TAKEN DOWN FOR EDITING. Sorry to everyone who has read all that I posted previously. After getting so far, I've realized the beginning needs to be edited, added to and generally changed. So, I've decided to finally get around to it, along with some other goals I have for this. I'm not sure how long it will be before you guys see the rest of it again. In the meantime, I'll leave up this little snippet. (It's not enough, I know.) I'm so sorry if you're disappointed after the long wait but in my defense college take a lot of effort especially when you come to the end of the semester and editting must be done. Hopefully, I shall write to you all again soon!
The light from her lantern bounced from tree to tree, as she traveled slowly down the forest path. The lantern was more of a comfort than a guide. The moving light did not allow her to catch many details. But it kept her on the road instead of wandering the woods. A fall breeze picked up and she pulled her cloak tight around her, glad that she decided to wear it. The days had just begun to chill as summer faded into autumn. As she adjusted her coat, she glanced over her shoulder at the dark woodland. She never liked walking through the woods at night. But she did it anyways as she had promised to take care of her ailing grandmother, who lived a distance from the town. A twig snapped, and she spun around. The woods were so frightening after dark. The basket she was carrying swung heavily into her side, causing her to inhale sharply. Her grandmother had insisted on filling it with a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, two apples, and a small bottle of milk. I don't understand why I need the food. The walk takes little less than an hour and there was plenty of food back at home. You would think that Grandmother would remember that her son (my father) was the governor of our small town and was able to provide plenty for his family, Althea thought to herself. However, nowadays you could never be quite sure where Grandmother's mind was. Althea stared deep into the woods, straining her ears for another sound. None came and she continued her walk toward home.
You never knew what could be waiting in the woods. There could be thieves hidden just beyond the light from my lantern. Wild beasts could be following me, just waiting for the right moment to attack. The thought sent chills up her spine. That was one of the few things that truly scared her. She had heard so many stories of nightly attacks from neighboring villages. To be destroyed by a beast in the night had definitely been deemed the worst way to die in her mind. She shook her head, trying to shake away the thoughts. While she was traveling through the woods was certainly not the best time to be thinking about this. The wind picked up again and her thoughts went to the warm fire waiting for her at home. She imagined reading a novel in her large, comfortable bed (with perhaps a cup of hot cocoa if the cook wouldn't mind).
Suddenly, a loud moan escaped through the trees. Althea froze, rooted to the spot. She tried again to peer beyond her light but could not find the source of the sound. Her heart was pounding in her ears and she tried to rationalize that she had imagined it because of what she had been thinking of earlier. The moan came again and it was definitely real…and human. The person sounded like he was in extreme pain. She argued with herself for a moment. On one hand, she did not want to leave this person, whoever it was, in pain and alone in the middle of the woods. On the other hand, leaving the path was one of the most dangerous things one could do in the forest. The person groaned again and she couldn't resist. She headed off into the forest.
She gripped the lantern tightly as her heart began to beat faster the farther she strayed from the path. The moaning got louder so she was sure of the direction she was heading. It was not long until she came to a small clearing. One lone tree stood in the middle of the clearing and instantly she knew where she was. She had heard of this place while overhearing her father speak with men from town. The old oak tree had been there since the town was founded. Its lower branches were extremely thick and strong. They could easily support the weight of a person, which is what it is used for now. Criminals are hung from its branches in cages wrought from iron and left to starve. A horrible punishment. This method was viewed more as torture in town than usual hangings, which is why it occurs in such an obscure place. Only lawmen truly knew where it was…and now I do as well.
Althea thought to turn around and return to the path, but her lantern had already lighted on the lone cage hanging from the tree. And there was a person in it.
And he was staring at her.
Her heart started to pound as he stared (squinted actually) in the sudden light. Althea's mind was racing. I should just leave…but she couldn't. His gaze had her pinned in place. She couldn't move, but for breathing. Slowly, the man pushed himself up to a sitting position. Just doing that seemed like such an effort. Althea could tell from across the clearing how starved he was. His clothing was extremely haggard, but still intact, and hung loose from his shoulders. There were dirt smudges on his face and he had a deep purple bruise above his left eye. It was hard to tell (of course) but he looked to be about her age. Again, the thought of leaving the clearing surfaced in her mind but her feet wouldn't obey.
"Are you just going to stand there? Or did you want something?" he said, breaking the quiet. Althea started and the light quivered in the clearing. She didn't answer and her silence apparently bothered him. "Well if it's nothing, why don't you just go? There's nothing holding you back."
With that, he let himself fall back to the floor of his cage, facing away from her. Oddly, enough, Althea found herself focused on his voice. It was not what she expected. To be in his position, he must be a hardened criminal. Althea had always imagined the voice of one to be rough; almost like a growl but this man…his did not fit. Albeit it was sharp, he had intended his words to hurt, but behind that it was a soft baritone. A new sound then entered the clearing. The sound of it woke her from her frozen state. It was a moan similar to the one that brought her to this clearing. Only…it was softer this time. It was muffled. Althea made the connection almost immediately as to where the noise was coming from and was instantly reminded of how cruel this form of punishment was.
It was him. It was a dismayed rumble from his empty stomach.
Althea suffered a minute of internal conflict. I should do as he says and just go.
…But…a small voice protested in the back of her mind.
She swayed on the spot deliberating and her basket collided into her side once more, reminding her of its presence. Her grandmother's words from earlier that evening came rushing back to her.
I guided the elder woman to her bedroom. "Goodnight, Grandmother."
"Goodnight, my dear. I left a basket for you on the table," she responded, stifling a yawn. I rolled my eyes and returned to the kitchen. There was the basket exactly where it was every night. I pulled back the cover to see what Grandmother had given me today. Bread, milk, apples, and a wedge of cheese. I sighed and began to put as much of it away as I could without it being completely obvious. I put half of the loaf of bread back on the counter and poured as much of the milk back into the main bottle as I could. I was in the middle of returning the cheese to the icebox when Grandmother's hand closed around my wrist.
"Althea! What are you doing?" It was difficult to read Grandmother's expression. It seemed like a mix of anger, hurt, and…well, madness that took over at times. That was part of the reason I was there, to keep Grandmother sane. Not that I always succeeded. It took me a moment to compose my answer.
"I was just…You know I…we… don't…" I stammered, trying not to offend the old woman any further. "You don't need to give me food. I don't need it—"
"Well, it's not for you!" she exclaimed. The aged woman rushed around the kitchen, grumbling and replacing the missing items from the basket while I stood shocked at her statement. She pushed me to the door. "Now go, or you'll be late!"
"Late? Late for what?" But Grandmother had already shut the door.
Althea came back to reality and stared at the basket wondering. Did Grandmother somehow know I would end up in this clearing? Has that been the reason for the food the whole time? The thought somewhat scared her (How would Grandmother know?) but it still seemed to make up her mind. She came to help the person in pain, no matter who it was, and this cage caused the worst sort of pain. She set down her lantern and opened her basket as quietly as possible. She took a deep breath and pulled out one of the apples. Warily, she approached the cage.
With each step she took, her nerves rose that much more. She was still in disbelief over her choice. It really made no sense once I think about it. He was a criminal, so dangerous he had to be kept in a cage and away from everyone. Anyone else would have left long before this point. But she wasn't going to turn back now.
She reached the cage without making a sound. The man didn't seem to notice her approach. If anything, he hadn't moved. The cage itself was made of hard iron that was just beginning to rust. From what Althea could see, it had no door, no locking mechanism. It seemed to be built around the man inside. Althea bit her lip. How horrible.
Althea rotated the apple in her hand. One more time, she thought about leaving and again decided against it. She extended her hand into through the bars to place the apple on the floor of the cage. Before she could release the apple, a masculine hand materialized to seize hers. Althea dropped the apple and tried to wrench her arm away, but his surprisingly strong hand kept a tight hold.
"What are you doing?"
"Let go!" she begged and continued to pull away from him. This was a bad idea from the start! But to her surprise, he let go. She backed away quickly, clutching her wrist close to her chest and trying to calm herself. After a moment, she felt the man's eyes on her. She turned to look back at him and found him silently holding out the apple, stretching his arm through the bars. "Don't you want it?"
His eyebrows furrowed slightly and his eyes flicked down to the apple then back to her. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing," she replied, slightly offended. What an odd thing to say.
His expression became surprised. "You…You meant to give it to me?"
"Yes," she murmured nervously, with a small nod.
He withdrew his arm, staring at the apple like it was the most precious thing in the world. He leaned back against the opposite side of the cage causing it to sway slightly. Althea moved back marginally to avoid being hit by the metal enclosure as it wavered. He revered the fruit a minute longer, mystifying Althea until she remembered this was probably the first bit of food he had seen in days. Now that she was closer, his tattered state was even more evident. There were bruises and cuts up and down his arms. Most likely, they spotted his entire body. He had long dark hair that was unsuccessfully held back by a thin leather band. Instead, the uncombed mop framed his face that his involuntary abstinence from food threw into a sharp relief. The bones were beginning to push through the skin, making his eyes seem sunken in. But that didn't hide their bright green color from shining through. They were…captivating. Althea shook her head to erase those thoughts. I can't be having those thoughts…about him. Especially him.
Thankfully, when she looked back to the man, he had finally sunk his teeth into the apple. But he didn't bite off a piece. Instead, he sucked on it, pulling out the juices. When he felt that all the nectars were gone, he found another spot on the apple and did it again. It was the strangest way Althea had seen anyone eat an apple. During his third "bite", he appeared to realize she was still there. He reluctantly pulled away from the fruit and addressed her.
"Thank you," he murmured. "You have no idea what this means."
"I can suppose." She looked down and her eyes focused on the basket still on her arm. "Would you like something else?"
"You have more?" he inquired eagerly. She pulled out half of the loaf of bread and held it out to him. He reached through the bars but stopped himself from taking it. "Why are you here?" he asked, suspicious again.
"I heard you moaning from the road." She held his gaze to convey her honesty.
He examined her a moment before gently taking the bread from her hand. "You do realize you could get in serious trouble for this. It's treason, I think."
"I know," she agreed, recalling all her father had taught her.
He took a small bite of the bread. "Then, why are you helping me?"
Althea hesitated. She had not had time to rationalize her decision. She quickly came up with one but she knew it was true. Granted, it didn't make much sense, even to her. But it's my reason. "This is a horrible punishment. In my opinion, there are very few who actually deserve it."
"You don't think I deserve this?"
"For now. I don't know what you did to end up in there."
He leaned back again and (finally) took a normal bite from the apple. "Neither do I."