“Owww,” I groaned, grabbing my head. Something warm and sticky coated my fingers. I pulled my hand away to gaze at it. Everything was fuzzy, but I could see the crimson blood. I felt woozy suddenly. I lay back, peering up at the sky.
Why did it look so far away? Why was it so warm? I pried my eyes open again. The sky was blue, as it had always been, but the clouds were above me. My stomach heaved, and I turned quickly to my side, retching up all the food I had eaten. I was in a pile of huge, sharp rocks. My eyes focused then on tall sturdy plants before me. I’d never seen anything so tall, and there were so many of them. I found the sun, and it felt so far away. What had happened?
I heard something then, a movement in front of me and a loud snort. I tried to stand, but fell back, the sharp rocks biting at me. Everything ached. All I wanted to do was cry, to wake up from this nightmare.
Something, or someone, emerged from the darkness of the tall plants. My heart thumped and stuttered to a stop. I should be afraid, my instincts screamed at me.
It was a man. He seemed young, but his face had the hair of the men. It was black too, not red or blond. He slowly approached. His clothes were all wrong; he wore a long linen shirt, a belt with some sort of long knife attached, brown pants and boots. My head swiveled from side to side seeking escape, and I scrambled backwards.
He was much closer now. I could see his eyes; they were brown, a shade I’d never seen before. I fumbled for a small rock to defend myself but found none. I whimpered in fear and pain. His eyes were wide, as if he were scared too. He held one hand out to me, palm down.
“Shh,” he muttered. I choked back a scream.
“It’s alright, see?” he held his hand out to me. His voice was deep and full of sincerity. I’d never met a man outside of my family before. I felt hot tears spring from my eyes and cascade down my cheeks.
“I need to get ye out of here, alright?” he had a funny way of saying his words, much different from anyone I knew, even our servants. The sun glinted off his wavy black hair. He was broad shouldered and tall and intimidating. I shook my head ‘no.’
“You can’t stay here, someone will find ye and hurt ye. I promise I’ll help look after you.”
“Wh-who are you?” my voice croaked. His lips formed a small smile of reassurance.
“My name’s Jon, I live in the forest here.” He replied, keeping his voice down.
“Foe-wrist?” I was immediately confused. His smile broadened, though he tried to hide it.
“Forest, see?” he indicated to the tall plants behind him. It was all too much. I choked back another sob.
“I-I just want to g-go home.” I held a hand to my mouth, trying to keep quiet.
“I know ye do. I’ll help you I promise. Just come with me,” he beckoned me with his hand. I stared up at him through watery eyes. Everything ached.
“Where will you take me?”
“Not far into the forest. There’s a creek and I can help mend your wounds. We just need to get out of the open. Someone will see us,” he inched closer and I didn’t back away. He seemed pleased by this. He crouched down, now mere feet from me. His eyes were earnest and sincere. Did I have another choice?
“I-I don’t think I can walk,” my voice shook. I realized the extent of my injuries.
“That’s alright, here,” he held out his rough hand. I took one last look into his deep brown eyes and slid my hand into his. He swiftly pulled me to my feet. I stumbled forward, but he caught me easily. My head ached and swam with incoherent thoughts.
“What’s your name?” he inquired.
“Elise, Eleventh Tier.” I muttered without much thought. It was a standard greeting. I felt him staring at me warily now.
“That’s a long fall.” He noted.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen.” I said defensively.
“Come on,” he put an arm around the small of my back, the other behind my knees, and swept me up into his arms. I’d never been touched by a man before. It was considered impure for a noble born young lady to have any contact with men before marriage. My stomach seemed to be uneasy but not in an unpleasant way.
He made his way quickly to the shade of this forest. I had to admit that I even felt more at ease here, surrounded instead of in the open. I heard another snort, and I jumped out of fear.
“It’s just my horse.” He whispered. Horse?
A large, black animal stood tethered to one of the plant’s limbs.
“I’m going to put you in the saddle, alright? Just hold onto these reins, but don’t pull them.” He nodded towards leathery ropes and a large leather seat. I was supposed to ride this animal?
He lifted me easily and set me down, holding my hips until I was steady. The horse swayed beneath me.
“Put your other leg over.” He commanded. I was utterly confused, but tried to obey. It was difficult with my skirts, and I fumbled and nearly fell off, but finally I had one leg on each side of the horse.
“There ye go,” he chuckled. “Scoot forward.”
I pulled myself forward, feeling uncomfortable. I felt him swing up behind me and settle into his seat. My backside was in full contact with the front of his body. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this other than a bit frightened. He reached around me and grabbed the reins, pulling them to the right. The horse obeyed and mimicked the movement.
Once on the path, he kept one arm around my midsection, the other guiding the horse.
“Jon?” I whispered, for it only felt appropriate to whisper in the forest for some reason. He had a strange name.
“Yes?” his chest rumbled in reply.
“I…well, I don’t understand any of this.” It was cooler in the forest, and I could tell the sun was setting. Strange noises erupted from all around us. I began to quiver in fright.
“I figured ye wouldn’t.” he answered.
“Ye see, Mount Tier is just one place people come from. Right now, you’re in the forest that surrounds the mountain. There are many people that live around here, and most of them are…well, bad people. None of us stay in one place for long. We always move around, and not many of us live together.” He explained.
“So what are you going to do with me?” his arm shifted, holding me tighter.
“Well, not let ye out of my sight, for one. I’ll mend your wounds and find us some food for tonight. I suppose we can figure out a plan come tomorrow.” I began to feel uneasy the deeper we traveled into the forest.
“What would the other people do to me?” I inquired. He didn’t reply as quickly.
“Well, let’s just say after a while they’d kill ye.” I was confused, but didn’t press the issue.
“Why are you helping me?” this, too, seemed to stump him.
“Because it’s the right thing to do, I suppose. I couldn’a leave ye out there to die.” I shivered at the thought of what would have happened if he hadn’t been there. I probably would have died.
The sun soon faded, and we were left in the dusk. The noises of foreign animals grew louder, and I could hear the sound of running water. Some rocks jutted up and out of the ground.
“We’ll camp here for the night.” He slowed us to a stop and slid easily off the horse. He turned and helped me to the ground before turning back to the horse and rummaging around in some packs strapped to the saddle.
I watched as he laid out a thick blanket, shielded by the rocks.
“Stay here for a moment,” he led me to the blanket and I sat. My mind wandered as he went to and fro.
What would mother and father be thinking right now? That I’d run away? That I’d been lost somehow? Would they be saddened? I knew my siblings would be, as well as my grandmother. She may have been harsh on me, but I knew she adored me. Tears escaped my eyes again, but they were silent this time. During my reverie, Jon had built a fire and placed a bowl of water in front of me with a cup next to it. I searched for him, watching as he tethered the horse to the rocks and made his way back over. He crouched in front of me.
“Drink,” he held the cup up to me. I grasped it and drank the icy contents. The water tasted vastly different here, but it was still water. I watched as he dipped a rag in the bowl of water and held it to my forehead.
“Ow,” I pulled back.
“Hold still, I’ve got to clean this.” He persisted. It stung and smarted, but I didn’t move again.
“What are these things?” I motioned to the giant plants. He chuckled at my ignorance.
“Trees. They make up the forest.” He answered. He finished cleaning my forehead, and then met my gaze. He had a handsome face. I’d had one crush my whole life on a boy from school, but Jon easily took his place. I felt uneasy again.
“It’s my turn for some questions.” I squirmed under his steady gaze. I nodded, letting him go ahead.
“I know how Mount Tier works. So ye must be an heir of some sort. Right?” he sat close to me, the firelight dancing in his eyes.
I wondered how much I should reveal to him.
“Yes. But I’m not the first in line. I was supposed to be wed tomorrow…” I trailed off, wondering which fate would have been better.
“Ahh, so that’s why ye ran away?” his brow furrowed.
“No.” I bit my lip. “No, I was excited and all, but sad to leave my family behind. My brother and sister were playing a game with me, and I found this door and pushed it open and fell. I slid down and down and ended up out here.” The story sounded ludicrous to me as I retold it.
“Interesting,” he mumbled. “So how old are ye?”
“I’ll be sixteen tomorrow.” My voiced sounded depressed, even to my ears.
“You’ve probably never seen a man before, besides yer family, have ye?” there was a hint of a smile at his lips.
I shook my head, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. I wished mother had taught me more, but she insisted on keeping my sister and me pure for our husbands.
“Well, there’s lots of men out here.” He seemed to warn. “And women, too. And there aren’t any rules like the Mountain, so it’s a dangerous place for sure.”
“What’s that?” I pointed towards the long knife at his side, now guessing at its purpose.
“A broadsword. It’s used for defense. To kill people who wish me harm.” His eyes glinted playfully, but his face was completely stoic. I didn’t doubt his skill at all.
“What-“ I began, but he cut me off.
“My turn for questions, remember?”
I nodded sourly.
“Your grandfather is the ruler, then, correct?” I hesitated, biting my lip more.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“I can’t use it against ye, I’m just curious.” He reassured me. He sat back and seemed to ponder everything. He had a tragic look about him as he stared into the fire. I wondered how he ended up here, how any Savages had survived at all. I’d always been taught that the people of the Mountain were it. Why would they lie? They had to know there were others out here. It was unsettling how little I knew of this world.
“I suppose ye want to sleep.” Jon stood, his joints popping audibly, and walked over to a rock. He sat and leaned back against it.
“I’ll keep watch for tonight.” I felt strange having him watch me, so I faced the other way and laid on my side. The ground was surprisingly comfortable, and the fire kept me warm enough. I couldn’t get used to the strange noises; the loud squawks, the snorting of the horse, the rush of the water. I eventually fell to sleep with my head pounding and exhausted, trying to not think of what had become of my life.