Beyond the bright light at the end of the tunnel isn't anything that I am expecting, though I'm not sure what I expect at all, if I'm being honest. As I step through, however, I know I certainly wasn't expecting there to be a bar.
That's the closest I can come to finding a word to describe this place. It looks as though it is hollowed out under a large tree; the walls are made of packed dirt and the ends of tree roots hang from the ceiling. There are will-o'-the-wisps flying about the cavern, giving off a warm glow around. As I step through the small entrance in the wall, I think it looks warm and inviting, somewhere I can relax by myself and totally unwind with a book and a cup of tea.
Until the noise hits me. It is as though I suddenly receive the gift of hearing as soon as I step into the room. Shouts and laughter and jangling piano notes echo about the room and brush harshly against my ears. I cringe back a moment, used to the quiet. Cassius seems completely at his element though, as if he belongs here and not in some mansion, and tugs me forward before the door shuts behind us.
"And who have we here?" barks a rough voice and I jump. A large man lumbers up and takes my hand in his, holding it to his nose and inhaling deeply before planting a kiss on it. He takes up most of my vision, wearing a large work-shirt and ripped pants. He reminds me of a lumberjack. He has rough stubble lining his cheeks and dark rumpled hair. His dark brown eyes hold mine as he smiles warmly.
Cassius gives me a stern look when I rip my hand from the man's and take a step back. "Bud," he says casually. "What's it take to get a guy a drink in here?"
Bud's roaring laughter is all I can hear for a few seconds. "Anything for my dearest Prince, eh, Cas?"
"If it'll get a pint in my hand, then yes," is all Cassius says. As Bud turns and walks away, he looks at me, his golden eyes filled with amusement, though everything else on his face betrays nothing. He wipes a bit of dirt from my cheek and raises his eyebrows at me. "Be good," he says before turning and following Bud.
I watch him go, only half wondering why he didn't offer me a pint as well.
When I am used to the cavern itself, I begin to study the people inside of it. They are of every age, every shape and size. They all look very dirty, but all very happy. In their element, as I described Cassius earlier. It works for them as well. I feel a pang of guilt nab at me as I look down at my own dress. It was beautiful before the forest had dirtied it, probably the nicest thing I have ever worn- certainly the nicest thing any of these people have ever seen in what seems to be a while.
I soon find that I've been keeping my eyes on one girl in particular. She is small and narrow, and dirty as well. When she turns and I see her face I gasp as it all comes together: she is the girl that I woke up in this land to find. She is the girl that I have been thinking about constantly during my captivity. I owe her my life, practically. And whats more...
"Alice?" I whisper to myself. It cant be. But she looks so uncannily like the the little girl that is practically ever asking to serve me that I have to rub my eyes to make sure I am not hallucinating.
The little girl notices my stare and abruptly turns, heading in the other direction.
"Wait!" I say loudly, following her, questions bubbling in my mind.
Before I can really gain on her though, a hand presses against my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks. I snap to attention and look up. The boy cannot be much older than me, though he is tall and lanky. His hair is long and oily, his face is what seems to be deliberately smeared with mud. His smile drips with venom as he leans toward me. "And who might you be?" he asks.
The fact that he is bare-chested does not escape me as I shrink away from him. "Excuse me," I say as nicely as I can, trying to step around him.
But that only brings him closer to me. He reeks of body odor, sweat, and alcohol. "What's your name, pretty?" he coos, trying a gentler approach.
Anger flashes through me and I shake his hand from my shoulder. "None of your concern," I say bravely.
"Well, you're not very polite." He frowns.
"I said 'excuse me'."
His frown morphs into a wolfish grin. "Your name is beginning to become my concern. You've gotten my interest."
"Well, the feeling isn't mutual," I say. I've completely lost sight of the little girl. Panicked, I shove past him. "Now move," I say as I start forward again.
But before I can take one more step I am pressed against the cavern wall. Dirt crumbles from where I land and rains down around me as the oily boy presses himself up against me. "I think it's time someone's taught you some manners," he growls in my ear and I cringe back into the wall.
I keep my ground though. "Get off of me," I say, shoving at him. My nails find purchase along his skin, but that only makes him press in farther.
"You alright, Blondie?"
The boy stiffens in surprise at the voice behind him, but doesn't let his grip up much. "This is none of your concern, Prince."But before Cassius can give his reply, I bring my knee up between the boy's legs, hard. He wheezes and releases me and I race to stand beside Cassius. "Thanks for the help," I say, angry.
He drops me a wink as the wounded boy straightens beside us.
"I was just trying to get to know her," he whines.
"Ew," I mutter.
Cassius laughs at that. "She's not interested, Bart."
"Looks like you're paying for the damage done to the goods, Prince." He sounds too angry for this situation, to the point where I'm starting to get concerned.
"Can we leave?" I ask, turning to face him.
He seems unconcerned about this entire thing though. He holds my face between his hands and looks down at me comically. "What have you done, Blondie?" he asks. "I told you to be good; instead you're starting fights for me?"
"I was on my best behavior," I say, a little surprised at how tenderly he is holding me. "He started it."
He smiles down at me and my heart begins beating erratically. "That's my girl," he says, chucking under my chin. "You should probably get behind me, though. Wouldn't want you to get punched in the face."
I open my mouth to ask why he would punch me in the face when he shoves me back. I stumble, catch myself, and turn to see that Bart has swung at him, full force. I take a step forward, hand outstretched, opening my mouth to curse both of those boys and the testosterone that for some reason makes males itch for fights like this--
But Cassius takes it all in stride. He dodges the punch easily and avoids the second as well, as if he's anticipating Bart's every move. I think for a moment that he might be smiling, but it's disappeared within the next second. It doesn't take me long to realize that Bart charges like a bull, while Cassius strikes like a cobra.
Every punch that Bart lands, Cassius takes and returns in kind. I am yearning to run and stop the entire thing. I debate it in my head until I feel a soft tug at the hem of my dress. I look down to see a pair of light eyes staring up at me. "Don't get in between them," the little girl that looks like Alice says solemnly. "You'll just get hurt and make Cassius upset."
I stare at her, speechless, for a moment. "Who are you?" I finally manage to ask.
"My name is Mary," she says in return, cocking her head and studying me. "I see you remember me."
"You look just like-"
"Alice," she finishes for me. "Yes, I get that a lot. Or I used to, anyway. I'm glad you made it to the Manor in one piece."
Before I can ask Mary anymore questions, though, I hear the crowd that has gathered around the two men erupt into cheers. I turn to see that Bart is on the ground with Cassius kneeling over him, one knee pressed against his chest, Bart's arm twisted into what looks like an extremely painful position. "Don't play this game with me, Bart," he says, not unkindly. "I was brought up with military training. Yield and let me finish my drink."
Bart breathes deeply through his nose, clearly annoyed, though I can tell he is more hurt than he is leading on. He directs his glare toward me. "Teach your precious Bride some manners," he spits.
Cassius smiles. "I dont think she takes orders from anyone." He turns and looks at me now. "Morgan, will you mind your manners?" he asks me amiably.
"As soon as he does," I say, nodding toward the boy underneath Cassius.
Cassius smiles. "And I'm betting it will be awhile before that happens."
"I yield," Bart says, "for now. Get off of me before you break a rib."
Cassius' smile widens. "Excellent." He stands and walks over toward me. "A drink for the road?"
"I'm ready to leave, if that's what you're asking," I say, keeping my eyes on Bart.
"He wont bother you now; I've wounded his ego, if only for a moment," Cassius says, following the line of my gaze. He offers me his arm and I loop mine through it.
"I don't think I got to meet your friend," I say as we make our way toward a ladder laid into the wall, "the one you talked about earlier."
"Jules wasn't here," Cassius says, sounding... relieved? Maybe they weren't really friends. "I don't think I got to meet yours either," he says as we reach the ladder.
I turn back to where Mary was standing next to me, but she has disappeared.