty white prison lying there on the floor. My temper had grown very short during the time I had been cooped up in the small, windowless room, and I wasn't about to relinquish my new freedom for something that Karsm- dang him a thousand times!- had done to me.
"And how would you stop me?" Shadow glowered at me, and I cringed back under the harsh, rigid face that occupied the space that was normally cheerful and loving. "What can you do against me when you can't even support your own weight?"
"I will run."
"Thustundra, you can't even stand, let alone walk! Running is so far out of the picture that it's on another planet."
"I didn't mean now." I regretted the words that burnt on the tip of my tongue, but I was angry and averse to surrendering my freedom so my hip could be comfortable. "I will run the second I am able to, and I won't look back." Shadow himself looked ready to run from my unforgiving words. "I have to have my liberties back, Shadow. If I don't I may soon kill myself. I have to move; I have to run; I have to be free. And I can't do that when I'm in prison."
"Fine, then," Shadow snapped back. "Break your hip again. See if I care!" He stormed from the room, his back tense with anger and frustration.
"Well handled, Thustundra," Austral said acerbically. "Very well handled." He padded out of the room, probably to get another Wind to help him get me under control…or maybe to get the remote to the blasted shock collar that still clung to my neck.
As I had predicted, I was mentally kicking myself for upsetting Shadow like I had. "Please, come back," I whispered. I tried to stand by myself, but had barely made it to the edge of the bed when a new fire built itself and made welcome deep in my bones, throbbing and pulsing in waves.
If I hadn't been so stubborn, I would've given up and waited for Shadow to come and put me back in the cast. But I was stubborn, and so I persisted in torturing my body until I was standing- still leaning on the bed, but I counted it as a victory- and preparing myself mentally to begin the long trek fifty stories down where everyone would be.
"Thustundra Drae, you get back in the cast right now." Zephyr marched into the room, his face stern.
"Make me," I dared, knowing that I was being incredibly stupid and what I was doing would only end with me writhing on the ground or something of similar nature.
"I can very well make you." Zephyr held up the small metal touchpad that controlled my collar, and I nearly melted. Too bad I had a very obstinate personality.
"Do it," I goaded. "You'll just hurt me even worse."
"And save your life in the process." Zephyr was looking for an argument, and I was just the person to give it to him.
"Death promised to return anyone in my family who dies for any reason," I reminded him, crossing my arms to see if I could keep my balance, even with my bad hip. Apparently, I could. And, to make my day even brighter, my hip didn't hurt so much anymore.
"But you still die, and Death couldn't promise to remove your pain," Zephyr retorted.
I smiled crookedly. "My Death wasn't so bad," I said, almost dreamily, my mind several months ago to the day when Death had bargained on my behalf. "It was quick. Painful, no, since my hip blotted out all sense, even and especially pain."
"Fine. You win." Zephyr threw the remote to me. "But, if you shatter your hip again trying to prove yourself, don't come crying to me."
"Don't worry, I won't." Why was everyone being so…mean?
I hobbled toward Zephyr, only concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and bumped into his hairy chest. I stifled a scream, and Zephyr burst out laughing as I clutched his shoulders. I was, oddly enough, afraid of falling now. He cradled me close after several minutes - probably more because he wanted my claws out of his skin than to comfort me - and rocked me like a baby.
"You'll be fine," he murmured. "You're doing great."
"Let me go." My tone wavered, but Zephyr respected my wishes. "Thank you. Now, if you would be so kind as to move, I will be on my way."
"Go for it." Zephyr twisted around so that my back was to the door and his was to the cot.
I nodded at him once and continued on my way, limping down the steps the best I could with no help. Every step jolted my hip, and every step made me want to scream. I resolved to stand firm and take it. After all, if the One couldn't take pain, how could the rest of the world be expected to deal with brutality? So the trip was made in tormented silence, each small step drawing me nearer to where I wanted to be, each swing of my left arm reminding me of what Karsm had done.
Curse him for all eternity!
I had to stop after nearly an hour of walking, leaning on the bare stone wall for support so I could take some stress off my leg. I had passed several doors, but hadn't bothered to count them, so I had absolutely no idea where I was. All I knew was that I was between level fifty and level one. Not much help.
Voices in the winding corridor. I couldn't see the bodies they belonged to, but they sounded familiar.
Sundura and Thuris.
They seemed to be arguing about something, hopefully not me, but I didn't want to take any chances. I thought about my options: a) go back up the stairs and hope that I can out-walk them b) carry on walking and confront them when we met c) wait right where I was and see what they would do d) hobble back up the stairs and duck inside the nearest door.
I chose path b and persisted on my way. Sure enough, about twenty small steps later, I bumped - literally bumped - into Sundura and fell back into the wall, biting back a surprised cry of pain as my bad hip was bruised on the unforgivably hard stones.
"Thustundra, what are you doing out of your cast?" Sundura demanded, hoisting me upright and bearing the weight of my entire left side in her hands. "Get back up there right now!"
"Why is everyone trying to put me back in prison?" I whined. "Can't a girl get a break around here?"
Sundura smiled, but it was strained. "You have a break around here," she replied evenly. "Your arm and hip are still broken."
"But they're not broken," I objected. "Austral was the one who let me out, and he ought to know a little something about me by now, don't you think? After all, he's the main reason that I'm alive today. If not for him, I may very well have been dead far back in Winter's castle."
"You win." Sundura dropped her arms, and I staggered back against the wall, barely touching it, but keeping it near me in case something happened. "Where were you going?"
"Downstairs. I'm tired of being cooped up in that danged room." I took one deep breath, inwardly calling myself an idiot. I knew that I wasn't quite ready to venture out, but here I was, convincing Sundura to let me stay out.
Sundura's expression was one of disapproval, but it soon changed to one that was loving and full of warmth. She hugged me gently, then gestured for me to follow. "Come with me."
And so I shuffled after her, finding it sheer torture to just lift my leg and set it back down normally. But I was determined to stick with it, even if the end result was that I killed myself and paid another visit to Death, whom I knew wouldn't mind that in the least. Sundura led us all the way to the bottom of the stairs without stopping, and often I had to get Thuris to make her slow down for me.
"This is her first time walking in two months, after all," she pointed out. "It's not healthy for her to go so fast."
And each time Sundura would apologize and slow down for about ten steps, then she would speed up again, and Thuris would have to warn her that I was falling behind again. In this fashion we made our lethargic way down, down, down to the base of Thunder Mountain, down where everyone was living. I knew that they would expect me to say or do something, so I composed a quick plan in my head, hoping that it would work and that the crowd wouldn't get mad at me.
"Sundura," I said as we reached the first floor door nearly two hours later, "don't announce me. I want to see how many actually notice me."
"You got it." Sundura winked at me.
The door was pushed open and we stepped through, out onto the Promised Land. Well, not really, but it felt that way to me. I was free for the first time in months. I was on sacred ground, on ground that was fresh and clean and sparkling new – at least, that's how it was for me.
Creatures of all races pawed and scurried and ran and flew about, carrying papers and food and messages to others in the cavern. As I had thought, they were so busy that none of them noticed me at all, not for nearly fifteen minutes. The first one who did was a gnarled old Steldyk with small spectacles. He was carrying a pile of white animal skins on his skinny, black-furred arms from one table to another. When he saw me his eyes grew wide and he dropped the pelts, trembling in fear.
I'm not that scary, am I? That was my first thought, but it quickly changed when he bowed down low from the waist. Ah, it's Sundura he's afraid of.
"Mistress Thustundra, Quean of the world," the old Steldyk intoned slowly, his voice shaky. I took a step back in shock.
"What's he talking about?" I whispered into Thuris's ear. She just shrugged and watched the scene quickly unfolding before us.
Creatures all over the room were noticing us, and the second they did whatever they were doing was halted. They bowed low like the first Steldyk had. I wanted to flee from the mountain, and my discomfort only increased as they all chanted in unison, "Thustundra Drae, our Mistress and ruler of Thunder Mountain, we serve you forever." Then, still in unison, they all knelt on one knee, keeping their heads down, and froze in that position.
Sundura strode forth, bare feet making no sound on the marble, her stance sure and smooth. She marched around the room, looking at everyone in the eye, whispering something in their ears. Each of them had the same response to whatever she said – I could tell by the way their mouths moved. Sundura's expression remained the same during the time she was among the creatures, but the minute she returned to us it turned to one of awe.
"You're their new Quean," Sundura murmured, low enough so that only Thuris and I could hear what she was saying. "But you're also their Mistress. They have pledged themselves to be enthralled by you for all eternity, and they will kill themselves if they displease you in any way." Sundura shook her head. "I have never seen the likes of devotion they are showing you now. I would be very careful in speaking to them."
"I'm planning on it," I muttered.
Now it was my turn to stride around the room. Each time I passed a creature, each one peeked at me from the corner of their eye. If I caught them looking, and they knew I saw them, they looked back down and muttered penalties and Death threats that they would inflict upon themselves later. I smiled inwardly at the fact that they didn't know I could hear them and continued on. I circled the entire room twice, stopping at each and every creature, and finally ended up back where I had started from.
I glanced at Sundura, and she nodded to me. "Good creatures of Thunder Mountain," I hollered, "stand up and gather 'round me." I watched as they all obeyed, scuttling into position as fast as they could to come fall down before me. "Stand up!" I shouted, seeing them flinch at my harsh tone – they were expecting something along the lines of Death, of that I was sure. "Now," I lowered my volume, and some of them relaxed their shoulders under the gentler mannerism, "I want you all to look me in the eye."
This is where every creature, be it young or old, Steldyk or Strsrilt, Stund or Jsun, hesitated. Their bodies shook terribly. I could tell that they didn't want to get in trouble with me for disobeying the one thrall law that was strictly enforced by Masters, but they had to do it. A few creatures stood up. Disobeying meant even more trouble than obeying. Still, many in the crowd wavered, and I did what I had to do to get them to obey me, even though it was the one thing I couldn't stand myself when forced upon me by another. I loathed myself for what I was doing, but saw no way around it.
"Thralls!" I shouted, applying false anger in my voice. "Obey me! Now!"
"Yes, Mistress Thustundra," murmured one Steldyk. "We hear, and we obey."
The whole of the host raised their heads and stared me straight in the eye. There was terror in all of their gazes, and I knew that it was only a matter of time until they fainted from fear – fear of me, and of the power that resided within me. I was prepared to ease their minds.
"You are all free," I announced. My voice was clear and precise, and I made sure to enunciate every word that I spoke. "I will not hold your lives in the palm of my hand. That is not where you want to be, and that is not where I want you to be. Owning another creature is wrong. Being a possession of another is wrong. I will not expose you to the horrors that can come with the path you wish to take. You may do as you please, when you please, and you do not have to service me or my family in the degrading ways that a true thrall would."
"Have we displeased you, Mistress?" A lone Steldyk turned his face up, and I smiled at him reassuringly.
"No, I am not displeased," I answered with a smile in my voice. "Quite the contrary. But I do not believe that it would be right for me to rule your life, just to crush you under my thumb the second the mood hit me. That is not a happy life. Instead, you shall be free to do anything you wish, as long as you abstain from enthralling one another for the sake of having a few pleasures. Are we quite understood?"
"Yes, Quean," the crowd said as one. They all stood and resumed their business, but it was slower, and most of them kept a wary eye on me, lest I was playing some sort of cruel joke. "You," I called, pointing to a Steldyk in the passing throng. He pointed a shaky finger at his chest, and I nodded encouragingly, motioning for him to come. He did so guardedly, fear dominant in his eyes.
"Yes, Quean Thustundra?" His tone was polite, but I could smell the ever-welling fright in his veins, flowing like water.
"How am I the new Quean?"
My simple question took him off guard. "W-w-well," he stammered, "w-we decided t-that you we-were the l-l-logical choice, Milady. You s-s-saved us from Karsm, and c-c-can protect us singlehandedly. We v-v-vowed to make you our n-new Quean and our M-M-Mistress."
"What's your name, young 'un?"
"Alner, you have done your duty well. Go, and be at peace."
Alner bowed, gratitude etched on every line of his face. "Thank you, Milady." He scampered off to rejoin the horde of bodies rushing off to do their various tasks around the mountain.
"Thustundra!" a familiar voice cried from behind me.
I flinched and pivoted slowly on my heel, hoping not to see the one I knew I would see. There stood Shadow, as tall and wise and handsome as ever, his black fur shining dully in the lantern light of the hall. I was ready to run, but before I could his long hands ensnared my wrists and pulled them above my head, keeping me captive there. I could've easily broken the manacles his slender fingers formed, but I was afraid of harming him. After all, I was stronger than he was by far.
"Thustundra, Thustundra, Thustundra," he said slowly, dragging the words out. I hung my head, hiding my eyes from his searching gaze. "What are we going to do with you? Not healed, but still tramping all around the mountain. I should call Strelluef to come and enthrall you again. At least then you'd have to either obey the command of your Master or risk getting beaten. Or, perhaps," and here I could tell that he smiled, and a wicked grin entered his voice, "perhaps I should just enthrall you myself."
"Do as you wish," I whispered. Love made me foolish, though that may not have been such a bad thing. "I am yours."
"And you are nuts. Thustundra," Shadow pulled my chin up with two fingers, releasing my wrists, "I do not want you."
Tears filled my eyes, slipped down my cheeks, dripped from the end of my nose. Shadow didn't…want me? After all we had done together, he was just going to throw me away like a piece of worn parchment?
"Thustundra, you silly, emotional, wonderful Strsrilt, listen to me. I don't want you as my thrall." Shadow got down on one knee, and I stared at him stupidly. "Thustundra Drae, would you do me the honor of becoming my lifemate?"
Blood rushed to my face, and immediately I felt guilty for my thoughts. Shadow wouldn't abandon me. Shadow loved me, just as truly as I loved him. There were so many things I wanted to say in that perfect moment, so many things that might've spoiled the whole effect. But, instead of going all out, I said no more than I needed.
And Shadow embraced me in his arms to the loud applause of those watching.
* * * * *
So there you have it. The last year or so of my life, recorded here on paper. The injustice that plagued me for months on end is now gone, and I can breathe freely, knowing that my family and I are all safe. As I said before, we are putting a stop to injustice the best we can. Every thrall on the planet has been freed, and there remains only one group to threaten our new way of life, the Quiangda. But they shall be easily eliminated, and soon the world will be the safest it had been in many millennia.
Speaking of family, my wedding to Shadow is scheduled to happen in two months. There are too many details that need to be worked out for me alone, but I have many volunteers in the Great Hall below, all just begging to be apart of my wedding in some way or another.
Sinasta is growing up well. We are teaching him the basics of learning, and he is a sharp pupil, though he does love a good goof. Like father, like son. He has stopped growing physically though, and for that Shadow and I are grateful. It was so unnatural, watching him grow at such a rapid pace, possessing the body of a young adult by the age of two weeks.
The Winds and Seasons are once again united. They have all reconciled, and are now tearing apart the borderlines they set up so long ago. The Winds have agreed to behave, so Spring threw out the cupboards, dumping them in the River Flare. The Seasons are talking, laughing, hanging out again, and are now down at Winter's castle, erasing every scrap of evidence of the four things that befell those stones.
I must go. There are many details to attend to in my wedding. But, before I leave, I would like to say one last thing.
Injustice is not dead. It's living. And injustice, that terribly awful criminal mastermind, can be defeated.
All you have to do…is believe.