My family was wealthy. With wealth came privilege. And with privilege came entrapment, the kind that slowly crept towards you and climbed its way to your throat before it choked you. I stared out over the edge of our balcony facing the East, seeing nothing but clouds below me and a dazzling sunrise before me. The cool morning mist caressed my cheeks and nose, turning them pink.
I’d never seen another sight in my life. Well, I suppose there was nothing else to see, but still. The view, though breathtaking, became tiresome after fifteen years. I had to be thankful for our wealth and status, because without it I may be part of the bottom or inner Tiers of the mountain we inhabited. My grandfather lived one Tier above us, the ruler of Mount Tier. My uncle was next in line, yet his wife still had not given them any children. If they never conceived, I was next in line. Death crept ever closer.
Tomorrow was my sixteenth birthday, the day I’d meet the man I was to marry. After many years of schooling on the proper etiquette of a princess, on the outside I was ready. Long flowing and fiery red hair, pale cheeks, and sapphire blue eyes encircled my quiet soul. As my grandmother often reminded me, I was every man in the mountain’s desire.
I sighed and pulled away from the view, turning to face our dining room table. Grandmother sat with a small smile on her lips.
“Elise, you grow more beautiful each day.” I blushed quickly.
“I wasn’t finished.” She interrupted. She was always so curt.
“You are beautiful, yes, and also tragic and dimwitted about life.” She also had a way of saying the harshest things but making the receiver almost happy about her assessment. I’d learned not to take it personal anymore.
“Well, how can I change that before tomorrow?” unease grew in my stomach. She laughed bitterly.
“You think you have enough time now?” She pulled herself up from her chair; I rushed to help her, afraid of her frailness. I knew she would want to feed her birds. Mother hated them because they sang so loudly every morning. I’d grown fond of them, even though I felt pity at keeping them locked up.
She scooped a handful of seed and scattered it to the chirping birds.
“Elise, whoever you marry will eventually want more. People always want more here. They want to climb their way up the mountain because they think life is so much easier for us, but I promise you it is far from that.” My brow furrowed. I didn’t understand why she was telling me this. I’d always been told vastly different views.
Mount Tier was essentially a fortress within a mountain. Our ancestors had carved it out so we could live in peace and safety from the Savages beyond. We all knew, though, that there were no savages left. Only Mount Tier and a few smaller surrounding mountains scattered the land.
Our fortress housed twelve Tiers; the bottom three for servants and industrial workers, the rest were based upon wealth. The top two were reserved for the Ruler and his or her family. I’d never been below, only above for special occasions. My soon-to-be husband was from a Tier below me.
“What if I run out of things to give?” I questioned, my brow furrowing together. She smiled anciently up at me, her soft wrinkled cheeks dimpling.
“Then what good are you?” she patted my hand that was holding her steady and removed herself from me. I suddenly felt empty and anxious. Everyone else was ecstatic for me, especially since uncle had no children yet. Was that all I was to be? A vessel for children while my husband ruled the Mountain? That was a lot to give already.
She shuffled out of sight, only to be replaced by my younger siblings.
“Elisey!” Anna cried, running towards me at full speed. She jumped into my arms, her wild red hair out of control as usual. Benji, the second oldest and my brother, rounded the corner with sling shot in hand, a look of rage on his freckled face.
“Anna, I’m gonna kill you!” he growled. I chuckled, setting her behind me.
“Oh grow up you two.” I ruffled Anna’s bouncy hair.
“No! She took all the stones I’d been carving and threw them off the balcony last night! Those took me weeks Anna!” Benji’s face reddened with every word. I rolled my eyes. This would probably be the last fight between them that I’d witness. My smile faded.
“Well, why don’t we spend the day playing our favorite games?” I suggested. Benji’s anger dissipated a smidgen, and Anna began bouncing again.
“Alright fine but I get to pick the first game.” A wicked smile crossed his face. I knew he’d choose a game that he would win, but for the first time I didn’t mind. I wanted to savor every last moment we had together before I really had to grow up.
After five rounds of Find the Cat and hours of Jumping Stones, it was my turn to choose. I had always been quite good at hiding, and I had one place left that I had been saving for years.
“Really? That’s the game you want to play before…well you know.” Benji shuffled his foot. I could tell he was becoming upset as the hours ticked by, ticked closer towards tomorrow.
“Yes, I’m positive.” I winked at him.
“Fine,” he mumbled.
“You count first!” Anna pointed to Benji, and he consented. He turned towards a wall and started counting. Anna flittered away from me towards our parent’s room, and I took to the servant’s staircase that would lead to my grandfather’s chambers. He was usually having tea with father and uncle right about now, so I wouldn’t have to worry about coming across his path and upsetting him.
I pushed the door open quietly and tip toed inside. His room was grand and had its very own balcony, facing the West though. I took a look at the breathtaking sun, still hanging high in the sky but ready to begin its descent into nightfall. I fell to my hands and knees, peering under his bed. I squirmed my way under, the cold stone floor seeping through my clothes and chilling me to my bones. I had a while to wait, so I lay on my stomach and rested my chin on my arms. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I squinted at the wall a few feet in front of me.
There seemed to be a small wooden door. It was quite peculiar, hiding behind the headboard. Like he didn’t want it to be found. Perhaps there were hidden gems and gold behind it, or some other sort of personal treasure. Either way, I was curious. I used my elbows to pull me forward. I pushed on the door, but it didn’t budge. I knocked, and it sounded hollow.
Now a thousand images of what could lie behind it flashed before my eyes. I had to know. If this was my last night being free, being a child, then I had to know. I crawled out from under the bed and went to peer behind the headboard. There was a large enough gap for me to fit, so I wrestled my way between the bed and the wall, the door still in sight. Once in front of it, I pushed with my arms. Still, nothing. I blew a strand of hair away from my face.
I thought for a moment more and devised a foolproof plan. I braced my back against the bed and lifted one foot, then the other, onto the door. I heaved and pushed with my entire mite. I heard a soft groaning noise as the door began to give way. One more push.
The door flew open much faster than I was expecting. Many unexpected things transpired after that fateful decision. Since I had been pushing so hard with my back and arms, I unwittingly threw myself forward once the door gave way. Instead of landing in a heap of jewels, my stomach lurched and I experienced the sensation of free falling. I was falling faster and faster. I couldn’t scream, for my breath had escaped my body. I didn’t have any time to form a rational thought before I felt smooth stone beneath me. I had made contact with a slide of some sort, but was still traveling at an alarming speed. Finally, my instincts kicked in. I grasped wildly about myself, trying to find a handhold or something to stop my descent. My hands only found empty, frigid air and the smooth stone slide beneath me.
I slid for what felt like hours. My head ached from lack of oxygen; my bones ached from the cold and constant contact with the stone. The back of my dress was tearing and snagging. A thought struck me.
Where was this tunnel leading?
As soon as the thought came to my mind, a small dot of light interrupted the never ending darkness. It came closer and closer. My heart raced. I wasn’t slowing down. I grasped wildly now, even screamed for the first time until my throat ached. The light grew. I saw strange colors and shapes emerging from the light. I still could not stop myself. A blast of warm air hit me, and I flew from the tunnel.
The last thing I recalled before my body was tossed into a pile of rocks was how I wished this wasn’t my favorite game.