Who Are You?
Her eyes blinked open and all she could see was the face of the unfamiliar ceiling by the light of the dim lamp.
'Where am I?'
She blinked again, her head still thick with the remnants of slumber.
'The dark here reminds me of the shadows at twilight.'
She sat up and glanced around the unfamiliar room.
'Here? Oh! So, it wasn't a dream, then.'
There was a book sitting on the table by the lamp, and she recognized it as the one which Benjamin had carried when he met her.
"Oh, it's the book," she muttered, crawling down to the foot of the bed to grab it.
She gently fingered the book, her soft hands inspecting the intricate golden designs of its hardened exterior. Slowly, she opened the cover and peaked inside, then all at once began to read the words of the manuscript. They captivated her with their beauty and insight. It wasn't like anything she had ever read - it was something different, something higher, but... all at once intriguing to her curious mind.
'The words of a King rejected by His people. Here I see a mighty one brought low, and...' she went on, her thoughts turned to an unbelieving utterance. "He ransomed to himself a people according to his heart," she breathed. "What does that even mean?"
When she had finished with the book, leafing through from this place to that, she placed it again on the table where she had found it, and promptly got herself up out of the bed. She walked to the door and opened it slightly, peering out into the long corridor. The hall was dimly lit as her bedroom was, but she could still see things in shadows.
'It must be past evening now, and I'll bet the lights respond to the brightness of the sun somehow. If it's not magic, they must.'
There were figures in the distance - three or four in white robes with sparkling gold and a crest of some kind of foreign metal at the collar, reflecting the light. They filed into a room and the two huge doors closed behind them without so much as a sound.
'Silent, but how?' her lips moved but she kept the words inside of her. 'That is the strangest part of all this. Magic I can understand, or "not magic" - whatever, but how can it be that all of this is so outdated and yet...' she pushed the door to the bedroom open wide with a note of the lack of so much as a small creek, 'not an ounce of disrepair.'
The halls were a maze of underground chambers, and she hesitated to leave the privacy of the small shelter she had been afforded. She was in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people and not a clue as to how to leave on her own, especially being as the bookshelf had closed behind them. Though, still, she found Benjamin's words to be a comfort to her.
'I can go as I wish,' she reminded herself, 'and, so... I can go down to this strange meeting of theirs. Now, can't I?' She smiled. 'Probably not, because that's probably not what he meant, and I probably know it. But still... I think my curiosity has won over my senses.'
She ventured thoughtfully into the hall, walking carefully on the even stones which laid the floor, making great effort to make as little noise as possible as she went. She reassured herself inwardly that the whole thing was of no consequence.
'Benjamin never told me to stay in the room, only that I could have it as I wished, and besides, I'm only going down the hall. Who could know? They're probably all in the room already, anyway.'
Her footsteps became slower and softer as she approached the built doors of the broad chamber wherein the shadowy figures had met. The doors themselves were massive, a good three times her height, and could comfortably handle a large number of people. As she drew nearer, she began to hear bits of conversation leaking through the cracks in the old wooden doors.
"It has been some time since we have had a visitor," said a man with a voice like a hoot owl, kindly and proper.
"A sign, I trust, of better days to come," pronounced another unfamiliar voice, elegant and booming.
"Or of just the opposite," rebutted a third. "This guest could mean the end of us! What if Zahaynei has found us, and we've all been compromised?"
"Justice," replied Benjamin with a voice of gentle rebuke, "Zahaynei hasn't found us. This is merely a girl who came seeking refuge from the storm. There is no reason for us to seek any other explanation."
"Perhaps you consider that our lives are not reason enough!" the man who she presumed to be Justice snapped back at him. "Or have you forgotten our position here?" he asked accusingly, his voice conveying his strong irritation. "And have you forgotten the incident this morning? What of the Colonel?"
"Not two days, and I'll see him," Benjamin replied insistently. "Besides," he went on, "Mr.. Waverley and Miss Trimble have agreed to meet the contact tomorrow. If all goes well, I shall have peace."
There was a noise like Justice trying to respond, but he was silenced by the delicate voice of a lady, her words light and lofty. "I believe, gentlemen," she said, speaking in soft, sing-song tones, "we should consider our guest rather than our own reputations. I believe we should invite her to breakfast, and perhaps then to tea?" There was a silence which came as she spoke, the voice of confidence and calm. "We should be glad to meet her, get to know her. After all, it has been some time since we have had guests, as Mr.. Waverley so aptly reminded us, and with that, the pleasure of entertaining a visitor to our courts."
There were echoes of celebratory pleasure and joy throughout the chamber followed by a brief hush and the emergence of some casual chattering.
'If I tried, I could probably pick up on some of those conversations, but I think I...' Avera's mind stopped as she heard the click of a latch, and she jumped, making her way back down the hall to her quarters as quickly as she could.
She slipped back into her room and turned to watch as the doors opened, flooding that section of hall with light once again. She shut the door silently behind her, unwilling that they should see her wandering the halls and become aware of her listening in on their seemingly private meeting.
It was not a minute later when she heard footsteps and voices out in the silent hall. The two were having a quiet conversation of some confidence between each other, and Avera strained her ears for their words as they approached. One was the voice of a man, the other, at first, too quiet to tell. Howbeit, she recognized the second voice as being Benjamin's as they neared and their words became clearer.
"I am concerned, Ben," the man was saying.
"I understand that, Kypher," Benjamin replied, "but we have to trust him. Apart from that, why be here at all?"
'What are they talking about? Ben and... the other man. Kypher, I take it. I haven't heard him. He wasn't any of the people speaking at the meeting earlier. He was probably there with them, though. It would make sense that he should have come with Benjamin from the meeting.'
"Justice makes a good point. What if we are discovered?" the man asked as if seeking to cause Benjamin to consider the thing.
"If we were discovered," Benjamin replied steadfastly, "all is well. The King has care over us. We will be protected."
There was a breath, a hard sigh from the other man. "You didn't see the raids, Ben."
"Perhaps," Benjamin conceded.
"I know you were young, but..." the man's words trailed off.
"Why are you here, then?" Benjamin pressed him.
"I want to protect you," the man replied immediately.
"Here? Why here when we all could have left?" Benjamin persisted.
"I don't know, Ben!" the man groaned.
"I thought you were told to wait here," Benjamin answered slyly.
"Maybe we were, Ben, but that was so long ago," the man whined in hushed desperation.
"Have you heard otherwise since?" Benjamin asked, continuing to press him.
"Well... no," the man admitted.
"Then, wait," Benjamin stated with confidence.
"I knew we shouldn't have let Dorcus raise you," the voice jokingly sighed with a faint spell of laughter.
"This is me here," she heard Benjamin say, and the slight change in volume suggested a turning to face the door. "I'm going to stop in to check on Avera, see how she's managing."
"This is where you left her? Without a guard?" the man gasped with a voice of alarm.
"Do we have a guard?" Benjamin inquired, the voice inflection seeming more startled than anything but also implying they didn't.
"...no," the man bashfully admitted.
"Well, then..." Ben replied, with an amused tone suggesting the man had answered his own question.
"Say, Ben... regarding the Colonel," there was a brief pause, such as one approaching a sensitive subject. "I know you're anxious to hear, but... the letter came after nearly three weeks with no communications, and it wasn't the usual encryption pattern. I hate to mention, but I am afraid he might be..."
"He might be, but... God, I hope not."
"Yes," the man replied solemnly. "Well... have a good night, Ben."
"Yes, Kypher," Benjamin replied pleasantly. "You rest well, also." There was a pause before there came a light rapping at the door. "Avera, are you there? Are you awake?" Benjamin kindly addressed.
"Yes!" she called back, retreating softly to her bed again. "You can come in."
"Ah, hello!" Benjamin said with a friendly smile. He, too, wore a tunic like the others she had seen, and he held in his hand white garments accented in gold. "Did you rest well?" he asked her kindly.
"I did," she said, sparing her words and careful to guard her thoughts.
"Yes, well... I know it's near impossible to tell being underground, but... well, I'm afraid it's now past evening. It's quite dark. I would hate to send you home under such conditions. Perhaps, you could spend the night, wait until morning?" he courteously suggested. "I would give you an escort, but... I'm afraid it's... not entirely possible."
"Thank you," she said softly. "I will stay, then."
"Ah, very good. We cleaned your clothes and dried them for you," he said, presenting the folded garments. "This way, you can be dressed in the morning, and then I would like it very much if you would join us for breakfast," he continued, his voice kind and inviting. "If you are so inclined," he emphasized the choice phrasing.
"Of course," she smiled, nodding.
"Very good!" he replied with an enthusiastic smile. "I will be in that next room there," he said as he motioned with his head in the direction of the right of the room as if to indicate another like it was nearby if she were to travel in that particular direction. "Come to see me when you're ready, and I will bring you to our banquet hall."
"Yes, thank you..."
'Whatever is going on here, they really seem to be going out of their way for me... to be kind to me and treat me well. Benjamin especially, and I really do appreciate it.'
"Thank you very much. I appreciate it," he told her smiling, and with a friendly wave of his hand and a final goodbye, he closed the door again, returning to the outer hall.
She laid down on the bed again. She was still exhausted, but her thoughts were swirling within her.
'How did I get here? I feel so lost. Even if I left... I have no home. There's no one left... except Annetta. And now I'm here. Why, Annetta? I could get lost in this. I don't think it would be so hard if there was no one who cared. They have such strange magic here. Or maybe it's not magic. Somehow, they don't seem like the mages. They seem different. And Benjamin... he's been so accommodating. They've shown me kindness in spite of all of this whatever it is that haunts them. Everyone here seems to be in some sort of ungodly situation. But why? What are they doing here? Why are they afraid of being found? Why do they think Ben needs protection? Yes, the room is nice, this place is nice. Thank you, Benjamin, but... who are you?'